Contributed by Jeff Olsen (@jeffolsen76)
July 24, 1847, the date in which the Mormon pioneers unprecedentedly decided to not keep going to California. Any native Utahan has heard the stories of the hard trek west, starvation on the trail, burying loved ones along the way, and the relief of the settlers to finally stop in this barren landscape known as the Salt Lake Valley (in mid July no less).
Here in Utah (especially in Salt Lake County), these traditional stories about the Mormon Pioneers have become so prevalent, we think of them as fact. From eating Sego Lilly bulbs to stave off starvation, to the "Mormon Cricket Miracle," to even the phrase "this is the place" these stories have given Utahans a sense of history, culture, heritage, and dare we say, divine providence? Let's examine a few myths that you may think are true:
Although this myth is legitimized by a plaque near the intersection of present day 600 East and 300 South (placed by the Daughters of the Utah Pioneers), which says "Although willows grew along the banks of the streams, a lone cedar tree near this spot became Utah's first famous landmark," it is still not true. In a 2006 article by the Deseret News' Lee Benson, he says that "numerous historians, however, have effectively disproved the lone tree legend by citing any number of pioneer diaries that describe the valley as arid and dry in 1847 but definitely with its share of thirsty trees." (Benson, L. "About Utah: Pioneer myths--unmasked" Deseret News. Retreaved from
Upon being the first to arrive to the Salt Lake Valley Brigham Yong declared "This is the place"
Yep, a myth. Well, sort of. According to another article from the Deseret News (2008), Lynn Arave says, "[this is]
Not a complete statement. 'It is enough. This is the right place, drive on' is the full declaration President Young may have made. However, there is still doubt. Jeffrey Carlstrom and Cynthia Furse, in their book "A History of Emigration Canyon," note there is "considerable room for doubt that Young ever made this famous pronouncement." That's because no firsthand accounts of it exist. Wilford Woodruff is credited with recounting what President Young said, but that was in 1880, 33 years after it happened and about three years after President Young had died." Brigham wasn't even the first to enter the valley. The lead company and the main company of pioneers actually entered the valley on July 22, and camped there that night. Also, 2 advanced scouts, Orson Pratt and Erastus Snow, have entered the Salt Lake Valley a day earlier, July 21. (Arave, L. "Some myths accompany stories of pioneers' arrival" Deseret News. Retreaved from http://www.deseretnews.com/article/705381370/Some-myths-accompany-stories-of-pioneers-arrival.html?pg=all).
Death was common in the trek west, especially for babies
According to Mel Bashore, a retired LDS Church history librarian, the mortality rate for Mormon pioneers who crossed the plains was 3.5%. In comparison, the general mortality rate of the general population of the United States in 1850 (the year that the vast majority of pioneers crossed the plains) was 2.9%. So if you randomly selected 100 Americans of the day, you would expect about 3 to die. If you selected 100 Mormon pioneers, about 3.5 would die (how do you kill 1/2 a person? Inquiring minds want to know). So, crossing the plains was more dangerous, but not that much more. As far as babies go, they were actually more likely to live (yes you heard that right, more likely), with a mortality rate of 9% compared to 15%. According to a Facebook post from former West Valley City Mayor, Mike Winder (also a published historian), "...yes, it was a long walk with tough days, but there were dances, music, games, romance, hunting, etc. We forget that none of these pioneers had running water, flush toilets, etc. at the start or end of the trek, and the 'roughing it' aspect was something a person in the Nineteenth Century was far more familiar with." (sic) Winder, M. [July 20, 2014]. In Facebook [personal page]. Retrieved July 28, 2014 from www.facebook.com/windermike.
While these stories are embellished, edited, and even downright made up, the fact remains they have had long-lasting impact on how Mormons view the first white settlement of Utah.