Pioneer legend paints a grim picture of the Salt Lake Valley — barren, harsh and a desert, save a lone cedar tree.
In reality, say historians, the valley was well watered, with tall grasses and trees along the many stream banks.
"One of the greatest myths of the church is that the valley was total desolation," said the late Dr. Stanley Kimball, a Utah historian. No pioneer diary accounts he ever found supported the desolate valley idea.
Most of the paintings depicting the valley when the Mormon pioneers arrived look more like the west desert area than the Wasatch Front.
Richard Jackson, professor of geography at Brigham Young University, did extensive research in the 1970s on what the Salt Lake Valley was really like when the pioneers arrived.
"Briefly, there was not a lot of timber in the valley according to pioneer diarists, but there was clearly some, especially along the creeks," he said.
But regardless, the pioneers did not have an easy time in Utah, and some people still feel the desert of Salt Lake did "blossom like a rose."
"Settling the Utah area in the 1840s and '50s was a challenge," Glen Leonard, director of the LDS Museum of Church and Art, states on the church Web site, www.lds.org.
"They had left a lush farm area and came to an arid region. The soil was good, but the water was scarce. The seasons were short. So, Brigham Young wisely scattered the people out into small communities so that they had the natural resources — the water and the soil — and the community resources, the well-organized communities with different skills and talents, and then he just challenged them to make the desert blossom like a rose. And they did," Leonard concluded.
Comments by Young, Heber J. Grant and other church leaders made the desert comparison of the valley blossoming like a rose, too.
Many diary accounts support that the Salt Lake Valley was more green that history paintings illustrate:
William Clayton's journal for July 22, 1847, records his first view of the Salt Lake Valley and comments on the land between the mountains and the Great Salt Lake:
"The intervening valley appears to be well supplied with streams, creeks and lakes, some of the latter are evidently salt. There is but little timber in sight anywhere, and that is mostly on the banks of streams and creeks of water, which is almost the only objection which could be raised in my estimation to this being one of the most beautiful valleys and pleasant places for a home for the Saints which could be found."
Jackson said on Sept. 9, 1847, Brigham Young cautioned the Saints before he left to return to Winter Quarters that in "selecting your firewood, it will be wisdom to choose that which is dry and not suitable for timber of any kind, and we wish all the green timber and shrubbery in the city to remain as it is . . ."
Henry Bigler noted in his diary in October of 1848 that he commenced building a house. "I began to make preparations to build me a house on a city lot . . . situated in a very nice part of the city on City Creek, a nice little grove of Box-Elder and Cottonwood on it."
Thomas Bullock, clerk of the Mormon pioneer camp, wrote that the valley was "dotted in three or four places with Timber."
"A valley of about 20 eight miles wide lay before us the most of it covered with good gras and various outher vegatables. but timber was handey," is what Levi Jackman, a member of the original Mormon pioneer group to enter the Salt Lake Valley, wrote (with imperfect spelling) about his first impression.
There was enough water in the Salt Lake Valley of 1847 — even in mid-summer — that the first recorded pioneer death was from drowning, not from thirst. Milton H. Therkill, a 3-year-old boy, fell in City Creek and drowned on Aug. 11, 1847.
Jackson believes when the leaders and members of the pioneer companies of 1847 talked about the lack of timber, they were apparently comparing it to the Midwest and also recognizing that it would be a challenge since their homes had been built primarily of wood, and wood was the primary fuel source. Within a few days of arrival they found lumber in the mountains adequate for their needs.
How did the myth of the lack of trees in the Salt Lake Valley of 1847 start?
Richard Jackson, professor of geography at Brigham Young University, said that idea developed in later years, probably for three reasons:
"First, as the settlers celebrated the 24th of July, the oratory often included a certain amount of hyperbole about the magnitude of the trip across the plains, settling and developing the Salt Lake Valley, etc. As with most reminiscences, the story tends to grow with the retelling, so the Salt Lake Valley became ever more arid in those accounts," he said.
"Secondly, by the 1850s and 1860s when these myths became common, the only land not being farmed or built upon was in fact the worst land that was more arid and so later arrivals concluded that the entire valley found in 1847 by the pioneers was basically the same as the remaining marginal lands in the valley.
"Thirdly, as Brigham Young and the leaders encouraged the settlers to go south to Dixie, etc., the idea that Salt Lake Valley was a treeless desert implied that the farms and city that the settlers had developed with the help of the Lord could be replicated in the more marginal sites he was encouraging settlers to move to," Jackson concluded.
The late Stanley Kimball, a Utah historian, once said he also believed it came about after the desirable valley filled up — consciously or subconsciously to foster the idea that it had been tamed and to encourage people to settle in Dixie and other frontier areas.
Besides paintings, the biggest myth supporter is perhaps the "Lone Cedar Tree" monument in Salt Lake City, in the median on the south side of the intersection at 600 E. 300 South.
The Daughters of the Utah Pioneers erected this monument on Pioneer Day in 1934 to what was supposedly the only cedar tree in the valley when the 1847 pioneers arrived. Some original pioneers are reputed to have sung hymns and prayed by the tree.
One problem with that story is that the pioneers followed the Donner Party trail to about 1700 South, then headed to a small grove of cottonwood trees near today's 300 S. State Street — missing the "Lone Cedar Tree."
Vandals cut the Lone Cedar Tree down on Sept. 21, 1958. A related controversy ensued with the DUP when the media said the tree's status was a fraud anyway. (Ashes from the stolen cedar tree were purportedly found later in a Greyhound bus depot locker.)
A new plaque was added to the monument in 1960 and is still there today — for anyone to see and decide from themselves if the tree's legendary status holds merit.
(Adapted from past Deseret News articles by Lynn Arave.)