Oct 4, 2011

Utah Valley and the Gold Rush

A few of the details I didn't mention in my last history blurb on the Battle of Fort Utah (or as it is sometimes called, the Battle of Provo River):

a) Cheif Old Elk was chief of the Timpanodos or Timpanoges tribe (sorry for the confusion, there)
b) One of the big advantages the settlers had in the conflict following Old Bishop's demise was a reprieve: a large party of emigrants were traveling through Utah Valley right as the chief's body was discovered, in February of 1849. They were headed to the California Gold Fields. With so many "white men" in the valley at the time, the Indians didn't dare engage the settlers in conflict.

The gold rush and the Mormons go hand in hand. One made the other possible in a sense... and that's in both directions. To explain what I mean, let's go back a little ways, to the construction of the first fort, and also further back, to discuss a group of Mormon settler men who volunteered to help the US army engage in a conflict taking place in the far west. I'm talking about the Mormon Battalion, of course.

First things first. A man we haven't mentioned yet, but who was amongst the first to arrive in Utah Valley: Jefferson Hunt.
He's much older in this picture than he is in the story I'll be telling you.
Here's an interesting account of the building of Fort Utah, from a book called "Brigham Young the Colonizer." If you're interested in the history of the colonization of Utah and the prominent men and women involved, this is a great read.
Jefferson Hunt along with Issak Higbee and his two counselors, were the first to arrive in Utah Valley of the thirty families sent there. They immediately began work on the fort.
From Brigham Young the Colonizer, p. 214:

The fort consisted of a stockade closing a parallelogram, “about twenty by thirty rods, enclosing and ancient mound near the center. The outer walls of east, north, and west sides of the fort were composed mostly of cabins built of cottonwood logs in a continuous line. Pickets twelve feet high were set solidly together to form the south wall and to fill any spaces between cabins. Light was admitted into each cabin through two windows—one at the back and one at the front. Coarse cloth was used to cover the windows, as the settlers had no glass. On the mound in the center of the fort, a bastion, or raised platform about fifteen feet high, was erected. A twelve pound cannon was placed on this bastion and fired on different occasions in order to impress the natives with a proper respect. A corral was built on the east in which the cattel were kept at night. In addition to this general stock corral, private corrals were built behind the respective cabins with gates or back door openings.
*interesting sidenote* the mound mentioned here, that the fort was built around, already existed when the settlers began constructing. As it is described as "ancient," one wonders if there were artifacts/signs of an Indian burial ground here.

Fort Utah was built in 1848, the year the men from the Mormon Battalion returned to meet their families in the valley. The men were actually discharged in 1847, but Brigham Young sent them a letter as they were about to head east to join the saints, that unless they had "sufficient food and supplies" to last the winter, they should stay in California and work through the winter, and come out in spring of 1848. 150 of the men continued toward the valley, and 100 stayed behind, most of whom found work in a fort owned by a man named John Sutter--work such as tanning, blacksmithing, and building two mills.

It was the six former battalion men who built the sawmill who participated in the discovery of gold that started the California gold rush—recorded in the journals of two Battalion members, William Bigler and Azariah Smith. And there's another Mormon Connection to the discovery of gold in the area: when Sidney Willis and Wilford Hudson, also Battalion members, heard rumor of the discovery at the sawmill, they went to check things out. On the way back to their work, they discovered gold themselves, in a place called Mormon Island which became one of the most profitable sites during the gold rush. Interestingly enough, neither of them was much interested in starting an operation there; it was later companies whom they agreed to guide to the spot who were made rich by the discovery.

Pictured here are (from right to left) Henry Bigler, Azariah Smith,William J. Johnston and James S. Brown. I kind of like the look of Azariah Smith, don't you? And what a name.

Information on the finds leaked, of course, and the California Gold Rush started.

When the battalion men couldn’t leave when they planned because of the heavy snows in the sierras, they instead took on a project to blaze a trail over the mountains which was later called the “Wagon Freeway.” This was the route that most everybody took to get through the mountains and down into the fertile, gold-veined foothills and valleys of California.

Jefferson Hunt (remember, we were talking about him) was a part of that effort. After helping to Settle Provo, he offered himself as a hired guide to countless emigrant parties who traveled south, down through Utah Valley to Southern California.

There were a few different routes of the emigrant trail, which lead through the new LDS colonies and west to California. The oldest involved something you've probably heard of called the "hastings cutoff." This was used in the year of 1846. It ran through the weber river over the Wasatch mountains. Another branch cleared a rough trail down Emigration Canyon to get into the SL valley, pioneered by the now-famous Donner Party.

Then in 1847 there was the Mormon Trail, which went from Fort Bridger to Salt Lake city, (a brand new city! Remember, it was only settled in 1846.) Salt Lake City was a boon for the travelers. They could stop, get repairs and trade or pay cash for fresh supplies. The route led northwest out of Salt Lake City, north of the Great Salt Lake for about 180 miles before rejoining California trail near the city of Rocks in Idaho. This route, unlike the previous one, generally provided adequate water and grass. Thousands used this for years.

The trail that went south through Utah valley was the Mormon Trail to Southern California, which was opened when former Mormon Battalion soldiers began traveling between southern California and Salt Lake City, starting around 1847. The trail went from Salt Lake City, Utah, down through Utah Valley, and traveled the chain of Mormon settelments until St. George Utah; from there, it ran to Las Vegas, Nevada, and then to Los Angeles, California. You can see both on the map below.

The new Mormon colonies provided an easier route to California, because they were little oases of supplies, trade, and access to health care and other necessities in the middle of what was once a desolate, trecherous route. And the trade of the emigrants helped the pioneers--particularly those in Fort Utah, that very first year after its establishment--to survive, and to have the means to grow and establish good routes of travel and communication.

And (not coincidentally) it was a group of Emigrants traveling this southern route who became the victims of the infamous Mountain Meadows Massacre, which I use as an important piece of backstory for my novel, Lightning Tree.

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