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An Overland Journey from New York to San Francisco in the Summer of 1859 by Horace Greeley (1860)


Salt Lake City, July, 18, 1859.

A Party of us visited the lake on Saturday. It is not visible from this city, though it must be from the mountains which rise directly north of it, and more remotely on all sides, but Antelope, Stansbury, and perhaps other islands in the lake, being mainly covered by high, rugged hills or mountains, are in plain sight from every part of the valley. The best of these islands is possessed by “the church,” (Mormon) as a herd-ground, or ranche, for its numerous cattle, and is probably the best tract for that purpose in the whole territory. That portion of the lake between it and the valley is so shallow, that cattle may, at most seasons, be safely driven over to the island; while it is so deep (between three and four feet) that none will stray back again, and it would be difficult and dangerous to steal cattle thence in the night, when that business is mainly carried on. So the church has a large and capital pasture, and her cattle multiply and wax fat at the least possible expense. The best cañon for wood near this city is likewise owned by “the church“—how owned, I can’t pretend to say—but whoever draws wood from it must deposit every third load in the church’s* [* On further inquiry, I learn that Brigham Young personally is the owner of this splendid placer; but, as he is practically the church, the correction was hardly worth making.] capacious yard. These are but specimens of the management whereby, though the saints are generally poor, often quite poor, so that a saint who has three wives can sometimes hardly afford to keep two beds—“the church” has a comfortable allowance of treasures laid up on earth. And her leading apostles and dignitaries also, by a curious coincidence, seem to be in thriving circumstances. It looks to me as though neither they nor the church could afford to have the world burnt up for a while yet.

Crossing, just west of the city, the Jordan (which drains the fresh waters of Lake Utah into Salt Lake, and is a large, sluggish creek), we are at once out of the reach of irrigation from the northern hills—the river intercepting all streams from that quarter—and are once more on a parched clay-plain, covered mainly with our old acquaintances, sage-bush and grease-wood; though there are wet, springy tracts, especially toward the southern mountains and near the lake, which produce rank, coarse grass. Yet this seeming desert has naturally a better soil than the hard, pebbly gravel on which the city stands, and which irrigation has converted into bounteous gardens and orchards. I rejoice to perceive that a dam over the Jordan is in progress, whereby a considerable section of the valley of that river (which valley is forty miles long, by an average of twenty broad) is to be irrigated. There are serious obstacles to the full success of this enterprise in the scarcity of timber and the inequality of the plain, which is gouged and cut up by numerous (now dry) water courses; but, if this project is well engineered, it will double the productive capacity of this valley, and I earnestly trust it may be. In the absence of judicious and systematic irrigation, there are far too many cattle and sheep on this great common, as the gaunt look of most of the cattle abundantly testifies. Water also is scarce and bad here; we tried several of the springs which are found at the bases of the southern mountains, and found them all brackish, while not a single stream flows from those mountains in the five or six miles that we skirted them, and I am told that they afford but one or two scanty rivulets through the whole extent of this valley. In the absence of irrigation, nothing is grown or attempted but wild grass; of the half-dozen cabins we have passed between the Jordan and the lake, not one had even the semblance of a garden, or of any cultivation whatever. A shrewd woman, who had lived seven years near the lake, assured me that it would do no good to attempt cultivation there; “too much alkali” was her reason. I learn that, on the city side of the Jordan, when irrigation was first introduced, and cultivation attempted, the soil, whenever allowed to become dry, was covered, for the first year or two, with some whitish alkaline substance or compound; but this was soon washed out and washed off by the water, so that no alkali now exhibits itself, and this tract produces handsomely. Let the Jordan be so dammed, and its waters conducted into lateral canals that its whole valley may be amply irrigated, and there are few tracts of like area that will produce more generously, albeit, a majority of its acres now seem almost as sterile and hopeless as the great American desert.

That this lake should be salt, is no anomaly. All large bodies of water into which streams discharge them selves, while they have severally no outlet, are or should be salt. If one such is fresh, that is an anomaly indeed. Lake Utah probably receives as much saline matter as Salt Lake; but she discharges it through the Jordan and remains herself fresh; while Salt Lake, having no issue save by evaporation, is probably the saltest body of water on earth. The ocean is comparatively fresh; even the Mediterranean is not half so salt. I am told that three barrels of this water yield a barrel of salt; that seems rather strong, yet its intense saltness, no one who has not had it in his eyes, his mouth, his nostrils, can realize. You can no more sink in it than in a clay-bank, but a very little of it in your lungs would suffice to strangle you. You make your way in from a hot, rocky beach over a chaos of volcanic basalt that is trying to the feet; but, at a depth of a yard or more, you have a fine sand bottom, and here the bathing is delightful. The water is of a light green color for ten or twenty rods; then “deeply, darkly, beautifully blue.” No fish can live in it; no frog abides it; few birds are ever seen dipping into it. The rugged mountains in and about it—just such scarped and seamed and gullied precipices as I have been describing ever since I reached Denver—have a little fir and cotton-wood or quaking-asp in their deeper ravines or behind their taller cliffs, but look bare and desolate to the casual observer; and these cut the lake into sections and hide most of it from view. Probably, less than a third of it is visible from any single point. But this suffices.


These Mormons are in the main an industrious, frugal, hard-working people. Few of them are habitual idlers; few live by professions or pursuits that require no physical exertion. They make work for but few lawyers— I know but four among them—their differences and disputes are usually settled in and by the church; they have no female outcasts, few doctors, and pay no salaries to their preachers—at least, the leaders say so. But a small portion of them use tea and coffee. Formerly they drank little or no liquor; but, since the army came in last year, money and whisky have both been more abundant, and now they drink considerably. More than a thousand barrels of whiskey have been sold in this city within the last year, at an average of not less than eight dollars per gallon, making the total cost to consumers over two hundred and fifty thousand dollars, whereof the Mormons have paid at least half. If they had thrown instead, one hundred and fifty thousand dollars in hard cash into the deepest part of Salt Lake, it would have been far better for them. The appetite they are acquiring or renewing will cling to them after the army and its influx of cash shall have departed; and Saints who now drink a little will find themselves as thirsty as their valley, before they suspect that they care anything for liquor. As yet, I believe, they have few or no drunkards; but there is nothing more deceitful than the appetite for liquor. Utah has not a single export of any kind; the army now supplies here with cash; when that is gone, her people will see harder times. She ought to manufacture almost everything she consumes, or foreign debt will overwhelm her. Yet, up to this hour, her manufacturing energies have been most unhappily directed. Some two hundred thousand dollars was expended in preparations for iron making at a place called Cedar City; but the ore, though rich, would not flux, and the enterprise had to be totally abandoned, leaving the capital a dead loss. Wood and flax can be grown here cheaply and abundantly; yet, owing to the troubles last year, no spinning and weaving machinery has yet been put in operation; I believe some is now coming up from St. Louis. An attempt to grow cotton is likely to prove a failure, as might have been predicted. The winters are long and cold here for the latitude, and the Saints must make cloth or shiver. I trust they will soon be able to clothe themselves.

Sugar is another necessary of life which they have had bad luck with. They can grow the beet very well, but it is said to yield little or no sugar—because, it is supposed, of an excess of alkali in the soil. The sorghum has not yet been turned to much account, but it is to be. Common brown sugar sells here at sixty cents per pound; coffee about the same; in the newer settlements, they are of course still higher. All sorts of imported goods cost twice to six or eight times their prices in the states; even quack medicines (so called) and yellow-covered novels are sold at double the prices borne on their labels or covers. Consider that the people came hither over a thousand miles mainly of desert, after reaching the Missouri, which was many hundreds if not thousands of miles from their former homes— that they generally reached these valleys in the fall, which afforded them excellent chances of starvation before they could raise a crop—that they have been constantly infested and begged or stolen from by the Indians whose game they killed or scared away, and who feel that they have a right to live here so long as there are cattle or crops to live on—that these valleys are lofty, narrow, and parched by intense drouth from May to November—that implements and seeds are scarcely to be obtained short of a three months’ journey, and then at an enormous cost—that they have had one year of virtual and costly hostilities with the federal government, in which very little could be done, and improvement was out of the question—and I am amazed that so much has been well done here in the way of building, tilling, fencing, planting trees, etc. Doubtless this city is far ahead of any rival, being the spiritual metropolis and the earliest settled; but I am assured that the valley of Utah Lake is better cultivated than this, though Provo, its county seat, is far behind this city, which, with its broad, regular streets, refreshed by rivulets of bright, sparkling, dancing water, and shaded by rows of young but thrifty trees, mainly locust and bitter cotton-wood, is already more attractive to the eye than an average city of like size in the states. The houses (of adobe or merely sun-dried brick) are uniformly low and generally too small; but there is seldom more than one family to a dwelling, and rarely but one dwelling on a lot of an acre and a quarter. The gardens are well filled with peach, apple, and other fruit trees, whereof the peach already bears profusely, and the others begin to follow the example. Apricots and grapes are grown, though not yet abundant; so of strawberries. Plums are in profusion, and the mountain currants are large, abundant and very good. Many of the lots are fenced with cobble-stones laid in clay mortar, which seems to stand very well. The wall of Brigham Young’s garden and grounds is nine or ten feet high, three feet thick at the base, and cost some sixty dollars per rod. Undoubtedly, this people are steadily increasing in wealth and comfort.

Still the average life in Utah is a hard one. Many more days’ faithful labor are required to support a family here than in Kansas, or in any of the states. The climate is severe and capricious—now intensely hot and dry; in winter cold and stormy; and, though cattle are usually allowed to shirk for themselves in the valleys, they are apt to resent the insult by dying. Crickets and grasshoppers swarm in myriads, and often devour all before them. Wood is scarce and poor. Irrigation is laborious and expensive; as yet, it has not been found practicable to irrigate one-fourth of the arable land at all. Ultimately, the valleys will be generally irrigated, so far as water for the purpose can be obtained; but this will require very costly dams and canals. Frost is very destructive here; Indian corn rarely escapes it wholly, and wheat often suffers from it. Wheat, oats, corn, barley, rye, are grown at about equal cost per bushel—two dollars may be taken as their average price; the wheat crop is usually heavy, though this year it threatens to be relatively light. I estimate that one hundred and fifty days’ faithful labor in Kansas will produce as large an aggregate of the necessaries of life —food, clothing, fuel—as three hundred just such days’ work in Utah. Hence, the adults here generally wear a toil-worn, anxious look, and many of them are older in frame than in years. I ardently hope it may not always be thus.


I do not believe the plural-wife system can long endure; yet almost every man with whom I converse on the subject, seems intensely, fanatically devoted to it, deeming this the choicest of his earthy blessings. With the women, I am confident it is otherwise; and I watched their faces as Elder Taylor, at a social gathering on Saturday night, was expatiating humorously on this feature of the Mormon system, to the great delight of the men; but not one responsive smile did I see on the face of a woman. On the contrary, I thought they seemed generally to wish the subject passed over in silence. Fanaticism, and a belief that we are God’s especial, exclusive favorites, will carry most of us a great way; but the natural instinct in every woman’s breast must teach her that to be some man’s third or fourth wife is to be no wife at all. I asked my next neighbor the name of a fair, young girl who sat some distance from us with a babe on her knee. “That is one of Judge Smith’s ladies,” was his quiet, matter-of-course answer. I need hardly say that no woman spoke publicly on that occasion—I believe none ever speaks in a Mormon assemblage—and I shall not ask any one her private opinion of polygamy; but I think I can read an unfavorable one on many faces.

Yet polygamy is one main pillar of the Mormon church. He who has two or more wives rarely apostatizes, as he could hardly remain here in safety and comfort as an apostate, and dare not take his wives elsewhere. I have heard of but a single instance in which a man with three wives renounced Mormonism and left for California, where he experienced no difficulty; “for” said my informant (a woman, no longer a Mormon,) “he introduced his two younger wives (girls of nineteen and fourteen) as his daughters, and married them both off in the course of six weeks.”

I am assured by Gentiles that there is a large business done here in unmarrying as well as in marrying; some of them assure me that the church exacts a fee of ten dollars on the marriage of each wife after the first, but charges a still heavier fee for divorcing. I do not know that this is true, and I suspect my informants were no wiser in the premises than I am. But it certainly looks to me as though a rich dignitary in the church has a freer and fuller range for the selection of his sixth or eighth wife than a poor young On of ordinary standing has for choosing his first. And I infer that the more sharp-sighted young men will not always be content with this.

Since the foregoing was written, I have enjoyed opportunities for visiting Mormons, and studying Mormonism, in the home of its votaries, and of discussing with them in the freedom of social intercourse, what the outside world regards as the distinguishing feature of their faith and polity. In one instance, a veteran apostle of the faith, having first introduced to me, a worthy matron of fifty-five or sixty—the wife of his youth, and the mother of his grown-up sons—as Mrs. T., soon after introduced a young and winning lady of perhaps twenty-five summers, in these words: “Here is another Mrs. T.” This lady is a recent emigrant from our state, of more than average powers of mind and graces of person, who came here with her father, as a convert, a little over a year ago, and has been the sixth wife of Mr. T. since a few weeks after her arrival. (The intermediate four wives of Elder T. live on a farm or farms some miles distant). The manner of the husband was perfectly unconstrained and off-hand throughout; but I could not well be mistaken in my conviction that both ladies failed to conceal dissatisfaction with their position in the eyes of their visitor, and of the world. They seemed to feel that it needed vindication. Their manner toward each other was most cordial and sisterly —sincerely so, I doubt not—but this is by no means the rule. A Gentile friend, whose duties require him to travel widely over the territory, informs me that he has repeatedly stopped with a bishop, some hundred miles south of this, whose two wives he has never known to address each other, nor evince the slightest cordiality, during the hours he has spent in their society. The bishop’s house consists of two rooms; and whetn my informant staid there with a Gentile friend, the bishop being absent, one wife slept in the same apartment with them rather than in that occupied by her double. I presume that an extreme case, but the spirit which impels it is not unusual. I met this evening a large party of young people, consisting in nearly equal numbers of husbands and wives; but no husband was attended by more than one wife, and no gentleman admitted or implied, in our repeated and animated discussions of polygamy, that he had more than one wife. And I was again struck by the circumstance that here, as heretofore, no woman indicated, by word or look, her approval of any arguments in favor of polygamy. That many women acquiesce in it as an ordinance of God, and have been drilled into a mechanical assent of the logic by which it is upheld, I believe; but that there is not a woman in Utah who does not in her heart wish that God had not ordained it, I am confident. And quite a number of the young men treat it in conversation as a temporary or experimental arrangement, which is to be sustained or put aside as experience shall demonstrate its utility or mischief. One old Mormon farmer, with whom I discussed the matter privately, admitted that it was impossible for a poor working-man to have a well-ordered, well-governed household, where his children had two or more living mothers occupying the same ordinary dwelling. On the whole, I conclude that polygamy, as it was a graft on the original stock of Mormonism, will be outlived by the root—that there will be a new revelation, ere many years, whereby the saints will be admonished to love and cherish the wives they already have, but not to marry any more beyond the natural assignment of one wife to each husband.

I regret that I have found time and opportunity to visit but one of the nineteen common schools of this city. This was thinly attended, by children nearly all quite young, and of the most rudimentary attainments. Their phrenological developments were, in the average, bad; I say this with freedom, since I have stated that those of the adults, as I noted them in the tabernacle, were good. But I am told that idiotic or malformed children are very rare, if not unknown here. The male saints emphasize the fact that a majority of the children born here are girls, holding it a proof that Providence smiles on their “peculiar institution;” I, on the contrary, maintain that such is the case in all polygamous countries, and proves simply a preponderance of vigor on the part of the mothers over that of the fathers where-ever this result is noted. I presume that a majority anywhere of the children of old husbands by young wives are girls.

But again the wheels revolve, and my face must once more be turned westward. With the most hearty and grateful acknowledgments of the exceeding kindness and hospitality with which I have been treated here alike by Mormon and Gentile, and with barely a word of praise for the magnificent gardens I have been invited to visit—of which Brigham Young’s is probably the most costly and eye-pleasing, but I like Heber Kirnball’s the best—I bid adieu to Salt Lake City, the great mass of whose people, I am sure, have an unfeigned “zeal for God,” though I must deem it “not according to knowlege.” Long may they live to unlearn their errors, and enjoy the rich fruits of their industry, frugality, and sincere, though misguided piety!

Note.—An inaccurate report of some casual remarks made by me at the social gathering, hereinbefore alluded to, having appeared in The Valley Tan, and been widely copied, I am impelled here to print these remarks more correctly; though, had nothing been already said on the subject, I should not have deemed them worth preservation.

The occasion was a meeting on Saturday evening, July 19th, in a public hall, under the Deseret News office, of the Deseret Typographical Association, at which I had expected to meet ten or twelve printers, Mormon and Gentile; but wherein I found myself face to face with some two hundred people, nearly half ladies. In response to a sentiment, in which the Art of Printing was honored, I spoke of the vast transformations which the world has witnessed since the auspicious invention of the art—the discovery of America—steam, and steamships-the steam printing press— the electric telegraph., etc., etc.,—with the corresponding moral and intellectual growth of Christendom, the triumphs of religious liberty, the progress made toward a general recognition of the rights of man, and the true theory of government, etc., etc. Speeches were also made by Elder John Taylor, Elder Orson Hyde, and others, all devoted in good part to eulogiums on Mormonism, glances at the past history of their churches, denunciations of their enemies, etc., etc. I think fully two hours were devoted to these addresses. A pause ensuing, I rose, and said:

“The remarks of the friends who have addressed us, especially those which set forth the oppressions and outrages to which they have at sundry times and in different localities been subjected, remind me that I have not heard to-night, and I think I never heard, from the lips or the journals of any of your people, one word in reprehension of that gigantic national crime and scandal, American chattel slavery. You speak forcibly of the wrongs to which your feeble brethren have from time to time been subjected; hut what are they all to the perpetual, the gigantic outrage involved in holding in abject bondage four millions of human beings? This obstinate silence, this seeming indifference on your part, reflects no credit on your faith and morals, and I trust they will not be persisted in.”

The re[s]ponse to this appeal was made by Elder Taylor, in very nearly these words:

“The subject of slavery is one on which Mr. Greeley is known to be enthusiastic, as we are on the subject of our religion. We cannot help speaking of our religion at every opportunity, as he cannot help speaking of slavery. Those who do not relish this or that topic, must excuse its introduction.” [I give the import, not the exact words of the Elder’s remarks.]

At a later hour—as late as 11 o’clock, when many were impatient for adjournment to supper—one whose name I did not learn, rose and expressed a desire that I should make a speech, setting forth my views of Woman’s Rights! A murmur of “Too late,” “Not time,” etc., being heard, I said:

“Mr. President, I can make the speech our friend requires in just one minute. I hold it the right of every woman to do any and every thing that she can do well, provided it ought to be done. If it ought not to be done at all, or if she cannot do it, then she has no right to do it; but if it ought to be done, and she can do it, then her right to do it is, to my mind, indisputable. And that is all that I have to say, now or ever, on the subject of Woman’s Rights.”

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