A Century of Stewardship: Mormon Settlement and Resource Use

“Pioneer Camp,” a lithograph by John Hafen. Utah State Historical Society.Members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (the Mormons) were the first Europeans to settle in Utah Valley. These people left their homes in Kirtland, Ohio, in Missouri, and Nauvoo, Illinois to escape religious persecution. The first group arrived in Salt Lake Valley on July 24, 1847. By the end of the year, 17,000 had migrated to the State of Deseret, as Utah was first known. Soon thereafter, Provo, Heber, Nephi and other towns were established along the critical boundary between the fertile valleys and resource rich mountains. Mormon settlement was unique in that their use of both sets of resources was done as a community.


After settling in Utah, Mormon leaders realized that the nearest industry and agricultural markets were several hundred miles and many months away. No time was wasted as they geared their people for survival. Water was needed to plant crops for winter food. Without water, the crops would burn up and attempts at colonization would be futile. Mormon frontiersman O.B. Huntington and others were sent to Utah Valley to look for suitable farm lands and water sources. He tells in his diary about the naming of Hobble Creek:

...went on 18 miles and crossed the Provo river, the bottom lands of which are covered with large cottonwoods, boxelder, ash, oak and maple. Five or six miles from there, south, we came to a small creek which had no name until we stayed there over night and I lost a pair of iron hobbles used for fastening the forefeet of horses together. We called it Hobble Creek and afterwards it went by that name... (Huntington 1942: p.48).

All Utah Valley settlement developed along the streams that flowed out of the adjacent mountains.


Their next basic need was the acquisition of timber for the construction of shelter for homes and livestock, and to provide fuel. William Gardner, another settler, explored the headwaters of the Weber and Provo Rivers in September 1852, and his description of the region highlights the settler’s interest in acquiring timber:

...the Provo River is as handsome a stream for floating purposes as could be desired, it is not as rapid as the Weber River and the channel is deeper, but it’s pretty rough at the mouth of the canyon, which is the best canyon for a road that I have ever seen, having fine narrow valleys with rich soil and good pasture....the streams can also be utilized pretty well for floating down timber (U.S. Department of Agriculture 1972).

Readily accessible sources of firewood disappeared quickly along the mountain-valley margins, and the work of obtaining firewood grew. Joseph Rawlin's diary gives us a glimpse of the labor-consuming effort:

One of the severe tasks that faced the settlers each fall was the securing of the winter's fuel supply of brush and wood, since coal of course was not available....the start for the canyon would be made early in the morning and the return with the load of wood took place in the afternoon of the next day.

Black and white drawing of man plowing field with horse and plow.I remember the steep roads and the wild nature of the canyon. The wagon would be taken as far as possible to the camping place and then the horses, with single-trees and drag chains, would be led up some steep ravine on a drag road, the pine timber felled, and arranged in piles in the dragway. To these the horses were attached by means of chains and thus the timber was dragged to the wagon, usually about the time darkness was settling upon the scene....The succeeding morning after breakfast the logs were cut to suitable lengths, lifted upon the wagon, bound with log chains and ready for the start tomorrow. About twenty such trips were required to lay in the necessary supply of wood for the winter (Rawlins 1956).

The canyons on Mt. Nebo were one of the areas which produced building materials. In Salt Creek, east of Nephi, a sawmill was located where Bear Canyon Campground exists today and logs from Bear Canyon were floated to the mill in a flume. In 1851, Morris Phelps established one of the first saw mills in the north end of Utah Valley. He built the mill above Alpine at the mouth of a canyon known today as Phelps Canyon. Timber from these canyons supplied the people of Mountainville [Alpine] and other nearby communities with building materials. That same year, Isaac Houston and James Preston built a saw mill in American Fork Canyon (Wild 1982). In the years that followed, saw mills would be constructed in nearly every canyon along the valley front.

Demand for timber continued to increase and the need for timber management was soon recognized by early Mormon leaders. In the 1850's, Brigham Young, Parley P. Pratt and George A. Smith were given control over important canyons and associated resources by territorial legislative grants. This form of timber regulation worked well during the initial stages of colonization when the emphasis was on subsistence and property rights were not well established. But, by the time communities were established, stewardship gave way to free enterprise as many settlers took advantage of timber resources for a profit, despite efforts to control resource utilization by Mormon leaders. By the 1880's, timber resources along the Wasatch Front had been reduced to the point that timber was being brought in from the Sierra Nevadas and Chicago (Peterson and Speth 1980).


Cattle provided early settlers with transportation, meat, milk and clothing. Cattle were grazed in the mountains of the Uinta from the time of initial settlement onward. Sheep were also important to the settlers as a source of clothing and meat. The sheep were summered on present day Forest lands and wintered in the valleys. By 1860, the population of Utah had risen to 40,273. The number of cattle was also on the upswing, 34,094 head.

With the surge in numbers of livestock on rangelands, it soon became necessary to enact laws that managed grazing for the benefit of both the livestock owner and the range. Before 1870, there was very little conflict over range. Settlers were more inclined to buy out a competitor or share grazing lands with him. Early legislation in Utah favored a controlled disposition of the public domain, and between 1855 and 1857, more than 30 pieces of legislation were passed granting herd grounds on the public domain to private citizens and the Mormon Church. Some of this legislation authorized county courts to regulate local grazing lands (Peterson 1964).

In 1874, the Animals-at-Large Act repealed earlier acts authorizing county courts to designate herd grounds and prevent nonresidents from grazing in certain areas. With the passing of local control, disputes over grazing areas grew more acute. Officials in Utah soon realized that livestock owners needed some kind of secure title through ownership or lease to avoid grazing disputes and maintain a productive range. Contributing to conflict over range was the idea that cattle and horses could not be grazed on lands that sheep had grazed on. In 1888, legislation was passed that sought to establish legal title to range areas on the basis of prior use, but this failed in its intent.

By 1886, legislation was passed to deal with the increased problem of livestock theft. Stricter guidelines were introduced in the areas of branding and sale and the theft of livestock was made a felony, punishable by 10 years imprisonment and a $5,000 fine. The success of these laws is not clear, but in 1890, many of the requirements introduced by the legislation were dropped. With the great demand placed upon the mountains' natural resources through grazing, a new problem faced the settlers - floods. Church leaders became concerned with overgrazing and the resultant flooding. Orson Hyde spoke from the pulpit at a Church Conference on October 7, 1865, saying:

I find the longer we live in these valleys that the range is becoming more and more destitute of grass; the grass is not only eaten up by the great amount of stock that feed upon it, but they tramp it out by the very roots; and where grass once grew luxuriantly there is now nothing but desert weed, and hardly a spear of grass is to be seen...Being cut short of our range in the way we have been, and accumulating stock as we are, we have nothing to feed them with in the winter and they perish. There is no profit in this, neither it pleasing in the sight of God our Heavenly Father that we should continue a course of life like unto this (U.S. Department of Agriculture 1972).


During the 1849 California gold rush, Brigham Young and other Church leaders took a definite stand against Mormons carrying on the occupation of gold and silver mining. They realized this stand against mining would be considered as a "great oppression in Utah,” but they held firm to their beliefs. The Church leaders felt that: (1) Agriculture and home industry were more important to survival than prospecting for precious metals; (2) without capital, mining technology or cheap means of transportation, such as the railroad, mining would not prove profitable; (3) the influx of miners and other outsiders would bring into the Territory an element that would tend to be antagonistic to the Church. However, there were some Mormon leaders who pursued mining with the intent of enriching the churches coffers (Holmes 1990). Regardless, because of the combination of Brigham Young’s anti-mining sentiment and the lack of railroads available to transport ore, the mountains of the Wasatch were spared the effects of extensive mining until the 1870's.


The forests offered the early settlers recreational opportunities as well. Outdoor recreation was recommended by Brigham Young as far back as 1855, when he stated in a talk:

I am going to explore in the mountains, and I invite you too. Take your wives, but not your babies, unless you take a cradle to keep them quiet. The out-door air is what the people need for health, it is good for them to camp out (U.S. Department of Agriculture 1972).

Joseph Rawlins gives us a glimpse of what camping was like in 1884 from the record he kept in his diary. His family, with those of Dr. Heber J. Richards, Adelbert Roundy and guests from the Dr. John R. Park family went into the Uinta Mountains to camp in the wilderness during the summer. He writes:

...This (camp) was then far in the wilderness, and trout in the streams, prairie chickens along the creeks and deer in the woods or hiding in the brush in the canyons, were plentiful. Bear and mountain lion might occasionally be seen...No setting, accordingly, could have been more perfect for a summer vacation, or more picturesque. Mountains clothed with untouched groves of fir, pine and quaking aspen, rose up majestically above us. The open spaces were brilliant with many wild flowers, the pure air was filled with perfumes and the scent of pines. It seemed to me that the stars shone brighter there than any other place in the world. Then again the occasional fierce winds would sway the trees mightily, lightning would play fiercely and grandly about the peaks and the hills would reverberate and echo with thunder. But we would be snug in our tents, and if caught outdoors, there was always wide branched trees under which we could take shelter (U.S. Department of Agriculture 1972).

A unique dance hall was established by the Mormon settlers in American Fork Canyon and provided a novel place to gather out of the hot valley sun. Dance Hall Cave was established by Alva A. Green Sr. in the early 1880's. A platform was constructed for the dance floor and an orchestra sat on one of the cave’s ledges. The cave was not used as a dance hall for very long due to the difficulty in accessing it and poor lighting, but it is still known today as Dance Hall Cave (Stauffer 1971:20).