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In hungry times, Utah Lake was a Savior

Sunday, December 28, 2003 - 12:00 AM
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Synopsis: Utah Lake supported an important food supply for a number of different native inhabitants of the Great Basin. Archaeologists have discovered many artifacts that show the lake's fish -- sucker, chub, trout and mountain whitefish -- were important in sustaining life.  The Indians also traded dried fish to early Spanish explorers and to the Mormons during the early years of settlement after 1847. Those early years saw the devastation of crops by grasshoppers, or Rocky Mountain locusts. The worst plague was the one of 1855-56, which resulted in serious food shortages. The fish of Utah Lake then became crucial to the survival of the new settlers, and fishing activity increased.

By D. Robert Carter

Later in the year [1855], many individuals from surrounding valleys visited Utah Lake to purchase or catch a supply of fish. William R. Terry and his wife, who lived in Willow Creek (Draper) in Salt Lake Valley, visited Eunice Stewart in Provo while they procured a load of fish.

Wilford Woodruff visited the lake twice that year. In June he came visiting with Brigham Young and other authorities. The first day he caught two bushels of fish with a net, and the next morning he hooked enough fish to provide President Young and other church leaders with a good breakfast.

When Woodruff returned in September, he went to the lake to get enough fish to last his family through the winter. Commercial fishermen working near the mouth of the Provo River packed a barrel of sucker for him. The average barrel of fish weighed about 200 pounds.

Fish from the Utah Lake fishery played an important part in feeding men who labored for the public works in Salt Lake City. Church authorities in Utah's capital notified Provo Bishop Elias H. Blackburn that he needed to collect more tithing in kind from the town's fishermen.

Blackburn collected the tithing fish and transported them to the general tithing yard in Salt Lake City where they were used to feed the needy. Men employed on the public works drew 2,301 pounds of fish from the tithing store during the last ten months of 1855. If this total represents a true tithe as we understand it today, that would be tithing on 23,010 pounds of fish. This heightened fishing activity in 1855 proved to be a mere prelude to the intensive fish harvest of the next year.

As Utah pioneers looked back on the mild, dry winter of 1854-55, they likely hoped the coming winter would provide cold weather to kill the grasshopper eggs. They also probably wished for a heavy snowpack that would later provide them with enough irrigation water to irrigate their crops.

If, indeed, they did hope for these two of Mother Nature's many benefits, they received more than they bargained for. An enormous amount of snow fell in the mountains and temperatures in some areas dipped below zero for several days at a time.

This deep snow and cold weather ravaged Utah's cattle herd. About half of the stock north of Salt Lake City died. The people of the territory lost about 4,000 cattle. Even in the city, many cattle and horses died. Those people who relied on beef to replace bread prior to the harvest of 1855 now found themselves without red meat, and before the harvest of 1856 was gathered in, they suffered more intensely than they had the previous year.

In early February 1856, Morris Phelps, who lived in Alpine, summarized his situation in his journal:

"The snow is deep. It is doubtful whether my cattle will live through the winter. It is the hardest time to get Bread that I ever experienced. There is none sarsely [sic] in the Valley. ... I fear not enough to prevent starvation ... cattle diing [sic] fast and I have provisions only to last my family five days." This level of destitution does not appear to have been uncommon.

In an effort to help the needy, church leaders initiated fast days. People who felt like they could spare provisions were asked to skip at least one meal a month and donate the food that they saved to the destitute.

Church authorities also tried another unique program. In a February presiding bishop's meeting, Seth Taft, a Salt Lake City bishop, suggested that the wards should send out parties to catch fish for the needy who were begging in the streets, digging roots, and gathering wild plant food in an effort to survive. Some of the less affluent wards then sent fishing parties to Utah Lake.

For the remainder of the winter, through spring, and into early harvest time, the usually quiet Provo River Bottoms and the shores of Utah Lake were gradually transformed into a priesthood version of a fur trapper rendezvous. The men who normally fished the river and the lake were joined not only by ward fishing companies, but by hungry individuals from neighboring valleys who were seeking a supply of fish.

Provo authorities temporarily cancelled all fishing charters and opened the river and lake to all fishermen. On May 30, Wilford Woodruff described the scene:

"The shores of Utah Lake are crowded like a fair with wagons -- there are so many catching and drying fish."

Until the end of July, a continual flow of people visited the fishing grounds. Utah Valley commercial fishermen Peter Madsen, William Wordsworth, Tobias Dallin, and others helped catch fish for the destitute and frequently supplied them free of charge.

There is no doubt that the needy harvested a huge amount of fish. We can only speculate on how many pounds were caught. Joseph W. Bates, who fished for Salt Lake's First Ward, left us rare information on how many pounds his group harvested. He wrote, "I spent about 6 weeks at the Lake and caught Some 8 tons of fish."

There were at least six ward fishing companies, possibly more. If each of the known companies caught an amount similar to that caught by the First Ward, the total amount of fish caught by these groups alone would reach 96,000 pounds.

In 1856 Salt Lake's public workmen used 6,728 pounds of tithing fish. This represents a tithe paid on 67,280 pounds of fish. Individual families who came to the river and lake for a supply of fish certainly added thousands more pounds to the total caught.

It seems safe to say that the needy used hundreds of thousands of pounds of sucker, chub and trout. These finny creatures helped the destitute settlers survive two of the most troubled years in Utah's early history. While a monument to the memory of the fish of Utah Lake has never been constructed on Temple Square, the important role the finny tribe played in lessening malnutrition and possibly starvation during the drought and grasshopper infestation of 1855--56 is at least as notable as the role played by the sea gulls during the cricket infestation of 1848.

Utah farmers still faced serious problems during 1856. In June a late frost withered some of the crops in the lowlands near Great Salt Lake.

In some areas cutworms ate wheat and corn, and tobacco worms ravaged potato vines. The summer weather remained hot and dry, and grasshoppers continued to destroy a portion of the crops.

Despite these problems, the settlers brought in enough crops to last until the next harvest, and the activity around Utah Lake returned to normal.

However, another emergency arose almost two years later in the spring of 1858, and swarms of settlers once again congregated on the banks of Provo River and the shores of Utah Lake. They appeared to be not quite so hungry but every bit as desperate as the group that gathered there in 1856. Johnston's Army seethed at Camp Scott near Fort Bridger in Wyoming poised to pounce upon the recalcitrant Saints in the Great Basin whom the U.S. government believed to be in open rebellion against federal authority.

In this tense situation, Brigham Young ordered his people living in Salt Lake Valley and northern Utah to move south. Hundreds of wagons loaded with household goods and provisions wended their way south.

While traveling between Springville and Salt Lake City on May 6, Col. Thomas L. Kane and Alfred Cumming, the federal appointee who replaced Brigham Young as governor of Utah, passed 800 wagons moving southward.

Many of these people on the move camped near the lower Provo River and Utah Lake in an area they called Provo Bottoms. Only a few of them pitched tents, while many lived in their wagons. A considerable number constructed huts of brush and willow.

George Morris and others built dugouts covered with reeds that they had gathered near the lake. In his opinion, the dugout "made a very good place for us to gypsy in."

Some of the campsites appear to have been idyllic. The John Malan family "selected a very pretty plot by a creek with a mound rising into a small island which was matted with violets." Most of these temporary vagabonds brought a good supply of flour with them to make bread, and they also drove in cows that browsed on the grassy bottoms and provided the families with milk and butter.

Of course, the campers also caught and ate plenty of fish, and they seemed to enjoy their fare. Elemeda S. Harmon, who had a newly born baby, stayed in Spanish Fork. The patriarch of her host family brought home enough fish to last for a week. Elemeda remembered, "Fried fish and salt-rising bread tasted very nice to a sick woman."

Men like Matthew William Dalton made their own nets or seines. His net measured 80 feet long by 18 feet wide and was used on Utah Lake by Dalton and other fishermen who caught a supply of fish for the whole camp.

Levi Savage also bought hemp, spun it into twine, and knit it into a seine. The whole process took him nearly two weeks. Savage rented the net to others and used it himself.

His exploits give us a small idea of how many fish were caught. Like all fishermen, he experienced varying degrees of success. On June 22, the men who rented his net caught 500 fish while he caught only a few.

The next day Savage fished near the mouth of the American Fork River and caught 400 fish. After several unsuccessful days of fishing, he and his crew cast the seine at the mouth of Provo River from evening till 3:30 a.m. the next morning and netted 1,200 sucker. Savage sold his share of the fish and remarked, "There is great call for them."

As well as supplying the local market with fresh and salted fish, Savage and other fishermen provided salted fish to those who were going farther south.

Lorenzo Brown bought a barrel filled with 200 pounds of salted fish for $10. He was traveling toward a camping spot at Nephi.

Many temporarily jobless men sought employment fishing on the river and lake. These men and other fishing groups sometimes filled the best fishing areas. When Levi Savage tried his seine at the mouth of Provo River on June 29, he had little luck because "all the places good for drawing a sane [sic] were occupied." He did not find a good place to fish until the next evening.

George W. Brimhall worried that his supplies would eventually run out. He located a seine that he could use, collected a group of men who wanted to fish, and went to work fishing.

These men divided the fish. They kept some for their families and sold the rest to people in surrounding camps. Rachel Ann Brimhall, George's wife, joined other women in knitting seines for these recently "converted" fishermen.

Thomas Ambrose Poulter watched a group of Scandinavians fish near the mouth of Provo River. He marveled at the number of fish they caught. Poulter took a job cleaning their fish on shares and soon earned two barrels, or 400 pounds, of salted fish. William Stewart, who lived in Kaysville, also fished on shares. His family later returned home with a supply of salted sucker.

Fishermen occasionally received other perks. Ann Howell Burt remembered that women and children traveled in clusters down to the lake to bathe. Piscators who took their eyes off their nets were likely given cause to reflect upon the possibility of real live mermaids inhabiting the lake.

In late June and early July, after the people received word that they could leave for their homes, the Provo Bottoms were quickly deserted. The Utes hurriedly torched many of the huts and dugouts that the campers left behind.

Sometimes the benefits of visiting the lake did not end when the visitors departed. On their way home, some of the settlers like George W. Brimhall made a profit by selling dried fish and buttermilk to the privates and squash pies to the officers at Camp Floyd. The officers also ate fish.

Capt. Jesse A. Gove wrote in a letter to his wife July 8, 1858, "Utah lake is alive with fish of every description. Lake trout as big as Charlie [his small son]. Most delicious. We get plenty of them and with vegetables live excellently." The humble fishermen of Utah Lake put some change in their pockets by supplying these fish.

Utah Lake definitely played an important part in providing food for Utah's early settlers. During the first decade of settlement there were four especially difficult years when food was difficult to procure. In these lean years, Utah's settlers turned to Utah Lake and its fish for relief, and each time the lake complied.


♦ D. Robert Carter is a historian from Springville. He wrote the recently completed "Utah Lake Legacy" as part of the June Sucker Recovery Implementation Program, a cooperative of government and private groups. Carter also recently published "Founding Fort Utah: Provo's Native Inhabitants, Early Explorers and First Year of Settlement." It contains much new material about the earliest days of Provo history. The book is currently for sale ($17) at Heritage Books in downtown Provo, The Read Leaf in Springville, BYU Bookstore, Ken Sanders Rare Books in Salt Lake City, and Benchmark Books, also in Salt Lake City. Copies may also be obtained by contacting the author at 489-8256.

This story appeared in The Daily Herald on page B3.



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