The Great Salt Lake: Its a battle over who got there first

Time Before Now, September, 1844Artist and inventor Samuel Morse tapped out a four-word telegraph message,”What hath God wrought,” in May.  Brigham Young was chosen to lead the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints after the faith’s founder, Joseph Smith, was murdered.  He would go on to found Salt Lake City thee years later.   And the world lost the last pair of Great Auk Northern Penguins, shot off the cost of Iceland in June.  The final sighting of a lonely, single member of the species was in 1852. (Right)

September 6, 1844

On this day in prodigious map maker John C. Fremont reached Utah’s Great Salt Lake and proclaimed himself  to be the first Euro-American to spy the desert phenomenon.  He’d actually been there a year earlier 

While not much of the boast is true,  Fremont (left) did produce the first reliable record of the Great Basin which became  indispensable to later development.  He’d gotten to the basin in 1843 but it was too late in the season to  explore the region.  What may have seemed like uncharted territory to Fremont, however, was old news to indigenous people who had inhabited the region for thousands of years.  

In fact, Franciscan friars, Francisco Atanasio Domínguez and Silvestre Vélez de Escalante, legendary mountain man Jim Bridger and French Canadian fur trapper, Etienne Provost, (right) had all gotten there ahead of him.   Another French ex-pat, explorer Benjamin Bonneville, (below) as in the Bonneville Salt Flats and the Pontiac Bonneville, made a rough sketch of the lake’s outline in 1837 but left it at that. 

Now regarded as a unique national wonder, it  is actually the remnants of the much larger prehistoric Lake Bonneville.  At one time spanning more than 22,000 square miles, it was nearly the size of Lake Michigan, estimated to have covered all of present-day Utah and portions of Idaho and Nevada. 

Although diminished from ancient times, the Great Salt Lake earns the preface of great.   Its the largest inland salt water body  in the Western Hemisphere.  It’s the  world’s fourth largest endoreic basin or terminal body where the source of the lake doesn’t eventually drain into an ocean.  Russia’s Caspian Sea gets the grand prize, Uzbekistan’s Lake Aral and Lake Balkhash in Kazakhstan rank second and third.

Calculating an average size, however, is tricky, since it varies from year to year.  Most recently estimated at about 1,700 square miles, its smallest was recorded in 1963 at just 950 square miles.  But  three decades ago, in 1988 it covered 3,300 square miles, making it larger than the state of Delaware. (Right)

Sometimes referred to as America’s Dead Sea, like its size, saltiness varies anywhere from five to 27 per cent, giving it the ability to support a variety of wildlife including native birds, brine shrimp and water fowl.  It hosts one of the largest populations of Wilson’s Phalarope, (right) a small wader classified as halophilic (salt loving) that migrate to the area each winter.

 The friars, Fremont and trappers and traders of the past 250 years, however, were all johnny-come-lately visitors.  Artifacts from some 12,000 years ago have been found in caves near the Great Salt Lake. Settled hunter gatherers existed there until about 500 years ago, finally giving way to the nomadic hunter tribes, the Ute, Paiute and Shoshone.

Known as the Fremont Tribes, the explorer had nothing to do with their discovery.  Named for the Fremont River, which did acquire its name from Fremont, it was  first recorded by archeology student Noel Morss in 1931.  Navajo, Ute and other indigenous people in the region had long been aware of the various sites occupied by the earlier tribes through petroglyph and pit house remains.

Archeological rendering of Fremont pit house

Modern scientists don’t necessarily agree on their origin or what became of them.  Climate change is one prevalent theory, either prolonged drought or perhaps the opposite, too much water.  The Navajo culture attribute the ancient petroglyphs to the people “before the flood.” 

Many archeologists now believe the Fremonts were contemporary but not related to Pueblo people of the Southwest’s Four Corners area.  Some may have joined the Southwest tribes, others instead migrated north to the Great Plains of Colorado, Kansas and Nebraska.  (Glenwood Culture in Nebraska, 900-1200 AD)

Perhaps due to Utah’s surplus of riches in natural wonders, The Great Salt Lake is not a national park. With the “Mighty Five;” Zion, Bryce Canyon, Capitol Reef, Arches and Canyonlands already within the state, along with seven national monuments and four national landmarks, it has been left to the state to preserve and pay tribute to it.  

One of Utah’s largest tourist attractions, two state-owned recreation areas, Antelope Island State Park and the Great Salt Lake State Park and Marina, (below) attract more than 400,000 visitors annually.

Antelope Island State Park, Davis County, Utah, 40 miles north of Salt Lake City is accessible via the Davis County Causeway.  Its 288,000 acres is home to herds of bison, pronghorn antelope, bighorn sheep and mule deer as well as millions of birds.  Hiking, horseback trails and campsites offer visitors outdoor activities year round.  Guided tours as well as self-guided excursions include beach and wetland walks and the historic Fielding Garr Ranch. 

Four campgrounds include facilities for both large and small groups.  The park is open daily from 6 to 10, closed Thanksgiving and Christmas.  The Visitor Center including the Center’s art gallery and  Fielding Garr are open 9 to 5 daily. For more information on the park go to, call  (801) 725-9263 for Visitor’s Center or write 4528 West 1700 South, Syracuse, Utah 84075. 

© Text Only – 2020 – Headin’ West LLC  – All photos – public domain or fair use.

*Head On West strives for historic accuracy and relies on a number of sources considered reliable.  When research differs on significant facts, the various points of view will be cited.