Settling the Hot American West

Chris Ayres, an Englishman who is the Los Angeles correspondent for the Times and currently lives in Hollywood, has posted some funny observations about the current heat wave in the Western United States (actually, countrywide).  His humorous perspective touches a topic that I’ve often thought of in the past about the settlement of the deserts of the American West.

Ayres notes ironically that

the British are not alone in obsessing over the weather. Oh, how Californians chuckle when we natives of the windy, drizzly British Isles complain about the windy, drizzly weather. And yet here are the pioneers of the Wild West, living in an outpost of the Mojave Desert — a mere few hundred miles from a place called Death Valley — and they have worked themselves with into a frenzy of dread over a prolonged bout of late July sunshine.

State_of_deseret_1 When Ayres mentions "pioneers of the Wild West" I simply cannot avoid thinking about Mormon pioneers and their efforts to settle the vast expanses of the American west, starting from their new home in Salt Lake City.  This is probably because I am LDS and so were my ancestors, many of whom came from England and ended up settling arid wastelands that must have been very uninviting. 

I think of the 1849 borders of the proposed State of Deseret, which, as this map courtesy of Wikipedia shows, extended to the coast of California south of the Santa Monica mountains, which included the existing settlements of Los Angeles and San Diego, as well as the Mormon colony of San Bernadino, of which my wife’s great great great grandfather Apostle Charles C. Rich was the second LDS mayor.   (Most of the Latter-day Saints left the colony in 1857 and the ground that had been designated in the city as a temple block came into the hands of the Catholic Church which then, twenty years later, granted part of the land to the city and became Pioneer Park in 1915.)  One can only wonder at how history would have been different if the Latter-day Saints had been able to hold the boundaries of their State of Deseret, complete with its access to the sea, but that is a different matter.

Our ancestors sacrificed much to inhabit the desert lands of the American West.  These lands have their beauty, but anyone familiar with the Mojave desert, Maricopa County in Arizona, the expanses of Nevada, and the arid lands of Utah understands the despair many Latter-day Saint pioneers and settlers must have felt when surveying land completely foreign to their native green England or Denmark (or New York, for that matter).  At the same time, these Latter-day Saints, among whom were many of my own ancestors, both from England’s green and pleasant land and from Denmark’s comfort, were grateful to be away from the persecution that plagued them as Latter-day Saints in the United States. 

If, with Ayres, we feel oppressed by the current heat wave in the American West (which as he notes, at least for Los Angeles, still is far from heat experienced there when Ronald Reagan was governor), we need to reflect for a moment on the lives of the rugged pioneers, whether Catholic, LDS, or otherwise, who first began settling and farming these arid lands before an escape into an air-conditioned shelter from the heat was possible.  It would have been a difficult endeavor and we should marvel at the sacrifice and work that it required.

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3 Responses to Settling the Hot American West

  1. “One can only wonder at how history would have been different if the Latter-day Saints had been able to hold the boundaries of their State of Deseret, complete with its access to the sea, but that is a different matter.”

    I doubt different political boundaries would have changed much. Utah Territory wasn’t all Mormon, and Mormon towns were established in the surrounding territories all the same without benefit of the State of Deseret. The early abandoned places like Las Vegas and the Muddy River would have been no more sustainable at that time had they been under the jurisdiction of Deseret. The reach of the Saints in the Great Basin was constrained by their numbers.

  2. BrianJ says:

    I have often wondered a similar question: What did the pioneers think when they first saw Goblin Valley? Arches? Mount Timpanogos? Surely most of them had never seen anything like this!

    Your post is very interesting. I would contend with one little word choice: “arid wastelands.” Deseret was indeed arid, but hardly a “wasteland.” According to my botany professor in college, when the pioneers first settled Salt Lake Valley, the native grasses grew so high that people regularly lost livestock.

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