Gentile Impressions of Salt Lake City, Utah, 1849-1870

By Mitchell, Martin | The Geographical Review, July 1997 | Go to article overview

Gentile Impressions of Salt Lake City, Utah, 1849-1870

Mitchell, Martin, The Geographical Review

Salt Lake City and the Mormon region of the interior American West have been examined geographically as a physical environment, one with distinctive Mormon settlement patterns and signature cultural imprints on the landscape (Meinig 1965; Reps 1965; Francaviglia 1978; Jackson 1978). More recently, Richard H. Jackson (1988, 1992) contrasted Mormon and non-Mormon perceptions of the Salt Lake Basin's physical landscape and reactions to the early urbanization of Salt Lake City. Edwina Jo Snow (1986) and Frederic Trautmann (Kirchhoff 1983) consider the impressions of early European travelers to Salt Lake City.

In this study I examine the place experience of non-Mormon, or Gentile, travelers who visited Salt Lake City between 1849 and 1870, a period that began with the California Gold Rush and ended shortly after the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad in Promontory, Utah (Table I). Although the physical themes of isolation and wilderness are addressed, I also track impressions of the built or material landscape and the interactions of visitors with the local populace.

Place experience is an important link between concerns or feelings and a landscape (Jakle 1987, 4). Whether travelers were deliberate knowledge seekers or accidental tourists is an important prerequisite for understanding the negotiation of place experience (Jakle 1990, 83-84). The impressions of some travelers reflect "the heightened sensitivities of strangers deliberately encountering new places" (Jakle 1977, 6).

Non-Mormon visitors to Salt Lake City were of three distinct types: overland emigrants on their way to California, most of whom were American citizens; tourists traveling for pleasure throughout the West, most of whom were Europeans; and military personnel on official U.S. government business. For overland emigrants, Salt Lake City was a stop on the way to somewhere else, not the chief focus of their travels. This was a major distinction relative to Mormon migration. For tourists, spectators, and flaneurs, a stop in Salt Lake City involved a deliberate attempt to discover its nuances or essences, an opportunity to "sketch" the physical and cultural landscapes (Brand 1991, 4-13). As such, Salt Lake City was an objective in and of itself, rather then a mere pit stop.

Admittedly, "traveler" is used rather loosely with reference to military personnel, to the civilians under contract who often accompanied them, and to federal agents on temporary assignment in Salt Lake City. Nonetheless, their missions were temporary and they were away from home, with the latter being a chief characteristic that Michael Hough associates with travelers (1990, 153). In addition, they deliberately recorded place experiences, if often for official narratives or reports rather than personal pleasure.

Experiences of Salt Lake City are presented generally in the order in which they occurred: first impressions, then the later feelings that surfaced during the balance of a stay. First impressions commenced with an initial sighting of the settlement, followed by observations of the material landscape and the citizenry. Later came comments on polygamy, patriotism, local government, the treatment of those who were "passing through," and speculation about the future of Salt Lake City and Utah Territory.


Mormonism owes its origins to Joseph Smith, whose divine visions and unearthing of golden plates in Ontario County, New York, resulted in the transcription of the Book of Mormon and the founding of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in 1830 (Meinig 1965, 195). The Mormons experienced persecution and eventually relocated in Nauvoo, Illinois, in 1839. Persecution again ensued, which forced the leadership under Joseph Smith in the early 1840s to consider relocation to California, Oregon, the Great Basin of the Rocky Mountains, or Texas (Jackson 1992, 43).

After Joseph Smith was murdered in 1844, Brigham Young, the new leader, opted for relocation to the Great Basin (Jackson 1992, 45). …

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