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Tuesday, November 29, 2016

John Muir's visit to Salt Lake City in the 1860's

John Muir (1838- 1914)
John Muir is known as the Father of the National Parks, and because I'm on a kick to visit the National Parks, I've been reading some of his journals. One of his books, "Steep Trails California, Utah, Nevada, Oregon, the Grand Canyon" has a chapter about Salt Lake City, the area and culture where I was raised!  Of course, I wanted to know if I was in it. (I'm not).

But I did find it interesting to read his observations of my former home town and what it was like 150 years ago. Mr Muir was a trained and passionate observer of flora, fauna, and geology, but since he was in Salt Lake City and the Utah Mormon culture, it was interesting to read his observations on this city.

In his won words, here are his brief observations about Salt Lake City in the 1860's ....

"Salt Lake can not be called a very beautiful town, but neither is there anything ugly or repulsive about it. Most of the houses are veiled with trees, as if set in the midst of one grand orchard, with only the angular roofs clearly visible.They are set well back from the street, leaving room for a flower garden. The gardens are laid out with great simplicity, indicating love for flowers by people comparatively poor. In almost every one you find daisies, mint, and lilac bushes, and rows of plain English tulips. Lilacs and tulips are the most characteristic flowers. (Flowers are still plentiful and appreciated. My Scottish grandparents farm was filled with lilacs, hollyhocks, and daisy's, as well as a large orchard - just as John Muir describes)

"The streets are remarkably wide and the buildings low, making them appear yet wider than they really are. Trees are planted along sidewalks - elms, poplars, maples, and a few catalpas and hawthorns." (Yes, there are lots of wide streets)

"Even in the business streets there is but little regularity in the buildings - a row of plain adobe structures, half store, half dwelling, a high mercantile block of red brick, and an immense store with a sign on the roof Z.C.M.I - Zion’s Co-operative Mercantile Institution. (I understand that landmark is no longer there)

ZCMI in 1860's
"Most of the women I have chanced to meet, especially those from the country, have a weary repressed look, as if for the sake of their religion they were patiently carrying burdens heavier than mother were well able to bear. But strange as it must seem to Gentiles, the many wives of one man, instead of being repelled from one another by jealousy, appear to be drawn all the closer together as if the real marriage existed between the wives only. (I found these observations rather interesting. Now days, many notice how there are lots of smiling pretty blond blue-eyed women in SLC. It sounds like things may have changed in 150 years.)

"In the Tabernacle last Sunday, one of the elders of the church, in discoursing upon the good things of life, the possessions of the Latter Day Saints, enumerated fruitful fields, horses, cows, wives, and implements - the wives being placed as above between the cows and implements without receiving any superior emphasis. (Women were chattel and like property even then, huh? even then???) 

Polygamy, as far as I have observed, exerts a more degrading influence upon husbands than upon wives. (This was a surprising remark. I never considered that some of the men may not have wanted to have a flock of wives.)

A more withdrawn, compact, sealed-up body of people could hardly be found on the face of the earth than gather here. Most of the Mormons I have met seem to be in a state of perpetual apology (An interesting remark - perpetual that still the case?) 

“We saints,” that are continually saying, “are not as bad as we are called.  (Always trying to explain... I have noticed this, too). We don’t murder those who differ with us, but rather treat them with charity.” (So that is where the standards were back then- 'well at least we don't murder those who are different'...interesting comment. Kind of a low bar.)

While taking a saunter the other evening, we were overtaken by a characterizing Mormon, an humble man, “who made us a deferential salute and then walked on with us about half a mile. We discussed whatsoever of Mormon doctrines came to mind with American freedom, which he defended as best he could, speaking in an excited but deprecating tone. When hard pressed he would say: “I don’t understand these deep things but the elders do. I’m only an humble tradesman.” (I guess obedience and not questioning authority was part of the culture even back then.)

He really was a talented observer. When you read his descriptions of mountains, plants, landscapes, and even the weather, you can FEEL his passion for these things. But when he is placed in society, his observations sound more like a report. It feels like you are waiting and watching for the water to boil. You can tell his heart just ain't into it.

You know, John Muir's home is not far from where I currently live (in Northern California), and you would think I would know this man since I pass by his home almost weekly, But when I read his words about Salt Lake City, I felt I now had a greater understanding of who this man really was. One can tell a lot about a person and what they say about a place you know.