Over 15,000 years ago a large, deep, fresh water lake called Lake Bonneville covered this area now known as the Great Salt Lake Desert. The lake at its highest level was over 1000 feet deep. It was supplied with water from the ice age and had an outlet to the Snake River in the north which flows into the Columbia River then to the Pacific Ocean. Eventually Lake Bonneville water cut through the resisting rock at Red Rock Pass north of Preston, Idaho in an outpouring of water of catastrophic proportion. The lake lowered some 350 feet in about six months. Dryer years and retreating glaciers lowered the water below its natural outlet then evaporation reduced the lake to what is now Great Salt Lake.
The Great Salt Lake Desert or basin was created by sediment of fine clay and silt being washed into Lake Bonneville over eons of time. Some of these sediments are over 8000 feet thick. When the remnants of Lake Bonneville evaporated, salts were washed to the lowest portions of the basin creating saltpans such as the Bonneville Salt Flats. The slightly higher level mud flats left by the Lake are the thirty six miles of flats that the explorers and pioneers crossed to reach Donner Springs between 1845 to 1850. The first humans to inhabit this region were Indians. Caves used by Indians in this area have yielded carbon dated material 12,000 years old. A cave or overhang was discovered by this writer in 1960 while prospecting for road building material on Floating Island which is just off the emigrant trail and mentioned by journal writers as an isolated butte. This cave was excavated by Archaeologists in 1986 and has been classified as a major find. It was an Indian "Motel" just an overnight stopping place, without any water, used for protection while they were traversing this region. There is a cave near Wendover called Danger Cave and another one on the south flank of Pilot Peak called Raven Cave. Both are dated at 12,000 years old.
The first record of white men and explorers in this region were from John C. Fremont and his large pack party of Oct. 1845 on a exploring expedition to California. Fremont asked a scouting party consisting of Kit Carson, Auguste Archambault, C. Maxwell and Lajeunesse to cross the desert to see if they could find water by the high prominent mountain peak that could be seen from the Eastern edge of the desert. They were the first recorded white men to cross this area and they found a spring near the edge of the flats at the foot of the slope to this mountain. This friendly 10,700 foot mountain Fremont named Pilot Peak, a name it still bears today.
Later in California Fremont and his parties exploits were heard by such men as mountain man James Clyman, Lansford W. Hastings and others. Hastings had previously written a book called "The Emigrants Guide to Oregon and California" and was interested in promoting emigration to California for personal gain. The next spring (1846) James Clyman heading east with Hastings and James M. Hudspeth, followed Fremont's trail in reverse across the mud flats to Fort Bridger at the insistence of Hastings. East of Fort Bridger Hastings recruited emigrants to take his newly traversed "Short Cut" and promised to guide them back to California.
The Bryant/Russell pack party, Harlan/Young, Lienhard/Hoppe, and Donner-Reed wagon parties were contacted and decided to follow Hastings "cutoff" across the Great Salt Lake Desert in the summer of 1846. Later, others seeking gold in California and a quick, shorter way traveled Hastings road which really was not shorter and was much more difficult because of the long hard dry drive without water and without feed for the animals. The cutoff was abandoned after 1850 because of the hardships suffered during the crossing by the 49ers. The safer Hensley-Salt Lake Cutoff established in 1848 to the City of rocks on the California Trail was then used extensively until the railroad came in 1869.
HOWARD STANSBURY in November of 1849 circumvented the Great Salt Lake around the north and west to Pilot Peak and then east on the Hastings Cutoff Trail south of the lake back to Salt Lake City. He wrote the following statements after returning to his base of operations in the City:
"The examination just completed proves that the whole western shore of the lake is bounded by an immense level plain, consisting of soft mud, frequently traversed by small, meandering rills of salt and sulphurous water, with occasional springs of fresh, all of which sink before reaching the lake. These streams seem to imbue and saturate the whole soil, so as to render it throughout miry and treacherous. For a few months, in midsummer, the sun has sufficient influence to render some portions of the plain, for a short time, dry and hard: in these intervals the traveling over it is excellent; but one heavy shower is sufficient to reconvert the hardened clay into soft, tenacious mud, rendering the passage of teams over it toilsome, and frequently quite hazardous."
"These plains are but little elevated above the present level of the lake, and have, beyond question, at one time formed a part of it. It is manifest to every observer, that an elevation of but a few feet above the present level of the lake would flood this entire flat to a great distance north and south, and wash the base of the Pilot Peak range of mountains, which constitute its western boundary; thus converting what is now a comparatively small and insignificant lake into a vast inland sea. This extensive area is, for the most part, entirely denuded of vegetation, excepting occasional patches of artemisia and greasewood. The minute crystals of salt which cover the surface of the moist, oozy mud, glisten brilliantly in the sunlight, and present the appearance of a large sheet of water so perfectly, that it is difficult, at times, for one to persuade himself that he is not standing on the shore of the lake itself. High rocky ridges protrude above the level plain, and resemble great islands rising above the bosom of this desert sea."
"The mirage, which frequently occurs, is greater here than I ever witnessed elsewhere, distorting objects in the most grotesque manner, defying all calculation as to their size, shape, or distances, and giving rise to optical illusions almost beyond belief. With the exception of the two valleys lying at the south end of the lake, the country is, as a place of human habitation, entirely worthless. There is, however, one valuable use to which it may and perhaps will be applied: its extent, and perfectly level surface, would furnish a desirable space on which to measure a degree of the meridian"
In 1983 the Great Salt Lake began to rise dramatically, faster than any time in recorded history. Highways, industries and wet lands were flooded and the International Airport was threatened. The State of Utah decided to pump water from the lake into the Newfoundland Basin where the water could evaporate. Dikes were built and pumps were placed at a cost of over 60 million dollars. In 1987 the pumping began and the water covered the Hastings trail on the flats. The salt water evaporated leaving some six inches or more of salt across some 20 miles of pristine emigrant trail. The lake was kept from rising some two more feet because of the pumping project. Since then the lake has receded due to some dry years here in the basin. The salt deposited on the trail was slowly dissolved by rain and snow water and the salt was carried to the lower areas exposing the trail once again.
The quotes in this paper come from published manuscripts, journals, diaries and historical books. Quotes from Dale Morgan's Book, West From Fort Bridger edited by J. Roderic Korns. Revised ~ updated by Will Bagley ~ Harold Schindler, Utah State University Press 1994, are identified by [WFB]. These quotes are from the diaries or journals of James Clyman, Edwin Bryant, Heinrich Lienhard, James Reed and J. Quinn Thornton who interviewed the survivors of the Donner party at San Francisco in the fall of 1847.
The quotes from Madison Berryman Moorman come from the book "The Journal of Madison Berryman Moorman" Overland Journey to Pacific 1850-1851 Printed by the California Historical Society San Francisco, California 1948. Will be identified by [MBM].
The quotes from John Wood come from "The Journal of John Wood" as kept by him while travelling from Cincinnati to the Gold Diggings in California in spring and summer of 1850. By John Wood, Nevins ~ Meyers, Columbus, Ohio 1871. Will be identified by [JW].
The quotes from Sarah Davis come from her diary in the book "Covered Wagon Women" Diaries ~ Letters from the Western Trails 1840-1890 Volume II 1850 edited ~ compiled by Kenneth L. Holmes, The Arthur H. Clark Company, Glendale, California 1983. Will be identified by [CWW]. This diary was brought to my attention by fellow chapter member Lyndia Carter and I wish to thank her for her thoughtfulness.