Salt Lake

The Great Salt Lake occupies 2,500 square miles northwest of Salt Lake City. It was once part of the much larger Lake Bonneville, which 18,000 years ago extended across 20,000 square miles including parts of Idaho and Nevada. The average depth of the lake is only around 30 feet. The lake has high salinity (which varies between 10 and 25%), second only to the Dead Sea of Israel. The great expanse of salt flats, is what is left from the former Lake Bonneville. This huge desert is almost completely white and level for over a hundred miles in some directions.

Primary Sources

(1) George Ruxton, Adventures in Mexico and the Rocky Mountains (1847)

It has been said that from the southwestern extremity of the Great Salt Lake a vast desert extends for hundreds of miles, unbroken by the slightest vegetation, destitute of game and water, and presenting a cheerless expanse of sandy plain, or rugged mountain, thinly covered with dwarf pine or cedar, the only evidence of vegetable life. Into this desert, ignorant of the country, the trappers struck, intending to make their short cut; and, travelling on all day, were compelled to camp at night, without water or pasture for their exhausted animals, and themselves ravenous with hunger and parched with thirst. The next day three of their animals "gave out," and they were fain to leave them behind; but imagining that they must soon strike a creek, they pushed on until noon, but still no water presented itself, nor a sign of game of any descriptoin. The animals were nearly exhausted, and a horse which could scarcely keep up with the slow pace of the others was killed, and its blood greedily drunk; a portion of the flesh being eaten raw, and a supply carried with them for future emergencies.

(2) Jedediah Smith, letter to William Clark (11th October, 1827)

About the 22nd of August, 1826, I left the Great Salt Lake, accompanied with a party of fifteen men, for the purpose of exploring the country to the south west, which was then entirely unknown to me, and of which I could obtain no satisfactory information, from the Indians who inhabit the country on its north east borders. My general course on leaving the Lake, was S.W. and W., passing the Little Uta Lake, and ascending Ashley's River, which empties into it, where we found a nation of Indians, calling themselves Sumpatch, who were friendly disposed towards us.

After leaving the Little Uta Lake, I found no further sign of Buffalo - there were, however, a few of the Antelope and Mountain Sheep, and an abundance of Black Tailed Hares. Leaving Ashley's River, I passed over a range of mountains, S.E. and N.W., and struck a river, running SW, which I named Adams River, in compliment to our President. The water of the river is of a muddy cast, and somewhat brackish. The country is mountainous to the east, and on the west are detached rocky hills and sandy plains. Passing down this river some distance, I fell in with a nation of Indians, calling themselves Pa Utches. These Indians, as well as the Sumpatch, wear robes made of rabbet skins; they raise corn and pumpkins, on which they principally subsist - except a few hares, very little game of any description is to be found. About ten days march further down, the river turns to the SE, where, on the SW of it, there is a remarkable cave, the entrance to which is about ten or fifteen feet high, and five or six feet in width: after descending about fifteen feet, it opens into a large and spacious room, with the roof, walls and floor of solid rock salt, (a piece of which I send you, with some other articles which will be hereafter described.) I followed Adams river two days travel further, where it empties into the Seeds Keeder, which I crossed and went a south course down it, through a barren, rocky and mountainous country. In this river are many shoals and rapids. Further down, a valley opens, from five to fifteen miles in width. The land on the river bank is fertile and timbered. I here found another tribe of Indians, who call themselves Ammuchiebes. They cultivate the soil, and raise corn, beans, pumpkins and mellons in abundance, and also a little wheat and cotton. I was now nearly destitute of horses, and had learned what it was to do without food; I therefore concluded to remain here fifteen days, to recruit my men; and in the mean time, succeeded in changing my few remaining horses, and was enabled to purchase others, from a party of runaway Indians, who had stolen them from the Spaniards. I here obtained some information respecting the Spanish country - obtained two guides - recrossed the Seeds Keeder, and travelled a west course fifteen days, over a country of complete barrens, and frequently travelling from morning until night without water. Crossed a salt plain eight miles wide and twenty long. On the surface of the ground is a crust of white salt, underneath is a layer of yellow sand, and beneath the sand a few inches, the salt again appears. The river Seeds Keeder, I have since learned, empties itself into the Gulf of California, about 80 miles from the Amuchiebes and is there called the Colorado.

I afterwards arrived at a river, which I named (after a tribe of Indians residing on its banks) Wim-mel-che. I found here a few beaver and elk, deer and antelopes in abundance. I made a small hunt, and then attempted, with my party, to cross Mount Joseph, and join my partners at the Great Salt Lake. In this, however, I was disappointed. I found the snow so deep on the mountain, that my horses could not travel. Five of my horses having already perished for want of food, I was compelled to return to the valley. Here leaving my party, I set out on the 20th May, accompanied by two men, and taking with us seven horses and two mules, which were laden with hay, and provisions for ourselves, and in eight days we succeeded in crossing Mount Joseph, with the loss of only two horses and one mule. The snow on the top of this mountain, was from four to eight feet deep, but so solid that our horses only sunk into it from six to twelve inches.

After travelling twenty days from the east side of Mount Joseph, I struck the SW corner of the Great Salt Lake. The country between the mountain and this Lake, is completely barren, and entirely destitute of game. We frequently travelled two days, without water, over sandy deserts, where no sign of vegetation was to be seen. In some of the rocky hills we found water, and occasionally small bands of Indians, who appeared the most miserable of the human race. They were entirely naked, and subsisted upon grass seeds, grasshoppers, fee. On arriving at the Great Salt Lake, we had but one horse and one mule remaining, and they so poor, they could scarcely carry the little camp equipage we had with us. The balance of the horses we were compelled to eat as they gave out.

(3) Thomas L. Kane, The Mormons (1850)

The shores of the Salt Lake are infested by a sort of insect pest, which claims a vile resemblance to the locust of the Syrian Dead Sea. Wingless, dumpy, black, swollen-headed, with bulging eyes in cases like goggles, mounted upon legs of steel wire and clock-spring, and with a general appearance that justified the Mormons in comparing him to a cross of the spider on the buffalo, the Deseret cricket comes down from the mountains at a certain season of the year, in voracious and desolating myriads. It was just at this season, that the first crops of the new settlers were in the full glory of their youthful green. The assailants could not be repulsed. The Mormons, after their fashion, prayed and fought, and fought and prayed, but to no purpose. The "Black Philistines" mowed their way even with the ground, leaving it as if touched with an acid or burnt by fire.