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Living History: Archaeologists connect us to our past

Published June 24, 2011 9:47 pm
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2011, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Who discovered the Great Salt Lake?

Jim Bridger is usually cited in history texts as the first to stand on its shore, though he didn't know it. When he tasted the salty waters, he thought he had found the Pacific.

But there are other, earlier claimants. An Englishman named Lawrence may have seen it on the way to California in 1790. Mexicans who came with Fathers Dominguez and Escalante in 1776 may have later returned to trade. A French trapper, Martin LeCarne is said to have left his name carved in cave by the lake in 1760. Etienne Provost certainly made it as far as Utah Lake, so why not a bit farther?

So who was the first to see the Great Salt Lake? It's a trick question: no one knows. The first man or woman to lay eyes on the Great Salt Lake perhaps 14,000 years ago is a mystery, mostly because they didn't know how to write home about it yet.

And there's the rub. History is written by those who know how to write. It's easy to forget the earliest 600 generations of Utahns when they didn't leave letters, deeds or journals for historians to root around in. The most recent six generations hog the historical spotlight. A recent online comment at sltrib.com wryly noted that "I was taught in Jr. High that all of Utah's history before 1847 happened in places like New York, Illinois and Missouri."

The scientific study of prehistory, literally the period before written records, is a relatively recent development. Mormon pioneers brought with them a ready-made history of Utah and its native inhabitants that had been penned on gold plates and miraculously recovered.

When a curious copper coin was found by a Manti farmer in 1860, he accepted the Deseret News' expert analysis that the coin was a 1,765 year-old Nephite senine, or farthing, with the following inscription: "The King, Hagagadonihah, over the kingdom near the sea west, sends to all greeting: one senine."

For those who prefer a little intellectual rigor with their prehistory, there are archaeologists. Like detectives from "CSI," they deploy an array of disciplines to tease out the story from mute objects. Geology, anthropology, climatology, chemistry and plant and animal biology, are just some of the sciences they use to read the past.

Thanks to their diligence and dedication, we know that the human history of Utah began at the end of the last ice age, about 14,000 years ago. The story involves mammoths, caves, the edge of survival, human innovation and a changing climate. Domesticated animals and plants make their entrance, as does cultural flowering, invention and commerce.

The story also has death and murder; archaeology sometimes becomes genuine forensic sleuthing into the dark recesses of the human soul.

This last week the state took a wrecking ball to the tiny office of Utah antiquities, firing three of five employees. The excuse was fiscal necessity, though here's betting there are plenty in the pave-it-if-it-doesn't-move caucus of the Utah Legislature who are happy to see them go.

Whether or not the act was vindictive, it was dumb. In military parlance, the state archaeologists act as "force multipliers." When construction turns up a mammoth in Sandy or a lost pioneer cemetery in Salt Lake City, the state archaeologists marshal the experts and volunteers to make sure the job is done quickly and correctly. Without these archaeologists and their years of professional contacts, the job, if it is done at all, may be hurried and sloppy. Whole chapters in our history will be lost.

Lacking a time machine to travel to prehistoric Utah, the best we have are archaeologists who know how to read the disappearing scraps of our heritage and help us imagine that lost world.

By the way, when the Great Salt Lake was first eyed 14,000 or so years ago, it wasn't the puddle it is now. The lake that stretched into Idaho and down to Cedar City was 1,000 feet deep at Salt Lake and was home to trout the size of German shepherds. Close your eyes and imagine fly fishing at the foot of the massive Big Cottonwood Glacier. You could have at one time. Or so the archaeologists tell us.

Pat Bagley is the editorial cartoonist for The Salt Lake Tribune. Contact him at bagley@sltrib.com.




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