This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2011, and information in the article may be outdated.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.
Last week, Congressman Jason Chaffetz proposed to "return to private ownership" 5 million acres of federal land in the West.
The word "return" caught my attention. Before the United States owned Utah's land, it was the property of Mexico, which had inherited it from Spain, which had been deeded the area by the Pope in Rome, who (I'm sure this was an oversight) failed to consult the actual inhabitants with actual moccasins on the ground.
The Mormon pioneers arrived here as squatters, first on Mexican, then on American, soil. Land apportioned by Brigham Young and the LDS Church to the early pioneers was only reconciled to federal law in 1869, when Congress established a land office in Utah to sort things out.
Federal ownership of large portions of the state was later enshrined in the Utah Constitution, probably as a condition of statehood.
So the federal land that Chaffetz hopes to "return" to private ownership hasn't been in private hands for centuries unless he's thinking of the original inhabitants who had, at best, a hazy notion of private property.
No one in Congress is seriously thinking about giving away anything these days. But I thought I would do an historical title search anyway, just to see if it was possible to unearth the original owners.
Who were the real discoverers and original American pioneers? There had to have been a paleo-Columbus discoverer and a proto-Brigham Young who led his tribe to settle in Utah. Of course, without written records we'll never know these particular stories. But tools and the remains of meals can tell us where and when people were, even if they can't say what the person munching on mammoth looked liked.
A site in Texas has yielded 15,000-year-old stone tools. Recent research on a 14,000-year-old mammoth from Washington state confirmed that the animal had been pierced by a human-crafted spear point.
Several places in Arizona and New Mexico show that people were there 13,000 years ago with the latest in technology the Clovis spear point, which was elegantly grooved to make it stronger than previous spear points.
Caves not far from Wendover on the Utah/Nevada border sheltered people 11,000 years ago.
In between, the landscape had radically altered.
The first Americans were greeted by short-faced bears (half again as large as the biggest grizzly), mammoths, mastodons, giant beavers, dire wolves, saber-toothed tigers, camels, horses, musk ox, giant sloths and other exotic mammals. The first humans to the Salt Lake Valley would not have seen it, since 15,000 years ago it was buried under 1,000 feet of Lake Bonneville.
By the time of the move into Danger Cave outside of Wendover, people were surviving on rabbits. The aforementioned megafauna were extinct and the Great Salt Lake was rapidly receding to its present dimensions. The ice age was over.
Sometimes evidence turns up that can tell us who these people were. In 1996, remains of a 50ish man with a spear point in his hip were found in Washington state.
Dubbed Kennewick Man, he was 10,000 years old. Anthropologists set off an ongoing firestorm when their studies indicated that Kennewick Man may not be related to American Indians, who were perhaps part of a later migration.
So where does this leave us re: the Original Owners? Without more rare finds like Kennewick Man, it is like trying to see the bottom of a very deep well. The story is probably complicated, with more comings and goings over 15,000 years than you can shake a stick at.
One thing is clear; when public lands are privatized, no trespassing signs will be posted where people were free to camp and tramp and recreate for millennia.
Pat Bagley is the political cartoonist for The Salt Lake Tribune. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.