EXPLORATIONS IN SKULL VALLEY – Part Three
“I wanted to be the first to view a country on which the eyes of a white man had never gazed and to follow the course of rivers that run through a new land.”
Who really entered Skull Valley first is a question. I’m sure there were many trappers and explorers back in the day who traveled many places but never got credit because they didn’t document it well or get published.
There are legends of an old Spanish iron mine at the base of one of the pole canyons in the Stansbury Mountains. Although there was no real reason for early trappers, who rendezvoused in what is now Northern Utah, to visit Skull Valley, it is possible they knew of the place and had been there.
One of the things that is so enticing about Skull Valley today is its close proximity to Salt Lake and Tooele Valleys. It is a place where you can still experience some of the same thrill the early explorers did on first sight of a land that is un populated, pretty in its own way, and somewhat ghastly at the same time.
It is a land that is relatively the same as it has been for thousands of years, which makes pondering the past here an enjoyable thing. A walk through the sagebrush, across the rocky knolls of the low Cedar Mountains, or through the junipers on the periphery, will provide you with silence and sunshine, both of which are valuable commodities these days.
What is considered to be the first documented entry into the valley, by persons other than the Indians who lived there, is that of iron man explorer Jedidiah Smith. This gentleman is so fascinating that I have to go into some detail on him. Smith was born on Jan. 6, 1799. As a young boy he had read the journals of Lewis and Clark, and was so interested by them that he resolved to live a life in the wilderness. By age 22, he was a member of General William Ashely’s party and trapping beaver on the upper Missouri River.
Jedidiah was an interesting mountain man because he did not drink or smoke and was religious. To give you an idea of how incredible this guy was, consider the following story from Emily Zimmerman’s University of Virginia Project on early explorers:
“On his second expedition, Smith was attacked by a bear. The bear came out of a thicket and mauled Smith violently, knocking him to the ground, smashing his ribs and literally tearing off his scalp to where it hung only by an ear. Smith instructed fellow expedition member Jim Clyman to sew it back on and he did the best he could. Clyman didn’t believe the ear could be saved but Smith insisted he keep trying. In his journal Clyman states “I put my needle sticking it through over and over laying the lacerated parts together as nice I could with my hands.” After two weeks of resting, Smith was back in command of the expedition.
Lots of people today are out of work a day or two for a snivel. Imagine having your scalp ripped off and ribs smashed way out in the wilderness and then having your buddy piece you back together and then continue your mission. That is truly amazing stuff.
What interests us here in Tooele County is the fact that Smith came through this area in 1827. While on his first expedition, he and his crew decided to take a more direct route back to Bear Lake from California, so they struck out across the Great Basin, crossing range after bleak range and valley after valley, until they finally reached the foot of the Deep Creek Mountains.
The little party rejoiced because they thought they were at the foot of the Wasatch Mountains near the Great Salt Lake, but when they realized their error and that they were in fact staring across the Great Salt Lake Desert, the mood was somber.
Their route was across the salt flats by way of the northern tip of Granite Mountain. They literally got roasted, baked and dried out while crossing the desert. By the time they reached Skull Valley, one of their party, a Robert Evans, laid down under the shade of a small cedar and stated he could go no further.
This story is told nicely by famed Utah Historian Dale L. Morgan in his book, “Jedidiah Smith and the opening of the West,” from which the following excerpt is taken. It picks up from where Evans laid down under the tree in Jedidiah’s words:
“We could do no good by remaining to die with him and we were not able to help him along but we left him with feelings of those who have been in the same situation and with hope that we might get relief and return in time to save his life. The mountains were apparently not far off and we left him and proceeded onward in the hope of finding water.
“After traveling about 3 miles, we came to the foot of the mountain and there to our inexpressible joy we found water. Goble plunged into it at once and I could not wait to bathe my burning forehead before I was pouring it down regardless of consequences.
“Just before we arrived at the spring I saw two Indians traveling in the direction in which Evans was left, and soon after the report of two guns was heard in quick succession. This considerably increased our apprehension for his safety, but shortly after a smoke was seen back on the trail and I took a small kettle and some meat and going back found him safe.
“He had not seen the Indians and had discharged his gun to direct me where he lay, and for the same purpose had raised a smoke. He was indeed far gone and being scarcely able to speak. When I came the first question he asked me was, “Have you any water?” I told him I had plenty and handed him the kettle, which would hold six or seven quarts in which there was some meat mixed in the water. O says he, why did you bring the meat? And putting the kettle to his mouth he did not take it away until he had drank all of the water, of which there was at least 4 or 5 quarts and then he asked me why I had not brought more.”
These events took place somewhere in Skull Valley on June 25, 1827.
When I drive down the valley on state Route 196, as I approach Dugway Proving Ground, I often look towards the Stansbury and Onaqui Mountains across the plain and wonder which spring it was that saved Smith and his companions. If you are ever out in this desert in the summertime, or wintertime for that matter, ask yourself how long you would last and how far you think you would get on foot with little or no water. These men were truly amazing.
In next week’s article, I will describe my trek to the summit of the Cedar Mountains on the western edge of Skull Valley in the footsteps of another incredible explorer: John C. Fremont.