- Historic Sites
This Is The Place
Retracing the Pioneer Trail in Mormon Utah
April 1993 | Volume 44, Issue 2
When the pioneers died, they were buried in cemeteries just outside town—on bluffs, in pine groves or grassy meadows. Today these plots, fenced off and well tended, are also fixtures of the Mormon landscape. The gravestones often contain evidence of plural marriages (a husband buried together with a number of wives), high infant mortality, and death from violence as well as scraps of Mormon theology. In Spring City, where the cemetery boundaries form an outline of Utah, the inscription on the gravestone of James Meek, who was killed by Indians in 1866, reflects the Mormon belief in a celestial afterlife: “Dear is the Spot Where Father Sleeps/ His memory lives for evermore/Why should we in anguish weep/He is not dead but gone before.”
As I waited in the entry of the 1854 Beehive House, Brigham . Young’s principal residence in Salt Lake City, for the tour to start, a woman in our group raised her hand and asked our guide how many wives the Mormon leader had.
The guide answered correctly: twenty-seven. We know that now, but in his own time the question was the source of endless speculation. Young himself was exasperatingly vague on the subject, so visitors often resorted to counting doors and windows in his houses and extrapolating from there. The humorist Artemus Ward wrote, “I undertook to count the long stockings, on the clothes-line, in his back yard one day, and I used up the multiplication table in less than half an hour.”
With its widow’s walk, cupola, and porches, the Beehive House would not look out of place on a New England common, and, in fact, one of Brigham Young’s visitors, Sir Richard Burton, compared its arrangement to that of a New England household on a large scale. The house is furnished comfortably and tastefully but without ostentation, and a family store in the northeast corner, where a pamphlet about the house explains that “the storekeeper dispensed with fairness the foods and materials for each of the families of Brigham Young,” is one indication that this is not an ordinary home. A photograph, taken about 1873, shows Young, old now, gripping a cane, his dark suit baggy and ill-fitting. Still, behind a fringe of white beard there is the resolute square jaw and the look of a visionary in his eyes.
Although it is Joseph Smith who is immortalized in sphinx form in Gilgal Garden, it was Young who brought the pioneers to the Salt Lake Valley, and the city is unique in America as being one man’s creation. Even Fort Douglas (now partly a military museum), the U.S. Army post on the hills above the city, was established in 1862 as a direct challenge to the power Brigham Young wielded in Zion.
The historical as well as the spiritual center of the faith is Temple Square in Salt Lake City. Young marked the spot only a few days after the Saints had arrived in the valley by striking the ground with his cane and decreeing that the city “be laid out perfectly square, north and south, east and west.”
Today Temple Square, surrounded by fifteen-foot walls, is a refuge in a busy city and one of the great public gardens in the country. (Its flower beds bloom so profusely and continuously that visitors often assume, incorrectly, that they are heated by underground pipes.) All three important buildings in Temple Square were built at Brigham Young’s behest: the great Salt Lake City Temple, completed forty years to the day after ground was broken in 1853; the Tabernacle, with its world-famous acoustics; and Assembly Hall, a Gothic jewel on the south side that Young ordered built three weeks before he died in 1877.
Young was vague on the number of his wives, so visitors counted doors and windows in his houses and guessed.
Just outside the walls of Temple Square, in the middle of the intersection of Main and South Temple streets, a twenty-five-foot-tall bronze statue of Brigham Young surveys the scene. It is the work of the Paris-trained Mormon sculptor Cyrus E. Dallin, commissioned for the Utah Jubilee in 1897. Brigham Young’s pose—his back to the temple, his hand toward a bank—delighted those enemies who were critical of the fortune that the Profit, as they called him, had amassed in Utah.
Brigham Young’s compound included the Lion House, a thick-walled adobe structure (still standing and used for church functions) that he built in 1856 to house various wives and children, as well as a gristmill, granaries, a schoolhouse, and other buildings. A small cemetery, once part of the compound, is now the separate Pioneer Memorial Park, where Brigham Young was buried, according to his wishes, on September 3, 1877: ”… there let my earthly house or tabernacle rest in peace.”