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Fremont Island has short, colorful history

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FREMONT ISLAND — The Great Salt Lake's third-largest island has relatively little recorded history, but what it has is colorful.

Mostly uninhabited during its existence, Fremont Island has been the place of exile for a notorious Salt Lake grave robber and is home to what may be Utah's oldest existing cross.

John C. Fremont and his party were the first white men to visit the island on Sept. 9, 1843, hoping to find an exotic paradise. Instead, Fremont reported finding little grass and no trees, water or animals. He named it "Disappointment Island."

On that day, Kit Carson and some other men climbed the highest peak on the island, Castle Rock, and carved a small cross into a nearby rock formation. The cross, about 7 inches by 3 inches, survives with only the slightest aging apparent.

Seven years later, Capt. Howard Stansbury, during his survey of the Great Salt Lake, visited the island and renamed it Fremont Island.

Some 10 years after Fremont's visit, the island hosted sheep owned by Henry, Jacob and Dan Miller and for a short time was called "Miller's Island." During the time the Millers had sheep on the island, a Salt Lake City Cemetery grave digger named Jean Baptiste was banished to the island.

Baptiste had the ghoulish habit of stripping the dead of clothing and jewelry before he closed their graves. He was discovered when a body was exhumed for burial elsewhere and was found to be naked, although the man had been buried dressed in a suit.

Citizen outrage caused authorities to banish Baptiste to Fremont Island. The Millers had a small cabin stocked with food, and Baptiste was sent there to spend the rest of his life. When authorities checked on Baptiste after six weeks, they found wood taken from the cabin and no trace of Baptiste. They surmised he had made a raft and floated away. He was never seen again and may have drowned in his escape attempt.

In the 1880s, a Salt Lake probate judge, U.J. Wenner, and his family moved to the island and built a house of stone. After five years, Wenner died and his widow, Kate, buried him on the island. She left Fremont Island and remarried, but when she died 51 years later her daughter buried her ashes next to her husband. The grave site is still visible, but the remains of the stone house have been demolished by vandals.

In 1997 the island was put up for sale by its current owners, the Richards family of Salt Lake City, who bought it in 1960 with the idea of developing it for recreational use. They were unable to sell the land and have now leased it for 12 years to Castle Rock Adventures.

E-MAIL: lweist@desnews.com