How did the myth of the lack of trees in the Salt Lake Valley of 1847 start?
Richard Jackson, professor of geography at Brigham Young University, said that idea developed in later years, probably for three reasons:
"First, as the settlers celebrated the 24th of July, the oratory often included a certain amount of hyperbole about the magnitude of the trip across the plains, settling and developing the Salt Lake Valley, etc. As with most reminiscences, the story tends to grow with the retelling, so the Salt Lake Valley became ever more arid in those accounts," he said.
"Secondly, by the 1850s and 1860s when these myths became common, the only land not being farmed or built upon was in fact the worst land that was more arid and so later arrivals concluded that the entire valley found in 1847 by the pioneers was basically the same as the remaining marginal lands in the valley.
"Thirdly, as Brigham Young and the leaders encouraged the settlers to go south to Dixie, etc., the idea that Salt Lake Valley was a treeless desert implied that the farms and city that the settlers had developed with the help of the Lord could be replicated in the more marginal sites he was encouraging settlers to move to," Jackson concluded.
The late Stanley Kimball, a Utah historian, once said he also believed it came about after the desirable valley filled up — consciously or subconsciously to foster the idea that it had been tamed and to encourage people to settle in Dixie and other frontier areas.
Besides paintings, the biggest myth supporter is perhaps the "Lone Cedar Tree" monument in Salt Lake City, in the median on the south side of the intersection at 600 E. 300 South.
The Daughters of the Utah Pioneers erected this monument on Pioneer Day in 1934 to what was supposedly the only cedar tree in the valley when the 1847 pioneers arrived. Some original pioneers are reputed to have sung hymns and prayed by the tree.
One problem with that story is that the pioneers followed the Donner Party trail to about 1700 South, then headed to a small grove of cottonwood trees near today's 300 S. State Street — missing the "Lone Cedar Tree."
Vandals cut the Lone Cedar Tree down on Sept. 21, 1958. A related controversy ensued with the DUP when the media said the tree's status was a fraud anyway. (Ashes from the stolen cedar tree were purportedly found later in a Greyhound bus depot locker.)
A new plaque was added to the monument in 1960 and is still there today — for anyone to see and decide from themselves if the tree's legendary status holds merit.