I've been wanting to do this story for Strangerville for like two years but I didn't get around to it until now because tv and lazy. This story about a legendary tree in Salt Lake City and the controversy around its history and the drama and debates about it is wild and amazing.
Please enjoy. I've also included the text of the story below, in case you hate the sound of my voice.
This time in Strangerville, people wait for the Second Coming of JFK, Meg is not willing to do her own historical research, and the story, and DRAMA, of a legendary tree that some say shaded the Mormon pioneers.
The "Lone" Cedar Tree, by Eli McCann (music by Alena Smirnova)
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The "Lone" Cedar Tree
The year is 1847. Mormon pioneers nearing the end of their second decade of rounds of relocation have departed Nauvoo Illinois just following the death of their church founder and spiritual leader. They are trekking across the desert planes of the mountain west. Their new leader, a stout man, five-foot-ten, his iconic beard blowing in the wind—this is Brigham Young, and he’s taken the reigns and the majority of the practicing Mormons with him on a quest to find a new plot of Earth, far away from the patrol of an unfriendly federal government. He’s promised this group to lead them to a new land of milk and honey. He’s modern day Moses-ing hundreds of covered wagons and men, women, and children on foot through the harsh desert summer sun.
Wherever they land, it must happen in time to harvest a crop and prepare for winter.
On July 24, they immerge from a deep Wasatch mountain canyon, since name “Emigration” because of this very event.
The legend or story or gospel truth, whatever you choose to believe, goes like this: Brigham had a vision before leaving Illinois in which he saw a place where the Mormons would eventually and permanently settle—a desert place that the pioneers would make “blossom like a rose.”
On that particular July 24 summer day in Emigration Canyon, Brigham, afflicted with Rocky Mountain spotted fever, was lying in the back of a wagon. As they emerged into the Salt Lake valley, the large body of water off in the distance to the right, Brigham looked at this oval bowl shaped valley surrounded on nearly all sides by dramatic mountain ranges. There he saw mountain streams carving small ravines, like veins running through an arm, meeting down at the low and middle point of the valley to feed what would become known as the Jordan River—it was there, in full view of the seemingly-empty expanse of land that Brigham reportedly said to those close enough to hear him, “It is enough. This is the right place. Drive on.”
The mountain desert landscape looked quite different from the green and humid climate the Mormons had recently abandoned. Instead of dense forest and unlimited water supplies, they found finite snow runoff water and sage brush. One notable exception: a large cedar tree located just blocks from what would become the city’s center point—Temple Square. Legend states that this was the only tree growing in the large valley, and it quickly became known, lovingly, as the Lone Cedar Tree. A story would pass down through the generations that the pioneers wandered in the direction of that tree, stopped below its branches, prayed and sang hymns, and then finished their trek a few blocks west where they set up camp.
Discovery of later accounts undermined the claims that this was the only tree in the valley. One 1847 pioneer named John Young wrote that when he entered the valley with the other migrants, he spotted “seven, wind swept, scraggy cottonwood trees and one oak tree” near a creek that ran mere blocks from the location of old Lone Cedar. Another account from September 1847, just two months after the pioneers arrived in the valley, records Brigham Young cautioning the settlers from cutting down the trees along the creeks throughout the valley: “in selecting your firewood,” he said, “it will be wisdom to choose that which is dry and not suitable for timber of any kind, and we wish all the green timber and shrubbery in the city to remain as it is.”
Where did these rumors that the valley had only one tree come from? Richard Jackson, a BYU professor wrote in the 1970s, “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 became ever more arid in those accounts. Secondly, by the 1850s and 1860s when these myths became more 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.”
Historians have discounted the rumors that the first pioneers stopped by the Lone Cedar Tree before setting up camp, as well, noting that the pioneers were following the Donner Party trail, which the Donner Party had forged just one year before. The Donner Party Trail would have not brought them within a mile of the Tree.
Nonetheless, legend tells us that the Lone Cedar Tree quickly became a notable landmark and gathering place for the new settlers. Children would play under its branches. Lovers would make out in the shade. Secret meetings by community leaders were held at the Tree’s base.
Eventually the tree died, although no one seems to know roughly when. This includes perhaps the Tree’s most loyal friend, an organization known as The Daughters of Utah Pioneers. The Daughters of Utah Pioneers was organized in 1901; the objective of this women’s organization: to preserve the history of the pioneers who settled this Deseret land, now known as Utah. The Daughters of Utah Pioneers had gone about preserving relics, manuscripts, photographs, and landmarks. They wandered the Salt Lake Valley, finding anything that might matter. Eventually they set their sights on the remnants of the Old Cedar Tree sitting sad, ignored, and half rotted in its once prominent spot.
A 1924 article in the Salt Lake Telegram reported on the group’s plans to protect the Lone Cedar Tree’s remnants and memory. The headline: “Old Cedar Post Object of reverence Daughters of Pioneers Take Interest Fence to Protect it from Vandals.”
“Seclusion and protection from an annoying world are rewards merited by old age,” the article begins. “Even a tree, in its declining years, would register objection to slaps and pats or the curious and vigorous jabs from sturdy but well-meant boots could it only talk.” The article explained that “how long since old cedar was a sapling and how long it stood there before first looked upon by white man cannot be determined, but that some of the gravest secrets connected with the building of the great empire of Zion is locked up somewhere in its heart is not a matter of conjecture.”
The dead tree would be fenced and protected. But that proved to be not enough.
Just a decade later, in 1934, the tree, or what was left of it, was moved a very short distance, into a center pavilion of a road at present day 600 E and between 300 and 400 South in Salt Lake City. The shriveled ten-or-so-foot stump sat under a cupola, built over it to protect it from the elements. A plaque placed at the base of the tree by the Daughters of Utah Pioneers stated “Over this road the pioneers of 1847 and subsequent years entered the valley of the Great Salt Sea. They found growing near this site a lone cedar and paused beneath its shade. Songs were sung and prayers of gratitude were offered by those early pilgrims. Later the cedar tree became a meeting place for the loggers going to the canyons. Children played beneath its branches. Lovers made it a trysting place. Because of its friendly influence on the lives of these early men and women we dedicate this site to their memory.”
The monument sat untouched and largely ignored. The origins and legend were disputed although still taught to local school children. And it remained that way for over two decades when suddenly, late at night on September 21, 1958, vandals cut down most of the remainder of the tree and took it away, leaving only a 20-inch stump. The Daughters president, Katy Carter, responded in sadness and outrage, explaining how devastating it was that what they had fought so hard to preserve had been taken from everyone—how discouraging it was when “vandals come along and tear down our good work.”
A Deseret News reporter quickly contacted the director of the Utah Historical Society, Russ Mortensen, asking him about the vandalization and whether he believed the Lone Cedar Tree truly was the only tree in the valley in 1847. Mortensen allegedly responded, “Hell no, do you?”
To the offense of the Daughters of Utah Pioneers, an article followed, mocking the illegitimacy of the efforts to protect the rotting stump of an old insignificant desert tree. The article claimed the head of the Historical Society, Mortenson, had gone so far as to call the Lone Cedar Tree a “historical fraud” and “a dead stump with little historical value.” The comments ignited a vicious battle between Carter and Mortensen, with Carter leading the Daughters to successfully demand that the Historical Society’s board denounce and censure Mortensen for his attacks on the Lone Cedar Tree. Carter and Mortensen apparently made up at some point, as Mortensen later wrote Carter’s obituary twenty years later, in 1976, calling her “a great and noble lady.”
Soon after the disappearance, Salt Lake Tribune Editor Art Decker received an anonymous phone call, telling him to check a Greyhound bus depot locker for the remnants of the tree. There he found a sack full of tree ashes—a mere ghost of Old Cedar. No culprit was ever found—no motive ever made known. The residents of Salt Lake City were left only with the knowledge that someone cared enough to destroy a harmless monument.
In 1960, two years after the vandalization, the remaining portion of the stump was encased in a new monument, stuck on top of a concrete pedestal that was placed under the cupola. Years later the stump disappeared, having been sawed off of the monument.
Today, Lone Cedar Tree deniers question whether the tree ever even existed in the first place.
The Daughters of Utah Pioneers never really stopped defending the importance of The Lone Cedar Tree’s legacy, even if the tree is now gone and most people have stopped listening. In a 2006 Deseret News op ed, then chairwoman of the Daughters of Utah Pioneers Dawna Thayne wrote, “even though only the monument and plaques remain under the cupola, the memory of the ‘Lone Cedar Tree’ lives on to help future generations appreciate the history of those early pioneers. Let’s not assume something is a myth just because someone living generations past the time of the event decides that it is.”
Today, the remnants of a monument once cared about and for still sit in the same 600 E central pavilion. The grass grown around it is largely neglected. Weeds have sprouted through bare places. Some trees line the sides of the streets. Old pioneer homes in various states of disrepair that face the decaying monument are continually being crowded out by rising apartment complexes.
In 2014 while house-hunting I visited one of these homes, discovering in it a hidden door at the back of an upstairs closet that led to a secret room. In the secondary room was an old trunk, filled with newspapers 100 or more years old. From a small window I could look down the street and see the top of the structure of The Old Cedar Tree monument.
I had heard rumors that some late 19th century Salt Lake homes had secret spaces, built for Mormon pioneers who practiced polygamy to hide from investigating federal agents. I perused the newspapers and glanced at the monument out the window, wondering if this was one of those secret spaces, built probably sometime around the death of the Lone Cedar Tree. This house, and those that surround it would have seen the erection of the protective monument. They would have seen the vandalization. They would have seen the Daughters of Utah Pioneers gather there, perhaps in tears, nearly 70 years ago to mourn the loss of what to them mattered.
Today, the structure that once protected the dead stump is rusted and ignored by passing vehicles. The old plaque from 1934 is now missing, having recently been pried from its concrete base in front of the pedestal that once held the rotting wood a tree that apparently held the pioneer secrets in its heart.
On the concrete pedestal is another plaque, placed in 1960. It’s a plaque explaining the other plaque in a way. A monument honoring the monument. Its language comes from a place of hurt, sadness, and maybe even defensiveness. It’s written by the Daughters of Utah Pioneers—their intended final word on the scandal that undermined their quest for reverence of something that clearly mattered to someone.
“LONE CEDAR TREE” this secondary plaque states in all caps. “Although willows grew along the banks of the streams a Lone Cedar Tree near this spot became Utah’s first famous landmark. Someone in a moment of thoughtlessness cut it down, leaving only the stump which is a part of this monument. ‘In the glory of my prime I was the pioneer’s friend.’”
The old monument exists now perhaps less as an honor to a tree with a disputed history and more as a preservation of a 20thcentury battle between historians. Like the stump of the Lone Cedar Tree, it is ghost of something that was once real, trying desperately to keep a foot in a world that doesn’t seem interested in remembering it. The tree, and then the monument to the tree, and then the monument to the monument are like us, in a way; generation replacing generation and trying to preserve the story of its forebearer, however imperfectly or inaccurately. Each new iteration of the storytelling seems to accept that that the origin story may not be complete or fully true, but that doesn’t mean would should stop trying to tell it.
An article by Kari M. Main and published at juvenilehistory.org on the topic argues: “In the end, the story is not about the tree: it is about the women assigning meaning to the tree. . . . Fact may be stranger than fiction, but fiction seems more enduring.”