A pioneer dugout, no humbler home

A pioneer dugout replica and monument were built in 1999 to honor of the valiant souls who survived the first winter in Manti. In the spring, as the weather warmed, hundreds of rattlesnakes came out of the rocks and went into every nook and cranny of the dugouts and caves where the pioneers had taken shelter. No person was bitten, but some animals weren't so lucky.

Near the Manti Temple of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is an obscure structure which contrasts dramatically in comparison with the prominent religious building. It is a small earthen and log replica of a pioneer dugout, and like the originals, has actually been carved into the hillside on which the temple now stands.

To visit the site is an easy stroll along the sidewalk extending east on 400 North immediately south of the pageant seating area. Tours of the primitive little abode are available each night of pageant from 5 to 9 p.m. The volunteer guides can provide information about the setting—the history of “Temple Hill.”

The story is a fascinating one because it’s hard to imagine what human existence must have been like over a century-and-a-half ago in the valleys which the pioneers settled.

The modes of travel and the time involved making a journey, would be so foreign to what is so common now. A try at life in 1850, for even the most passionate of 21st century horse lovers or seasoned historic trail riders, would likely result in severe culture shock and serious physical strain.

The region was isolated and differed remarkably from what many travelers, contemporaries to the period but fresh from “back east,” would have termed “civilized.” Nevertheless, diverse peoples did inhabit the land and made from it an existence.

Several thousand Native Americans lived in the Great Basin vicinity, most roaming in modest sized bands from one seasonal camp to another according to the harmony of nature and the traditions of their culture.

They were the keepers of ancient pathways, always following the sacred paths of their forefathers, the poles from their horse drawn travois freshly grading and ever widening the future road. These wilderness trails would also be used later by explorers and wagon companies.

The remaining mountain men, rugged characters on horseback, had by this time been compelled to largely abandon trapping due to economic and environmental changes. Now, thoroughly adapted to a life between their present and their past, some had taken an Indian wife and had children.

Somewhat settled down, they existed as traders between the worlds they knew. A unique breed of men, they could maneuver with ease along the bypaths and trails, alone or in small groups, almost always followed by their pack animals in tow.

An unusual population center, now going into its third year of settlement, continued to grow at a place called “the valley of the Great Salt Lake.” Furthermore, a small fort had been established about forty-five miles south near the shore of Utah Lake.

Relations there, between the native Timpanogas band of the Ute people and the “Mormonee” settlers, were seriously strained from the beginning and had recently resulted in bloodshed on both sides.

In late spring of 1849, Wakara, the most notable war chief in the Ute nation at the time, had arrived with a group of men from his council to speak with Brigham Young.

Respected for his bravery and physical strength, Wakara’s reputation and powerful influence was felt throughout a vast region encompassing the Rocky Mountains southward to Santa Fe and at San Xavier del Bac, outside of Tucson.

His name was known at the missions along the Pacific coast, as Wakara’s raids for horses had been especially hard on the Mexican ranches of southern California. In addition, he was notorious for supporting the Indian slave trade carrying captives both directions on the Old Spanish Trail.

Wakara approached Brigham Young as an equal and requested that Young send some of his people to settle in the “Sanpeech” Valley to live among and teach members of his tribe. Young agreed to the Indian leader’s request.

That year in August, Young sent a small contingency to investigate the area and they returned with a favorable report. At the October Conference of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints the names of fifty families were called on a colonizing mission.

The selected families left the following month, traveling on a trail previously traversed by native people, Spaniards, mountain men, and most recently, gold seekers bound for California.

The first company of these pioneers called to settle the Sanpete Valley cut east off from the California road and made their way up Salt Creek Canyon. Although a well-worn trail existed, progress for wagons was impeded as the company had to improve the road and cross the stream at several different places.

Between Nov. 18 and 22, the party’s scattered wagons stretched from Uintah Springs (Fountain Green) to Shumway Springs (south of Ephraim) and finally reached the prominent hill on the north edge of present-day Manti.

The group’s leader, Isaac Morley, a venerable and highly-esteemed individual, had significant experience behind him. A veteran of the War of 1812 and a Massachusetts man by birth, Morley helped fulfill America’s vision of Manifest Destiny from Ohio to Missouri, Illinois, Iowa, Nebraska and now on lands recently disputed between Mexico and the U.S.

More importantly to the people whom he led, “Father Morley” had stared death in the face on a number of occasions as he was beaten and tarred and feathered by men attempting to intimidate and force him to deny his faith. He had stood resolute.

Upon arrival at the site designated for their settlement, members of the group immediately set to work preparing homes for winter. Due to the lateness of the season, individuals worked together to dig out and then construct earthen and log homes on the south face of the hillside.

The next several months were eventful but space does not permit a recounting of detail, which ranged from assisting a major exploration of hundreds of miles to the south, to an introduction to Ute culture and relations.

The overriding experience for the group, however, was one of enduring an incredibly difficult winter consisting of more than three feet of snow on the valley floor; the newcomers constantly yearning for the arrival of spring.

May of 1850 could not have been greeted with greater joy. It was a happy time for some because they could finally pack up and leave. And perhaps it was a happier time for the rest to see the malcontents go.

Complainers had a hard time fitting into the type of close-knit community that was necessary to build a settlement in such a remote and forbidding place. Wagons rolled out amidst the scattered remnants of carcasses, reminders of the scores of cattle lost during the unusually hard winter.

Those determined to stay were probably breaking the virgin soil as their old associates left. Perhaps within earshot came the frantic screams and shrill cries from women and children who discovered the first wave of hundreds of venomous snakes slithering from the ledges down into their dugout homes.

War ensued against the rattler, and with motivation and determination renewed, trees were felled for the construction of cabins. Neighbor helped neighbor to erect more permanent homes farther south some distance from the hill.

The pioneers’ goal was fixed to accomplish the task Brother Brigham had given them. Before long, other wagons with like-minded men and women and children arrived to help fortify the vulnerable and struggling settlement.

It would be the first Euro-American community established south of Provo to southern Arizona and it survived.

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