The Stansbury Expedition

The episode originally aired May 9, 2008,
This episode’s audio file may be found at
© 2008 Utah Humanities Council

The Script:

One hundred and fifty-nine years ago, officials of the US Army’s Corps of Topographical Engineers sent Captain Howard Stansbury on a expedition to the Great Basin with a long list of orders.   At the top of the Army’s list was a complete survey of the Great Salt Lake, the Jordan River, and Utah Lake.  The Captain left this part of his mission in the capable hands of his second-in-command, Lieutenant John Gunnison.  But the survey was only one small piece of what Stansbury’s superiors hoped he would accomplish.  They also ordered the captain to assess the Great Salt Lake’s navigability, study the Mormons and local Indian tribes, locate a site for a military post in the region, and find a wagon road between Fort Hall on the Oregon Trail and the Great Salt Lake Valley, daunting tasks for a mere mortal.

Perhaps Stansbury’s greatest accomplishment was his circumnavigation of the Great Salt Lake by land.  Taking five men and sixteen mules, the captain set out around the lake, occasionally passing, as he put it “thousands of acres” of land covered with wild ducks and geese.  The lake, with its barren rocky islands, intrigued the men of the party.  It had a rough hewn beauty about it, but Stansbury also was quick to compare it and its desolate setting to the “stillness of the grave.”  “I was surprised to find,” wrote the captain, “although so near a body of the saltiest water, none of that feeling of invigorating freshness which is always experienced when in the vicinity of the ocean.”  “The bleak and naked shores,” Stansbury continued, “without a single tree to relieve the eye, presented a scene so different from what I pictured in my imagination of the beauties of this far-famed spot, that my disappointment was extreme.”  After four weeks of skirting the lake’s shores, Stansbury finally returned to Salt Lake City, claiming to have led the first party of white men around the lake’s entire perimeter.


For local newspaper traces of the Stansbury Expedition see the August 10 and August 31, 1850, editions of the Deseret News.  Also see David L. Bigler, Forgotten Kingdom: The Mormon Theocracy in the American West, 1847-1896 (Logan: Utah State University Press, 1998), 53-54; and Michael S. Durham, Desert Between the Mountains: Mormons, Miners, Padres, Mountain Men, and the Opening of the Great Basin, 1772-1869 (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1997), 231-233.


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