Filling the black hole in Utah's Catholic history

Friday, Dec. 14, 2012
Filling the black hole in Utah's Catholic history + Enlarge
In this undated photo, Monsignor Jerome Stoffel celebrates Mass on Fremont Island beneath the cross (upper right) carved by Kit Carson in 1843. The chalice shown behind him resides in the Diocese of Salt Lake City archives. Diocese of Salt Lake City archive photo

By Gary Topping

Diocese of Salt Lake City archivist 

Most people seem to think that Catholic history in Utah history between the Dominguez-Escalante expedition of 1776 and the arrival of Father Edward Kelly, who established the first parish in 1866, is a big blank space.

However, the Catholic presence here during that period was almost continuous, with traders plying the Old Spanish Trail between Santa Fe and Los Angeles, and mountain men acting first as fur trappers and later as guides to various explorers and emigrants. There were also Catholic soldiers at Camp Floyd, which was west of Utah Lake; and later at Fort Douglas in Salt Lake City, and the priests who made occasional visits to minister to them. But the mountain men, those hard-living wayfarers of the wilderness, were the most colorful and best known.

One Catholic mountain man in Utah was Etienne Provost, a French Canadian who ranged from his home in Taos, New Mexico as far north as the Salt Lake Valley and the Duchesne River country in 1824-25. It is our great loss that Provost was illiterate, for he had some great tales to tell, but what little we know of him comes from the pens of others. We do know that he was short and portly of build, a big drinker, a good man in a fight, and an intrepid traveler. Provost may have been the first white person to see the Great Salt Lake, though historians think it more likely that that honor belongs to Jim Bridger. In fact there is no assurance that Provost ever saw the lake at all. His most enduring contribution to Utah history is that his name was adapted to the Utah Valley city.

Another Catholic figure in Utah history was Denis Julien, a French immigrant who arrived in St. Louis, probably from New Orleans, in the early 1790s and established a prosperous business as a fur trader. Julien was a pious enough Catholic that there are baptismal records for his children in the St. Louis cathedral. In the 1830s and 1840s, Julien explored for furs in Utah along the Green and Colorado rivers. Much of what we know about him derives from his penchant for carving his name and the date on riverside rocks.

One of the most famous mountain men was Christopher "Kit" Carson, whose long and rough life has been celebrated in many media, from dime novels to television series. Carson was born a Protestant, and his conversion to Catholicism was a part of his marital history. He was twice unlucky in marriage. His first wife, an Indian, died prematurely, and his second, also an Indian, divorced him summarily according to tribal custom by throwing his belongings out of the tent. Early in 1843, he married a 15-year-old New Mexican girl, Josefa Jaramillo (although he was 34 at the time, he outlived her). To marry her in the Church, Carson converted to Catholicism. Conversions of that kind are sometimes nominal, but there is reason to believe that Carson’s was heartfelt. Later in that year, when Carson joined John C. Fremont’s exploration of the Great Salt Lake basin, the party paddled out to what was later named Fremont Island. As a testimonial to his new-found faith, Carson carved a cross in the rock on the island’s highest promontory, where it is still visible.

Carson wasn’t the only Catholic member of Fremont’s party. In addition to Carson and the Irishman Thomas Fitzpatrick, Fremont’s roster shows that almost half of the 41 members were French Canadian or Creole Catholics from Louisiana. Even Fremont himself somewhat qualifies: although he later became an Episcopalian, he was baptized and married in the Catholic Church. It was a substantial Catholic presence indeed.

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