Provo: A City with a Colorful Past
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“Provo: A City with a Colorful Past,” Ensign, Jan. 1972, 20

Special Issue: Temples

Provo: A City with a Colorful Past

Stories of excitement and adventure are not lacking in the early history of the now very peaceful and progressive Utah Valley, known as Utah County, of which Provo is the county seat. Legend among them is that of the French-Canadian fur trapper Etienne Provot (or Provost), for whom the area was named, and his experience with the Indians.

In the spring of 1825 (some accounts say the fall of 1824) Provot and his men were camping near the mouth of what is now the Provo River, when Mauvaise Gauche, a Snake-Ute, came to visit with twenty or thirty of his band. After being welcomed, Gauche proposed that they enter into a friendly alliance and smoke the pipe of peace around the peace fire. While the Indians and whites were so engaged, Gauche seemed to be troubled; he told Provot that his wah-kon, or protecting spirit, was angry and would not consent to anything while there was any iron in their midst. Gauche and his braves rose and piled their arms at a distance, and Provot and his followers did the same. The circle of peace continued until Gauche gave a cry and his men sprang as one to their feet, rushed upon the whites with knives that had been concealed under their blankets, and murdered seventeen trappers. Provot and four of his men escaped to the mountains. The place then became known as Provot’s hole or hollow.

A quarter of a century later, with the coming of the Mormons to the area, Provo had its beginnings as a community. On March 17, 1849, a company of about one hundred and fifty Mormon pioneers was organized to settle Utah Valley. President of the group was John S. Higbee, with his brother Isaac and Dimick B. Huntington as his counselors. (One of the brothers Higbee had joined Elder Parley P. Pratt and others in December 1847 in an exploring party for the express purpose of finding settlement sites. They had sailed up and down the western side of Utah Lake for many miles during that mild winter before returning to the Salt Lake Valley.)

The 1849 company was stopped by Timpanogos Indians about three miles north of the Provo River and required to promise that they would “not drive the Indians from their lands, nor deprive them of their rights.” In April the pioneers were settled on the Provo River, about two miles northwest of the present city. Here they constructed a fort.

During the construction, it is related that the Ute Chief Walker planned to massacre the colony, but Chief Sowiett of the Timpanogos and some of the other Ute tribes said, “When you and your braves get there, you will find me helping the Mormons.”

President Brigham Young’s advice at this time, as he sent word that he had heard from Fort Bridger, Wyoming, of hostile Indian trouble, was “to speedily complete their fort, to keep near the settlement, to place their cannon on the top of the fort, to gather a sufficient quantity of round stones, for grape shot, to secure and guard their horses and cattle, to keep a vigilant guard at night, to look out for the Indians, not to make presents to them, but if they would be friendly to teach them to raise grain and to order them to quit stealing.” (Manuscript History of Brigham Young, April 1849, pp. 67–68.)

About the middle of September the First Presidency and other leading elders visited Fort Utah, and a permanent site for Provo City was selected.

Nevertheless, a serious three-day Indian battle broke out in February 1850; but after help arrived from Salt Lake City, the Indians took flight, a small group escaping into Rock Creek Canyon (above the site of the new temple), and the larger group fleeing toward Spanish Fork.

A chief concern of the settlers, as with Mormon pioneers everywhere, was the construction of a building that could be used for a school, for social life, and for religious activities. Such a building was always one of the first to be built; church was a part of their daily lives. In March 1851 a stake was organized (the third to be organized in the West, following Salt Lake and Weber) with the following units: Fort Utah (Provo), Evansville (Lehi), American Fork, Pleasant Grove, Springville, Spanish Fork, and Peteetneet (Payson). Many stakes have been organized from that original one. Wards came to Provo in August 1852, when five wards were created and their bishops sustained.

The beautiful Utah Lake attracted settlers. Fishing became one of the industries of those pioneer times. Before the coming of the Utah Southern Railroad to Provo in November 1873, with its top-speed trains of fifteen miles an hour, men would take ice harvested from the lake and stored the winter before, pack it around fish caught that very day, and make the long overnight wagon trip to Salt Lake City. Their first stop would be the Lion House, where President Brigham Young would receive fresh fish, compliments of the settlers of Provo. The rest of the fish in the wagon would be sold on the streets to eager Salt Lake City residents.

Provo played host as the fifty-sixth annual general conference of the Church was convened in the tabernacle there (April 4 to 7, 1886), and again for the fifty-seventh annual conference (April 6 to 8, 1887). Young boys among the worshipers climbed to the rough-finished portions of the building and hung over the rafters, enjoying a view of the speakers and listening to their counsel until their young innards hurt.

Years before, in 1867, as another tabernacle was being planned on Center Street, President Young had advised that it be designed with a view to preserving for the youth of Zion a sample of the kind of edifice in which many of their fathers and mothers, as members of the Presbyterian Church, had worshiped before they heard the gospel.

Thus, from humble beginnings Provo has grown. In 1875, as the Timpanogos Branch of the University of Deseret (now University of Utah) had been discontinued, President Young gave the land for an academy, expressly stating that “pupils shall be instructed in … such branches as are usually taught in an academy of learning,” and also “in the Old and New Testaments, the Book of Mormon and the Book of Doctrine and Covenants.” This academy later became Brigham Young University, which is now the largest church-related university in the world. A large number of Indian students, from tribes all over the Americas, are attending BYU, not to forget their own great heritage, but to learn to incorporate it into a better way of life.

The original settlers of the Provo area were humble, God-fearing tillers of the soil. They soon developed other pioneer industries, woolen mills, brickmaking, foundries, canneries, and a host of activities that made life better. For almost half a century the area has been the steel-producing center of the Intermountain West.

Today Provo is a city of fine homes, good schools, stately churches—and now a beautiful temple, the seventeenth House of the Lord to be constructed and dedicated in this, the dispensation of the fulness of times. Only in such an edifice does the Lord reveal his work and his glory—”to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man.” (Moses 1:39.)