Utah Lake – Western Sea of Galilee
Utah Lake was welcoming to Indians, trappers, explorers, and Mormon pioneers. Its shorelines, tributaries, and surrounding land provided sustenance and shelter for both animals and peoples. The lake played a significant role in the settlement of Utah Valley and survival of both pioneers and Native Americans. Its history is fraught with plaques, draught, famine, crickets, and grasshoppers.
Provo pioneers shared fish seined from the lake with Indian tribes during the lean years. Long seines, weighted vertical fishing nets, were the only method for harvesting large quantities of fish. The average catch was about 150 pounds daily in the summer and about 30-40 pounds during the winter months. The Honorable John Henry Smith maintained that the story of Terrane fisherman, Peter Madsen, who provided food for the famished during 1855-56, was quite as worthy of historical recognition as the story of the “Gulls” and “Lillies.” Provo’s Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints Bishop assigned men to fishing crews to operate Madsen’s seine twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. But, even then, there was a long wait for fish. Fires burned constantly along the mouth of the river to furnish warmth and dry fisherman’s clothing. The men worked even in ice cold water, wearing what clothes they had, which were minimal, just to save their meager supply of clothing. No charge was made for the fish. The hungry came from Sanpete on the south, Salt Lake on the north, and Duchesne on the east, each camping along the river, awaiting their turn to receive fish to be cleaned, salted down in barrels or dried Indian fashion.
The thirteen species of fish outnumbered people in Utah Valley in 1851; the census listed the population as 1,505. As more settlers arrived without provisions, the demand for fish grew. Loyal Church members were tithed by the number of fish they harvested, providing sustenance for laborers on public works projects.
The boats and equipment used by the pioneer fishermen were very crude but safe and practical for their time. No lives were lost during this period of trial and need, despite the fact that Utah Lake, with its great area of nearly 150 square miles and its extremely shallow depth, was really a treacherous and vicious body of water. Many lives have been lost since the days of pioneer fisherman.
Peter Madsen’s descendants continue to fish the lake, as do other notable families including the Loys, Carpenters, and others. Some of the original species of fish have disappeared, while others remain on the endangered species list. Our sacred duty is to preserve the lake, fish, and its history.