Sheep, Salt and the Great Salt Lake

Sheep, Salt and the Great Salt Lake: Fremont Island, The Great Salt Lake, Courtesy & © Mary Heers
Fremont Island
The Great Salt Lake
Courtesy & © Mary Heers

Floating on the Great Salt Lake, Courtesy & © Mary Heers Floating on the
Great Salt Lake
Courtesy & © Mary Heers

All of last year, the news about the Great Salt Lake was going from bad to worse. We began to hear dire predictions that the shrinking lake might disappear altogether.

Then, finally, with some legislative action and a big boost from record snow and rain, the water level began to rise. The marina on the southern tip of the lake opened up.

I grabbed the chance to take a boat ride out onto the lake. The water was calm and smooth and Fremont Island loomed large ahead. We were the only boat out there.

Ah, I thought, this is a lot like Kit Carson and John Fremont must have seen the island when they paddled up to it in 1843.

The boat operator told us some early history of the island. In 1859 two brothers, Henry and Daniel Miller, took 153 sheep out to the island and left them there. It seemed ideal – plenty of grass, adequate fresh water’ and no wild beasts. So, no need to leave a herder.

The brothers returned periodically to shear the sheep. They also built two huge vats, lit a fire of sagebrush under them, and boiled the lake water down to salt.

Business was good. Boatloads of salt were sold to the silver mines in Montana who needed it in their operations. The excess lambs were taken to market and sold.

By now the sheep, left alone on the island for long stretches of time, were becoming wild as deer. One roundup, some sheep were so determined not to get caught that they took off swimming away from the island. They were still going when they disappeared over the horizon.

But the story really took a turn when a judge from Salt Lake, Uriah Wenner, took advantage of the Desert Land Act intended to encourage irrigation and farming in the west. He filed a claim on the island and evicted the sheep. It was 1885, and Jacob Miller, now in charge of the Miller family sheep operation on the island was a polygamist “in hiding.” He didn’t dare go to court to challenge the claim.

As the last of the sheep were taken off the island, they were placed in the custody of an experienced herder. The herder was just beginning to cook his breakfast in his hut.

“You’d better watch these sheep,” he was warned.

“Don’t tell me how to herd sheep,” said the herder.

He finished his breakfast. When he came out of his hut, the sheep were gone.

The story ended, but the best was yet to come. The boat stopped and my husband and I slid into the water off the back of the boat.

Gleefully we bobbed around like corks. It was impossible to sink. I flipped on my back and stretched out. It would have been easy to doze off. Buoyancy at its best.

The current salinity of the Great Salt Lake is 16%. That’s just about halfway from the oceans at 3½ and the saltiest water on earth – the Dead Sea at 33%

The Great Salt Lake is our unique treasure. But it’s future is still at risk. Will we keep it or lose it?

This is Mary Heers and I’m Wild About Utah.

Photos: Courtesy & Copyright Mary Heers, Photographer
Featured Audio: Courtesy & © Kevin Colver,
Text: Mary Heers,
Additional Reading: Lyle Bingham,

Additional Reading

Wild About Utah, Mary Heers’ Postings

Seymour Miller’s Account of an Early Sheep Operation on Fremont Island (Edited by David H. Miller and Anne H. Eckman,) Utah Historical Quarterly, Volume 56, Number 2, 1988, Utah State History,

Great Salt Lake Collaborative, Solutions Journalism Network,