The following article originally appeared in Deseret News on July 20th, 2017, and it was updated on July 21st, 2017.
On the 170th anniversary of the Saints entering the Salt Lake Valley, a longtime question has now been answered. How long after Mormon pioneers entered the Salt Lake Valley was land surveyed and designated as the official location of Temple Square? A week? A month? According to a recently discovered journal belonging to pioneer surveyor Jesse Carter Little, the location of Temple Square was known the day pioneers entered the valley, July 24, 1847.
In April, Rob Thurston of Provo, Utah, age 60, made an amazing discovery about his great-great-grandfather, Jesse Carter Little. He found his ancestor’s journal containing entries made along the journey west to the Salt Lake Valley. But the journey to acquiring the journal was an adventure in and of itself.
“When I was a young boy about age 7, I used to go down to Manti, Utah, to where my grandmother lived,” Thurston said. “In her old house I used to like to play hide-and-seek and hide under the stairs.”
In the small confines of the room under the stairs, Thurston remembers seeing an old cream-colored box filled with aged letters and photographs. At the time, the letters were of particular interest because of the stamps that could be cut out and added to his stamp collection.
It wasn’t until this past April that memories of the cream-colored box came flooding back in Thurston’s mind. “I asked my mother whatever happened to the box,” he said. “She wasn’t exactly sure but recalled that it was given to a BYU professor to take a look at. The professor was contemplating writing an article about the items in it and also indicated he would see if they held any worth.”
The only problem with the box was it was given to the BYU professor, who Thurston declined to name, in 1977, 40 years ago. “I thought, ‘That’s it, they’re gone,’” Thurston said. “And to top it all off, my mother could not remember the name of the BYU professor.”
After a lot of hard work, Thurston found out the name of the professor, who, fortunately, was still working at Brigham Young University. He called the professor and mentioned the cream-colored box. Sure enough, the professor still had the box and remembered his mother. Thurston made an appointment to see him.
At the office of the BYU professor, Thurston recovered the box. It had been on a shelf for many years. “I remember what the professor told me,” said Thurston. “’There really isn’t anything in there. I didn’t see anything of value. Go ahead and take it.’”
Thurston took the box home and opened it. It held more than 180 items.
“Not knowing exactly what I had, I took the box to a document expert to help me understand. I was told that there were a number of significant things.”
The box contained a treasure trove of journals, letters and photographs from Thurston’s ancestors. “It gave depth to my ancestors I knew nothing about,” he said.
“There was a letter from Brigham Young I was excited about and a bunch of letters from an ancestor named Jesse Carter Little. He was the one ancestor I knew. He helped found the Mormon Battalion, and he met with President James K. Polk to get funds to help the Saints come west.”
The pinnacle of the discovery was an 1846 journal kept by Jesse Carter Little from the first pioneer company coming across the plains with Brigham Young. It contained tons of detailed information about the company’s trek west. “He recorded how many miles they went, where they reached, location names and coordinates for longitude and latitude with a sextant and compass,” Thurston said.
The most interesting entry was the one dated July 24, 1847. Little was in the advance party that entered the valley, and he recorded the following on two lines in his journal. Line one reads: “Salt Lake Valley 114 miles from Fort Bridger.” The second line reads: “Northern boundary of the Temple Square 40 degrees latitude and 111 degrees longitude.”
To check the accuracy of Little’s journal, the distance from the address of Fort Bridger to the address of Temple Square was calculated using Google Maps. It yielded 118 miles versus the journal’s 114. Plugging the longitude and latitude coordinates from Little’s journal into the U.S. government’s NASA website latitude/longitude finder yields the location of Temple Square in Salt Lake City, Utah.
“For the last 85 years these treasured items were either under the stairwell of an old house or in the office of a BYU professor. Finding these items was important. In my family, we are calling this the miracle of the cream-colored shirt box.”
Ryan Morgenegg is a writer for Deseret News.
Frequently whimsical and overly optimistic about how much time it will take to do things, Ashley Morales is deeply passionate about the gospel and all kinds of creativity. Her hobbies include philosophically analyzing nearly every book, play, video game, and movie that she consumes, writing music and short stories, promising herself that she will finish writing her novels, going to sleep too late, eating foods she's never tried, putting off cleaning her house, browsing Zillow, spending as much quality time as possible with her wonderful husband, trying to be a good mother to her fantastic children, and never finding the balance between saying too much and too little. One day, she hopes to leave a positive mark on the world and visit every continent (except Antarctica) with her family.