Disappointing island

May 31 2013 - 1:07pm


Audrey Godfrey
Audrey Godfrey

Sailing an India rubber boat down the Weber River in 1843, John C. Fremont and his fellow explorers stopped at the edge of the Great Salt Lake to reconnoiter. As members of the U.S. Corp of Topographical Engineers charged with surveying the area, they were headed for an island some distance away. The frail boat began to come apart at the seams as they paddled. Bailing water and paddling energetically they barely made it to the island before sinking into the water. They then set out to explore.

Kit Carson, one of the four men serving under Fremont, scouted out the barren space for water but found none (though springs were later discovered). Then, while Fremont continued his survey, Carson climbed an unusual rock and chiseled a cross on its side (which some later attributed to Peter Skene Ogden, who never visited the island, or perhaps a Spanish priest), but Carson clearly mentioned his art work in his writings. With so little to recommend the place Fremont called it Disappointing Island.

Surprisingly little had changed in the 1960s when my brother-in-law and friends made their own trip to the island except that the lake water was low and a sandbar extended towards the rocky shore from Syracuse. So the young adventurers drove their jeep out until it became stuck, then walked the rest of the way. Max remembered the cross, the Uriah Wenner grave site, a cave and grazing sheep. Unlike Fremont's group, no boat was needed, but getting the jeep out of the sandbar and back onto dry land to return home took a come-along and a lot of muscle power, maybe as much as Fremont's crew needed to paddle across.

When Mormon settlers arrived in 1847 they, too, noted the island and, because of its shape, some called it Castle Island. However, in 1850 another survey party, led by Capt. Howard Stansbury, explored the place and  renamed it Fremont Island for the first explorer.  This time the name stuck, though some called it Miller Island for a time after Henry and David Miller of  Farmington ran a sheep herd there for many years.

In 1862, Fremont Island became the home of Jean Baptiste, a man banished there when he was found guilty of robbing graves in the Salt Lake City Cemetery, some say hundreds of graves. The families of the victims were furious and so Baptiste was "interred" on the island for his safety. However, a few weeks later the deputies returned to check on him and found his shanty empty. They surmised he had killed a grazing heifer and used some of its hide for thongs for his feet. Since the roof was missing they theorized he had turned it into a raft. Twenty-eight years later, however, a hunter found a human skull, and three years after that the discovery of a human headless skeleton with a ball and chain around its leg caused renewed discussion of Baptiste's fate. But no one knew for sure whose body to which the skeleton belonged.

Fast forward to the 1880s. Kate and Uriah James Wenner arrived in Salt Lake City where Uriah opened a law office. Three years later he was appointed as a probate judge in Salt Lake County. The Wenners enjoyed Salt Lake.

While her husband worked, Kate raised their two children and enjoyed social functions in the city.

But tuberculosis caused Wenner serious health problems and his doctors prescribed exposure to open air to improve his health. After much consideration they decided to purchase part of Fremont Island. Bringing with them their children, a hired maid and two greyhound dogs, they set sail. Knowing the island's popularity as a place to raise sheep, they, too, stocked their property with a flock.

The family took well to the open spaces. The fresh air helped Judge Wenner, and Kate found new skills that made her feel like "a real frontier woman." But she also missed the church spires and bells of the city. Also, upon unpacking Kate was dismayed to find she had left her mirror behind and wouldn't get one for months. She said, "If any woman wishes to be pleased with her appearance, let her forget her face for six months and then behold herself again."

At first the rustic living conditions caused Kate to worry about her children's health. At night she put cotton in their ears so the spiders and other insects wouldn't crawl in. The children, however, grew healthy and explored and played on the rocks and the beach.

At the end of the summer the Wenners decided to take up permanent residence and built a small brick house which they called "The Hut." Kate hung her treasured pictures up and lined the walls with books. Life was an adventure. Their animals grew in number with horses, cows and more sheep. However, when the family celebrated the 4th of July, the cows were so frightened by the fireworks they jumped into the lake.

After two years Kate and the children left the island for Illinois where Kate gave birth to Lincoln. When they returned to Fremont Island they brought a boat they christened the Argo which had a carved ram's head for the bow. Again, life was good and baby Lincoln grew strong and healthy.

In 1889, however, Judge Werner's health began to fail. Kate tried to keep up with the chores and caring for him with some difficulty. They hired a man to help her. Finally in 1891, Judge Werner died. For two long days and three nights Kate waited for someone to see the three bonfires burning atop the hill signaling a need for help. But a heavy storm prevented her hired man who was on an errand to the mainland from crossing the water. After he reached the island they fashioned a coffin and interred Wenner on the hill behind the house. After a simple service Kate and the children gathered pebbles and spelled the word "Love" on his grave.

Kate moved to Illinois where Lincoln had been born and later remarried. When she died her daughter Blanche brought her ashes to be buried beside her husband as she had requested in an account she wrote of the Wenner's life on Fremont island. The family engraved a simple history on a copper plaque that bore the word "Love", and planted it on the grave.

Many others would find their own adventures on the island. But I like the symbolism of the Wenner family who came, conquered their frontier, and made it home.


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