TheAwakeningoftheDesert_OriginalIn 1866, Julius Birge took a four-month wagon train trip across the West through territories still regarded as outside the United States. The purpose of the expedition was to profit by delivering provisions to the Mormon settlement at Salt Lake City and beyond. As an added benefit, the trip would furnish adventure for some young men simply eager to see the West.

With no railroads yet laid across the land, such wagon trains were the only means for transporting goods to outposts and settlers, and their transit was precarious. From deadly attacks by Native American tribes defending their ancestral lands to equally dangerous forces of nature, any such enterprise ran significant risk.

Forty-five years after the journey, Julius wrote The Awakening of the Desert. In it, he describes the unspoiled landscape and wildlife; the native people; the emigrants and Civil War veterans moving west; early settlements; government outposts and policies; and most of all, the travails of traveling by horse or wagon train across the Great American Desert in what were called “the bloody years on the plains.”

He also richly details life among the early Mormons in Salt Lake City. Attending worship services where Brigham Young preached and a guest in Young’s home numerous times, he takes an even-handed view of those who were often criticized and caricatured by writers from outside their faith. In regard to his perspective, Julius states, “I would not now discuss Mormonism as a religious belief because my judgment may be biased by the strong convictions inherited from my Puritan ancestry.” He also writes of the Mormons’ exodus that had led them to the West, and he relates first-hand accounts of historical significance, such as the Strangite movement and the 1857 Mormon Resistance, sometimes called the “Utah War.”

In his description of the West, Julius knew he was writing for history because what had existed had, in many cases, already disappeared by the turn of the century. Clearly, he believed that what he had seen must not be forgotten. And today, his words seem more timely than ever. Julius decries the needless slaughter of the buffalo, the destruction of natural resources and the treatment of Native Americans by the government in dealings he calls “unworthy of a great nation.”

Since its publication a century ago, The Awakening of the Desert has been regarded as a primary source on the West and an important cultural work. There is much to be learned from it today.



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