Book Review: Jared Farmer’s On Zion’s Mount: Mormons, Indians, and the American Landscape

By December 19, 2009

Dale Topham is a 4th-year Ph.D student in American history at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas. His research interests include the American West, the Southwestern Borderlands, and environmental history. He received his B.A. and M.A. in American history from BYU, where he studied the fur trade (he was also my TA when I took US History, 1890-1945 from Brian Cannon as an undergrad, so we go back aways). While at BYU, he worked for two years as a researcher and writer for the Education in Zion exhibit. Dale is not only a top-notch historian but he’s also an Orem native, which adds to this review of Jared Farmer’s On Zion’s Mount: Mormons, Indians, and the American Landscape, which we’ve discussed before on the blog. See also here. Farmer’s book has won a ton of awards, most notably the Francis Parkman Prize from the Society of American Historians. Please welcome Dale and enjoy the review.

On Zion?s Mount, a derivation of Jared Farmer?s Ph.D. dissertation ? ?American Land Marks: A History of Place and Displacement? (Stanford, 2005) ? is a biography of Mount Timpanogos, a peak in the Wasatch Range. As a landmark ? ?a legible feature of the landscape where meaning is concentrated? ? Timpanogos has been socially constructed (5). It did not become a place, Farmer suggests, until the 1910s and 1920s, when Eugene Roberts, the Athletic Director at Brigham Young University, created a useable past for it. Roberts invented an Indian legend about a maiden ? ?Utahna? ? who climbs up the mountain peak and leaps to her death in an effort to appease an angry mountain god. Over time, the central feature of Utah Valley, the life-sustaining Utah Lake, faded from collective memory as a site of significance. Timpanogos replaced it. At the same time, the original inhabitants of the valley ? Ute Indians ? were erased in collective memory and replaced by legendary Indians on Timp. The sense of place that came to surround Timpanogos, Farmer asserts, concealed the literal displacement of the Native Americans and the symbolic displacement of their lake. Pointing to the mythologized version of Utah?s pioneer past that occupies a central place in locals? collective memory, he suggests that Timpanogos is a ?monument to forgetfulness? (13). At bottom, though, the book is about the process through which settlers develop a sense of place and become ?neonative? by displacing the real Natives (16).

Farmer?s book is divided into three parts. Part one discusses the centrality of Utah Lake and its fish to the Utes prior to contact with Euro-American settlers, then traces its decline in significance. Part two charts the social construction of Mount Timpanogos as it changed from an unnamed and unnoticed mid-nineteenth century massif to a heavily used and much loved mountain that, in recent years, Farmer asserts, became sacred space. Part three discusses the ways in which Roberts and other key figures created an ?Indianness? for Timp, and places these developments within the larger context of national trends. In this way, the story of Timpanogos becomes a case study of nationwide processes of displacing Native peoples, adopting and creating elements of the vanishing Indians? culture, and claiming the colonized landscape as one?s homeland.

Farmer traces the history of the bands of Timpanogos Utes who clustered along the shores of Utah Lake near the mouth of the Provo River ? a rich ecological zone ? prior to the 1849 settlement of Mormons in Utah Valley, illustrating the great degree to which the Utes depended upon lake fish for sustenance. The lake was also central to the Anglo colonists, who erected their first fort near its shores. Over time, they depleted the numbers of fish in the lake, introduced nonnative ?trash fish? such as carp. Near the turn of the twentieth century, the resorts on the lakeshore (such as Saratoga and Geneva) disappeared. In the decades that followed, lake pollution increased dramatically amidst rapid urban and industrial growth. Concurrently, Farmer asserts, Utah?s lakes and rivers were largely overlooked in collective memory as Mormons came to view the pre-settlement Wasatch Front as a desert land devoid of water AND Indians.

Early in the twentieth century, Mount Timpanogos replaced Utah Lake as the defining feature of the valley. Three factors contributed to this development. First, Mormons brought with them a tendency to revere mountains as (potentially) holy places. Second, a ?European vogue of alpine aesthetics? (a harbinger of Romanticism) spread to the American West following the Civil War (141). Lastly, federal surveyors mistakenly recorded that Timpanogos was the highest peak in the Wasatch Range. This ?cult of measurement? made Timp visible as a single unit, rather than simply a section of a mountain range (142). By 1910, the eight-mile-long mountain ridge had become a single unit named Timpanogos. And, beginning in 1912, Eugene Roberts led annual hikes up the mountain. In 1922, the year that Roberts? fake Indian legend first appeared in print, the Forest Service opened up a recently rediscovered cave in American Fork Canyon for tours. The Forest Service had named the series of caverns ?Timpanogos Cave? during the previous year. This, according to Farmer, demonstrates the ?malleability of metageography,? as ?locals reimagined the south wall of American Fork Canyon as a part of Timp? (196).

Several national trends ? such as ?the golden age of hiking; the enthusiasm for physical education in the early twentieth century; the long-term shift from production to consumption, from outdoor work to outdoor play; and the rise of federal management of the western high country? ? fed into this process of place-making (197). However, the rise of Timp as a landmark would not have been possible without ?local contingencies? ? the mistaken idea that it was the highest mountain peak in the range, the notion that it boasted a glacier (in reality a semi-permanent snowfield), and the presence of a national monument in the form of Timpanogos cave (198).

The last half of the twentieth century witnessed rapid suburban sprawl in Utah Valley. According to the author, this led to two new forms of attachment to the mountain. The first centered on recreation, embodied by the 1970s opening of Robert Redford?s Sundance Ski Resort on the northeastern slope of Mount Timpanogos. The second centered on the mountain?s ?wildness.? Federal officials halted cattle grazing on Timp (but apparently not sheep grazing, since herds of sheep still occupy the mountain ? a fact Farmer fails to note). They also stopped Roberts?s annual hike, introduced mountain goats ? a non-native species ? and designated the higher elevations as ?wilderness? in 1984. Paradoxically, Mount Timpanogos?s ?increased urbanity . . . coincided with its increased ?wildness?? (210).

Having discussed the making of Timp, Farmer next turns to the marking of it ? that is, the filling of it with meaning. Both processes occurred simultaneously. The most significant meanings attached to the mountain involved Indians, he asserts. The first method of attaching an Indian meaning that Farmer discusses is the renaming of the land, part of the state legitimization process. Providing context through a discussion of Yosemite and Mount Ranier, he returns to the central focus of the book. Broken down into linguistic parts, ?Timpanogos? is derived from Ute words meaning ?rocks? and ?river,? but the exact meaning of the whole is uncertain. Originally a term the indigenous inhabitants of Utah Valley applied to themselves, ?Timpanogos? was subsequently applied to a geographic feature. Thus, Farmer observes, it is not really a Native place name; rather, it is an ?Indianist? one ? a non-English word ?of real or purported indigenous derivation? (244). By the early twentieth century, decades after Timpanogos Utes had been forced onto a reservation and compelled to enroll as members of the Uinta band, the name had been stripped of its real referents and made ?ready to accept new meaning? (277).

Though the Indianist name gave the mountain authenticity, a ?semblance of antiquity,? its boosters thought it also needed a legend. Returning to an extralocal focus to provide context, Farmer catalogs the numerous ?lover?s leap? legends and locations that arose in the nineteenth century. During the antebellum years, he argues, these stories ?spoke to changing ideas about gender? (294). Lover?s leap stories often included resistance to an arranged marriage. This, Farmer argues, ?may be read as expressions of a collective psyche? in a period when ideas about marriage were shifting. At the same time, Anglo women desiring more independence in a ?man?s world? were drawn to stories of Indian women trapped in bad marriages. The stories also became popular, he asserts, because ?they suggested a reason and a justification for the decline of Indians? (311). Timpanogos was the last major American landform to acquire a lover?s leap legend. Significantly, the printed version of Roberts? legend was soon replaced by oral versions. Thus, Farmer concludes, the Legend of Timpanogos ?represents a turning point in American legendry when pseudo-Indian legends stopped being literature . . . and started being folklore? (326-27).

With the legend becoming ensconced in collective memory, Timpanogos became a site for ?playing Indian.? At a campfire program performed the evening before each annual hike to the summit, hikers re-enacted the legend, performed plays, and sang musical numbers such as ?Indian Love Song.? William F. Hanson, a BYU professor who directed the musical portion of the program for several years, also wrote and produced three ?Indian operas,? one of which was based on the legend. His 1937 opera, Bleeding Heart, ?marked the beginning of an era in which the Legend of Timpanogos went native? (356). The legend, Farmer concludes, has several functions. It explains ?local topography and local place-names while expressing the pride of place felt by local residents?; creates local topography, in the form of an ?outline of an Indian woman on the crest of the mountain?; adds ?luster to the local landscape?; and finally, it fulfills a ?desire to ?honor? Indians and to know something about ?their? traditions (360-61). It also, he claims, obscures the role of Latter-day Saint settlers in the displacement of indigenous peoples.

In attempting to bolster his argument for the centrality of Timpanogos to residents of Utah Valley, Farmer at times paints a distorted picture. First, he points to the fact that several schools in the area were named after the mountain as evidence that Timp is more significant to people than are neighboring peaks. But he fails to note that schools and school districts have adopted the names of other peaks as well (examples include Cascade Elementary, Lone Peak High School, and Nebo School District, among others). He also ignores Lakeridge Junior High, built on a ridge overlooking Utah Lake. True, Timpanogos occupies an important position in the collective psyche of those who see it every day, but not to the degree that Farmer asserts, and not in sharp counterpoint to a series of other supposedly ignored peaks. Secondly, the pervasiveness of the Legend of Timpanogos among valley inhabitants is also overstated. Having taken Utah history in fourth grade and not been exposed to the legend in that course, and having toured Timpanogos Cave twice without hearing it, I am skeptical about his assertions that it is taught as a regular part of the course in fourth grade, and that cave tour guides repeat the legend to each group of tourists. (Of course, my experience may be exceptional. Perhaps he writes from personal experience, having encountered the legend in both fourth grade and in Timp Cave.) Lastly, Farmer asserts that valley residents in general build their houses with large windows facing Timp and hang paintings of the mountain in their homes as a form of veneration. Despite having spent more than three decades living in Utah Valley, I have not seen a painting of Timp hanging in someone?s living room, or large picture windows facing the mountain. Some houses undoubtedly contain one or both of these features, perhaps even most homes in certain neighborhoods. Nevertheless, Farmer?s assertion on this matter is overstated.

An oversight appears in Farmer?s account of Squaw Peak. In the chapter on renaming the land, he discusses the Native American campaign to eradicate the use of the word ?squaw? in naming topographical features. State legislatures, he observes, have passed laws eliminating the offending names on the assumption that the U.S. Board on Geographic Names would rubber stamp the action. With that, he introduces Squaw Peak ? a mountain just south of Timpanogos. Unlike most Squaw Peaks across the nation, this one was named for a specific person, an Indian woman who plunged to her death while trying to climb the peak and elude Mormon militiamen. What Farmer does not mention is the fact that, in 1997, the Utah State Legislature passed a law renaming the mountain ?Old Bishop Peak,? in honor of a Ute who was murdered by Mormons who gruesomely disfigured his body in an attempt to conceal the deed. Perhaps including it would have diluted his subsequent argument that the tragedy for which the peak was named, a historical event, has been erased in collective memory and replaced by a folkloric tale that obscures the role that Mormon settlers played in displacing the Indians.

The occasional distortions or omissions in On Zion?s Mount do little to detract from the overall value of Farmer?s erudite and ingenious book. Farmer writes well and the material is interesting. Given my personal connection to Utah Valley, its lake, and the mountains that surround it, I was fascinated by Farmer?s ability to take an ?ordinary? topographical feature and conceptualize its history as a case study of larger national processes. Moving beyond a narrative of the displacement of Timpanogos Utes from Utah Valley, a story with which I was familiar, Farmer addresses its (lack of) place in historical memory, showing how historical forgetting has been used to justify the presence of newcomers and contribute to their carving a homeland out of the landscape. A history of Indian displacement and Euro-American colonization, Farmer?s work is also environmental history. While it contains brief discussions of environmental history topics such as the conflict between cattle ranchers and hikers over the proper use and ?conservation? of Timpanogos, and the construction of ?wilderness?[1] on the mountain, it is more concerned with the connections between people and the landscapes they inhabit. It is about the stories we tell and the meaning(s) we attach to place. Farmer, who studied under Dan Flores while earning his masters degree and Richard White while earning his doctorate, is well suited to write this kind of environmental history.


[1] For more from Farmer on wilderness as a social construct, see his Glen Canyon Dammed: Inventing Lake Powell and the Canyon Country (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1999). 

Article filed under Book and Journal Reviews Categories of Periodization: Accommodation Categories of Periodization: Modern Mormonism Categories of Periodization: Territorial Period Memory Race


  1. See also Dave Banack’s thoughts on the work, which he posted on Times and Seasons.

    Comment by David G. — December 19, 2009 @ 1:43 am

  2. I was contacted by a publicist for Farmer’s book a couple years ago, and was given an excerpt to review. The publicist figured that I would be interested in the book as I blog on Mormons and the environment.

    I read the excerpt I thought, “That book is so boring, good luck with that!”

    Apparently I have poor taste.

    Thanks for the review. I may give Farmer’s book another chance.

    Comment by L-d Sus — December 19, 2009 @ 9:03 am

  3. I’m from Orem. Timp is a big deal but the story about a leap to appease the gods I never heard. I heard something like: Timp looks like an Indian maiden lying down (it doesn’t really) and if you can’t see it, it supposedly looks more like it from the back side. I heard a story about some sort of competition where the Indians had to run around Utah lake (some tried to swim it and drowned). I can’t remember the rest but some sort of tragic death for the maiden. I was out of state for 4th grade.

    Timp really is the central landmark for Orem. The mountain’s name between Timp and Y mountain is hardly known (is it Cascade?) Our kitchen window faced Timp which my mother really liked.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — December 19, 2009 @ 11:11 am

  4. Good review. I agree that Farmer is at times distortive and can seem desperate to suit the facts to his chosen thesis. Overall, however, it was a satisfying book if a bit too bent on thrashing current Utah culture.

    Comment by Steve Evans — December 19, 2009 @ 2:52 pm

  5. After reading Farmers book two years ago I was quite critical. Probably about commentary on BY.
    However now, looking back, the part that has stuck to me was the wonderful documentation of Roberts and his historic hikes up to Timp. If you havn’t made the hike, do it soon.
    Thanks Jarad for the wonderful research.

    Comment by Corn Duck — December 28, 2009 @ 1:00 pm


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