by ANDREW BUTTERFIELD
The Wenner family lived on Fremont Island from 1886-1891, the only family to ever call Fremont Island home. Uriah James and Kate Wenner are forever sealed into the history of Fremont Island, the Great Salt Lake and the state of Utah.
The Great Salt Lake is one of the largest lakes in the Western United States. The lake is surrounded by many islands, one of which is Fremont Island. Fremont is the third largest island in the Great Salt Lake. Discovered on September 9, 1843, by John C. Fremont and his four companions, Fremont described the island as “simply a rocky hill on which there is neither water nor trees of any kind although the Fremontia vermicularis, which was in great abundance, might easily be mistaken for timber at a distance.” Fremont was said to be so dissatisfied with the discovery that he named the island “Disappointment island.” (Miller, 219)
After Fremont and his companions had left the Rocky Mountain territory, the next group of explorers named the Mud Hen crew began investigating the Great Salt Lake. According to David E. Miller, the Mud Hen crew, the first known Mormon pioneers led by Albert Carrington, named Fremont Island “Castle Island,” a name that was commonly used by Mormon explorers during this time period. (Miller, 220)
A very important contributor to the history of Fremont Island is Howard Stansbury, who developed the first geographical outline of the Great Salt Lake. Stansbury had a meeting with Brigham Young, the pioneer of Mormonism and the migration to Utah, to develop the survey outline of the Great Salt Lake. Of the meeting, Stansbury declared, “ The impression was that a survey was to be made of their country in the same manner that other public lands are surveyed, for the purpose of dividing it into townships and sections.” (Madsen, 152) Stansbury knew of Fremont’s discovery and “in honor of him who first set foot upon its shore,” Stansbury revived the territory’s true name, Fremont Island. (Miller, 220-21) Using the created surveys, he determined that the island would excel as a territory for sheep herding.
Fremont Island first served as a cattle territory organized and controlled by Henry Miller and his family in the late 1850s. The Miller family had established a fresh water spring on the southeastern tip of the island, the only true source of fresh water. The Miller family decided the island would be best for the sheep because of the lack of natural predators, restrictions in sheep migration, naturally rural land area, and the privacy the sheep would enjoy to keep them protected. (Eckman, and Miller, 161-62)
The story of the Wenners begins with their arrival in Salt Lake City in 1880. Uriah James Wenner launched a small law office, which transformed the family into some of Salt Lake City’s most successful and recognizable citizens. Eli A. Smith, a judge, was relieved of his duties due to a violation of the Edmunds Act of 1882. Salt Lake City Governor Eli H. Murray proclaimed in the September 9, 1882, Deseret News, “Know ye, that by virtue of the anthority in me vested, I, Eli H. Murray, Governor of said Territory, do hereby appoint” Wenner to fill the vacancy. The article reported that Murray had announced several new positions, one of which was probate judge of Salt Lake County. Uriah James Wenner had been tapped to serve on the bench. Wenner, a non-Mormon, accepted the position.
Shortly after his appointment, the community became skeptical toward the Wenner family due to their lack of interest in the dominant religion. Many opposed his rise to the title of Probate Judge of the county. According to the September 20, 1884, Desert News, “Mr. U.J. Wenner, was in dense obscurity, being almost totally unknown in Utah, until a few months ago Governor Murray gave him a bogus appointment to the office of Probate Judge of Salt Lake County, a position which is elective and within the gift of the people.”
Uriah Wenner’s time as judge was short-lived. In 1886, he was diagnosed with tuberculosis and it was recommended the family move to a remote location to better his health. In the years leading up to his diagnosis, Wenner had become friends with the Miller family. Wenner had visited the Millers on Fremont Island several times. (Eckman, and Miller, 163-65)
The story of the Wenners’ first purchase of Fremont Island is a hazy one, one that has not been confirmed. After two years witnessing the tranquility and privacy of the island, Uriah James Wenner had gone to the Union Pacific Railroad Company, which owned Fremont Island, and bought a portion of the territory under the Desert Land Act of 1877. (Eckman, and Miller, 164) Wenner acquired the most significant piece of land on the island, where the only fresh water supply was located. This was made in an attempt to move the Miller family off the island. With their sheep and livestock no longer having a sufficient water supply, they would not be able to survive. (Eckman and Miller, 164-65) Upon receiving the news that they were being evacuated, the Miller family, infuriated and betrayed, wrote to Union Pacific stationed in Omaha. By the time the Millers had received a reply from Union Pacific, they had already moved off the island. The letter stated that the Wenner family had no right to the land nor a record of purchasing property on Fremont Island. Jacob Miller, who had succeeded his father Henry, wanted to take the Wenners to court. However, due to his practicing polygamy, Miller decided against taking real action. Polygamy had been recently found unlawful and against the practice of the Mormon faith. The Wenner family officially purchased a vast majority of Fremont Island and in 1886 called Fremont home. (Eckman, and Miller, 171-73)
Life for the Wenner family had changed drastically. Kate Wenner, née Noble, who had always enjoyed a life of luxury, was now a housewife. According to the November 21, 1891, Dalles (OR) Daily Chronicle, she “cheerfully gave up her luxurious home in this city and went with him.” The original journey to Fremont Island took three days. “It seemed fun at first, but with calms, head winds, squalls, and seasickness,–for hours that treacherous body was like ‘a tempest in a teapot.’” (Noble, 225) By being able to rely on a boat shipment that came once or twice a month, the Wenner family rarely returned to the mainland. Kate Wenner addressed the matter in her personal account of life on Fremont by stating, “On that unsteady trip I made up my mind I would not take my family back to the mainland very soon, and perhaps I would wait until the lake dried up.” (Noble, 225)
Island living seemed to come naturally to the Wenner family. Kate Wenner wrote, “In the afternoon a swim in the lake, after supper a walk over the hill where a glorious sunset held us, and then the moon lit up our little world and hope built happy days ahead.” (Noble, 225) The three Wenner children seemed to be the greatest supporters of the move to the island. Like any family throughout history, Uriah and Kate Wenner set rules and restrictions. Living in semi-isolation, the Wenner adults did not have many worries about their children’s safety. In fact, there was “only one ‘do not’ on the children’s lives and that was not to go in the lake unless we were with them. If the briny water is swallowed it brings on a terrible strangulation!” (Noble, 226)
The Wenner family had been able to explore and rediscover life. The family was able to appreciate the natural beauties of both the island and of living in peace and solitude. These were the main highlights of their time spent on Fremont. Living in solitude forced the family to try new things. In “A True Story” of island life, Kate Wenner described an episode where she milked a cow: “His (Uriah Wenner) greatest surprise on the Island was my bucket of milk, and I am sure it was the cow’s greatest surprise too.” (Noble, 231) When the Wenner family was missing an ingredient or supply, they would simply say it was not needed, that it was an attempt at something new. That seemed to be the reality of island living, only the true necessities mattered, it was an eternal happiness for the Wenner family.
Unfortunately, the joyous times did not last. As the years went by, Uriah Wenner had begun losing his battle with tuberculosis. He stopped working, he needed the assistance of a walking cane, and when he was bedridden he was forced to call upon his wife for all his needs. Wenner died peacefully in 1891, lying in his bed on his beloved home, his island Fremont. According to Kate Wenner’s story, her husband’s final words to her were, “I love you, love the children.” (Noble, 232) With those words he rested for the final time. In a stunned fear, she used the island’s only distress signal with the mainland. Kate set off multiple fires on the highest hill, but it took several days until she was able to see a fire lit on the mainland shore. This signal meant that help was on its way.
Several newspapers published accounts of Uriah’s death in 1891. According to the September 30, 1891, issue of the Ogden Standard Examiner, “The husband had expressed a desire to be buried on the island and his faithful wife determined to heed his request.” The Wenners had become a family loved by many. In another issue of the Standard Examiner, published on October 4, 1891, the paper wrote, “Many residents of this City and valley have been their guests and were charmed by the grace and refinement of the Islanders.”
After Uriah’s death, Kate and her children moved from the island. Shortly after their move, Kate died. Her second husband along with her family honored the request that she should be buried on Fremont Island, next to Uriah James Wenner. To this day Uriah and Kate Wenner have their graves on Fremont Island. Although currently owned by a different family, only the Wenner family called Fremont Island home. (Miller, 234-36)
Andrew Butterfield is a senior at The University of Utah. He is majoring in mass communication and minoring in sociology.
Everett L. Cooley, “Great Salt Lake — Fremont Island p.13,” Utah State Historical Society, Mountain West Digital Library.
Everett L. Cooley, “Wenner, Uriah J. — Residence P.2,” Utah State Historical Society, Mountain West Digital Library.
Shipler Commercial Photographers, “Wenner, U. J. — Grave P.1,” Utah State Historical Society, Mountain West Digital Library.
Kate Y. Noble, “A Great Adventure on Great Salt Lake: A True Story,” Utah Historical Quarterly 33, no. 3 (July 1965): 218-236.
“Faithful After Death,” The Dalles (Oregon) Daily Chronicle, November 21, 1891, 4.
J.H.K., “U.J. Wenner,” Ogden (Utah) Standard Examiner, October 4, 1891, 6.
“A Heroic Woman,” Ogden Standard Examiner, September 30, 1891, 1.
“The Alleged Reception,” Deseret News, July 23, 1884, 8.
“Proclamation of the Governor,” Deseret News, September 9, 1882, 5.
Arave, Lynn. “Fremont Island is no disappointment,” Deseret News, April 16, 2009.
Eckman, Anne M. and David H. Miller. “Seymour Miller’s Account of an Early Sheep Operation on Fremont Island,” Utah Historical Quarterly 56, no. 2 (Spring 1988): 163-165.
Madsen, Brigham D. “Exploring the Great Salt Lake: The Stansbury Expedition of 1849-50,” Utah Historical Quarterly 56, no. 2 (Spring 1988): 148-159.