Why this explorer’s carving on a Great Salt Lake island rock is now on a historic register

Jun 3, 2024, 11:01 AM

An undated photo of the cross that Christopher "Kit" Carson left on a rock on Fremont Island in 184...

An undated photo of the cross that Christopher "Kit" Carson left on a rock on Fremont Island in 1843. It was recently added to the National Register of Historic Places. (Utah Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands)

(Utah Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands)

HOOPER, Weber County — John C. Fremont and Christopher “Kit” Carson left what is now known today as Fremont Island rather disappointed in 1843, but the ghost of Carson might not be disappointed to find that what he left behind is now an American treasure.

A cross that Carson etched in stone during a tour of the island nearly 181 years ago is now one of the newest additions to the National Register of Historic Places. It joins just the Fielding Garr Ranch on Antelope Island, Black Rock in Tooele County and the Ogden-Lucin cutoff trestle as the only sites within the Great Salt Lake to have ended up on the register.

“It’s exciting,” said Marisa Weinberg, Great Salt Lake coordinator for the Utah Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands. “The cross is something that everyone asks about on the island. It’s probably the most sought-after site to visit despite how difficult it is to access.”

Carson’s cross

The story of Carson’s cross dates back to the expeditions that Fremont and Carson led in modern-era Utah back in 1843 and 1844, beginning four years before Mormon pioneers settled in the Salt Lake Valley. They were the first explorers of European descent to reach and map many parts of the state, including what eventually became Fremont Island.

But it’s fair to say Fremont and his colleagues weren’t big fans of the island back in the day.

On Sept. 9, 1843, months into the expedition, Fremont, Carson and a few others boarded an 18-foot inflatable rubber boat and departed the shores of the Great Salt Lake for an island that had captured their attention, according to Alex Baugh, a professor of church history at BYU, who wrote a piece on the expedition’s history.

The group had high expectations about the trip, believing the island could be “an exotic paradise,” University of Utah historians noted in “Saline Stories: An Oral and Visual History of the Great Salt Lake.” Baugh wrote that the team spent “the better part of two days” exploring the island and making scientific measurements.

Touring the island dashed any hopes the group had. Fremont famously dubbed it “Disappointment Island” after the group encountered no wildlife, vegetation or signs of life on the desolate island. By all accounts, Carson etched the cross on a rock just to pass the time before the group eventually left.

“We ascended the highest mountain under (a) shelving rock (and) cut a large cross which is there to this day,” Carson later recalled.

A portrait of Chris "Kit" Carson likely taken between 1860 and 1868.
A portrait of Chris “Kit” Carson likely taken between 1860 and 1868. (Photo: U.S. Library of Congress)

He explored all over the West before he died in 1868. He’s the namesake of Carson City, Nevada, and Kit Carson County, Colorado, among other legacies. His home in Taos, New Mexico was named a National Historic Landmark in 1963 and added to the historic register in 1966, the same year the program was created.

Preserving Carson’s cross

While Fremont, Carson and others found their stay on the island disappointing, their venture proved to be significant in history. Their findings helped map the Great Salt Lake shoreline and Utah, which were vital tools used by pioneers in settling the state.

This significance in state history sparked the efforts to include the cross — a reminder of their short island trip — in the National Register of Historic Places.

The Kit Carson Cross pictured on May 26, 1962.
The Kit Carson Cross pictured on May 26, 1962. (Photo: Utah State Historical Society)

“Although it’s a tiny etching in a rock (and) seems insignificant, it tells a story of the early explorer parties that came to Utah when it was just completely barren and open land,” Weinberg said. “They paved the way for other settlers, such as the Mormon settlers to come out here and make this place their home.”

The effort to add the cross to the registry only started a few years ago because the island had been privately owned for more than a century up until November 2020. That’s when a private philanthropist with the Palladium Foundation purchased the island and donated it to the Nature Conservancy, which transferred it over to the Utah Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands to manage under a conservation easement.

Weinberg said the division first began working with the Utah State Historic Preservation Office on a cultural resource survey in 2021, the same year the office helped get Black Rock added to the register. The idea of adding Carson’s cross to the federal list only picked up steam as the state land managers compiled the 2023 management plan for the island.

The group determined that getting it listed on the register was a good first step toward long-term plans to preserve the site. She adds that she views the listing as opening the door “for us to better protect it.” The division is weighing different possibilities like new fencing or signage that could be added in the area.

While Fremont Island is difficult to access, the goal is to preserve the site so people who do reach it in the future can view one of the earliest pieces in modern Utah history.

“It is important for people to understand that the history here is rich and there’s a lot of people who passed through here before we were able to live here today,” Weinberg said. “I think it’s vastly important to understand that history to help (us) appreciate what we have a little bit more.”

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Why this explorer’s carving on a Great Salt Lake island rock is now on a historic register