Sheepherding on Fremont Island

In 1859, two pioneer brothers from Farmington, Henry William Miller and Daniel Arnold Miller, began the first ranching operation on Salt Lake’s Fremont Island.

The storied explorer John C. Fremont and his traveling companions initially documented their foray onto the Great Salt Lake with incredible optimism. While paddling arduously in their small rubber craft in 1843, they observed that, “Several large islands raised their high rocky heads out of the waves; but whether or not they were timbered, was still left to our imagination…”. When they explored one of the aforementioned “high rocky heads,”  they found  an island populated with sagebrush, bunch grass, and a surprising lack of fresh water. After a day or two, Fremont dubbed his discovery “Disappointment Island.”

While surveying the Great Salt Lake for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in 1850, Captain Howard Stansbury, perhaps to Fremont’s chagrin, changed the name of the formerly disappointing island to Fremont Island. Stansbury noted that the plentiful bunch grass and brackish water would be perfect for livestock. In 1859, Daniel and Henry Miller demonstrated their agreement by moving flocks of sheep and some cattle to the island, which the locals then recognized as “Miller Island.”

Seymour Miller, the grandson of Daniel and Henry, recorded some of his experiences as a de facto ranch hand for the family ranching business on Fremont Island. They kept 2,000 sheep on the island and ferried themselves and their stock back and forth on the Lady of the Lake, a boat designed by Jacob Miller, Seymour’s cousin. Keeping the sheep on a relatively small island (4.60 sq. mi.) led the Millers to conclude that they did not need a full-time herder on the island. Instead, they let the sheep run wild for most of the year, confident in the confines of the island.

The sheep quickly went feral and became “wild as a deer.” This provided the Millers with some market advantage because “The meat of this flock tasted more like venison than mutton and would always bring a fancy price on the market when ordinary mutton could hardly be sold.” Unfortunately, during shearing and lambing seasons, these wild qualities caused numerous problems for the island herders. They would sometimes go a full day or two during round ups without successfully driving a single sheep into the shearing pens. During one especially eventful drive, Seymour and his companions cornered some sheep on a peninsular part of the island and “Rather than be caught, several of them took off into the lake. The last I saw of them they were still going.”

Unfortunately for the Millers, their ranching operation did not last past 1885, when local lawyer Uriah Wenner took an interest in living on the island and began legal procedures to oust them and their flocks. The Millers were forced to move their herds to the mainland, where they continually lost woolies due to the sheep’s feral nature that befuddled conventional herders. In his memoir, Seymour concluded that “we never got a dollar out of them.”

After Wenner and his wife died, possession of the island changed hands without remarkable business or improvement until 2003. For a few years, Fremont Island underwent a small stint as a hunting ground for exotic livestock and then changed ownership until it landed in the hands of the State of Utah.

Images

Fremont Island
Fremont Island Source: Brian Maffly. "Fremont Isalnd is finally in public ownership." Courtesy of Land Advisors Organization. https://www.sltrib.com/news/environment/2020/12/08/fremont-island-is-finally/
1865 Map of Utah and Nevada, featuring Miller's Island
1865 Map of Utah and Nevada, featuring Miller's Island Source: "Seymour Miller's Account of an Early Sheep Operation on Fremont Isalnd." 1865. Found in https://issuu.com/utah10/docs/uhq_volume56_1988_number2
Lady of the Lake
Lady of the Lake Source: "Seymour Miller's Account of an Early Sheep Operation on Fremont Isalnd." Found in https://issuu.com/utah10/docs/uhq_volume56_1988_number2

Location

Metadata

Joshua Rust, Brigham Young University, “Sheepherding on Fremont Island,” Intermountain Histories, accessed July 22, 2024, https://www.intermountainhistories.org/items/show/735.