Utah History Encyclopedia


By Charles S. Peterson
Historian Dale L. Morgan was born in Salt Lake City in 1914 and spent the early part of his life there. A great-grandson of Mormon apostle Orson Pratt, Dale Morgan was raised by his mother after the death of his father when he was five. At fourteen Morgan was stricken with meningitis, which left him with a near total loss of hearing. Always shy, he was even more introverted socially thereafter, devoting much of his time to reading and study.

Morgan attended the University of Utah from 1933 to 1937, and enrolled in commercial art courses thinking it would provide professional opportunity; however, he found his main interests to be in the social sciences and literary studies. Important in his later development was his experience working on a student publication--The Pen--to which he was a regular contributor. Close associates at The Pen were Helen Zeese (later Papanikolas), Ray B. West, Richard Skowcroft, and Fawn McKay (later Brodie). Fawn McKay especially proved to have a lasting influence upon his life and interests.

Unable to find a job in commercial art in Depression-time 1937, Morgan turned to the Utah Historical Records Survey and then to the Federal Writers Project (both New Deal relief programs) for employment. Here Morgan found his niche in life. With the Records Survey he quickly proved to have a knack for research, organizational capacity, and superb historical and literary gifts. Within months, he was a major figure in the survey of state and county records, organizing much of the work and increasingly dominating the historical writing of the surveys--which were done for the state archives and many of the countries. By 1940 he was overseeing both programs, which had undergone several organizational changes, and by 1942 had supervised the production of The WPA Guide To Utah, and histories of Ogden and Provo. He also was involved in various projects, including a history of grazing in the western states. He had acquired a deep understanding of and love for archives from his detailed work in the archives of the Mormon Church.

In September 1942 he followed the great national flow to wartime Washington, D.C. There he worked in a war agency but found time to search the National Archives and the Library of Congress for Mormon and Western materials including information on Indian and mountain-man activities. Works under way when he moved were completed as The Humboldt: Highroad of the West (1943), and The Great Salt Lake (1947). He also continued research on what he hoped would be a multi-volume history of the Mormons and Utah. Having exhausted the archival potential of Washington, D.C., he moved on after the war, doing research in New York and New England as well as along the Mormon trail through Ohio, Missouri, and Illinois.

In late 1947 Morgan was back in Utah. There he edited the Utah Historical Quarterly, publishing the journals of the John Wesley Powell expeditions of 1869-72 in 1947-49. He also turned his attention increasingly to a study of the fur trade, initiating a flow of authoritative and definitive works, especially outstanding among which were Jedediah Smith and the Opening of the West (1953), and The West of William H. Ashley (1964).

Morgan's had been a precarious existence in the postwar years. This was amended by his 1954 appointment as a senior historian at the University of California's Bancroft Library, where he continued his work unimpeded. In all he wrote or edited some forty books in addition to a continuous flow of articles and reviews. Morgan was concerned more with the facts and narratives of the past than with interpretative speculation, and his work rarely has been equaled in its accuracy and the blend of "poetic imagery" and "exactness of expression" that characterize his prose.

Tragically for Utah and Mormon history, Morgan died at the age of fifty-six in 1971. Much of his projected work on Mormon and Utah themes was still unfinished. Later workers have followed his lead, publishing, in addition to bibliographies and chapters on Joseph Smith initiated by him, a number of works that he more or less laid out while he was still with the Utah Writers Project.

Throughout his professional life he was a man of letters in the most direct sense. Unable to hear or converse verbally, he wrote letters, making his typewriter a voice for those interested in Mormon/Utah and mountain-man themes. A by-product of this was what might be termed a "postmark seminar"--a scholarly group held together as much by Morgan's determination to advance Utah and Mormon themes as by the individual interests of its participants. Within the circle of this correspondence and especially touched by Morgan's genius were productive individuals including Juanita Brooks, Fawn Brodie, Bernard DeVoto, Charles Kelly, Russell Mortensen, William Mulder, and Harold Schindler. Each of them, like Morgan himself, was in some way or other outside the mainline institutional apparatus of Utah studies. Through his leadership they left a lasting mark on the state's heritage.