It wasn't always like this. Look at Utah: It used to be known as a land of lakes. In its original usage as a place-name, "Utah" signified the lakeside home of the "Utahs" -- the Lake Utes, also known as the Lagunas, the Lake People, the Fish-Eaters, or the Timpanogos, a name drawn from the river where prodigious runs of cutthroat spawned.
The home of the Fish-Eaters was not the Great Salt Lake, but its freshwater feeder, Utah Lake, located 40 miles to the south in Utah Valley. A haven in a hard, inconstant land, the mouth of the Timpanogos (now the Provo) River hosted large semi-permanent villages and larger seasonal gatherings.
Outsiders coveted this rich, anomalous ecosystem. In 1776, Dominguez and Escalante praised the Lake of the Timpanogos in their expedition journal, and their cartographer wrote an effusive letter to the King of Spain. The lake could serve as the base for a new empire, he wrote, "because this place is the most pleasant, beautiful and fertile in all of New Spain."
The Spaniards never returned, but a later set of colonizers also understood the primacy of Utah Lake. In 1847, when Brigham Young chose the destination for his vanguard company, he settled for the next-best place. He "felt inclined for the present not to crowd upon the Utes" in their "choice lands" until the Latter-day Saints had "a chance to get acquainted with them and that it would be better to bear toward the region of the Salt Lake rather than the Utah."
Two years later, the Mormons felt sufficiently secure to start crowding southward. They wanted to turn the Lake Utes into commercial fishers as well as fishers for men. Within months, however, the two groups clashed over hunting and grazing rights. The "Indian war" of 1850 set the stage for subsequent conflict.
During the famine years of 1855-'56, the Utah Lake fishery saved local Mormons from starvation. The Fish-Eaters were not so fortunate. Settlers appropriated the best pasturage and fishing grounds, shut down the trade in slaves, and unwittingly introduced foreign diseases. In 1865, Ute leaders met with federal officials near the lake to sign a reservation treaty. The starving remnants of the Timpanogos people agreed to relocate to the Uinta Basin -- a distant, lakeless region.
Without the Lake People, Utah Lake stopped being the Center Place. But the lake remained important to the second generation of settlers. The presence of water and fish still set the valley apart.
In the 20th century, though, Utah Lake was marginalized. Due to overfishing, unchecked irrigation and species introductions, the trout fishery degenerated into a carp pond. Then, during World War II, the federal government built a colossal steelworks on the shore. Thanks to Geneva Steel, the water acquired a reputation -- not undeserved -- for being a cesspool. As recreationists went elsewhere for fishing, boating and swimming, Utah Lake lost its centrality. By the end of the century, it was perceived as just one element of the valley, no longer its essence.
The shrunken status of Utah's eponymous lake was demonstrated in the 1960s when the Utah Travel Council divided the state into different tourist regions -- "Color Country," "Castle Country," and so on. Utah County, which encompasses Utah Valley, which envelops Utah Lake, became known as "Mountainland."
In 1996, in conjunction with the state centennial, a newspaper ran the headline, "Timpanogos Has Always Dominated Utah Valley." The accompanying story had nothing to do with a lake or a river. It was all about a mountain.