After the War of 1812, there was an “age of intellectual unrest and moral reform” in the United States, New labor unions, anti-slavery groups, health associations, temperance societies, and a multitude of religious groups for all varieties starting up, especially in the Northeastern part of the U.S. Revival tent meeting were cropping up all around in the New York area, some times a different religion on every block. A young man, named Joseph Smith said he received a vision after praying for an answer as to which church to join. He reported that his enigma was solved when he received a vision of God and Christ, in which he was told to join none of the existing denominations. Some years later he organized The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, also nicknamed Mormons. The term, “Mormons” was used by those who attacked the church members for their belief in one of their scriptures used in addition to the Bible, called The Book of Mormon. Because of Joseph’s account of how the book came to be, his followers were always harassed. Each area they settled brought attacks against the church, yet the membership grew larger and larger. They built a two story temple in Kirkland, Ohio, which they were forced to leave before it was burned by anti-Mormons. Every time they settled an area they were forced out, even from Nauvoo, a city they built from scratch in a swamp area. It became one of the largest cities in the state of Illinois before the Mormons were forced to leave there, after the martyrdom of their Prophet, Joseph Smith.
PIONEER TREK BEGINS
15,000 refugees fled more persecution and headed westward lead by Brigham Young. They called themselves “Brigham Young’s Camp of Israel” and they were scattered across five hundred miles, through Iowa to Winter Quarters, in east Missouri and Far West, in west Missouri. During this time, the United States Government called upon the church members for 500 men to join in marching with the forces in California in the war against Mexico. Those groups of men were called the Mormon Battalion. They marched mainly to show their loyalty to country and respect for the Constitution, which protects the rights of U.S. citizens, even that of “free worship”. Things were hard for these pioneers, but even more so, because so many young, fit men had left with the Battalion. The women had to work as hard as the men.
After researching the names of pioneers and the Handcart Companies they came into the Valley with, I found that many came here in wagons and handcarts, as a family. I also realized how many sent an older son or young couple here first to get a place ready for the rest of the family members, then sometimes sent children with other families. Some family arrivals were spread out over a couple of years, with the parents, babies and youngest children last. This often was the case for families that couldn’t afford to buy a wagon and bring their whole family at once.
The stories of the difficulties of those pioneer treks to this, “their promised land”, are tales of great sacrifice and endurance. The challenges and trials they went through seem beyond our imagination, but the journals and facts remain as proof. At the arrival of the first wagon and Handcart Company, on the mountains hills to the east of the Salt Lake Valley, Brigham Young, ill with mountain fever, sat up in his wagon and declared, “This is the place”.
THE SALT LAKE VALLEY
The pioneers arrived in Salt Lake Valley to find a valley completely untouched by human improvements. It was desert lowland, where vegetation ranged from cactus at lowest levels, to sage and greasewood in mainland, to pinion pines and juniper on foothills, then scrub oak and maple thickets. On higher areas into the canyons and mountains were the yellow pine and white aspen, still higher spruce and fir giving way to barren snowcaps.
The original Indian inhabitants here were humble tribes, surviving by digging roots for food, eating insects, seeds, berries, rodents and other wild life. Some other more advanced Indian tribes lived in communities on lakes or rivers with supplies of fresh fish, and near mountains where fur bearing animals were plentiful. Some even had horses, which were introduced into the Utah area in the late 1700’s by Spaniards driving horses and mules through the area. Later, 1830’s- and 40’s, by traders and raiders, Indian and white man, many of which were also “human-slave dealers”, who kidnapped or purchased Indians, usually squaws and children, from weaker tribes, to use or sale as slaves in the markets of Santa Fe and Los Angles, Mexico territories.
The arrival of the Mormon pioneers here in the Salt Lake Valley changed the area forever. The lands along the mountains were flooded with fresh water, and a new course was set. Schools and church meetings were held in tents at first. The first books used for teaching school here were a Bible, school text books of arithmetic, a dictionary-speller, and a child’s reader. Log buildings came next. Usually schoolhouses served as civil centers, and then on Sunday, they were church meeting houses. In 1850, Wilford Woodruff arrived with 2 tons of school books. Homes, churches, businesses and schools were soon built.
Now, standing on that same “This is the place” hill, you can look out on an enormous and ever growing city. The Salt Lake Valley and surrounding areas, has truly fulfilled its destiny, as Brigham Young promised, ..”To blossom like a rose”.
When you look back at the pioneers and what they endured on their physical quest to get to the Salt Lake Valley, and then to build the wildness into a city and community, you can’t help but be somewhat Awe-struck. You realize, that not even one pioneer could be lazy, no matter what their physical condition. Every person, every child, was needed to help in the survival of the group. They worked to live, and learned that fact at an early age. My grandmother Nessen passed on a saying, “If you learn to like work, you will always be happy!”
They also knew how to rest and celebrate as well. In a book called “Outline History of Utah and the Mormons” I found some detailed notes of early pioneer parties. It said, the Mormon saints were anxious and willing to celebrate almost any event with dancing and rejoining. The group exercised the most humble reverence for the presence of their spiritual leaders, often prophets or apostles, who conducted and offered a prayer asking God for a blessing on the event. They offered equal exuberance for the festivities afterward. Hospitality was extended to strangers, but no liquor, nor tobacco was allowed, nor was anyone who sold it. Light refreshments were also served. Music was often limited to a single fiddler, who was paid with vegetables given by those attending the social as an admission fee. The leftover candles used to light the barn were also given to the fiddler at the end of the evening. Dirt floors and bare footed square dancers were not unusual.
EARLY JULY 24TH CELEBRATIONS
The first year in the valley, the saints celebrated the 24th of July by having the youth re-enact the pioneer arrival, but the annual celebrations kept growing. In 1851 records, reported this 24th of July celebration in Southern Utah, and says that it was typical of the celebrations through out the state of Utah. There were bands playing, flag waving, the pounding of drums and even the sounding of artillery. There was a small parade of people or decorated wagons, preceded by a band, followed by bishops carrying sheaves of grain, then the mayor and city council members and their ladies. Orators delivered challenges; there were comic readings and frequent toasts. Following the celebrations, dinner parties were held at a variety of places.
WE ALL HAVE PIONEER ROOTS
The majority of folks here in Utah, have some where in their family history, some proud connection with the Utah pioneers. I have pioneers ancestry from both my father and my mother. I can barely wrap my head around the idea that I came from people of that strength and caliber. We all did! If not Utah pioneers, then some other type of pioneer.
The majority of my ancestral roots are here in Davis County. Our valley is north of the Salt Lake Valley and has grown at a slower pace, but a speed we prefer. The dirt on our family farm has been tilled by family for over a hundred years. My widowed mother still lives there. To the admiration of your children she is still holding on to the land, doing what she can to fulfill the dreams of our pioneer predecessors. It’s no longer a producing farm, but sustains its value as our family home. My mother is land rich and dirt poor, but blessed by all the great numbers of descendants that honor and value our pioneer roots and history.
My grandmother (whose grandparents were original handcart pioneers) told me of her memories riding in a horse drawn wagon on a dusty dirt road into Salt Lake from Davis County. She talked of the area around the warm springs near Beck Street, being the Indian Camp area. There were some kind of mud huts and tents, Muskrat skins where stretched and drying in the hot sun. She says that the resourceful Indian people used every part of the animal, including the bones for jewelry. I only wish I had collected more of her stories.
LESSONS THEY LEFT US
We think of pioneers as hardy, physically strong men and women of iron, but most didn’t start out physically fit for the trip, they became “rocks”, a step at a time. They just kept moving. They didn’t wake up each morning and say do I want to be a pioneer today? They made the decision once, and committed to the responsibility, then got up every day and did it, committed to the job of seeing it to the end of the journey.
Those are the gifts I have learned from our pioneer fore fathers and mothers: DEDICATION, COMMITMENT, HARD WORK, AND DO IT NOT JUST FOR YOURSELF, BUT FOR THE FUTURE, FOR THOSE WHO COME LATER….. Those values should never go out of style.