What Utah’s Pioneer Day Teaches Us
If you don’t live in or near Utah or aren’t a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (also known as the “Mormons”), you may not be familiar with Pioneer Day – an official state holiday in Utah celebrated every July 24. As the name suggests, Pioneer Day honors and celebrates the pioneers of Utah. Since these pioneers were Mormon settlers, the Days of ‘47 (another name for Pioneer Day) is considered the greatest Mormon holiday.
However, even those who are not Mormon celebrate it today and pay respect to those who persevered and built a community in the western United States.
What Is the History of Pioneer Day?
Brigham Young led the first group of Mormon pioneers into the Valley of the Great Salt Lake on July 24, 1847, after escaping religious persecution in the eastern U.S. The journey from Illinois to Utah was a thousand-mile exodus that resulted in loss of lives and the founding of the Mormon homeland. During the journey, they crossed the plains and the Rocky Mountains before Young declared, “This is the right place."
Throughout the treacherous journey, the pioneers faced several hardships, including deaths from exposure to harsh winter elements and disease. PBS records, “When winter came, scurvy claimed as many as 15 percent of the camp members; Young's son would later call their settlement ‘the Valley Forge of Mormondom.’”
Once settled in Utah, the Mormon pioneers began celebrating the anniversary of their arrival in 1849.
How Is Pioneer Day Celebrated?
The original Pioneer Day celebration on July 24, 1849, consisted of a procession led by Brigham Young, a devotional message, and a thanksgiving feast. In 1882, it was officially named a state holiday. Since that time, it is common for groups to reenact the Mormon migration by walking part of the trail with handcarts.
According to the Library of Congress, “July 24 is still celebrated as Pioneer Day in Utah and several other Western states. The bravery of the original settlers and their strength of character and physical endurance is commemorated with festivities including games and music, speeches, parades, rodeos, and picnics.”
Today, it is the largest celebration each year in the state of Utah (it also accounts for the second-highest traffic fatalities).
Why Is Pioneer Day Important for Those Who Aren’t Mormon?
Yes, Pioneer Day originally started as a celebration of the Great Mormon Migration to Utah. Yes, it continues to be a special holiday for Mormons. No, you do not have to be Mormon to celebrate Pioneer Day or recognize its significance in American history. They share history with all Americans: They founded great cities of the west like Salt Lake and Las Vegas. They were the first American settlers in San Francisco and played a major role in starting up the California Gold Rush.
According to the Utah History Encyclopedia, “In larger cities, especially, the celebration has become more secular, and is seen as a means of coming together and celebrating the society that has been built by Mormons and non-Mormons alike. Though to Mormons the celebration may always bring to mind the pioneers of 1847, to the society as a whole the day is one to celebrate the building of the society by ‘pioneers’ of many eras and backgrounds.”
Additionally, efforts are made to include all American pioneer stories in the celebration. According to The Spectrum, a student production has children “not only play[ing] Mormon settlers but also Catholic missionaries, American Indians and pioneers with Greek, Italian, Chinese and Jewish heritage.”
Modern Pioneer Day celebrations tend to incorporate a mixture of Mormon religious beliefs, as well as other religious and secular beliefs. For many people who call Utah home or live in western states, Pioneer Day is simply an American holiday, similar to Independence Day, with flags and patriotism on full display.
For instance, the city of Ogden, Utah, celebrates Pioneer Day its own way. “While the Days of ‘47 celebration honors the arrival of Mormon settlers into the Salt Lake Valley on July 24, 1847, Ogden Pioneer Days commemorates Ogden’s own storied past.” Specifically, the Ogden’s Pioneer Days festivities, which began in 1934, host a large rodeo. It started as a way to help secure the city’s future against the devastating effects of the Great Depression.
What We Learn from the Utah Settlers about Basic Survival
Between 1847 and 1868, an estimated 60,000 to 70,000 pioneers traveled a 1,300-mile journey to Utah on foot, horses, and wagons. According to PBS, “They crossed the frozen Mississippi River – dry-shod. In one evening on the trek nine babies were born, their parents barely able to provide any shelter from the elements. Wagons collapsed, people died from exposure, and it took 131 days for the Mormon convoy to travel 310 miles to relative safety on the banks of the Missouri, where the river divided Nebraska and Iowa.” This is just a snippet of their long journey, but it illustrates the bravery and resilience of these early pioneers who kept their faith and kept pushing forward.
Mormons traveling west were not the only pioneers during this time. According to church records, “Historians estimate that more than 500,000 Americans traveled west during the 1840s through 1860s. Salt Lake City’s pioneers formed a unique part of the nation’s wider history.” Hundreds of thousands of Americans made their way across dangerous terrains hoping for gold, food, and new beginnings.
We can learn much from their pioneer experience.
- Perseverance – The accounts of pioneers who made the thousand-mile journey showcase perseverance at its finest. These brave men and women continued to push forward and overcome obstacles and setbacks until they arrived at their promised land.
- Self-reliance – After facing mounting religious persecution, a small group of Mormon settlers set out to find a new home for their church and people. They had to rely on themselves throughout the journey and, as they settled in the new territory, created their own beehive of industry.
- Thriftiness – According to Rick Lindquist, “When Utah became a state, it retained the territory’s ‘beehive’ emblem and ‘industry’ motto. The beehive symbol relates to industry and the pioneer virtues of thrift and perseverance. The early pioneers had few material resources at their disposal and therefore had to rely on their own industry to survive.”
- Community – The western pioneers recognized the importance of community while on their journey and when settling in new territory. They went out of their way to help others. For example, historians discovered, “Many who completed the journey returned to the east to lead others along the route. […] At least three pioneers in the database made the westward trip seven times! In this, even Brigham Young provides an example. After leading the vanguard pioneer company that arrived on July 24, 1847, he returned east to Winter Quarters, Nebraska, by December 1847. He led a second company to Salt Lake the following year.”
- Celebration – Finally, the Mormon pioneers found reason to celebrate along their journey. Pioneer Ellen Hallett wrote her parents, “We enjoyed the journey much. […] When night came we were generally tired, but not too much to enjoy the dance and song.” Celebrating even the smallest successes in a difficult situation can give us reason to keep fighting to survive.
Even if you don’t call Utah home, look for an opportunity to honor and celebrate these brave pioneers.
Preparedness Advisor, My Patriot Supply