Every July 24, Pioneer day reminds us we can do it
“What’s with all the pioneer hoopla?” My step-daughter’s east-coast boyfriend asked me this question when he visited one summer. Hence, this serves as a primer and personal note about the Pioneer Day holiday for the State of Utah, which is Monday, July 24, 2017 (every 24th of July). It also goes by the name Days of ’47, or Days of 47. This is the only official holiday observed in Utah that is not also a federal holiday. At the bottom of this article are links to some of this year’s events around the state.
First, background. In the early-to-mid-1800s, Converts to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, led by Joseph Smith began gathering together. With zeal, they went on missions to spread their gospel throughout the country and eventually around the world. When people joined the movement, they often journeyed to America to join the “saints” here. As sheer numbers grew, unique doctrines and the voting power of this ragtag group of followers increased tensions with neighbors. The “Mormons” found themselves unwelcome in place after place until the situation reached a fever pitch, led by tar-and-feather mobs, the murder of Joseph Smith, and a formal “Extermination order” by the governor of Missouri drove the Mormons west. They became religious refugees.
After Joseph Smith, the “American Prophet” was shot in Carthage Jail, leadership fell on Brigham Young who led a mass migration west. Thousands of Mormon pioneers began a trek along the Mormon Trail to a build a new home outside the United States boundaries where they could live in peace and religious freedom.
The journey by covered wagon, on foot and even pulling small handcarts was a treacherous defining moment in our history. The idea of “faith in every footstep,” still resonates as a deep tenet of our culture. The famous hymn, “Come, Come Ye Saints,” stirs my emotions in the same way as the National Anthem and “America the Beautiful.” Even the YouTube video below makes the hairs on my arm prickle (in the good way) and chokes me up.
Brigham Young personally led the first wagon train into the Salt Lake Valley and on July 24, 1847 he sat up from his sick bed and declared “This is the place,” (or “this is the right place.”)
Utah’s July 24 Pioneer Day holiday commemorates when our people found a permanent home in this rugged place they called Zion.
(As a side personal note here: my fourth-great grandfather wrote a letter to Brigham Young telling him he had stopped too soon, and that a spectacular canyon in Southern Utah was the real Zion. Isaac Behunin built the first pioneer cabin there and is credited for naming what is now Zion National Park. Brigham Young wasn’t known for taking suggestions, but Isaac’s name stuck.
The LDS Church has been very intentional in passing on values and history to each new generation through story and by honoring our ancestors. If any Christian religion has a form of ancestor veneration, it’s the Mormons.
The State of Utah has officially declared July 24 as a state holiday so we can celebrate and remember our pioneer heritage. The earliest recorded celebration was two years after arrival in the valley, 1849, and the first official statewide celebration took place on the tenth anniversary, July 24, 1857 in Big Cottonwood canyon at Silver Lake. Today, celebrations include all people, regardless of faith or origin. It’s a non-denominational community event, many faith-based celebrations also occur, and in Utah, church/state lines can get blurry.
July 24 is marked with parades, rodeos, fireworks, and heritage fairs around the state. Many communities also have their own unique festivals on other dates, like Tomato Days in the town of Hooper where I spent my childhood. But in Ogden where I live now the city’s festival is officially Pioneer Days, with a party that lasts a whole week and painted pony sculptures dot the city all summer in celebration. In my opinion, it’s the best in the whole state. My little family walks to the parade on Washington Boulevard, we enjoy fireworks, and I try to make it to the Traces of the West art exhibit and other events are also happening. Also, the rodeo is world-class awesome, in a stadium with spectacular views of the mountains. When the sun sets and drenches the mountains in color it will take your breath away.
Back to celebrating our culture, we think of ourselves as people who might have to bury a child in an unmarked grave on the prairie and keep walking forward. Our work ethic and resourcefulness will scratch an existence from sagebrush. We make the desert blossom with industry. We are hardy people who come together in crisis, caring for the bereaved and marking life events with ceremony. We have heritage organizations like the Sons of the Utah Pioneers or Daughters of the Utah Pioneers, and the LDS Church is arguably the biggest supporter of genealogical research. Ever heard of FamilySearch or RootsTech or Family History Centers around the world? Bottom line: we understand the power of a shared story. It’s no coincidence that I was drawn to the work of telling family stories. It part of my DNA. (Related: What story will your DNA tell?)
Speaking of that, here’s some personal background. I come from Mormon pioneer stock on both sides of my family. Every single one of my lines trace back to Mormon pioneers, although of course, personal and family activity in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day saints can vary pretty widely. For those who grew up in the LDS church as I did, it is as much part of my cultural heritage as it is about religion. Two are often so intertwined than when folks leave the church for whatever reason, they feel this deep sense of personal loss, as if they must also shed their heritage. I imagine it’s similar for those who come from strong faiths that are deeply embedded in ethnic traditions, ceremonial rites, holiday celebrations, food and family. When I got my DNA results back, it was about as northwestern European as physically possible: Danish, English, Irish, Scottish, a smattering of French and a dab of Iberian.
That said, I am deeply fascinated by the study of world religions and cultures and I believe that there is much to be gained by celebrating one’s heritage, from wherever it originates. There is much to suggest that a strong family story helps grow resilient children and that a family narrative strengthens the fabric of families. Families are glue of society, and families extend into both religions and civic institutions. Please don’t take my exuberance for my own family heritage or community pride as ethnocentrism or any feeling of race superiority. I neither think my heritage is better, nor apologize for feeling a deep affinity to it. Neither should you. At Evalogue.Life we believe in the power of everyone’s story. We welcome stories about traditions and celebrations from every part of the world. As we grow, we will work hard to expand our inclusivity. But for now, thank you for indulging my personal enthusiasm for Pioneer Day, July 24. Thank you for letting me share my heritage with you, and I invite you to share your heritage with me.
We also have a great list of activities you can do with your family to bring the spirit of pioneers alive in your home.
How can you get the most from Pioneer Day with your family?
We have a few ideas of how to really bring the Pioneer spirit into your home this week.
- Read some family pioneer stories or enjoy a book about them. There are a some Gerald Lund classics we love: The Work and the Glory series (traces a fictional family all the way across the plains), Undaunted series (details the story of the hole in the rock pioneers).
- Check out FamilySearch. If you don’t have an account, this is a great time to make one and if you do and then do a little searching you just may find a treasure trove of pioneer stories that someone has included in your tree. I just found a golden stash today and spent some quality time and shed a few tears reading some of my pioneer stories.
- Watch a great pioneer movie. 17 Miracles or Ephraim’s Rescue are two that come to mind. Your children will be enthralled and it will open the floodgates with questions about your own pioneer heritage.
- Visit a Family Discovery Center or a pioneer museum. The Daughters of the Utah Pioneers has locations in Ogden and Salt Lake City and they have amazing collections of artifacts and docents that have limitless knowledge and great stories to tell. We try to take to our kids every year.
- And if you do nothing else, just take a moment, as a family or personally, to reflect on the sweet sacrifice of the forefathers of your family.