I took my twin 6-year-olds to the Days of 47 Rodeo on Monday night. They were less interested in the pioneer crafts and games than they were the bull riding and train rides.
Of course, they both wanted a cowboy hat. They’ve spent the days since the rodeo playing in jeans and flannel shirts and their brand-new cowboy hats. It’s been 100 degrees outside.
My 10-year-old also wanted a hat. He chose the hat with the American flag pattern on the underside of the brim. I found it ironic.
The pioneers we were celebrating ran from the United States. They wanted to break from the established United States government and form their own. They were quite literally enemies of the state. The state of Missouri, at least. And perhaps Illinois. They were not welcome in the United States, which became evident 10 years later when a U.S. army started marching toward Utah to wage war against these same pioneers.
Wednesday was Pioneer Day – an official holiday in the state of Utah – wherein Utahns celebrate the arrival of Brigham Young and the early pioneers into northern Mexico, or, present-day Utah.
But if you waited until Wednesday to celebrate the pioneers, you missed it. As good leaders always do, especially when they get sick from a tick bite and need a few days of respite, Brigham had sent a scouting party to prepare the way before him. They had arrived in the Salt Lake Valley on July 22 and were already hard at work creating a community in Mexico when Brigham arrived.
American West Historian Will Bagley, a member of the Western Writers Hall of Fame, wrote that on July 24, 1847, the “120 or so Mormons already in the valley went to work at dawn and began assembling their plows, building a dam and breaking ground to plant late crops of potatoes, turnips, beans and buckwheat.”
Why do I keep emphasizing Mexico? Because it’s a good reminder of where we come from. A popular Facebook meme right now reminds Americans that if you call yourself an American, your heritage is either Native American, slave, refugee or immigrant.
And the title Pioneer is just as inclusive of such disparate identities.
University of Utah history professor and Simmons Professor of Mormon Studies Paul Reeve tweeted about Pioneer Day early this week with good reminders about who the pioneers were and why they came to Utah.
The pioneers “did not wander aimlessly” – they knew they were coming to the Salt Lake Valley as early as September 1845. They deliberately left the United States. They chose Northern Mexico because “the Mexican government is weak.”
Reeve mentioned, “Among those who arrived on 22 July 1847 were three enslaved black men, Hark Lay Wales, Oscar Crosby, and Green Flake. Flake and Crosby were baptized Latter-day Saints.”
He also reminded Utahns that “The arrival of Latter-day Saints into what would come to be called Utah Territory led to the displacement of Native Americans. Native peoples went from controlling 100% of the land base we call Utah to 4% of the land base within 60 years of the Latter-day Saint arrival.”
Chairman of the Northwestern Band of the Shoshone Nation Darren Parry recently noted an event in Idaho where the speaker gave a history of America that started in 1492. His response? “Bless their hearts.”
The story of Utah pioneers is not as simple as we make it out to be. Of course, not much is, so that observation is less insightful than I would hope. Yes of course they were industrious and dedicated, ingenuous, and definitely blessed.
But if we lose sight of the history, we may lose our empathy for other pioneers.
For example, the president of the United States recently told four sitting minority congresswomen to “go back” to “the places from which they came.” Three of them were born in the United States, and they’re all American.
If you feel any inclination to sympathize with the president’s racist and sexist view regarding these pioneers, you have lost sight of your own history and place in the world.
We all belong everywhere and nowhere. We are all refugees and immigrants in a land prepared by a loving Heavenly Mother and Father, who, above all, are no respecters of persons.
That should be the pioneer spirit.
Michelle Quist is a columnist for The Salt Lake Tribune