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As Utahns prepare to celebrate Pioneer Day — some with reverent songs and a costumed parade, others with irreverent (“pie and beer day”) and rowdy escapades — it may be time to rethink what exactly the holiday means to the whole Beehive State. And what history is worth remembering.
July 24, 1847, is the day Mormon prophet Brigham Young entered the Salt Lake Valley, reportedly declaring it the “right place” for his band of Latter-day Saint believers to build a religious refuge.
Remembering and celebrating that first generation of Mormon emigrants is almost a “cult,” Pulitzer Prize-winning author Wallace Stegner writes in “The Gathering of Zion: The Story of the Mormon Trail.”
“Having endured, and crossed to safety, they began at once to transform their experience into myth,” Stegner writes. “...So long as any were still alive, pioneers were a revered club in Utah. … The one universally celebrated Mormon holiday is Pioneer Day. ... The honorific societies based on inheritance are not called Sons and Daughter of Nauvoo, or Sons and Daughters of the Three Witnesses, but Sons and Daughters of Utah Pioneers.”
Like all myths, though, this adoration and these commemorations flatten the real story into a single, supposedly heroic dimension.
These days, historians know much more about what groups have been omitted or pushed aside from the tale and what motivations drove those pioneers beyond persecution.
When members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints came to Utah in 1847, “a substantial [American] Indian civilization and culture already existed here,” former Church Historian Marlin K. Jensen said at a July 24, 2010, sunrise service to the Sons of Utah Pioneers in the Salt Lake Tabernacle.
About 20,000 Native Americans inhabited land within what would become Utah, Jensen said. “To the north were the Shoshone, to the west the Goshute, in the central and eastern regions the Ute, in the southwest the Paiute, and in the southeast the Navajo.”
And because “productive and useful land was scarce” in the Great Basin, the historian explained, “‘settlement’ for [the pioneers] would mean ‘displacement’ for Indians.”
Meanwhile, in Young’s vanguard company, there were three enslaved Blacks, who arrived two days early to plant crops and prepare for the settlers’ arrival. And Young continued to allow slavery in the territory.
The question thus becomes: How should Pioneer Day now be viewed? How can it better include these other voices and experiences? Should the name be changed? Should Pioneer Day even continue?
Enlarging — and correcting — the myth
Latter-day Saints “need to complicate the narrative” they tell every year on July 24, W. Paul Reeve, chair of Mormon studies at the University of Utah, says in an interview.
Much of it is exaggerated or even false, Reeve, author of “Religion of a Different Color: Race and the Mormon Struggle for Whiteness,” says in a Twitter thread.
The historian points out that Latter-day Saints did not “wander aimlessly westward” until Brother Brigham declared “this is the place.” His reported “visionary experience is best described as a confirmation of a decision already made.”
As early as September 1845, Young had zeroed in on the Salt Lake Valley, telling fellow church leaders that they would be “sending people beyond the mountains...somewhere near the Great Salt Lake.”
The Saints were “not trailblazers,” Reeve writes. “They followed the Oregon Trail and then Hastings ‘cutoff’ into the Salt Lake Valley, blazed by the Donner Party the year before.”
The Saints were deliberately fleeing the United States, crossing an international border to settle in northern Mexico and “looking for a place outside of firm governmental control.”
Among those who arrived two days before Young were three enslaved Black men, Reeve says, who must be classified as Mormon pioneers.
The arrival of Latter-day Saints into what would come to be the Utah Territory led to the displacement of Native Americans, he says. “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.”
Quoting an Native American Latter-day Saint, Reeve says the day might better be named “Manifest Destiny Day.”
It is time to add voices of Black pioneers to the annual Pioneer Day celebration, Reeve adds, and to acknowledge how Mormons’ arrival created “new refugees” among the Native peoples.
For nearly three decades, Pioneer Day has included a Native American gathering at Liberty Park, but some complain that this is more about tokenism than representation of history.
It could take as many years for Utahns to grasp a richer, more expansive history of the day, Reeve says, as it did to inculcate the old myths in the first place.
On stolen land
For Elise Boxer, coordinator of Native American studies at the University of South Dakota, the issue with Pioneer Day begins with its name.
“Pioneers” implies that the Mormon settlers were the first to enter the region, which is patently false, she says, which is why she always puts quotation marks around the word.
Beyond that, Boxer sees the Latter-day Saints’ “religious historical narrative” about their persecution, migration, arrival and subsequent colonization of the region as excluding Indigenous people who lived on the land long before the “pioneers” came.
The way the story is told — that God led the Latter-day Saints to Utah — portrays this land as open, she writes in “Decolonizing Mormonism: Approaching a Postcolonial Zion.” “Similar to American Manifest Destiny, Mormons became even more exceptional ...because land and natural resources were claimed in the name of Mormon religious refuge.”
Eventually, there were actual battles between the two groups, including the Black Hawk War, which has been described as “the longest, most costly and bloodiest conflict in Utah history ...the culmination of more than 17 years of stormy relations between Latter-day Saint settlers and American Indians in the Territory of Utah.”
As a Dakota young woman and Latter-day Saint, she had to make sense of Pioneer Day “on my own terms,” Boxer writes. “I believed this event to be hypocritical at best.”
How can two ways of “understanding our historical past come together?” she asks in an interview.
Pioneer Day is important “to a lot of Mormons, especially in Utah, as a way of creating community and connecting to people’s past,” Boxer says. “But we need to acknowledge that the migration and settlement were done at the expense of Indigenous peoples. And that this celebration is on Indigenous land. "
It is a “Mormon holiday about a Mormon narrative,” she says. Given Utah’s more diverse demographics today, she asks, how do we make the space “welcoming to other worldviews?”
Where are Blacks in the stories?
Robert Burch, executive director at Sema Hadithi African American Heritage and Culture Foundation, had a hard time grasping the importance of Pioneer Day when he arrived in Utah.
“My family weren’t pioneers; they were slaves in Georgia who built the community in Georgia,” Burch says. “To my culture, we had a Hollywood view of what pioneers were — cowboys who killed Indians.”
Salt Lake City’s 2002 Winter Olympics, he said, featured “white American cowboys.”
As a Latter-day Saint convert and now a Utahn, Burch has had to shift his perspective on the West. He has learned, for instance, that 20% to 30% of cowboys were African Americans and some of the most devout Mormon pioneers were Black.
But many of the people he has helped do genealogy and discover their roots insist there were no Black people in Utah in the 19th century. Or that some came and did nothing of note.
“Like most things, if you are not writing the narrative, you get left out,” Burch says. “It takes more than us just doing our genealogy; we have to share our stories so people can get a real view of what Utah really was like.”
For example, some may know about the “Buffalo soldiers,” African American soldiers who served on the Western frontier after the Civil War, he says, but few realize they contributed significantly to the economic and cultural development of Uinta and Duchesne counties, including building Fort Duchesne.
Not many know that some Black women organized vibrant and thriving social clubs in Salt Lake City, he says, and fought for justice and recognition. Or that there were enslaved men and women among the first settlers.
Burch would like to see more Black representation in the July 24 celebration, he says, but “some Black folks don’t like putting on costumes. They want to focus on the contemporary situation.”
It’s important to get the “full story of Utah out there,” Burch argues. “We get unity through historical truth — until we can start telling the truth in history and accept others, we will not reach that ideal.”
A traditional story, but with warts
In his approach to the state holiday, Mark Miller, who teaches history and Native American identity and citizenship at Southern Utah University, describes for his students the “travails and religious persecution that Latter-day Saints faced as they fled from the East,” he says. “I don’t emphasize race relations when talking about the first Mormon pioneer company entering the valley that day.”
It is “a cultural holiday and source of pride for Utahns,” says Miller, who is not a Latter-day Saint and was not reared here.
Still, it’s important to “contextualize the Mormons’ story — warts and all,” he says, so he mentions that they dislocated Indigenous people “just by arriving.”
That was happening all over the country, Miller says, where European settlers “were already destroying Indigenous peoples’ ability to survive.”
As one group of people “expanded into a new territory,” he says, “there was always a cost on people already there.”
Years ago, historians would teach that Mormons had “a special relationship with Native peoples and treated them better than average Americans,” he says. “I don’t teach it that way, by any means.”
Mormon theology about Native Americans may be unique, Miller says, but Latter-day Saint settlers “had the same racial beliefs as average white Americans.”
The first Mormons did have “the best of intentions toward their new Indigenous neighbors.They had high hopes of living in peace among them and converting them to the faith,” the SUU historian says. “But the past is full of stories of people fleeing persecution only to ultimately do similar things to other people.”
‘Everyone was traumatized’
The LDS Church should continue Pioneer Day as a church holiday, if not a state one, says Kathleen Flake, Mormon studies professor at the University of Virginia.
The early trekkers “deserve to be honored religiously.”
From the beginning, the holiday grew out of folks in small towns across the state expressing their gratitude “toward a certain generation,” she says, “who had kept the church alive.”
It would also be a shame for Utah to abandon the 24th, Flake says. “For the state to ignore its own roots and the religious motivation of these settlers would be to lose part of its history.”
Like others, the Mormon studies scholar believes it is possible to remember both the triumphs and tragedies of the day.
The story of pioneering no longer can be told in the language of Irving Stone’s heroic myth, “Men to Match My Mountains,” she says, with “no appreciation for the moral ambiguity of that exercise.”
We have to be “as truthful as we can about human activity,” she says. “When you do real history, not political history, then you are able to honor the good as you mourn the bad.”
If you tell the story honestly from multiple perspectives, Flake says, “you are able to say something about the human condition.”
“Everyone was traumatized” — the Latter-day Saints, the Indigenous peoples, the enslaved wagon drivers — “everybody hurt,” she says. Exploring this kind of hurt is “not an either/or history, but a yes/and history.”
It is no longer OK to say it’s complicated, Flake says. “We have to live and know the complexity.”
We have to find a way as a people looking at our history to see both courage and venality, heroism and horror in the same place, she says. Hopefully, future historians “will judge us by that most generous and more accurate standard.”