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Sons of Utah Pioneers walk in the Days of ’47 Parade in Salt Lake City on Monday, July 25, 2011.

Deseret News

Remembering the pioneers on a Pioneer Day altered by a pandemic

‘On the 24th of July, we ought to all have our hearts filled with appreciation for our pioneer forefathers who made it possible for us to have what we have, not only in this valley but what we’ve been able to carry out from this valley really to the four corners of the earth,’ said President M. Russell Ballard.

SHARE Remembering the pioneers on a Pioneer Day altered by a pandemic
SHARE Remembering the pioneers on a Pioneer Day altered by a pandemic

SALT LAKE CITY — The Donner Party scrabbled its way into the Salt Lake Valley on Aug. 22, 1846. That act both contributed to the group’s infamous demise and helped save the Latter-day Saint pioneers who arrived 11 months later.

The Donner-Reed Party labored 18 days hacking a 39-mile road into Emigration Canyon above the Salt Lake Valley in 1846, according to the diary of James Reed. That was time neither they nor Brigham Young’s vanguard company had to spare.

The taxing effort was the beginning of the breakdown of the Donner Party which, bound and determined for California, spent only a couple of days crossing the Salt Lake Valley and then started to unravel in the Great Salt Lake Desert.

The Latter-day Saint pioneers traveled relatively quickly down the new Donner road through Emigration Canyon, even though it required crossing Emigration Creek 18 times, and arrived in the Salt Lake Valley in July 1847 instead of August, which would have been the case if they had needed to clear the trail themselves.

The speedy mountain crossing gave them time to plant wheat, turnips and potatoes for fall and winter harvests that historians say averted mass starvation.

In fact, Orson Pratt and Erastus Snow arrived July 21 as scouts for the vanguard company. The bulk of the group arrived the next day without suffering a single casualty and by the 23rd, the pioneers were plowing and planting. Brigham Young arrived on the 24th and declared it the right place.

The first acre of wheat was harvested on Oct. 21, according to the diary of Lorenzo Young. Even the timely planting and a good harvest wasn’t enough to spare from hunger the 1,600 pioneers who spent that winter in what today is Salt Lake City. They had to turn to wild parsnips, thistles and sego lily roots, according to “Saints, Vol. 2: No Unhallowed Hand.”

Instead of a possible disaster, the pioneers began to build Utah into the Crossroads of the West, where the Transcontinental Railroad was completed and the world gathered for the 2002 Winter Olympics.

The pioneers were Latter-day Saints who had fled the United States after being driven from Missouri under an extermination order and from Illinois by more mob violence. They sought safety, freedom and the ability to worship and share the message of Jesus Christ.

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President M. Russell Ballard, acting president of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, talks about pioneers while sitting in front of the Mary Fielding Smith home at This Is the Place Heritage Park in Salt Lake City on Monday, June 15, 2020.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

“It took pioneers that had great vision, and certainly Brigham Young was the leader of that group, to recognize that they could go up and get the water and reroute it and bring it down into the valleys, and look what we have now,” said President M. Russell Ballard, acting president of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. “When they came in here, they claim there was one tree. It was a barren place. I imagine those who looked at this valley who left the beauties of the East and then have Brigham Young say, ‘This is it,’ it must have been a real shock for some of them. Well, he saw what it would become, and here it is, a beautiful city.”

“When we celebrate Pioneer Day,” he added, “we ought to be cheering for those who led the way to everything that we have in this great valley.”

No parade in 2020

The mass migration of pioneers to Utah by wagon train and handcart continued through 1868, but pioneer commemorations began in 1849.

The following year, the Nauvoo Brass Band rode a grand carriage during the Pioneer Days Parade, which later became the Covered Wagon Days Parade and then the Days of ’47 Parade.

In 1882, the Utah Territorial Legislature made Pioneer Day on July 24 an official holiday.

There will be no parade in 2020. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, it was canceled, along with the Deseret News Marathon and other July 24 celebrations, including those honoring the 20,000 Native Americans who lived in the state’s borders when the pioneers arrived.

This isn’t the first time the celebrations have been disrupted. The 10th anniversary of the pioneers’ arrival was interrupted midday in 1857 by news that Johnston’s Army was on the march. The federal occupation prevented Pioneer Day celebrations until 1862.

No parade was held during World Wars I and II, either.

Utahns and Latter-day Saints still can and should celebrate pioneers and pioneering this year, President Ballard said.

“As you start doing your family history, ultimately, you’re going to find pioneers in your forefathers, who pioneered the area to which they came,” he said. “A lot of us who were born here, our forefathers were pioneers to this valley, but wherever people live, there are forefathers who were pioneers.”

President Ballard is descended from Latter-day Saint pioneers who crossed the plains in 1848. Mary Fielding Smith came with her son, 9-year-old Joseph F. Smith, who would become the church president in 1901. Her grandson Joseph Fielding Smith became church president in 1970. Her great-grandson President Ballard became acting president of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles in 2018.

He expressed a hope that every father and mother would gather their children around them and celebrate the pioneers who helped make possible what they have.

“This is a great time to think about forefathers and family history,” he said. “‘Who am I? What did people pay before my coming that makes it possible for me to have all of these wonderful things in life?’”

The interview with President Ballard last month at This Is The Place State Park in Emigration Canyon itself seemed to straddle the pioneer and modern eras. Conducted for video purposes, too, the interview halted when the recording was disrupted both by coyotes howling down the canyon and airplanes passing overhead.

What the pioneers mean today

The Deseret News, launched in 1850, published the first news report of Pioneer Day celebrations in 1851, which included a note about “the firing of cannon 110 times.”

The cannon shots may have signified the fact it took the vanguard company, historians now say, 111 days to reach the Salt Lake Valley. A bugle sounded every morning at 5 a.m., and the wagons rolled out of camp at 7. The horn blew again at 8:30 p.m., and all fires had to be out and everyone in bed by 9. In between, on most days, the company averaged 15 to 20 miles.

Ironically, Utahns pioneering through the COVID-19 pandemic today are in the midst of an effort exactly half as long, the “55-day moonshot” to quell the pandemic by wearing masks and physically distancing through Labor Day.

Deseret News opinion editor Boyd Matheson wrote that the pandemic moonshot shared characteristics with the early Utah pioneers who “felt a responsibility toward those they traveled with and those who would come after.”

Important traits can be passed on to children by sharing pioneer stories, said Sister Joy D. Jones, the Primary general president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

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Sister Joy D. Jones, general president of the Primary of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, smiles prior to being interviewed in the Pioneer Children’s Memorial at This Is the Place Heritage Park in Salt Lake City on Monday, June 15, 2020.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

“We can live the characteristics that we so honor and respect in our early Saints — courage and faith, love, resilience and that strength that they exuded every day of their lives one day at a time,” she said. “As we live those characteristics, we are sharing those things with our children. We’re exemplifying for them the very strength that we so appreciate about our early Saints.”

She said helping children connect to the past can help them see they are part of something bigger than themselves.

“I marvel that the majority of the pioneers were children (and) the hardships and the challenges that they faced,” Sister Jones said. “Perhaps today’s children won’t face challenges of that same sort, but they will face challenges as well, and our children can look to those children and realize it was hard for them, they did hard things, and our children today do hard things as well.”

Elder Ulisses Soares, a member of the church’s Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, said people today generally do not suffer the same physical hardships that challenged the estimated 60,000 to 70,000 pioneers who traveled to Utah by wagon and cart, but similar resilience is needed.

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Elder Ulisses Soares, of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, is interviewed at the Conference Center in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, June 23, 2020.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

“We are suffering socially, we are suffering emotionally, and as we gain strength from their experiences, we can apply those in our own experiences,” he said.

A native of Brazil, Elder Soares said he doesn’t celebrate Pioneer Day as a descendant of a pioneer who came to Utah but as a descendant of a Latin pioneer.

“I always believe that a Latter-day Saint pioneer is one that helps to pave the way for others, who established a new way of living, based on the truth they received in their hearts, and I think that pioneers today are very similar.”

Sister Jones said the concept should be that a man, woman or child today is doing the same thing early pioneers did.

“We are having our own journey. We are crossing our own trails. We are moving forward with faith in Jesus Christ, just as they did. I honor our modern-day pioneers. I honor all of those who face difficult times. Honestly, if we stop and look at where we are right now, did anyone in the world think that we would be in the middle of a pandemic, that we would even experience that in our lives? And here we are. We have an opportunity right now to choose to be happy and to choose to have hope and to realize this is temporary, and the Lord is with us.”

Brigham Young certainly expected as much. Before they left, he and the church’s other apostles knelt around the altar of the temple they were about to abandon in Nauvoo, Illinois, and prayed for divine help.

On July 26, 1847, two days after he arrived while ill in the back of a wagon, he thrust his cane in the ground where he said the Salt Lake Temple should be built. Now, 173 years later, the temple is under renovation, with workers shoring up its foundation to last for centuries more.

For Latter-day Saints, President Ballard said, Utah and the pioneers who settled it remain important to all church members even today.

“On the 24th of July, we ought to all have our hearts filled with appreciation for our pioneer forefathers who made it possible for us to have what we have, not only in this valley but what we’ve been able to carry out from this valley really to the four corners of the earth,” he said. “Now we’re a worldwide church, focused and centered on the restoration of the fullness of the everlasting gospel through Joseph Smith, who was raised up to be a prophet of God.”

“We now are saying it’s the Crossroads of the World,” he added, “because of the missionary effort that we’ve had that’s gone all over the world out of these valleys and carried this message to the four corners of the earth.”