Another Pioneer Day celebration goes in the books this weekend — that’s 174 Utah birthdays if you’re keeping score — and for the Sons of Utah Pioneers the festivities mean another significant addition to their clubhouse in Salt Lake City.
Already full of pioneer-era artifacts, from Avard Fairbanks sculptures to hundred-year-old oil paintings to the best collection of trek diaries this side of the official archives of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the Sons of Utah Pioneers headquarters building near the mouth of Parleys Canyon took possession this week of a hand-painted American flag that’s even older than Pioneer Days.
The flag was made in the 1840s in Nauvoo, Illinois, when that city was headquarters of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. It is representative of the homemade American flags that were common in the 19th century. This one measures 8 ½ feet by 5 ½ feet and, besides the requisite 13 alternating red and white stripes and the blue background with 13 stars in the corner, it features three drawings: one of a bear, one of a bald eagle and one of a beehive underneath the eagle.
Also unique to the flag are the phrases “LIFE GUARDS” — believed to be a reference to a Mormon militia unit by that name — and “ALWAYS READY” — the militia’s motto.
Reputedly the flag flew atop the Nauvoo Temple before the Latter-day Saints fled Illinois in 1846 and began their trek to the Rocky Mountains.
When they left they took the flag with them.
Halfway to Utah, at a place called Mosquito Creek near Council Bluffs, Iowa, the flag was requisitioned by the 500 Latter-day Saint volunteers who joined the U.S. Army and formed the Mormon Battalion that marched all the way to California.
When the Mexican-American War ended in early 1848 and a portion of these intrepid soldiers finally arrived in the Salt Lake Valley, after walking more than 3,000 miles, what became known as the bear flag (it’s conjectured the bear drawing was added in California in reference to the California Republic’s grizzly bear symbol) was still in their possession.
In Utah Territory, the Life Guards regrouped and John Smith, the eldest son of Hyrum Smith and nephew of Joseph Smith, became the unit’s flag bearer.
History records that the flag, distinguished by its unique characteristics, was featured in many territorial celebrations and events throughout the 1800s. It was last carried by John Smith on July 24, 1897, in the Pioneer Jubilee Parade celebrating 50 years since the Latter-day Saints first entered the valley.
When John Smith died, he handed the flag down to his grandson, Hyrum Gibbs Smith, who in turn bequeathed it to his son Eldred G. Smith, the longtime church patriarch who died at the age of 106 in 2013.
Before his death, Eldred Smith gave the flag to his son, Gary, with a special request: At an appropriate point in time Gary would donate the flag to an organization Eldred Smith affiliated with all his life and had great respect and admiration for: the Sons of Utah Pioneers.
In a dedication ceremony held on Tuesday Gary Smith did his father’s bidding, officially handing over the flag to SUP President Brad Clayton.
Not only did the event coincide with this week’s Pioneer Days celebrations, but it marked exactly 175 years to the day since the Mormon Battalion left Iowa and began its fabled march to the coast.
With appropriate pomp and ceremony, the SUP’s Clayton accepted the Smith family’s gift and hoisted the remarkably well-preserved cotton banner to a position of honor high in the building’s foyer, where it will be available to public view during the building’s operating hours Monday through Thursday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
“It is a priceless gift to the Sons of Utah Pioneers, as invaluable as it is irreplaceable,” said Clayton. “It represents the grit of the pioneers that we all revere and stand for.”
If the flag could speak, the tales it could tell of where it’s been and what it’s seen — of fleeing Illinois and crossing the Mississippi River in the dead of night; of being flown in Santa Fe and Tucson and San Diego as those settlements were in the process of becoming Americanized during the Mormon Battalion’s long march; of being hoisted above Camp Moore in Los Angeles on July 4, 1847 (very likely the first American flag to wave in California); of being presented to Brigham Young upon arrival in Great Salt Lake City.
As it is, its very existence nearly 200 years later speaks volumes — about the valuable link between then and now, about a legacy of perseverance, and about the importance of the present making sure the past has a home in the future.