On July 24, 1849, the residents of Salt Lake City were “awakened by the firing of nine rounds of artillery, accompanied by martial music.” It was Pioneer Day in Utah, marking the two year anniversary of the first group of members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints to reach the Salt Lake Valley after an overland trek from Illinois and beyond.
It is now an official holiday in Utah, complete with the “Days of ’47 Parade” and even a marathon for the hardy descendants of those pioneers who walked across the United States prairie under physically wrenching conditions, sweating through the summer sun and trudging through nearly frozen water in the winter.
In 1844 the young church was led by Joseph Smith, who along with his brother Hyrum, was shot dead in Carthage Jail (Illinois) by a mob after years of persecution that followed them and their adherents from New York to Pennsylvania to Ohio to Missouri and finally—or so they thought—to Nauvoo, Illinois.
They were so hopeful in Nauvoo that they established a bustling city of 12,000 people–bigger than even Chicago–where they published newspapers, built a temple and formed the Nauvoo Brass Band, a musical group sponsored by the church. The religious community thrived there until the martyrdom of Joseph Smith. It was a sure sign that the Latter Day Saints knew it was time to leave…again.
Over 70,000 people made the exodus to who-knows-where, mostly on foot, pulling handcarts packed with their meager belongings. Those too sick or feeble to walk rode in covered wagons.
My great-great-grandmother, Mary Bacon Fowkes, one pioneer who crossed with the Chester Loveland handcart company in the 1860s, lost so much weight that she discovered her wedding ring, her most treasured possession, had fallen off her bony finger, never to be seen again. But she was one of the lucky ones: many died along the way, as so poignantly noted in the pioneer anthem “Come, Come Ye Saints,” which acknowledges, “And if we die before our journey’s through, happy day! All is well!”
On July 24, 1847 the first group of Saints, led by Brigham Young, who by then led the church, arrived in the Salt Lake Valley, where he apocryphally declared, “This is the place!”
Some pioneers who reached the Salt Lake Valley took one look and reported they would gladly walk another thousand miles.
But that valley in the shadow of the Wasatch Mountains would be the new Zion for members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, precisely because it was an unpopulated wasteland where no one would “hurt or make afraid,” in the words of William Clayton.
To this day, Utah celebrates its pioneer heritage every July 24th, Pioneer Day, and the little band of religionists became a global religion with more members of the church living outside of Utah—even outside the United States—than in.