The Origins of Pioneer Day

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.

Logan Republican (Logan, Utah), July 21, 1917

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.

The murder of Joseph Smith reported in a German language newspaper. It concludes with, “…One expects the society of Latter Day Saints to dissolve itself soon.” Der Liberale Beobachter und Berks, Montgomery und Schuylkill Caunties Allgemeine Anzeiger (Reading, Pennsylvania), July 16, 1844


New York Herald, July 16, 1844                                                                                              

 

 

 

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.

Deseret Evening News (Salt Lake City, Utah), September 1, 1906

Mary Bacon Fowkes (author’s personal collection)

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!”

Arizona Sun (Phoenix, Arizona), March 14, 1947

Arizona Sun (Phoenix, Arizona), March 14, 1947

Classics Illustrated, no. 147A (December 1958)

Some pioneers who reached the Salt Lake Valley took one look and reported they would gladly walk another thousand miles.

Box Elder County, Utah, photographed by Russell Lee

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.

Dearborn Independent (Dearborn, Michigan), July 23, 1921

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.

New York Times Sunday Magazine, July 20, 1947, p. 13

Pesky Details: The Authenticity of the Lincoln Flag

The flags decorating the theater box where President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated were almost an afterthought, but they became central to the legend and lore surrounding his assassination. On April 14, 1865, just hours before the President arrived at Ford’s, John Ford, the proprietor of the theater, thought it appropriate to adorn the box where […]

Let’s Talk Comics: Romance

It’s February, Valentine’s Day is around the corner, and love is in the air! Typically you might not think of “romance” and “comics” together – but in the 1940s and 1950s as superhero popularity waned, romance reigned. And it was all started by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby in Young Romance no. 1 (Sept-Oct. 1947). […]

Need a last-minute gift?

Still searching for that last-minute present?  Use Chronicling America for tips/suggestions.  Dolls are so last season.  If you want to win points this year, give a teddy bear instead.   For those with discriminating taste…   Or, how about the gift that keeps on giving? (Be careful what you wish for…)   Treats like chocolates are easy […]

Anatomy of a “Dear Santa” Letter

By the late 19th century, children in the U.S. had begun mailing their Christmas lists in letters to Santa, but the Post Office regarded these letters as undeliverable. Around the same time, newspapers began encouraging children to send their ‘Dear Santa’ letters to them to be published, recognizing the emotional impact the letters would have on their readers.

10 Thanksgiving Recipes You May Not Have Tried

Newspapers frequently publish recipes, including old favorites, winners of competitions, or new twists on classic meals. In Chronicling America you can find plenty of traditional, or not so traditional, recipes for this coming holiday. Take a look at some of these old recipes from our online newspapers. Are you brave enough to try them this […]

Have a “Safe and Sane” Fourth of July

Lost limbs and fingers, burns, blinding explosions, lockjaw and death. In the early 1900s, fireworks had not yet been perfected. Dangerous concoctions of explosives were used as an exciting way to celebrate our country’s independence, but the price was steep. Giant firecrackers, cannon fire, firearms, and rockets were just some of the loud and bright, […]