Today my adopted state of Utah celebrates Pioneer Day. It’s a founder’s day that commemorates the day an initial band of 151 settlers from the east landed in the Valley of the Great Salt Lake.
It’s a state holiday that we celebrate like a second ‘Fourth of July’ with pancake breakfasts, parades, BBQs, and fireworks after dark.
From July 24, 1847, when the vanguard party arrived, until the time when the rails were linked by the transcontinental railroad in 1869, about 70,000 people made the trek westward. They rode in wagons, pushed handcarts and walked, driven by religious faith and fervor. And while the American West was settled by tens of thousands who made their way along the Oregon or Sante Fe Trails, only the Utah Pioneers built fords and ferries and roads, and planted grain for the Pioneers behind them. A few hundred served a stint in the US Army. A handful were at Sutter’s Mill, California when gold was discovered.
But unlike Nevada, California and Colorado, the settlement of Utah wasn’t motivated by the lust for precious metals. And unlike my home state of Arizona, the settlement of Utah was marked by mutual cooperation, not rugged individualism; the Utah Pioneers were obsessive planners and usually successful as a result.
But there were notable and tragic failures. In 1856 two companies of handcarts with about 1,000 people total left too late in the season from Iowa. An early snowstorm struck the companies on the plains in Wyoming and almost 20 percent died from starvation or exposure.
Wallace Stegner, the fine historian and Pulitzer-Prize winning novelist, wrote this about the ill-fated Martin and Willie Handcart companies:
“Perhaps their suffering seems less dramatic because the handcart pioneers bore it meekly, praising God, instead of fighting for life with the ferocity of animals and eating their dead to keep their own life beating, as both the Fremont and Donner parties did. . . . But if courage and endurance make a story, if humankindness and helpfulness and brotherly love in the midst of raw horror are worth recording, this half-forgotten episode of the Mormon migration is one of the great tales of the West and of America.” The Valley they were coming to was a forbidding place. Mountain men and Catholic priests who'd seen it told them the Valley couldn’t be settled. Local legend holds that when the Pioneers arrived there were no trees in the Valley itself, although I doubt that. The Salt Lake Valley is about the same longitude as New York City, but about 4500 feet higher in elevation. The high altitude and the northerly longitude means that the growing season is relatively short. This last year we had at least some snow in October, November, December, January, February, March, April, May and June. As a result, my tomato crop is pretty spotty this season.
Because the Valley is on the eastern end of Great Basin and in the rain shadow cast by the Sierras, the Valley of the Great Salt Lake gets less than 10 inches of rain a year. Only the prodigious snowmelt from the mountains to the east of the Salt Lake Valley makes the place habitable. But the snowmelt all naturally flows to the Great Salt Lake, the world’s fourth largest, a shallow sea larger than the state of Rhode Island and too salty for fish.
As a transplant to Utah, I have come admire the hardy and resilient Pioneers. Like Isaac Newton memorably said of others, we “stand on the shoulders of giants.”
So please join me in toasting Pioneers… in Utah and everywhere else. Because even now the world still needs pioneers.