- Historic Sites
This Is The Place
Retracing the Pioneer Trail in Mormon Utah
April 1993 | Volume 44, Issue 2
On my first visit to Gilgal Garden, a back-yard collection of folk sculpture in Salt Lake City, a Mormon friend who shares my taste for the unusual took my picture. There I am, a smiling, middle-aged Gentile (as Mormons call all non-Mormons) seated on a large stone sphinx that has the face of Joseph Smith, the founder of the faith. I am sitting on the sphinx’s paw.
The Mormons frequently describe themselves as “a peculiar people,” so Gilgal Garden, being peculiar even by their standards, seemed like a good place to start a visit to the historic sites of Mormon Utah. (The Mormons have taken the term peculiar from the New Testament: “But ye are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar people.”)
Gilgal’s creator, Thomas B. Child, a Mormon bishop who died in 1963, once said, “Nothing is really ours until it is expressed.” The words have a distinct Mormon ring to them, for the Mormons have been expressing themselves and their history—in words and architecture and deed—ever since Joseph Smith founded the church in upstate New York in 1830, after translating the Book of Mormon from inscriptions on golden plates revealed to him by an angel.
For most of the next two decades, the Mormons wandered in the wilderness, so to speak, all the time gaining in numbers and resolve in the face of constant harassment and persecution. That first year they moved to Ohio, where Smith was tarred and feathered, and Missouri, where he was jailed and whence they were driven to Illinois. There they founded, in 1839, the town of Nauvoo, which became within five years the largest city in the state (population: thirty thousand). Their success in Nauvoo only bred more hostility, and in 1844, the same year he declared himself a candidate for the U.S. Presidency, Joseph Smith, in jail again, was killed by an armed mob in Carthage, Illinois. In 1846 the Mormons, led by Smith’s successor, the remarkable Brigham Young, began the trek west to find their Mormon Zion, a place that nobody else wanted, where they would be left in peace. They arrived in the Salt Lake Valley on July 24, 1847.
As any traveler in Utah will soon discover, the people who made this trek, the pioneers, are central figures in the Mormon story. They were a hardy lot who came, for the next twenty-odd years, by wagon train and foot, with some of the walkers pulling handcarts across the plains and mountains. And the first group had scarcely settled in when they began marking the anniversary of their July 24 arrival with a holiday, Pioneer’s Day, that Steve Olsen of the Museum of Church History and Art in Salt Lake City, calls “a celebration of the Mormon historical consciousness.”
Some eighty thousand Saints (taken from the church’s official name, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) came to Utah before 1869, the year the railroad arrived and the cutoff date for pioneerhood. That many people can produce an extraordinary number of descendants, so it is not at all unusual today to meet someone descended from a pioneer. One of the keepers of pioneer tradition is the formidable Daughters of the Utah Pioneers (DUP), founded in 1901 to carry on the pioneer philosophy that “to be worthwhile a thing must be mentally stimulating, socially pleasing, spiritually elevating, and economically valuable.” The Daughters have placed historical markers all over Utah. At the site of “Utah’s first famous landmark,” a lone cedar tree on the pioneers’ original route into Salt Lake City, the marker reads, “In the glory of my prime I was the pioneer’s friend.”
Utah absorbed eighty thousand Saints before 1869, the year the railroad arrived and the cutoff date for pioneerhood.
Utah also abounds in pioneer museums or relic halls, the grandmother of them all being the DUP’s four-story Pioneer Memorial Museum in Salt Lake City. Others are one-room affairs, but regardless of size, the exhibits are the same: too many things displayed in too little space—and walls lined with photographs of stern-faced pioneer men and women. (An exception is the imaginatively conceived Museum of Church History and Art in Salt Lake City.) Occasionally one object will be given more prominence than others, such as the eighty-five-year-old wedding cake preserved under glass in Hurricane, Utah, or the silk purse decorated with cantaloupe seeds in Kanab.
In Utah the most popular pioneer icons are log cabins and old farm machinery, the latter a symbolic reminder that the Saints came to Utah as farmers, not as adventurers. In Salt Lake City the Deuel log cabin, the town’s oldest building, occupies a place of honor on a plaza between the imposing Family History Museum and the Museum of Church History and Art. Farm equipment is found everywhere—as ornaments on lawns and displays outside museums. In Cedar City a jumble of wagon wheels and axles lines one side of the state history museum like a giant centipede, while in Hurricane the machinery is artfully arrayed around a pioneer monument like sculpture in a garden.