July has always been a celebration month for me. My parents and I have July birthdays. On July 3, 1890, Idaho became the 43rd state, and I have fond memories of the 1990 centennial celebration at The Grove and in Bronco Stadium.
July 4th commemorates the signing of the Declaration of Independence, evoking stories of the Boston Tea Party, Bunker Hill, Paul Revere and George Washington crossing the Delaware. Six years later, in the summer of 1787, 55 men met in Philadelphia to debate, argue and compromise over the document that became the Constitution of the United States of America.
The men who assembled in Philadelphia were among the finest our country has ever produced and their focus, despite state and regional economic interests, in the end created a strong central government that has served the nation well. The document they drafted is today the oldest existing national constitution.
But the big day in our small southeastern Idaho community was the 24th of July. It was only as I grew older that I realized it was not a state or national holiday, but one peculiar to southeastern Idaho and Utah — where it is a state holiday called Pioneer Day.
Pioneer day celebrates the arrival of the Mormon pioneers in the Salt Lake Valley in 1847. Following the martyrdom of the Mormon prophet, Joseph Smith, in 1844, the increasing persecution of the Mormons living in Nauvoo, Ill., forced them to flee their homes in February of 1846, crossing the Mississippi River and living the rest of the winter in rough shelters in Iowa.
They gradually made their way across Iowa, stopping to plant crops to be harvested by those church members who would follow them. The winter of 1846-47 was spent in Winter Quarters (now Florence, a suburb of Omaha, Neb.). Their homes were lean-tos or sod houses and did little to keep out the elements. More than 200 were buried in the cemetery at Winter Quarters.
The first wagon train, consisting of 143 men, three women and two children, began the trek westward in April 1847, following a course along the north side of the Platte River, generally paralleling the Oregon Train on the south side.
Although they had wagons, they were loaded with food and possessions, and there was no room to ride, so many of the company walked much of the way. In addition to covered wagons, handcarts laden with the families supplies and possessions were pushed and pulled the thousand miles across the plains to Salt Lake City.
Upon reaching the valley on July 24, 1847, Brigham Young indicated that “this is the place,” and the pioneers began to lay out a townsite, plant crops and build homes. By 1855 nearly 22,000 members of the church had made the long, difficult and dusty journey to Utah. Like travelers before them, the Mormon pioneers left many in graves along the way.
During this time, William Clayton wrote the hymn, “Come, Come Ye Saints,” excerpts of which reflect the determination and faith of the Mormons as they sought the place God had prepared for them in the West:
Come, come ye saints, no toil nor labor fear,
but with joy, wend your way.
Though hard to you, this journey may appear,
grace shall be, as your day.
We’ll find the place which God for us prepared,
far away, in the west;
Where none shall come, to hurt or make afraid,
There the saints, will be blessed.
That song was one of many sung around the campfires by the weary travelers over the months that they plodded toward their destination. That song and others will be sung on July 24th in celebrations of Pioneer Day, not only in Utah and southeastern Idaho, but wherever members of the Church gather, from Argentina to Alaska, Japan, Nigeria and New Zealand.
There will be programs, pioneer costumes, handcarts, games, stories and remembrance of the pioneers whose legacy lives on in the valleys of the Mountain West.
Glenna M. Christensen is a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
The Idaho Statesman’s weekly faith column features a rotation of writers from many different faiths and perspectives.