Jul 242017

On this date in 1847 a group of Mormon pioneers led by Brigham Young entered Salt Lake Valley where they permanently settled after being forced out of Nauvoo, Illinois, which they had built, and other locations in the eastern United States. The date is a public holiday in Utah, known as Pioneer Day, celebrated with parades, fireworks, rodeos, barbecues and the usual hoopla. Although Pioneer Day is an official state holiday it is considered a special occasion by many members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS Church) both within and outside Utah.

Since its founding in 1830, members of the LDS Church were often badly treated by their neighbors, partially due to their religious beliefs, and partially as a reaction against the actions and the words of the LDS Church and its members and leaders. As an anthropologist I’ll make a small linguistic correction here to a common misusage of the term “polygamy.” “Polygamy” as a term is gender neutral. A woman with more than one husband is as much a polygamist as a man with more than one wife. So, yes, the early Mormons were polygamists but not in both senses. A woman could not have more than one husband. The technical term for the (legal) practice of a man having more than one wife is polygyny (-gyny from the Greek for a woman – as in gynecology), and is the most commonly allowed marriage practice worldwide, if you count cultures where it is legal rather than numbers of marriages. Even in cultures where polygyny is legal, monogamy is the norm. Polygyny is expensive for a man, which is why it stood as a sign of wealth and prestige in ancient cultures, such as ancient Israel (tell that to fundamentalists who call monogamy “traditional Biblical marriage”), and conflicts between co-wives is an ever-present reality. Why the early LDS Church (and still some breakaway groups) practiced polygyny is still an open question. Usually historians put it down to the preponderance of women in the early church, but I am not so sure about this. The LDS Church will never admit that there was a degree of misogyny (-gyny again !!) among early Mormon leaders, not to mention a desire to expand their numbers rapidly (which polygyny will do), and some well documented cases of church leaders being sexual predators.

Brigham Young had 55 wives (that is, women who were “sealed” to him by church doctrine), some of them conjugal, some not. Of Young’s 55 wives, 21 had never been married before, 16 were widows, six were divorced, six had living husbands, and the marital status of six others before being sealed to Young is unknown. Young was also a noted racist, banning African-Americans from the LDS church, asserting that they were descendants of Cain and, therefore, human outcasts to be shunned. This doctrine of the Church was only recently revisited. Because of these practices, as well as other conflicts with their neighbors, the central Church had moved from one place to another for many years: Ohio, Missouri, and then to Illinois, where church members founded the city of Nauvoo. Sidney Rigdon was the First Counselor in the LDS First Presidency and, as its spokesman, Rigdon preached several controversial sermons in Missouri, including the Salt Sermon and the July 4th Oration. These speeches are generally considered to be prime causes of the conflict known as the 1838 Mormon War in Missouri. As a result of the conflict, the Mormons were expelled from the state by Governor Boggs, and Rigdon and Joseph Smith, the Church’s founder, were arrested and imprisoned in Liberty Jail. Rigdon was released on a writ of habeas corpus and made his way to Illinois, where he joined the main body of Mormon refugees in 1839. In 1844 Joseph Smith, and his brother Hyrum Smith were killed by a mob while in custody in the city of Carthage, Illinois.

According to church belief, God inspired Brigham Young, Joseph Smith’s successor as President of the Church, to call for the Saints (church members) to organize and head west, beyond the western frontier of the United States (into what was then Mexico, though the U.S. Army had already captured New Mexico and California in late 1846). During the winter of 1846-47 LDS leaders made plans for the migration west of the bulk of church members, their equipment, and their livestock. For his role in the migration, Brigham Young is sometimes referred to as the “American Moses.” Brigham Young personally reviewed all available information on the Salt Lake Valley and the Great Basin, consulting with mountain men and trappers, and meeting with Father Pierre-Jean De Smet, a Jesuit missionary familiar with the Great Basin. Young insisted the Mormons should settle in a location no one else wanted, and felt the Salt Lake Valley met that requirement and would provide them with many opportunities as well.

Brigham Young organized a vanguard company to break the trail west to the Rocky Mountains, gather information about trail conditions, including water sources and local Indians, and to ultimately select the central gathering point in the Great Basin. The initial company would select and break the primary trail with the expectation that later pioneers would maintain and improve it. It was hoped that the group could, wherever possible, establish fords and ferries and plant crops for later harvest. In late February, plans were made to gather portable boats, maps, scientific instruments, farm implements and seeds. Techniques for irrigating crops were investigated. A new route on the north side of the Platte River was chosen to avoid major interaction with travelers using the established Oregon Trail on the river’s south side. Given the needs of the large volume of Saints who would travel west, Church leaders decided to avoid potential conflicts over grazing rights, water access and campsites.

In April 1847, Young consulted with members of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles (the LDS governing body) who had recently returned from a mission to Britain. John Taylor, Parley P. Pratt and Orson Hyde brought money contributed by the English Saints, a map based on John C. Fremont’s recent western expedition, and instruments for calculating latitude, elevation, temperature and barometric pressure. Chosen members of the vanguard group were gathered together, final supplies were packed, and the group was organized into military companies. The vanguard consisted of 143 men, 3 women, and 2 children. The following train consisted of 73 wagons, one cannon, 93 horses, 52 mules, 66 oxen, 19 cows, 17 dogs and some chickens, and carried enough supplies to fully provision the group for one year.

On April 5, 1847, at 2 p.m., the wagon train moved west from Winter Quarters (now Omaha, Nebraska) toward the Great Basin. With the afternoon start, they made only 3 miles that day before camping for the night. Thereafter, camp was typically awakened by a bugle at 5 a.m. and the company was expected to be prepared for travel by 7 a.m. Each day’s travel ended at 8:30 p.m. and the camp was in bed by 9 p.m. The company traveled six days during the week, but generally stayed in camp on Sunday to observe the Sabbath.

William Clayton was appointed company scribe and was expected to record an accurate description of their journey and the distance they traveled each day. After three weeks, Clayton grew tired of personally counting the revolutions of a wagon wheel and computing the day’s distance by multiplying the count by the wheel’s circumference. After consulting with Orson Pratt, an accomplished mathematician, he designed a mechanism consisting of a set of wooden cog wheels attached to the hub of a wagon wheel, with the mechanism counting the revolutions of the wheel. Clayton’s design, which he called the roadometer, is the basis for most modern odometers. The apparatus was built to Clayton and Pratt’s specifications by the company’s carpenter Appleton Milo Harmon and was first used on the morning of May 12, 1847. The roadometer showed that the company averaged between 14 and 20 miles per day.

The first segment of the journey, from Winter Quarters to Fort Laramie took six weeks, with the company arriving at the fort on June 1. The company halted for repairs and to reshoe the draft animals. While at Fort Laramie, the vanguard company was joined by members of the Mormon Battalion (from the Mexican wars) who had been excused from service due to illness and sent to winter in Pueblo, Colorado. Also traveling in the new group were Church members from Mississippi who had taken a more southern route toward the Great Basin. At this point, the now larger company took the established Oregon Trail toward the trading post at Ft. Bridger.

During the last week of June, Sam Brannan, leader of the Mormon emigrant ship Brooklyn, met the company near Green River, Wyoming. He reported to Young about his group’s successful journey and their settlement in what is today San Francisco, California. He urged the vanguard company to continue on to California but was unable to shift the leader’s focus away from the Great Basin. Young also met mountain man Jim Bridger on June 28. They discussed possible routes into the Salt Lake Valley, and the feasibility of settlements in the mountain valleys of the Great Basin. Bridger was enthusiastic about settlement near Utah Lake, reporting fish, wild fruit, timber and good grazing. He told Young that local Indians raised good crops, including corn and pumpkins, but that there was ever-present danger of frost. The company pushed on through South Pass, rafted across the Green River and arrived at Fort Bridger on July 7.

The vanguard company now faced a more rugged and hazardous journey, and were concerned about negotiating the passes of the Rocky Mountains. They had received conflicting advice, but Young chose to follow the trail used by the Donner-Reed party on their journey to California the previous year. Shortly after leaving Fort Bridger, the group met trapper Miles Goodyear, who owned a trading post at the mouth of the Weber River. He was enthusiastic about the agricultural potential of the large Weber Valley. During the trip through the rugged mountains, the vanguard company divided into three sections. Since crossing the Green River, several members of the party had suffered from a fever, generally accepted as a “mountain fever” probably induced by wood ticks. Young himself became ill soon after meeting Goodyear. The small sick detachment lagged behind the larger group, and a scouting division was created to move ahead on the designated route.

In July 1847 the first company reached the Salt Lake Valley, with scouts Erastus Snow and Orson Pratt entering the valley on July 21. Pratt wrote: “We could not refrain from a shout of joy, which almost involuntarily escaped from our lips the moment this grand and lovely scenery was within our view.” The two scouts undertook a 12-mile (19 km) exploratory circuit into the valley before returning to the larger party. The next day, larger segments of the valley were explored, streams and hot springs investigated and the first camp established in the Salt Lake Valley. On July 23rd Pratt offered a prayer dedicating the land to God. On July 24th Young first saw the valley from a “sick” wagon driven by his friend Wilford Woodruff. According to Woodruff, Young expressed his satisfaction at the appearance of the valley and declared “This is the right place, drive on.” Today a monument stands in the spot where he made this declaration. Young later reported that he had seen the valley, including Ensign Peak, in a vision and recognized the spot.

While Pioneer Day has strong links to the LDS Church, it is officially a celebration about everyone, regardless of faith and nationality, who emigrated to the Salt Lake Valley during the pioneer era, which is generally considered to have ended with the 1869 arrival of the transcontinental railroad. Notable non-LDS pioneers from this period include Episcopal Bishop Daniel S. Tuttle, who was responsible for Utah’s first non-Mormon schools (Rowland Hall-St. Mark’s) and first public hospital (St. Mark’s) in the late 19th century, and a handful of African-Americans.

I spent part of a summer in 1967 in Provo, Utah, with a fairly conventional Mormon family of the time, and can confidently assure you of the truth of the assertion that traditional Utah Mormon “cuisine” consists of green Jell-O, funeral potatoes, and lots of casseroles of meat with vegetables and condensed soup. I’m told that things have improved since the 1960s, but I’m not going back there to find out. I’ve never made funeral potatoes and have no wish to. Anything casseroled with condensed soup and a topping of corn flakes is pretty well anathema to me. I had a lifetime’s supply when I was in Provo. Here’s a website giving 10 recipes for funeral potatoes “to die for”


I suppose the website title is ironic. Funeral potatoes got the name because they were (and are) a common dish for potluck suppers following funerals. They are also popular at picnics and celebrations in general.  There will be plenty of dishes of funeral potatoes served today in Utah. You’re on your own with this one.