Parades, pageants, family gatherings, fireworks, and other celebrations are all part of what is known today as Pioneer Day, or Days of ’47. This official Utah holiday is celebrated throughout the state and in other communities commemorating the 1847 arrival of the first Mormon pioneer company into the Salt Lake Valley.
Most often repeated are the stories of handcart company members who experienced hardship, sacrifice, disaster, and death. However, of the more than 250 organized emigrant companies, only 10 were handcart companies. Most emigrants traveled by wagon train, and many stories of faith, miracles, adventure, and entertainment are also among those of the trail experience.
These excerpts from firsthand accounts provide deeper insight into the experiences, feelings, and understandings of these noble pioneers:
Faith. Jane C. Robinson, age 27, wrote: “I . . . left home . . . much against my fathers wishes. But I believed in the principle of the gathering and felt it my duty to go although it was a severe trial to me in my feelings to leave . . . but my heart was fixed. I knew in whom I had trusted and with the fire of Isreals God burning in my bosom I forsook my home, but not to gather wealth or the [perishable] things of this world.”
Miracles. Ann J. Rowley, age 48, wrote: “Night was coming and there was no food for the evening meal. I asked God’s help as I always did. I got on my knees, remembering two hard sea biscuits that were still in my trunk . . . left over from the sea voyage, they were not large, and were so hard, they couldn't be broken. Surely, that was not enough to feed 8 people, but 5 loaves and 2 fishes were not enough to feed 5000 people either, but through a miracle, Jesus had done it. So, with God’s help, nothing is impossible. I found the biscuits and put them in a dutch oven and covered them with water and asked for God’s blessing, then I put the lid on the pan and set it on the coals. When I took off the lid a little later, I found the pan filled with food. I kneeled with my family and thanked God for his goodness.”
Adventure. Mary P. Scott, age 26, wrote: “An English Emmigrant whose sense of smell had left him due to age, was one day hungryly out looking for food, found a strange animal and killed it. . . . (it was furry and black and white) He skinned it and proudly brought it to camp . . . and to his amazement everyone fled as he approached and for some days he was an outcast.”
Others found beauty among the great new formations they encountered along the way. Pioneer journals often included sketches and poetry. Appleton Harmon, age 26, created these sketches of Chimney Rock and Scotts Bluff in his journal when he emigrated in 1847.
Entertainment. Clarissa D. Young, age 18, wrote: “Songs would be sung, music played by the fiddlers, and the men and women would forget the weariness of walking fifteen miles or so over the trackless desert while they joined in dancing the quadrille.” Aroet Hale, age 20, wrote: “The Young folks had injoyment. Presedent Young and Kimble was Verry kind and indulgent to the Young. They frequently Stop within a Mile or So apart. The Young [young] yould [would] Viset from One Camp to the Other, and frequently would get musick and have a good Dance on the Ground . . . , I formed an acuantance with a Yound [young] Lady Crosing the Plains that I after wards Marr[i]ed . . . So I done My Sparking along the road.”
Mary Jane Lytle was 17 years old when she crossed the plains. She later recalled: “I met James A. Little my future husband at the crossing of the Missouri river. . . . When we camped at night, we made big bonfires, and the young folks sang, danced, played games &c &c. We made our own amusement and had a happy Time. young lovers strayed in the moonlight not far from camp, and I suppose repeated the old, old, but never new story.”
Humor. B. H. Roberts recorded this experience that happened when he was nine years old: “The day had been hot . . . and I was decidedly tired, nearly unto exhaustion. . . . I slipped the broad board from the barrel head and conceived the idea of dropping down in the barrel. . . . I discovered when I let [myself] down in the barrel that my feet went into about three or four inches of a sticky . . . molasses. . . . Too tired to attempt [to] climb out, I . . . slipped down and went to sleep doubled up in the bottom of the barrel. . . . As I crawled out [the next morning] . . . with molasses dripping from my trousers, I was greeted . . . with yells and laughter. I crept away as fast as I could to scrape off the syrup . . . for there was no change of clothing for me.”
Whether they faced great trials or found adventure on the journey, these heroic pioneer men, women, and children left a great legacy, and each of us “is the beneficiary of their great undertaking.” By reading their own accounts, we can understand more of their journey, and our hearts can be touched so that, as Elder M. Russell Ballard put it, “the fire of true testimony and unwavering love for the Lord and His Church will blaze brightly within each one of us as it did in our faithful pioneers.”