Honoring the Pioneers

On May 10, 1869 the Union and Central Pacific Railroads wedded the rails from California to Nebraska at Utah’s Promontory Summit.  Before 1863 all of those traveling to Utah had to traverse the 1,000 miles from Winter Quarters to Salt Lake City by wagon, on foot, or by handcart. As railroad builders pushed west from Omaha and east from Sacramento, beginning in 1863, succeeding pioneers had a shorter post railroad journey. Those who traveled without the convenience of the railroad experienced an overland journey that was different from those who came by railroad. Many speak of these as having walked over the plains, and that is actually true.  Most Pioneers walked because they generally reserved the wagons for their possessions and on occasion for those so handicapped they could not walk. We honor those who made that journey, especially those too poor to afford an ox team and wagon and who had to pull their meager belongings in handcarts.

On February 4, 1846, the same day that Charles Shumway led the first party of Pioneers across the Mississippi from Nauvoo into Iowa, Samuel Brannan led a party of 238 Latter-day Saints aboard the ship Brooklyn from New York Harbor.  They arrived in Yerba Buena (later renamed San Francisco) on July 31. Some remained in San Francisco, but about twenty of them established a colony called New Hope on the north bank of the Stanislaus River about one and one-half miles from its mouth.  Some of the New Hope settlers eventually left to join the Mormon settlers in Utah, others remained in California.

After May 1869, travel to Utah became easier.  Nevertheless, even with the construction of branch railroad lines that linked settlements along the Wasatch Front from Ogden north to Franklin, Idaho by 1877 and south to Chicken Creek near present day Levan by 1878 many settlers experienced difficult and expensive wagon journeys. Outside the Wasatch Front, railroad construction did not immediately benefit many Utah settlements. The Union Pacific did not construct a branch to Cedar City until 1923, and the railroad never reached St. George. 

Settlements in Southeastern Utah had to await the completion of the Denver and Rio Grande Western after 1880. All this means that much of the remaining settlement from Utah took place by traditional wagon travel. Some like the Hole-in-the-Rock expedition to Bluff in 1880 required backbreaking labor from all settlers.

The Utahns who originally settled in Arizona generally could not benefit from the railroads since the Southern Pacific did not reach Yuma until 1879, and most railroads were not constructed in Arizona until the 1880s. Settlements on the Arizona Strip between Utah’s southern border and the Grand Canyon began well before the railroad could assist emigrants. Settlements on the Little Colorado in Arizona occurred in the mid-1870s. Settlement at Mesa began in 1877.

After establishing Franklin in Idaho in 1860, settlers from Utah moved into the Bear Lake region and Snake River Valley during the early 1860s.  Many of these settlements predate the railroad.  On the other hand, many of the settlements in the upper Snake River Valley profited from the railroad.

Utahns established settlements in Southern Alberta, Canada and Northern Mexico in the 1880s.  Settlers from Utah moved into Star Valley, Wyoming from the late nineteenth century and continued to establish settlements into the early twentieth century.  Roosevelt, in the Uinta Basin was not settled until 1906 after a portion of the Uintah and Ouray Indian Reservation was opened to homestead settlement.  After the completion of the Ivins reservoir, settlers moved into Ivins in 1922.
 As we honor these settlers, we must also recognize and honor the American Indians who preceded the Euro-Americans to this region. When the Mormon pioneers reached Utah, Numic settlers (Utes, Shoshone, Goshute, and Paiute) occupied most of the territory.  Navajo, the Diné, lived in southeastern Utah. They had built their own cultures on land subsequently occupied by Mormon settlers.

Today, the National Society of the Sons of Utah Pioneers understands and defines a “Pioneer” as someone who settles heretofore unsettled territory or on land their culture defined as unsettled.   Travel to Utah was more difficult and expensive for those who came before May 1869.  We can consider it the end of the early pioneer era. Nevertheless, those who came after 1869 experienced difficulties as well. Most traveled to outlying communities by wagon. They endured difficulties from living in dugouts or wagon boxes, in building new houses, in digging irrigation works, and in breaking the sod and planting the land. These were Pioneers as well.

Although many Utahns hold a special place in their hearts for the pioneers who came before May 1869, the honored title “Pioneer” means much more than when or how they came.  Pioneers were "uncommon common people" — noble souls engaged in a worthy quest, people who in their hearts possessed great faith in God, dedicated Saints who were driven by great devotion to a estimable cause. They were people who were obedient to the call of prophets, and they were people who were determined to succeed — and did succeed — at all costs. When their own work was finished, the world was a better place because of them.

Past Pioneers

There are many great stories about the western pioneers, as numerous as the pioneers themselves. But these stories are too often forgotten when they are no longer told and the next generation doesn’t understand or remember them.

Stories of the west are filled with drama, tragedy and triumph, courage and faith. We hope none of these will be lost, but we fear that many will unless we who still remember write them down. We encourage every reader to consider how they might contribute to their family history by recording the stories, by preserving our memories and the memories of others, by identifying the people and places in old family photographs, and by digitally preserving family records and family trees. We live in a marvelous time when there are so many tools to accomplish these purposes.

Our children need to hear about their ancestors. A great teacher of the twentieth century asked, “How can we truly understand who we are unless we know who we were and what we have the power to become? How can there be real identity without real history?” [Neal A. Maxwell, 1926 – 2004]

We will begin to understand ourselves when we learn more about our roots and our heritage. Our ancestors were pioneers of different eras and from many different places. Some came to America as early as the seventeenth century.  Others came later.  Some pioneered the original Euro-American settlements on the continent.  Others came in the tumultuous nineteenth century when the United States stretched itself westward across a less welcoming land to the Pacific coast. These are all pioneers in the best sense of that title, and their stories need to be remembered and retold.

We encourage parents everywhere to perpetuate in their children’s memories who they are, where they came from, and what is expected of them as children of noble forebears.

Modern Day Pioneers

The term "pioneer values" has often been used to describe characteristics of the early Mormon Pioneers, but the need for positive pioneer values exists in our present day ever so much as in the past.

Today’s world calls for the same faith and purpose, the same courage and determination, the same sacred values that were required of the early pioneers. In every land today there are these kinds of pioneers. America and the world need these pioneers — today, tomorrow and always!

Today many wonderful “modern” pioneers are reaching out to the less fortunate in their communities and in their nations or others. The following links will take you to several excellent and inspirational examples of worthy efforts to lift up others in need.