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July 18, 2012
Rambling Thoughts on Church History
A Note on July 24
by James B. Allen

It seems curious to some people that July 24th, Utah’s Pioneer Day, is celebrated not just in Utah but also in many places around the U.S. and even, at times, in foreign countries.

In Utah it is an official state holiday — almost as important as the 4th of July, with parades, fireworks, concerts, sporting events, rodeos, patriotic as well as religious speeches, and, of course, special holiday sales at all the major stores. The pioneer trek is often re-enacted, with “pioneers” arriving in the Salt Lake Valley on July 24.

In other places it is less dramatic, but it seems as if on that day Latter-day Saints almost everywhere somehow honor the 1847 pioneers and how their arrival in the Salt Lake Valley began a new era of Church history.

One non-Mormon scholar once dubbed July 24th “the greatest Mormon holiday” (Thomas F. O’Dea, The Mormons [Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1957], 82). It is truly that, at least in terms of the wide extent to which it is celebrated.

As mentioned above, it has even been celebrated outside the U.S., though I have no idea how extensive that is today. But it must have seemed like an anomaly when Mormons in Japan held a Pioneer Day celebration and one man, dressed up like Brigham Young and sporting a beard, shouted in very broken English, “This place is!” (Noted in “Looking back at Pioneer Day parades of the past,” accessed July 7, 2012 at abc4.com.)

Some people have raised questions about whether it is even appropriate for Mormons dispersed around the world to celebrate what, they claim, is mainly a Utah holiday. I won’t enter into that debate, except to say that whoever celebrates the day, and wherever they celebrate it, they are, in fact, celebrating a truly significant event in the history of the Church.

The day itself is not nearly as significant as what was happening to the Church at that important time. Even as the Illinois Saints were being driven from Nauvoo, thousands of other Saints from other states as well as from foreign countries were looking to join the main body of the Church, wherever it was.

The settlement in the Salt Lake Valley was, in fact, a kind of new beginning for the Church — the establishment of a permanent headquarters from which the Saints would no longer be driven, from which they would soon send more missionaries around the world, and to which tens of thousands would flow over the next few decades.

This new beginning was so important to Brigham Young and other general authorities that they even urged the new arrivals in the valley to be rebaptized as a symbol of their renewed dedication to building the Kingdom. On Friday, August 6, they set the example by being rebaptized themselves, and they recommended that all the others should be rebaptized and reconfirmed.

Wilford Woodruf said that, “As we came into a glorious valley to locate & build a temple we felt like renewing our Covenants before the Lord and each other” (Wilford Woodruff, Wilford Woodruff’s Journal, ed. Scott G. Kenney [Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1983], 3:249).The next evening fifty-four others were rebaptized, and by Sunday night all the Camp of Israel (as Brigham Young’s vanguard company was called) had been rebaptized and had hands laid on their heads in reconfirmation of their commitment.

So what exactly happened on July 24, 1847? This was not, as some may think, the day the pioneers came into the valley, or even the day Brigham Young saw it for the first time. It was the day Brigham Young, along with a small final group, joined the majority of the vanguard company who were already in the valley planting and plowing.

Members of the Camp of Israel were not all together as they approached the Salt Lake Valley. Brigham Young was quite ill, and was riding in a carriage with the final group. An advance party of 47 men, led by Orson Pratt, had gone ahead to scout a road and make it passable. It was difficult work, but on July 21, Orson Pratt and Erastus Snow, traveling ahead of the rest, got their first view of the valley. They were deeply and joyously impressed.

As Elder Pratt recorded:

Mr. Snow and I ascended this hill, from the top of which a broad open valley, about 20 miles wide and 30 long, lay stretched out before us, at the north end of which the broad waters of the Great Salt Lake glistened in the sunbeams, containing high mountainous islands from 25 to 30 miles in extent. After issuing from the mountains among which we had been shut up for many days, and beholding in a moment such an extensive scenery open before us, 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. (As quoted in Leonard J. Arrington, Brigham Young: American Moses [New York: Knopf, 1985], 144.)

That same day they went down into the valley, traveled some twelve miles on a short exploring expedition, and then returned to their camp in the mountains. That evening they received a message from Willard Richards and George A. Smith, detailing some instructions from the ailing Brigham Young. They were advised to move toward the Great Salt Lake rather than the Utah Lake, knowing that the Utes were probably more “tenacious” about Utah Lake. They were also told to plow and plant as quickly as possible.

The next morning (July 22) a group of nine, led by Orson Pratt and George A. Smith, went into the valley. They also instructed the rest of the camp to make a road into the valley. That afternoon the main camp of the pioneers saw their future home for the first time. “Hurrah, hurrah, hurrah,” shouted Thomas Bullock as he viewed the valley, “there’s my home at last” (ibid., 141).

However, the general impressions of the valley were mixed, some men showing disappointment and others very satisfied with the potential of what they saw. William Clayton climbed to the top of a hill where, he wrote, he “was much cheered by a handsome view of the Great Salt Lake.” Writing a vivid description in his journal, he noted that the valley was “well supplied with streams, creeks, and lakes,” though there was not much timber.

After further comment on the problems and possibilities in the valley, he wrote in an interesting mix of optimism and realism: “For my own part I am happily disappointed in the appearance of the valley of the Salt Lake, but if the land be as rich as it has the appearance of being, I have no fears but the Saints can live here and do well while we will do right.” (See William Clayton, William Clayton’s Journal: A Daily Record of the Journey of the Original Company of “Mormon” Pioneers from Nauvoo, Illinois to the Valley of the Great Salt Lake, published by Clayton Family Association [Salt Lake City: Deseret News, 1921], entry for July 22, 1847).

This guarded optimism was quite different from a woman’s perspective, expressed by Harriet Young, wife of Brigham Young’s brother Lorenzo. As she took her first look at the valley on July 23, she said to her husband: “We have traveled fifteen hundred miles to get here, and I would willingly travel a thousand miles further to get where it looked as though a white man could live” (as quoted in Arrington, Brigham Young, 143).

By the evening of July 22, the main pioneer camp had descended into the valley, though they were not yet at the spot where they would establish their settlement. The next morning, July 23, they moved on to the place where Orson Pratt and his group were camped, joined Elder Pratt in prayer, and then began their farming near a stream now known as City Creek. The first furrow was plowed at noon.

Meanwhile, Brigham Young was so stricken with fever that it was impossible for him to keep up, so he and a small party remained behind. On July 23 he enjoyed his own first view of the valley he already knew they would settle. (They had decided on the western slopes of the Wasatch Mountains even before they left Nauvoo, and had the choice narrowed to the Salt Lake Valley before they actually got there.) Still seriously ill, he was riding in Wilford Woodruff’s carriage.

As they crossed over the summit of Big Mountain he asked Elder Woodruff to turn the carriage so he could see into the valley. At that point, he recorded, “The spirit of light rested upon me and hovered over the valley, and I felt that there the Saints would find protection and safety” (as quoted in Arrington, Brigham Young, 145). The group then descended and camped at the foot of Little Mountain.

The next day, July 24, Brigham Young and his small party joined the main camp of the pioneers at the little settlement on City Creek. They were the last to arrive. This completed the journey of the Camp of Israel and gave rise to the celebration of Pioneer Day on July 24.

The first such celebration came in 1849, near the place that Brigham Young had recently named as the site for the Salt Lake Temple. A procession, led by Brigham Young, moved from his home to a bowery on Temple Square. The procession consisted of members of the twenty Salt Lake City wards, marching behind their bishops. In the bowery they enjoyed a devotional, presided over by Brigham Young. Our Pioneer Day celebrations had begun.

A Sidelight on “This is the Place”

There is some question as to whether Brigham Young actually used the words, “This is the place,” or, as some say, “This is the right place” when he saw the valley. There is no contemporary, first-hand account of such a statement, though there are second- and third-hand accounts. Brigham Young’s biographer, Leonard Arrington, cites one of them:

Brigham Young’s, “This is the place,” statement has been ascribed to a number of different places and circumstances, though it is likely that if he actually spoke these famous words he did it on this occasion. The following account is related by Gilbert Belnap, whose wife was the sister-in-law of Andrew S. Gibbons, a member of the pioneer camp (from An Autobiography of Gilbert Belnap, typescript, HDC).

She [Belnap’s wife] stated that Brigham Young had been ill from mountain fever and was lying in a bed prepared for him in a covered wagon. In a vision, he had seen the Great Salt Lake Valley and as the party entered the valley, he asked to be lifted up and looking out over the valley, he exclaimed, “This is the place.” He was assisted out of the wagon by members of the party and placing his cane on the ground he said three times, “This is the place, this is the place, this is the place.” She was very emphatic in her statement (meaning my wife), saying her brother-in-law had told her all about it, himself. (See Arrington, Brigham Young, 459, fn 81.)


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