Thursday, July 23, 2015

Five Surprising Stories About Pioneer-Day Utah

Each year on the 24th of July, Utahns celebrate their pioneer history. You probably know a lot of Utah history already. The trek west, the building of the Salt Lake temple, and the march of the Mormon Battalion are fairly common knowledge. But there are other stories that may surprise you. Back in the day, Utah wasn't all beehives and roses. Some crazy things happened here, and so in honor of Pioneer Day, here are five stories you may not know about the early Utah Saints…

Rowdiness on the Trail
       When you think about the troubles the early pioneers faced, gambling probably doesn't top the list. While most of us picture pioneer companies travelling with handcarts through the snow, the first group to reach the valley came by wagon in the summer, and apparently they had a little too much time on their hands. The Saints in Brigham Young's company spent their down time on the trail dancing, playing cards, and holding mock trials. Some of the men also used foul language and got into squabbles with each other. All this got to be too much for President Young, who admonished the camp one night in his signature, fiery fashion. According to the journal of William Clayton, a member of the company, President Young said, 
"If this camp was composed of men who had newly received the Gospel, men who had not received the priesthood, men who had not been through the ordinances in the temple and who had not had years of experience… I should feel like preaching to them... But here are the Elders of Israel, men who have had years of experience, men who have had the priesthood for years, and have they got faith enough to rise up and stop a mean, low, groveling, covetous, quarrelsome spirit? No, they have not, nor would they try to stop it, unless I rise up in the power of God and put it down… 
"Well, they will play cards, they will play checkers, they will play dominoes, and if they had the privilege and were where they could get whiskey, they would be drunk half their time, and in one week they would quarrel, get into high words and draw their knives to kill each other… You don't know how to control your senses."1
       After that verbal thrashing, followed by a special prayer meeting on behalf of the camp, the group moved on, and everyone behaved a little more appropriately, to say the least.2 Nothing like the words of Brigham Young to make folks toe the line.

Almost California
       Although Utah has become synonymous with Mormon country, many pioneers thought California would be the place to settle. The first one to suggest this was church member Samuel Brannan, who led a group to San Francisco by boat in 1846. Then Brannan went out to Wyoming where he met up with Brigham Young and fervently asked him to have the Saints settle in California with his group.3
       But Brigham wasn't a fan of the idea. California was in the middle of an immigration boom and Brigham thought the Saints should avoid all the persecution and corruption of "Gentiles." So the Saints remained bound for Utah. But that didn't stop people from pushing for the California option. After the first few cold Utah winters, Cali started looking really good to the Saints. It didn't help that the California gold rush had just started. James Brown, one of the first Mormon settlers, recorded:
"As the days grew warmer the gold fever attacked many so that they prepared to go to California.... they thought Brigham Young too smart a man to try to establish a civilized colony in such a 'God-forsaken country,' as they called the valley. They further said that California was the natural country for the Saints... for certainly our leaders knew better than to attempt to make a stand in such a dry, worthless locality, and would be going on to California, Oregon or Vancouver's Island."4
       Despite the zeal everyone showed for the golden state, Brigham Young held firm. The Saints stayed in Utah and, obviously, they made it work. The same cannot be said for Samuel Brannan. After Brigham Young rejected his California idea, Brannan left the church, got caught up in the gold rush.After making his fortune there, Brannan then became an alcoholic, got divorced from his wife, made a series of bad investments and lost everything. It goes to show that when you don't follow the prophet, things get rough. (It probably says a thing or two about the Californian economy, as well...)

Buchanan's Blunder
       So you're President of the United States and you've heard rumors that the Mormons are rebelling against the government. How do you handle the situation? Here's an idea: you send a new governor to replace Brigham Young, and send a whole army to go with him. Then how about ordering this army to march on Salt Lake, and (this is the best part) not tell the Mormons about it in advance! This brilliant plan was exactly what President James Buchanan cooked up in 1857. Having heard several reports that the Mormons were unwilling to submit to their territorial authorities, Buchanan dispatched the U.S. army. Soldiers marched toward Utah to quell a rebellion that wasn't really there, and word soon got to Salt Lake. Without any advance notice about why the soldiers were coming, church leaders assumed the government was going to drive them from their homes and it would be Missouri all over again. But this time they swore they wouldn't go down without a fight.

       Brigham Young declared martial law in the territory, and encouraged the Latter-day Saints to prepare to defend their homeland against the invaders. Lot Smith was sent out with a group of Mormon men to slow the army down. They found the soldiers on the trail and burned their wagons and scattered their livestock, leaving the army in dire straits. Now winter was coming on and the army was running low on supplies, so they settled in and waited. Meanwhile, word of Buchanan's political buffoonery was spreading in Washington (Oops!). So the President sent a man named Thomas Kane to mediate the conflict. Kane got to Salt Lake just in time to sort things out. The two sides finally talked with each other and came to an understanding. Brigham Young stepped down as territorial governor, and the army set up a fort where they lived alongside their neighbors in peace.5 It's amazing what a little communication can do. 

First Female Vote
       In 1848, in Seneca Falls, New York, roughly 100 people assembled in a convention that launched the fight for women's suffrage. Women had been able to vote in a few states early on, but by '48 women's suffrage had been abolished everywhere. Now women were on a crusade - they wanted the vote and they wanted it now! Twenty years later their wish was granted. Wyoming, a brand new U.S. Territory, granted women the right to vote in December 1869 (Merry Christmas, ladies!). Most people think this was a ploy to get women-folk to come out West, since they were scarce on the frontier. But Brigham Young thought it was an admirable gesture and he suggested Utah follow Wyoming's example. So in 1870, the Utah Territorial Legislature granted women the right to vote.6 

       But women had yet to exercise that power. Suffrage didn't come to either territory until after election season. Women couldn't actually vote until the next elections, so the place who held elections first would claim the first female voter in America. Guess who that was? Utah had its next elections in February, 1870, beating Wyoming by seven months. In the February elections Seraph Young, Brigham Young's niece, became the first female voter in the age of women's rights, ushering a new dawn for women in America. 

       Sadly, it was not to last. Members of Congress thought women would vote polygamy and Mormonism out of existence once they got the vote, but after a while, they realized that wasn't happening. Women were voting the same way as their Mormon brethren. So congress took the vote away again in 1887, and girls would have to wait for the 19th amendment to secure their rights.7 (Thanks a lot, guys...) 

The Bear Lake Monster
       In 1868, a man decided to take a leisurely stroll around the lake and as he was walking he saw something in the water. Soon he realized it was an enormous sea serpent! No, this story didn't take place at Loch Ness. It was at Bear Lake that several witnesses came forward reporting the existence of a huge sea dragon lurking in the fathomless depths. While many thought the monster was a product of superstitious Mormon settlers, a large group of witnesses reported seeing the creature.8 The monster's existence was supposedly corroborated by local Indians, too. According to the Millennial Star, the Indians wouldn't come near the lake, because two of their number had been gobbled up by the monster years before.9  

       Soon the word spread across the state: here there be monsters! A reporter named Joseph C. Rich covered the story for the Deseret News, and had his dad, Elder Charles Rich of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, vouch for his report. With so many insisting the story was true, including the son of an apostle, several church leaders decided they wanted to see for themselves. Brigham Young himself came up in 1869 and took a journey along the shoreline hoping to see the beast, but he had no luck.10 Then in 1881, John Taylor, Wilford Woodruff, and Lorenzo Snow (among other general authorities) came to Bear Lake on a monster-hunting trip of their own. They were apparently more successful than President Young, because some of them said they actually saw the monster with their own two eyes! Lest you think Nessie has a summer home in northern Utah, Joseph Rich, the reporter who started the story, later admitted he made the whole thing up as a publicity stunt to draw tourists to the area.11 But years later, it still hasn't stopped people from looking. 

There you have it! Gambling, politics, and monsters. The early Saints saw it all. So in honor of pioneers past, here's wishing you...

Happy Pioneer Day!

1. Clayton, William. 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. New York, New York: Arno Press, 1973. 191-192.

 2. "Pioneers to the West." In Church History in the Fulness of Times: The History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 323-336. Rev. ed. Salt Lake City, Utah: Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1992.

 3. Hunter, Milton R. "Utah Forty-Niners." In Brigham Young the Colonizer,, 194-195. 4th ed. Santa Barbara, California: Peregrine Smith, 1973.

 4. Hunter, Milton R. "Utah Forty-Niners." In Brigham Young the Colonizer,, 195. 4th ed. Santa Barbara, California: Peregrine Smith, 1973.

 5. Hafen, LeRoy R. "Introduction and Summary of Events." In Mormon Resistance: A Documentary Account of the Utah Expedition, 1857-1858, 13-24. Bison Books ed. Lincoln, Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press, 2005.

 6. Schons, Mary. "Woman Suffrage." National Geographic Education. October 18, 2010. Accessed July 24, 2015.

7. An Experiment In Progressive Legislation: The Granting of Woman Suffrage In Utah In 1870

8. Hunter, J. Michael. "A Monstrous Legend." In Mormon Myth-ellaneous: Amazing True Mormon Stories--and Some That Should Be!, 177-184. American Fork, Utah: Covenant Communications, 2008.

9. "The Latter-day Saints' Millennial Star Vol. 30." October 10, 1868. Accessed July 24, 2015.

10. DeVoy, Beverly. "MONSTER OR MERE MIRAGE?" March 18, 1991. Accessed July 24, 2015.

11. Hunter, J. Michael. "A Monstrous Legend." In Mormon Myth-ellaneous: Amazing True Mormon Stories--and Some That Should Be!, 177-184. American Fork, Utah: Covenant Communications, 2008.

Picture Credits (in order of appearance):




4. "James Buchanan portrait" Library of Congress, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

5. "Godey's Lady's Book Spring 1884 Fashion Plate" by clotho98.

6. "Drumnadrochit" by Immanuel Giel. Wikimedia Commons.

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