A Pioneering Spirit During COVID-19

This Pioneer Day, we join Utahns across the state in honoring the extraordinary men and women who have helped make our state such a great place to live, work and raise a family.

When Brigham Young first overlooked the majestic Salt Lake Valley at the end of the Mormon pioneers’ trek west in 1847, he famously remarked, “this is the right place.” Today, 173 years later, Young has proved to be prophetic. Utah has blossomed like the rose—from an isolated frontier territory populated by a few thousand hardscrabble pioneers to the Crossroads of the West inhabited by more than 3 million people.

This didn’t just happen.

Just to get to here required a great deal of faith, courage, and perseverance. The early pioneers came seeking refuge from mobs and persecution in Illinois, and the freedom to worship God as they pleased. It was not a journey for the tender of foot or the faint of heart. Still, it was a journey that thousands were willing to make, whatever the costs or hardships they would endure along the way.

As Pulitzer Prize-winner Wallace Stegner recounts of one handcart company in his book Mormon Country:

“They killed rattlesnakes by the side of the trail. They labored and sweated over the continually broken carts, they bucked wind and rain and … they waded rivers, some of them a dozen times…”

All told, it is estimated that between 4,200 and 5,000 pioneers died en route to Utah between 1847 and 1869, of which approximately 850 were children. And when they arrived, they discovered their struggle was not over. 

For example, the first settlers to the Salt Lake Valley in July 1847 arrived too late to cultivate an adequate harvest for the winter. Many survived the winter by eating sego lily roots and thistle greens. Instead of relief, spring brought late frosts and crickets that largely ruined the pioneers’ first crop. But instead of giving in to despair or pointing fingers, the early pioneers came together in unity, mutual respect and a spirit of shared sacrifice. 

Through perseverance, hard work, and fervent prayer, the midsummer crop of 1848 flourished and Utah was well on its way to becoming the great state we all know and love today. 

Utah’s first settlers were not the only pioneers though. People of all faiths and backgrounds have come over the years—often with little more than the clothes they wore, some small change, a pocketful of dreams and willingness to work hard. They watered the soil, farmed the fields, raised livestock, toiled in factories, and opened businesses and schools. Out of scarcity, in time they wrought abundance and laid the foundation upon which the Utah we know and love is built.  

Now it is our turn. We, too, are pioneers. 

Only instead of braving hunger, the elements or persecution, we are battling the worst health crisis to hit the United States in more than a century.

We can either respond by throwing our hands up in despair or casting blame, or we can come together to do the hard work and to make the shared sacrifices required to prevail over this pandemic. Whether we are a 1st-generation or, like Governor Herbert, a 6th-generation Utahn, it is our charge to meet this and the other challenges of our time just as the early pioneers met theirs. 

So, as we celebrate this July 24th, may we not only remember these remarkable pioneers, but also reflect on what we can do to follow in their footsteps, to entrust their—and our—heritage to future generations and ensure that Utah remains the right place.