Sunday, July 25, 2010

The Pioneers

It's late July, when everyone else is scrambling for shade, ducking into the Mall or just going under water to keep the sun from searing them into a greasy sweat pool. Us? No problem. The morning fog protects us, and we don't even have to spend any time cutting grass, since it finally quit raining. The real local cash crop, officially grouped with the "controlled substances," grows in the usual spots, which, I hasten to say, I know nothing about. Life's pretty good.

It's a good time, too, to honor a certain group, those Mormon pioneers that your History teacher might have spent ten minutes total talking about unless you grew up in The Beehive State. The first pioneers arrived in what became Utah in 1847, when Salt Lake City did not exist, the natives outnumbered the newcomers and the territory wasn't even technically part of the United States. It was July 24th when Brigham Young said it was time to stop traveling and really get to work.
You see, the history of the Mormons around any neighbors at that point was so bad that it finally required a 1200 mile trip to the far stretches of Nowhere to find a place where these folks might be left alone. New York, Ohio, Missouri and Illinois had all failed to protect the First Amendment rights of the Mormons, with the latter being the site of the ultimate social rejection - the assassination of the Mormon Prophet Joseph Smith and his brother Hyrum in 1844 by a mob which charged a jail in which the brothers and others were being kept.
The world watched to see "Mormonism" disappear in leaderless confusion, but instead, a new group of leaders headed by Brigham Young kept the Church together, though they were forced to leave their homes again, this time for a land few knew anything about and even fewer coveted for themselves.
The pioneers were well organized, and the first ones used oxen and horses to pull covered wagons West. The hardest part of the journey turned out to be the first leg through Iowa. It was winter, which, then and now, can be pretty tough going through mud or over ice when your only source of warmth is a campfire. The Iowa side of the Missouri River near where Omaha is today was a stopping place where the travelers awaited better conditions.
When travel resumed, the Mormons took a route that followed the Platte River, but, in an effort to avoid trouble with other pioneer groups, they generally took the less-traveled bank.
The part of this story that has always impressed me most was that upon arrival, the Mormons really just had their leaders' word that anything could grow in this desert, that the area could be turned into not just one but many cities, or that life could ever be as good as that which they had left behind. Everything from schools, houses of worship, municipal facilities, running water, homes, farms and so forth had to be built by them if they were to exist at all. True, they had skills which they employed in this work, but it's hard to envision an easy day then, unless it was forced by sickness.
The work finally spread in all directions for hundreds of miles. Brigham Young, by this time serving as both Church President and territorial governor, would assign a group to "colonize" an area which had been empty. Some became cities, while others never did produce the crops or products required for self sufficiency. A look at today's map of Utah and some surrounding areas reveals names taken from scripture, a bit like reading through Moby Dick.
Settlers in subsequent years came all the way from Europe and the British Isles to make this new society part of their own future. Many didn't have the money for a covered wagon and pulled handcarts all the way from eastern Iowa, where the railroad tracks ended. Others later borrowed from what was called the Perpetual Immigration Fund to help them arrive by easier means. Charles Dickens once visited a ship filled with Mormon converts leaving England and commented that he had been surprised at the quality of the people, having expected something less favorable than the sensible, well-organized group he saw.
We are far enough removed from the days of the Mormon pioneers to be understandably unfamiliar with them as people. I'm sure they had their faults, as have all people at all times. But some deeds left to us today tower so highly over the generations that we are, I think, justified in simply knowing who did certain great things and why. While it would seem that the Mormon pioneers received little for all their pains other than the chance to simply be left alone for a time, I, and many who know this story better, are simply awed by their selfless dedication and perseverance. Seeing what they did answers anything I could possibly ask about how they felt about things. Would that we all should be so blessed by a such a sense of purpose in our lives.


Post a Comment

<< Home