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The beginnings of any specific state speaks a lot to that state’s identity. A stolid foundational state like Massachusetts buries its roots in the soil of the pilgrims. Texas’ independent spirit, the same spirit which dragged it spitting and cursing into statehood, can still be seen today.
Utah’s foundations just so happen to be unlike any other state’s, and on a day like Pioneer Day, time should be taken to consider just how unique that foundation was.
Utah is still the most religiously homogeneous state in the country. Approximately 60 percent of Utahns are members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (though a lesser percent actively participate in religious observation). The Mormon church still bears a uniquely strong influence on public and cultural life in the state.
It can be easy to forget that Utah was not discovered by the Mormon pioneers. Many generations of Native American tribes lived across the state and were present when the first European explorers came through. Francisco Vasquez de Coronado, a Spanish explorer, came through in the 1500s, and was followed 200 years later by the more famous Catholic priests Dominguez and Escalante, who made it as far north as the lake before deciding the area was too arid for settlement. In 1821, when Mexico gained independence from Spain, Utah became part of Mexico.
Jim Bridger, by most accounts, was the first white American to see what would become the Wasatch Front. He was followed by hundreds of fur traders and trappers who set up trading posts around the area.
In 1844, many states away, the founder and prophet of the Mormon church, Joseph Smith, was killed in Carthage, Ill. This and other events set the ball rolling for the Mormons, under the new leadership of Brigham Young, to move westward, away from persecution and religious intolerance. They set their sights on the Salt Lake Valley, and over a period of about 20 years, more than 70,000 pioneers found themselves crossing the plains, usually on foot, and settling in Utah.
Most people forget that at this time of the great move (around 1847) into what was a barren, apparently inhospitable desert, Utah was still held by Mexico. The Mormons were essentially leaving the country to find a place where they thought they would be left alone. Obviously, things did not remain this way, and in 1848, the entire Southwest became U.S. territory after the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. Utah began its push for statehood under the name Deseret, though the process was drawn out due to the conflict between the U.S. government and early Mormon settlers over the practice of polygamy. This wasn’t resolved until the 1890 Manifesto, in which the Mormon church banned polygamy.
Mormon settlers, a group of people less historically romanticized than cowboys or gold miners, did more to settle the American West than perhaps any other group of people. Not only did they build self-sustaining settlements in Salt Lake City and the surrounding area, they also settled much of Idaho, Nevada, Arizona, Wyoming, California, Northern Mexico and some of Canada. Las Vegas was originally a Mormon settlement, and still carries an extensive LDS population.
On Pioneer Day, a time when most of the crowd is wearing patriotic red, white and blue, it can be easy to mistake the holiday for another celebration of national independence. It would, perhaps, be more prudent to remember that the day commemorates a group of people who, despite intense physical hardship and persecution, tamed an area of our now-great (and unified) country which most people believed to be un-tamable and now sustains a booming and growing community. All religious opinions aside, this accomplishment should be celebrated.