Pioneer Day Re-Post: Youth Trek, Public History, and Becoming “Pioneer Children” in a Digital Age

By July 24, 2015

This Pioneer Day, we’re republishing an edited version of a post from Tona H. that originally appeared in August 2013. Comments on the original pointed out that some youth treks definitely predated the 1997 Susquecentennial celebration, and more importantly: that a Google search of the word “trek” cannot distinguish between Mormon events and Hollywood film releases. The corrected post follows. For more on pioneer day from our archives, see here.

In 2009 our stake organized its first trek for youth conference and put it into the regular rotation for youth conference planning. In 2013, we repeated the event with roughly the same itinerary and logistics and presumably will keep it going in future years as well. Now, you may know that I live in New England, not in the Wasatch front region, the sagebrush plains of Wyoming, or along anything remotely resembling a traditional handcart route.

[1]

“Pioneer Trek” [1]

Even so, treks outside the historical landscape of the handcart companies have become commonplace: unusual enough to generate local news coverage, but frequent enough that a whole subculture has sprung up to support and celebrate it. With some similarities to Civil War reenactment and cosplaying in its emphasis on costuming, role play and historical storytelling, youth trek evokes and romanticizes selected aspects of the Mormon past to cement LDS identity and build youth testimony and unity. It is a unique (and, I’m arguing, actually very recent) form of LDS public history.

I’ve now attended and had a hand in planning both of the treks our stake conducted, so I’m of two minds about the whole experience. A double-consciousness, if you will. And I wanted to retread some of the ground so capably covered by Ben Park in his 2011 post about the uses and misuses of the Sweetwater River rescue. On the one hand when I see trek through my parent/stake leader eyes, it’s deeply satisfying because it works so well to accomplish its stated purposes: knit its participants closer together through ritualized sacred history and strengthen their relationship with Christ, while providing a challenging (but not abusive) taste of pioneer hardships. I admit I enjoy the pageantry of trek, and I probably go a little overboard on our own family’s preparations and clothing; in 2013 I sewed a late 1840s dress from a historical pattern [2] as part of my trek accoutrements, y’know, just for fun. On the other hand, when I experience trek as a historian and scholar of Mormonism, it’s endlessly fascinating and a little unsettling which parts of the past lend themselves to this kind of recreation and which parts are forgotten or discarded in order to adapt the realities of the past to the realities of the present.

One of the most intriguing aspects of the trek phenomenon is just how new it is, and how little of it comes by direction from Church headquarters. Like the early 20th century fundamentalist movement that invented and then promoted a series of Christian “fundamentals” in response to modernity with initial investment from Christian laymen, early 21st century Mormons – largely at the grassroots – have invented trek as a defining youth experience in response to certain cultural trends which they perceive as harmful to the formation of strong Mormon identity, including (in highly developed nations like the United States) media saturation, overabundance of physical comforts, and immodesty/ hypersexualization. Trek in its current form – i.e. a stake-directed handcart journey of relatively short duration with outdoor camping conducted by pretend “families” in costume – was rare before the 1997 Sesquicentennial celebrations [3] and has taken root especially since the 2004 purchase and restoration by the Church of Martin’s Cove in southwestern Wyoming; youth/family reunion treks soon offered a different take on the long traditions of Western dude ranching, outdoor adventuring, and heritage tourism. So why treks have gained such popularity at this particular juncture in history is worth considering.

It’s certainly not because they are cheap or easy. Youth conference treks of the kind our stake has now organized twice require significant mobilization of resources: purchase and maintenance of about twenty reproduction handcarts with 48-inch iron-clad wheels (made, ironically, by the Amish who have discovered what must be a truly lucrative niche market) that require warehousing in the off seasons and are shared among several stakes; arranging for permits, water, sanitation, food and camping accommodations for close to two hundred people; finding suitable terrain (in our case, a twenty-mile stretch of public rail trail through the New Hampshire woods); and involvement of dozens and dozens of people in arranging and performing music, printing materials, providing trek swag, planning activities, and costumed portrayal of historical Mormons.

I know our stake isn’t alone in designing a trek for its youth conferences; many American stakes now take part (though I’d love to see some actual numbers), and recent news articles highlight youth treks outside the United States that blended American pioneer and local culture in some really strange combinations (for example, goat butchering along the trail in Mongolia probably doesn’t raise an eyebrow there, but might strike our trek participants as disturbing and barbaric).

Oddly, treks valorize merely a small fragment of the Mormon migration story, and then replay those fragments in perpetual syndication, trek after trek. Handcart pioneers themselves were relatively few compared to those arriving by wagon or railroad (just 10 companies between 1856 and 1860, an estimated 3000 handcart pioneers in total, representing less than 4% of the 19th century Mormon migration to the Great Basin), often serving as an inexpensive way for new British and Scandinavian converts to emigrate to Utah. Modern treks further winnow the handcart story to a few basic core elements, or reinvent new parts of the experience wholesale. Stake youth treks almost always include a women’s pull after the men/ boys have been called away temporarily into the Mormon Battalion or on missions (although neither of those events actually happened during any of the handcart journeys), and some kind of symbolic Sweetwater River crossing to recall the rescue of the snowbound Martin and Willie handcart companies (which at least did, in some form). Ours began by assembling on the grounds of the temple, discussing how mournful it was to leave the Nauvoo temple behind (although, again, none of the handcart companies departed from Nauvoo in winter and most of their members had never even seen the Nauvoo Temple, usually travelling directly from their home countries to Iowa City for outfitting), and ended with a rousing “Welcome to the Valley” celebration in a local park at trail’s end. Some treks have been guilty of crass emotionalism, at least if you believe the secondhand outrage generated by Bloggernacle posts about trek run amok: symbolic death of flour sack “infants” or family members, withholding water or rationing food, men spectating during the women’s pull, etc. But accuracy and verisimilitude isn’t the point anyway; as Terryl Givens said in 2013 to the Boston Globe covering our neighboring stake’s trek, “treks are more a ritual of remembrance than a historical reenactment.”

As the Church grows worldwide, presumably the percentage of Latter-day Saints who can claim direct descendancy from Utah pioneers will decrease rather than increase. Why, then, has trek been such a successful and popular youth activity in recent years, given our Church’s more diverse composition? I’d like to propose a couple of hypotheses for discussion.

1) Nostalgia is a powerful glue, and trek sits in the sweet spot between public history and lived religion by giving people a chance to connect with Mormonism using all of their senses. Many youth activities (in my experience, anyway) put youth in the roles of consumers and spectators. In contrast, handcart trek compels active participation and awakens historical empathy and imagination. As stakes, wards and families rediscover (or manufacture) such connections to the Utah pioneer experience, they make religious meaning in landscape-specific contexts. The pioneer story isn’t abstract and distant, but immediate, concrete, and literally inscribed on one’s own local geography. Instead of receding farther from the present into the past, the handcart pioneer experience has been yanked forward through the wormhole of time, where it has become a useful and highly adaptable vehicle for building Mormon identity in an era of rapid growth and global extension. Again, I’m struck by how decentralized this phenomenon is, and by how the local reproduction of trek experiences serves as a vivid but entirely uncorrelated and uncontrolled form of LDS public history.

2) Trek’s current incarnations could only exist in the digital age and utterly depend upon internet and digital technology for their success. Maybe this is a stretch, since Mormons in any age use the tools available to them to build the kingdom, and the 21st century is no exception with its GPS, cell phones, and internet infrastructure of online business, genealogical resources, and social media. But: still, I’d argue that even though trek aspires to be a technology-free throwback to the 19th century, it’s very much a creature of its age. Stake trek websites build anticipation, share information, and permit online registration. Compilation videos, slide shows, Facebook albums and the like capture the experience in sophisticated digital formats for social media sharing. Take, for example, the 2013 viral video of a young man being delivered his mission call to his trek campsite by pony express – a brilliant yet bizarre mashup of filmed mission-call openings and trek videography that only really “happened” because a digital camera was there to catch it. Online retailers reap profits from trek clothing, while DIY bloggers create tutorials and Pinterest users assemble trek-related collages of ideas and images. All of this online buzz about trek amplifies any one stake’s efforts in the echo chamber of the web.

3) There is an underside worth mentioning. Perhaps some of the impulse behind the surge in treks at this historical moment is assimilative and reactionary, whether conscious or not, by substituting a (primarily white) historical backstory for the diverse real histories of the Church’s millions of members. It provides a conveniently coherent, sanitized, simplified, Mormon genesis story delivered at a formative time in a young person’s life. It generates unity but at the expense of diversity, performing whiteness in response to the growing nonwhite membership of the Church in the 20th and 21st century. Though probably with the best of intentions, trek denies the authenticity of other Mormon histories, other Mormon pasts, by making only the white/European handcart pioneers the heroes of our collective story. What the long-term impact, if any, of such re-writing (or re-erasing) of Mormonism’s history might be is not clear. But as each summer sees more and more LDS youth donning a stylized pioneer costume and tracing (someone’s) ancestral footsteps, that impact can’t help but be significant enough to attract scholarly notice.

 

 

[1] Creative Commons licensed photo from matthewsage, via Flickr.

[2] For you reenactment groupies who are dying to know, I used Laughing Moon’s pattern #114 in a small-print calico.

[3] One of the earliest examples I was able to find was a 2001 Yahoo forum asking for advice on planning a trek – which suggests that it was not yet a well-established practice even within the intermountain West by that year.

Article filed under Miscellaneous


Comments

  1. Thanks, Tona. Having recently moved to Utah, and having never experienced a trek or Pioneer day, I find this very helpful. Great hypotheses. Just a quick and probably dumb question: does the theme of self-sufficiency run through these modern events?

    Comment by Jeff T — July 24, 2015 @ 8:13 pm

  2. Thanks, Tona, for this engaging re-post.

    Comment by Saskia — July 25, 2015 @ 6:23 am


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