History, Memory, and Faith: Daughters of the Utah Pioneers as Keepers of Cultural Memory

By May 12, 2014

Kari M. Main works as Curator at the Pioneer Memorial Museum. She has a master’s degree in Early American Culture from the Winterthur Program in Delaware and a master’s in American Studies from Yale. Her primary academic interests are material culture, women, religion, and the American West.

On Pioneer Day in 1933, Daughters of the Utah Pioneers (DUP) held a ceremony to erect a roofed columnar structure over a juniper tree near the intersection of 600 East and 300 South. The women of DUP placed a bronze interpretive plaque which read:

The street to the north was originally Emigration Road?the only approach from the east. Over this road the pioneers of 1847 and subsequent years entered the valley of the Great Salt Sea. They found growing near this site a lone cedar and paused beneath its shade. Songs were sung and prayers of gratitude offered by those early pilgrims.Later the cedar tree became a meeting place for the loggers going into the canyons. Children played beneath its branhces [sic]. Lovers made it a trysting place. Because of its friendly influence on the lives of these early men and women we dedicate this site to their memory.[1]


The ?Lone Cedar Tree Shrine,? as the women called their landmark, remained a local curiosity until 1958 when a series of events occurred that stirred up a whirlwind of controversy in which the stakes involved nothing less than local historical consciousness. During the night of September 21, an unidentified individual chopped down the Lone Cedar, leaving behind an unsightly stump.

The story of vandalism made the front page of the Deseret News, and Kate Carter, the president of the DUP, remarked that ?the Utah Daughters have fought hard for the preservation of these old relics. Then vandals come along and tear down our good work. It?s very discouraging.? [2] The comment from the other high-profile institution responsible for the past in Salt Lake, the Utah State Historical Society, was significantly less emotional: ?I?m not shedding any tears of its loss ? it?s only an old dead stump with little historical value,? stated Russ Mortensen, the society?s head. Adhering to the currently fashionable empirical model of historical scholarship, Mortensen publicly denounced the tree and its monument as ?a historical fraud,? citing pioneer journals and other historical evidence to discredit the tree?s significance. Shortly after Mortensen?s comment, an editorial in the Deseret News quoted a Mormon Apostle to claim the tree ?somehow symbolized the willingness of the pioneers to suffer, even to die, for the accomplishment of holy purposes.? The debate was no longer a civic one. LDS leaders quickly weighed in, criticizing the Historical Society?s custodianship of the past: ?I am alarmed over what might be happening to other pioneer relics at the Utah State Historical Society,? claimed LDS leader George R. Hill.

Mortensen, the ?professional? historian, found himself under enormous public scrutiny, fueled mainly by Carter and the members of DUP who began to call for his resignation. Carter continued to argue for the significance of the tree, regardless of the believability of whether it was the only tree that shaded the pioneers and claims that the original trail missed the tree by over a mile; Mortensen maintained his befuddlement over this ?phony? monument to ultimately be rebuked in public by the directors of the Historical Society, but privately forgiven. In 1960, Daughters of the Utah Pioneers erected another plaque on the site of the Lone Cedar Tree, honoring ?Utah?s first famous landmark,? and this site still exists with the addition of a young juniper planted in the 1990s to replace the ?felled predecessor.?

This incident over the Lone Cedar tree noticeably demonstrates the dispute over the ownership and meaning of history, memory, and commemoration in Utah. Additionally, the episode suggests the centrality in this controversy of ?pioneer relics? or physical embodiments with which to experience the past. Of the primary institutions founded to contain and construct the physical remains of Utah?s history, Daughters of the Utah Pioneers carved out its claim on history quite pointedly in the Lone Cedar controversy. DUP defends and maintains an emotionally charged ancestral memory that unabashedly disregards ?historical fact? for powerful physical connections with a religious overtone, noting the holy nature of the tree as shrine.

For over a century, the women of the DUP have worked hard to position themselves in the non-academic realm of cultural memory. The term ?cultural memory? refers to a self-consciously constructed version of the past that is outside formal scholarship yet is perpetuated through cultural products [in this case the Lone Cedar Tree] and embodies significant cultural meaning. Another prime example of the construction of memory by the DUP is the Pioneer Memorial Museum, which represents a woman-originating presentation of the past that centers on the affective, personal connections to the artifacts of everyday pioneers. Through their landmarks and museums, the DUP are directly concerned with the emotional and inspirational uses of the past and this approach allows them to make sense of the past as well as the future. The current DUP slogan, for example, is ?Daughters of the Future, Keepers of the Past.? The unique significance is the agency of DUP women in making choices that result in the perpetuation of this useful interpretation of the past ? not just keeping the past but constructing an imagined vision of it as well.

The Lone Cedar tree, for example, was transformed into a cultural landscape shrine by adding the interpretation on the plaque. The wording on the original plaque indicates a romantic view of the past represented by this botanical witness. Being the ?only? tree in the valley, this one determined specimen struggled to survive through hardships that clearly others could not endure. Under the branches of this exact tree, the plaque says songs were sung by ?early pilgrims? ? a direct parallel drawn with the earliest struggling American settlers and words evocative of one of the most powerful American identity stories (pilgrims). Additionally, the shade of the tree was a ?trysting place? for lovers, as well as children who played beneath its branches. The pastoral nostalgia could not be more evident in the wording on the plaque, and it is this poetic reverence which elevates the tree to a respected shrine ? a practically holy place to experience the power of the past.

While often dismissed as a quaint antiquarian association of older women, the DUP as an organization has made a significant contribution to Mormon memory and has offered an alternative role for women in Mormon society. At the DUP, personalism has prevailed and values such as love of family, respect for community, and humility before God are stressed in the material commonalities that connect the human experience. The aim of personalism to nostalgically return to old-fashioned values through the emphasis on home and family life, surviving hardship, and finding inspiration in a romanticized past continues to operate at the Pioneer Memorial Museum. The inspirational past of DUP promotes endurance through displacement, suffering through hardship, being productive and creative in a barren landscape. The reverence of the pioneer mythology is made tangible in the Cedar Tree shrine and in the museum. The DUP attitude about their role in preserving the artifacts of the past for the benefit of the future can be seen repeatedly in their literature: ?In the building is stored the history of a culture ? the real history of the men and women who built Utah. Ours is a service organization, but the service is not confined to those living today, but rather to those who follow us who did not personally grasp the hand of a pioneer nor hear, from their lips, the stories of their many sacrifices.? At the dedication of the newly completed carriage house in 1973, Kate B. Carter declared ?Once more the DUP has completed an outstanding project ? not for any praise or glory, but that tomorrow?s children, seeing history as provided by you, shall know the truth of our pioneer heritage.?[3]

In the end, the story is not about the tree ? it is about the women assigning meaning to the tree. But the tree?s story did come to an unfortunate end. Shortly after the initial vandalism to the Lone Cedar Tree, a phone call to the Salt Lake Tribune claimed the fate of the Lone Cedar could be found in a locker at the local Greyhound bus terminal. Reporter Art Deck indeed found a sack full of the ashes of Utah?s ?most beloved landmark.? As Gary Topping writes in a 1997 review of this historical controversy, ?Fact may be stranger than fiction, but fiction seems more enduring.?[4]


[1] Topping, Gary. ?One Hundred Years at the Utah State Historical Society,? Utah Historical Quarterly 65 (Summer 1997), 265. ?Cedar? is local terminology for the juniper trees that grow in Utah.

[2] Deseret News, September 22, 1958, quoted in Topping, ?One Hundred Years,? p. 266.

[3] Treasures of Pioneer History, p. 498; Deseret News, Oct. 6, 1973

[4]  Topping, ?One Hundred Years,? p. 268?72;  http://historytogo.utah.gov/salt_lake_tribune/history_matters/072300.html

Article filed under Material Culture Memory Public History


  1. Thanks, Kari, this is great!

    Comment by Saskia — May 12, 2014 @ 10:59 am

  2. I was completely unaware of the tree, and the debate over it. In a weird way, it sort of reminds me of the debates between very invested parties over the historicity of certain scriptural narratives.

    I was interested in your statement that the DUP offered “an alternative role for women in Mormon society” and in the fashioning of memory. I’m not supper up on their history, but it seems to me that Juanita Brooks and Fawn Brodie were prominent vanguards to the academic approach to Mormon History and as women represented a similar but divergent role for women.

    Comment by J. Stapley — May 12, 2014 @ 12:07 pm

  3. You are absolutely correct that Brooks and Brodie were vanguards as women creating “academic” history in LDS subjects. My suggestion is that the women of the DUP work outside the “professional” and empirical model of scholarship that both Brooks and Brodie employ.

    Comment by Kari Main — May 12, 2014 @ 12:22 pm

  4. Thanks for this interesting piece. I’m personally a huge fan of my pioneer heritage, volunteer at This is the Place, and enjoy visiting the DUP museum with my kids. Yet despite these interests, I’ve struggled to see the DUP’s role in my life. I tried joining my local “camp” for a couple years, but it was only me and a tight circle of old lady friends, who weren’t very interested in a newcomer. Plus, there wasn’t much actual pioneer history going on there.
    The museum itself feels outdated, and difficult to navigate: parking-wise, locating ancestral relics inside, and needing interpretative signs/modern museum apps. What plans exist to make this relevant to “daughters of the future”? Because my own certainly aren’t convinced at this point… But I hate to see this heritage lost.

    Comment by anita — May 12, 2014 @ 2:09 pm

  5. This is fascinating. Thanks, Kari. I think this is a great example of the epistemological struggle between the guardians of oral traditions embedded in/around objects and the more academically-minded historians who make judgments based on contemporaneous written sources. Both groups make assessments based on what they view as reliable sources. This isn’t to say that the DUP women don’t use written sources (of course they do), but they interpret those documents through oral traditions. I also find it interesting how much the present impinges upon the past here, since for the DUP the tree represented the foundation of all the good things they associate with contemporary Utah.

    Comment by David G. — May 12, 2014 @ 2:25 pm

  6. Thanks for this, Kari.

    I’m in a different camp from Anita in that I love the “outdated” feel of the DUP as well as its lack of mediation. It feels in many ways like a relic hall more than a museum and like you say is an artifact itself. Is there a push to modernize?

    Also, how does the DUP see itself now as it relates to being in conversation with other institutions of Utah/Mormon history?

    Comment by Kris — May 12, 2014 @ 3:54 pm

  7. This is a fascinating story, Kari. I love the DUP Museum and I’ve always found it fascinating how the women of the DUP sometimes come into conflict with other historical societies and committees. One of the things I have in mind as a future project after I finish my dissertation is to write a biography of Kate Carter. I’ve always found the memorialization of the 19th C – Little House the Prairie, Kirsten the American Girl Doll, etc. – interesting and looking at Carter’s role in memorializing the past would be one way to get at how people in the early 20th C thought about the settling of the West.

    Comment by Amanda HK — May 12, 2014 @ 8:04 pm

  8. Thanks for all of your positive comments. I have to admit that we are working every day to try to improve the museum and its “relevancy” for younger audiences. I would say there are some who are interested in modernizing, but most want to retain the “quaintness” of the museum as well. We have talked about apps and virtual tours or video screens, but as of yet, nothing “modern” has been approved.
    @Kris: As for the DUP in conversation with other institutions — I would say the women view their “memory” work as “inspiration” as opposed to “education” of “professional historians” (Utah Historical Society) and “faith-promotion” of, say, the LDS Museum.

    Comment by Kari Main — May 12, 2014 @ 9:32 pm

  9. Kari, this was a fascinating insight into the dynamics of material culture. Great stuff.

    Comment by WVS — May 13, 2014 @ 11:28 am

  10. Thanks, Kari, for this fascinating post. I have a love-frustration relationship with the DUP and all of its wonderful, quaint, dusty, disorganized artifacts, wall displays, and documents. I so wish they could be more efficient and accessible, but I also secretly hope they never lose their ‘Grandma’s Attic’ flavor.

    I am also reminded of when Emily Utt told me about times that she and other Historic Sites staff have gone to small Utah towns and debunked some local myth, object, or town narrative. Often, these oral traditions are based in what you’ve described here– really bad history and unreliable evidence, but when residents are told their history is incorrect, they react with similar anger and even devastation. Your post reminds us of how much people need their myths, laden with the meanings they have placed upon them, and the how the historian’s job is made all the more difficult by these tensions.

    Comment by Andrea R-M — May 14, 2014 @ 1:44 am


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