Pioneer Day Talks– Some Helpful Dos and Don’ts for a July Tradition

By July 22, 2016

It is that time of year again, when members all over the world are asked to give talks honoring July 24, 1847– the official date when a company of Mormon pioneers led by Brigham Young entered the Salt Lake Valley via Emigration Canyon.  For Mormons, this is a significant date of historical and spiritual meaning: it marks the moment of relief after years of persecutions in Ohio, Missouri, and Illinois; it represents finding formal safety in their exile, freedom from religious persecution, distance from the oppressors, and arrival and rebirth in a land of spiritual and physical  possibility. In Utah, Idaho, and other western states where members might be more likely to trace some ancestry back to the original pioneers, the third Sunday in July is usually set aside to honor the pioneer experience in a religious setting. Often, talks are centered around telling family histories or in narrating some dramatic and compelling pioneer story for the purpose of finding a larger spiritual meaning.  And because members are asked to wade into the waters of historical research and narrative, it comes with some possible pitfalls.  This post is not trying to address the area of Pioneer Day commemorations, parades, and celebrations, although some of these suggestions will work for those, as well.  So, for help on your Pioneer Day research, see Christopher’s “Pioneer Day: Recommended Readings from JI’s Archives.” And for excellent analysis of Mormon youth Trek reenactments, see Tona’s “Youth Trek, Public History, and Becoming ‘Pioneer Children’ in the Digital Age.” and her 2015 repost with updates here.

Some members bristle at the annual Pioneer Day Sunday– it can appear to privilege those members who are direct descendants of “pioneer stock”– as a kind of spiritual pure breeding claim to Super-Mormon status.  Pioneer Day talks can run the risk of causing members of recent conversion or of countries outside the United States to feel excluded.  Don’t get me wrong– pioneer ancestry is a significant and valid historical legacy for so many LDS, and even members around the world love Pioneer Day. I remember feeling oddly baffled at watching Brazilian children dancing around pretend campfires in their bonnets and dresses or suspenders and knee pants.  It seemed on the one hand like an embracing of the whole Mormon history narrative for their own religious identity, while on the other hand, an erasure of their own pioneering contributions to the body of Zion. (Many historians have addressed the importance of memorializing historical events as a way of forming shared group identities.)  Some even question whether Pioneer Day commemorations have their place in Sunday worship services.  They often take on distinctly Wasatch Front-centric tones.  My own concerns with Pioneer Day talks are that they tend toward the devastating and defeatist, especially if the Willie and Martin Handcart story is told and retold– as it often is– as a one-size-fits-all depiction of ALL pioneer experience.  Further, I struggle with the sometimes conflation of Pioneer Day as the “Fourth of July, Part II.”

So, whether you are first-time Pioneer Day speaker or an old veteran, here are some handy tips to guide you on your way to having the audience weeping and laughing in their pews, and perhaps even feeling greater resolve in their dedication to the faith.

  1.  For those of you tackling the traditional 1847-1869 pioneer stuff, remember to study your historical context, verify facts and avoid sloppy generalizations.
    1. Try not to superimpose your leftover patriotism from the Fourth of July onto the Twenty-Fourth of July:  they are two entirely different events, with entirely different meanings. Remember that the Mormon pioneers in 1846 and 1847 were actually LEAVING the United States to flee to Mexico.  They were refugees, seeking asylum in another country, because their home country had failed to protect their religious freedom.  It was only by accidental timing and circumstances that Mormons found themselves right back in the United States with the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848.  A majority of the overland migrants to Utah Territory were also first-time immigrants to the United States, and many of those spoke very little English.
    2. Try not to overinflate the tragedy of overland migration.  For the most part, pioneer travel, while difficult, was not full of death and destruction and tragedy at every turn.  It was mostly uneventful: Yes, there was heat and exhaustion and walking and thunderstorms and babies born and accidents and sickness and even some deaths.  But the death rate was low for overland Mormon migrants, around 3.5% (just above the national average), and only 1.75% for pioneers under the age of 20.  Read this before giving the congregation dire descriptions of pioneer deaths.  Overland death were more about diseases like cholera and scurvy, falling out of wagons, drowning, and many, many accidental shootings.  So many, in fact, that wagon train leaders often banned loaded weapons from within camp. P.S. I triple dog dare you to mention pioneer “gun control” efforts in your talk, and then report back to me how that went over.
    3. The Willie and Martin Handcart Companies Disaster:  Handle this one with extreme caution. If you even feel like you need to tell this story again, don’t let it characterize the whole overland story:  first understand that this tragedy was an anomaly, a really rare exception to the otherwise safe and uneventful Mormon migration over a 20-year period.  That it even happened at all was because of a combination of poor choices by leaders, overconfidence and zealousness, a ridiculously late season departure, and unfortunate but not unexpected early mountain storms.  Indeed, there are many myths associated with the tragedy, the kind of faith-promoting but historically dubious narratives that often make their way into public Mormon discourse.  To understand the accurate history of the event, you need to do some mandatory homework.  Start with this reading that explores the myths and facts associated with the overall handcart experiment and the tragedies themselves.  Then read Chad Orton’s seminal work in BYU Studies on the historical myths of the Sweetwater rescue. Or this pictorial summary on the Church website.  And JI’s own Ben P has a fantastic summary of the Willie-Martin narrative in the Mormon imagination, problems with how the story has evolved over time, and appropriate ways of its use.
    4. Joy in the journey:  Many diarists remember the experience with the fondness of both the new and the mundane:  camp associations, singing and dancing, cooking, eating, and hunting, enjoying the new flora, fauna, and scenery and beauty of the West.  People found time to keep diaries– not as many as we would like, especially by women, but they are a rich trove of beauty and sentiment and joy along with all the hard stuff.  Many were new converts who were so excited just to meet and associate with other Mormons.  And there were marriages and babies born and children playing and longtime friendships formed.
    5. Indian attacks happened very rarely, if ever.  Historian Mel Bashore found only four (4) deaths reported to be by “Indian attack” in 20 years of Mormon pioneering.  In fact, it is important to remember the perspective of Native Americans in all of the Mormons’ pioneering efforts, or what Church Historian Marlin K. Jensen in 2010 referred to as a story that is “seldom given adequate prominence.”  For starters, the Omahas of eastern Nebraska pretty much saved the Mormons’ poor, starving keisters when they got to Winter Quarters, by feeding them and letting them stay on Omaha land.  Then, as these groups of Euro-Americans entered the Utah, Idaho, Nevada, and Arizona territories, other groups of Utes, Shoshones, Paiutes, Goshutes, and Navajos gradually became dispossessed through land struggles, war, reservation policies, and physical and cultural assimilation.  Freedom for one group meant dispossession for another.  Or, as Jensen has reminded members in their commemorations of Pioneer Day: “Regardless of how one views the equities of Indian-Mormon relations in those times, the end result was that the land and cultural birthright Indians once possessed in the Great Basin were taken from them . . . What we can do, the least we can do from a distance of 160 years, is to acknowledge and appreciate the monumental loss this represents on the part of Utah’s Indians. That loss and its 160-year aftermath are the rest of the story.”  For more on how Utah’s Indian history has been memorialized or not memorialized, see JI’s David G. on “Pioneer Day and Remembering/Forgetting Utah’s Indian Wars.”
  2. Broaden your definition of “pioneer” to international pioneers, later pioneers, your own personal pioneers, and pioneering in things like missionary work, education, and the contributions of underrepresented groups like women and people of color.  Historian Ardis Parshall has devoted much digital ink to the pursuit of “non-traditional” pioneer stories, and her trove is rich:  As a sampling, here is one on a pioneer in Ceylon; a Swiss-Russian; and a young man from Takaroa, in the Tuamotu Islands; a Japanese widow who worked in the mission home in Tokyo; this on the first missionary from Czechoslovakia and this on a Croat woman convert in Yugoslavia.  Her ongoing series on the triumphs and tragedies of Armenian saints is carefully researched and compellingly important Here, here, here, here, with relevant comparisons to modern refugees here, and here.  Parshall’s work reminds us that in the context of an expanding group narrative centered on pioneering stories, individuals hope for belonging within that narrative.  Recent converts need to be reassured that their stories are important, too, that pioneering experiences come in every decade, and country and continent.
  3. Find relevant comparisons and meaning.  Of course, you can always tap into the usual faith through hardship theme, but branch out into topics like showing compassion for refugees and immigrants, finding cheer in the journey, mourning with those that mourn, or the importance of families– leaving families, staying with your families, adopting families, suffering with families, surviving with families, finding diversity in families, church families, community families, and immigrant families.  And of course, try to bring it around to how pioneer narratives- both historic and modern– are good for finding faith and in seeing our own faces in the historical past.  This post by Keepa guest blogger Emily Gilliland Grover, models how to find much-needed gender and racial diversity in our pioneer stories, as well as to personalize pioneer stories for others.  Show that you understand why pioneers made the choices they did.  We don?t honor anybody merely because they suffered, but because they had the faith to come.

I hope that some of these tips are helpful as a framework for writing Pioneer Day talks, and I look forward to readers’ comments on what you would like to hear or not hear in these July Sunday meetings.  What have been some of your favorite pioneer talks, or least favorites?  Have you given a successful Pioneer Day talk, or do you revolt completely against the idea?  Share your tips and ideas here.

Article filed under Announcements and Events Cultural History Gender Memory Miscellaneous Public History Women's History


  1. The Treaty of Campo de Cahuenga made U.S. law effective throughout Alta California (including present-day Utah) as of January 1847. The PIoneers (not counting the Mormon Battalion) were never in land ruled by Mexican law.

    Comment by N. W. Clerk — July 22, 2016 @ 8:14 am

  2. Also, roughly 100 Mormons were killed by Indians in the Utah Blackhawk War. Were they no longer considered “Pioneers” by that time?

    Comment by N. W. Clerk — July 22, 2016 @ 8:26 am

  3. N.W. Clerk: I don’t think that Mormons associate those killed in the Blackhawk War as pioneers in the same sense as you argue here. Most seem to think of pioneers as overland migrants, not those already in the Valley. That’s an interesting argument, though.

    Also, when Mormons left Nauvoo they were planning on fleeing to Mexico at the time of their departure, though treaties dashed that hope. Another point to remember.

    Comment by J Stuart — July 22, 2016 @ 9:30 am

  4. N.W. Clerk: I am counting “Indian attacks” on the overland trail. My intent is to get people away from imagining a wagon train circled up as a party of _________ Plains Indians come riding over a hill in full ambush. Indian conflicts, like the Blackhawk War are a different story and would change some of how we determine death counts.

    While the Treaty of Campo de Cahuenga informally did what you describe, it only really applied to the Californio-settled areas, and didn’t immediately affect any active administrative presence in the Great Basin area desired by the Mormons. For the Mormons’ purposes, they believed that they were leaving the United States, until any transfer of territory between nations became formal at the end of the war. Granted, Mexico’s lack of attention to its northern frontier placed it up for grabs among various competing powers, and Mormons took advantage of that neglect and isolation to find a spot– whether it was technically “American” or “Mexican,” or even publicly known who had jurisdiction in that six-month period is haggling over details. It would be more accurate to say that the Mormons were leaving the U.S. for Shoshone and Ute territory.

    Comment by Andrea R-M — July 22, 2016 @ 9:35 am

  5. ARM- Thanks for a useful guide to navigate through what often feel like the second most painful Sunday on my church calendar. In case our speakers on Sunday miss your guide, I’ll be following it as I make up my own talk.

    Though we might not like a conflation of Pioneer Day and patriotic celebrations, it has been consistent since the earliest Pioneer Day celebrations.

    NWClerk–Mel Bashore’s research is on the trail so he wouldn’t include it and I wouldn’t include the Blackhawk War either. If you really feel like you must, then you must include Mountain Meadows too (it happened before the Blackhawk War, just south) and then it might get super messy super fast.

    Comment by JJohnson — July 22, 2016 @ 9:37 am

  6. Anyone at all sensitive to the context of a Pioneer Day talk recognizes that it’s the “coming to Zion” aspect of a person’s life that defines a pioneer — whether that means the adventures of the overland trail in the mid-19th century, or the conversion to the gospel by those who were the first in their own families or nations to take that step. The Mormons in central Utah during the mid-1860s were settling, not pioneering, in context of Pioneer Day.

    Comment by Ardis — July 22, 2016 @ 9:44 am

  7. When I started writing my note, nobody else had yet responded to Clerk. I’m sorry that the discussion on this excellent post — excellent not merely because Andrea is so kind to my pioneers — has been sidetracked, and I hope we can now discuss her post and not a commenter’s remarks.

    Comment by Ardis — July 22, 2016 @ 9:45 am

  8. Amen.

    Comment by Jjohnson — July 22, 2016 @ 9:50 am

  9. Amen seconded.

    Comment by Gary Bergera — July 22, 2016 @ 11:04 am

  10. This is really great, Andrea. Thank you. I hope it receives the readership it deserves — for perhaps the first time ever, I hope Meridian or LDS Living picks this post up.

    If it’s not too presumptuous, I’m going to add a link to another of my posts. Though not written with Pioneer Day in mind, the connections you make between pioneers and refugees above make it relevant, I think:

    Comment by Christopher — July 22, 2016 @ 11:10 am

  11. One of the difficulties of the Willie/Martin handcarts was related to Indians. There had been an attack in Kansas (I believe) that heightened immigrants need to be aware of Indian Attack. More men needing to stand guard caused quicker exhaustion than previous, walk/hunt/stand guard was what they did all day/night.

    Comment by John Shaw — July 22, 2016 @ 11:41 am

  12. Fantastic, Andrea. Speaking of how we frame our handcart narrative, I often talk about how my ancestor crossed in one of the companies that had no problems whatsoever. Her account mostly talks about how fun it was to dance around the campfire at night. This is probably more representative of the experience than the Willie & Martin story. But instead, we choose to focus on the tragedy.

    Comment by Ben P — July 22, 2016 @ 12:12 pm

  13. Christopher: Of course it’s not presumptuous! I should have included it, and I definitely hope thst people can draw parallels between our 19th-century refugees and modern refugees in need of the same compassion that our ancestors hoped for.

    Ben: Yes, and the story is in your post that I linked to my above. One of my favorite diary accounts (and I don’t have it on hand) is Bathsheba W. Smith complaining that “the Welsh saints were not good for much help in camp except for singing.” I wish I could lay my hands on the reference.

    Comment by Andrea R-M — July 22, 2016 @ 12:36 pm

  14. Ellsworth, McArthur, Bunker, Evans, Christiansen, Rowley, Robison, Stoddard. I make a point this time of year to remind myself of the names of the other eight handcart companies. I once asked in a lesson if the class could name three handcart companies. Another time I wrote the eight names above and asked if anyone knew what they represented; someone did.

    The Welsh singing complaint is funny. The way it’s passed down in my wife’s family, her Welsh ancestors felt that crossing the plains was a kind of long picnic compared to working in coal mines.

    Comment by John Mansfield — July 22, 2016 @ 1:31 pm

  15. Thanks, Andrea! I remember seeing a lot of comments about dancing in diaries and autobiographies, particularly for Scandinavian converts who didn’t know English. Really informative and helpful post

    Comment by Jeff T — July 22, 2016 @ 3:30 pm

  16. Thanks for this, Andrea. Well done.

    Comment by Kevin Barney — July 22, 2016 @ 5:07 pm

  17. One thing I do with our family is a “pioneer passover” in conjunction with the holiday where we spotlight different ancestors and their experiences crossing the trail. Sometimes we hold ice for Winter Quarters, eat nuts, berries, and honey for Deseret, and so on off a Passover plate and sing songs and read quotes with a scripted program–other years it’s less formal. One of my ancestors who crossed as a teen remembered the journey as “a lark!” but another one of ours was in an Indian attack, so experiences varied widely. FamilySearch has a great new page up where you can explore your personal pioneers’ past:

    Comment by anita — July 22, 2016 @ 5:13 pm

  18. I have some issues with the branding of everyone as a pioneer, American style (short version: I argue that it promotes a center vs periphery orientation in the church which I don’t think is always warranted, helpful, or accurate), but these are all really good points, Andrea. I also second Ardis’ point and hope we can broaden the conversation in that way.

    Comment by Saskia — July 22, 2016 @ 5:37 pm

  19. Elder Marlin K. Jensen’s article, “the rest of the story…”

    Comment by Mr. Smallcanyon — July 22, 2016 @ 7:53 pm

  20. Excellent post. Trackback from here, where I expand on Sweetwater a bit.

    Comment by Ben S — July 23, 2016 @ 9:52 am

  21. These recommendations leave me a bit cold. This is not talking about teaching a history class. Rather, it is sharing a significant historical event in the restoration of the gospel in preparation for the Second Coming and should be treated accordingly. It is our days’ equivalent to the travels of Abraham, Moses, Lehi, Jared and Mormon. A critical item not mentioned is the influence of the Spirit on the choice of content and specific wording as received in answer to prayer in this type of talk and the sharing of love for those who did this for us. Perhaps the typical pioneer did not lose a family member. Mine did. I have read the diary entry about this many times as I mourned the loss of my own child. The pioneers were leaving the USA but doing that in order to preserve their rights to worship as in the Constitution–and in a time when both major parties have candidates who are known to lack in integrity, perhaps a review of revealed information about the Constitution and the part its formation played in our having the gospel and the freedoms the pioneers helped preserve is appropriate. The purpose of Sacrament meeting talks on July 24th may not necessarily be to makes members comfortable and happy about pioneer life or to exaggerate the difficulties but, perhaps, to invite the Spirit into the relationship they feel with pioneers, to gain strength and guidance from their examples, and to come closer to Heavenly Father through tha knowledge. I found those aspect missing in this list.

    Comment by Marlene Harris Austin — July 23, 2016 @ 12:57 pm

  22. Thanks again ARM for your collection of resources. I’m using them right now. ?

    Comment by JJohnson — July 24, 2016 @ 1:24 pm

  23. […] Pioneer Day Talks? Some Helpful Dos and Don?ts for a July Tradition by Andrea R-M at Juvenile Instructor […]

    Pingback by Favorite Reads of the Week: 24 July 2016 – Pioneer Day, second cousins, catalogs – Family Locket — July 24, 2016 @ 5:24 pm

  24. The stories of the Mormon converts crossing the plains are significant to the entire church on both a practical and a symbolic level. It explains how the church survived persecution, and it also gives us a symbolic narrative along the lines of Moses leading the children of Israel to the promised land. But the date of July 24 doesn’t mean the same thing to church members world wide.

    Years ago I lived in Rochester, NY. The Hill Cumorah Pageant was usually performed the second and third weeks of July, and members were urged to bring their friends, neighbors, distant relations, and random acquaintances to the Pageant. Many attendees filled out cards requesting further contact with the church, and the goal in our ward was to see that each person was contacted within 48 hours of seeing the pageant. Then, at the end of the pageant performance dates, the ward held a Post Pageant Potluck Dinner so that people could invite their friends who enjoyed the pageant to an event at the church that wasn’t exactly church, to ease them in.

    One year the bishop said he had received a phone call from a reporter in Utah who was writing about Pioneer Day Celebrations world wide. The reporter asked what our ward was doing to celebrate Pioneer Day and seemed quite disappointed when the exhausted bishop said, “Um, nothing.” July was Every Member a Missionary Month and it kept us pretty busy.

    Comment by LauraN — July 25, 2016 @ 4:07 pm

  25. “A critical item not mentioned is the influence of the Spirit on the choice of content and specific wording as received in answer to prayer in this type of talk and the sharing of love for those who did this for us.”

    This really rubs me the wrong way. Andrea didn’t title her post “ALL Helpful Do’s and Don’ts for a July Tradition.” At no point does she suggest that you shouldn’t follow the Spirit or shouldn’t express love. Given that this is a piece directed at fellow Mormons, it seems to me a fair implicit assumption that we are all familiar with the importance of following the Spirit. Moreover, this isn’t a guide for giving talks, but rather some specific thoughts on speaking on Pioneer Day, particularly with regards to the history, as this is a Mormon history blog. Statements like the one above strike me as looking for a reason to dismiss the post rather than contribute to the discussion. You can be factually accurate and prepared while still following the Spirit.

    Comment by Jack of Hearts — July 25, 2016 @ 5:56 pm


Recent Comments

wvs on JWHA CFP 2020 (St.: “Looking forward to this. Thanks J.”

Daniel Stone on JWHA CFP 2020 (St.: “Thanks much for posting this, Joey!”

Mel Johnson on JWHA CFP 2020 (St.: “This JWHA will be outstanding, maybe the best ever. I encourage all Restoration historians and cultural studies people to attend along with their friends. The setting at…”

Gary Bergera on George F. Richards' journals: “I remember reading through the microfilms of the Richards's journals in the mid- to late-1970s. Nothing was redacted. They were amazing.”

Jeff T on George F. Richards' journals: “Thanks, Stapley!”

Hannah Jung on George F. Richards' journals: “That is exciting! I had no idea this was in the works! Any idea when the plan is to release the next twenty years of…”