Woman’s Exponent—Pioneer Day!

Emily Crumpton, Church history consultant
23 July 2019

In the fifth post of the Woman’s Exponent series, Emily Crumpton describes how women used the magazine to honor the pioneers and to report on Pioneer Day celebrations near and far.

July has given to us two days to be

Remembered with deep love and joy

And gratitude by all true hearts

The glorious Fourth, which millions

Join to celebrate, and sing the songs of Liberty.

The other day is ours alone,

The Day when first a band of weary,

Footsore Pilgrim pioneers were gladdened

By the sight of Utah’s vales, the chambers

Of the Mountains of the Lord—

Forty long years ago, our own dear


The first Pioneer Day celebration took place in 1849, two years after the Saints entered the Salt Lake Valley. As demonstrated in the poem above, pioneers took ownership of July 24 and equated it to Independence Day. Beginning in 1872, the Woman’s Exponent reported on Pioneer Day celebrations with nearly annual regularity. Since the inception of Pioneer Day, women and members of the Relief Society have actively participated in planning public and private celebrations. From organizing events to giving public speeches to writing poetry and songs and marching in parades, women were there every step of the way. In 1877 the Woman’s Exponent explained that the “ladies of the Floral Committee,” under the “superintendence of Mrs. Annie Cross,” made one million artificial flowers to contribute to that year’s decorations.2  In 1879 it was noted that “Miss Sarah Olsen and Miss Anna Mackey with their charming rich voices, added greatly to the musical entertainment.”3 The Fillmore Young Ladies Mutual Improvement Association supported Pioneer Day 1886 festivities by hosting a fair. Proceeds from the sale of “ornamental articles” were given to “the Temple at Manti.”4 As women participated in Pioneer Day celebrations, they helped reinforce the development of a larger communal identity.

Not all members of the Church had the opportunity to come to Salt Lake City to participate in Pioneer Day festivities. However, reports of distant celebrations occasionally made their way into editions of the Woman’s Exponent. In 1886, one article reported on Pioneer Day events in Teasdale, Utah.5 A letter from Colonia Díaz, Mexico, printed in the September 1, 1891, edition, explained that Pioneer Day “was kept much the same as it is kept in Utah.” Decorations, speeches, entertainment, races, and games filled the day for Saints in Mexico.6 In 1893, Alofa, a member of the Church in Samoa, reported on Pioneer Day activities that included fishing, the consumption of island delicacies, and an encounter with cuttlefish (possibly even an octopus) that set Pioneer Day apart from Utah celebrations.7

The Woman’s Exponent gave additional space to Pioneer Day reports in certain years when the celebrations were endowed with extra significance and were particularly important to the Saints. 1880, the first of those significant dates, marked the 50th anniversary, or Golden Jubilee, of the establishment of the Church. The Golden Jubilee informed Pioneer Day celebrations. In the July 1 edition, the Woman’s Exponent explained:

A Jubilee Celebration is under contemplation for the Twenty-fourth of this month. This day is certainly a remarkable one in the history of this Church. The day this people should be anxious to celebrate, for it is the beginning of a new era in their history.8

The article also mentioned some of the 1847 pioneers and quoted Brigham Young’s journaled declaration, “This [July 24] is one of the most important days of my life, and in the history of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.” It ended by encouraging the people to “spare no pains to make the Twenty-fourth of July, a Jubilee in very deed,” one to be long remembered.9

In another article, the Exponent reported, “Preparations are being made for a magnificent display in the procession of the Pioneer Celebration on the 24th inst., which will also be a sort of Jubilee of the Fiftieth Year since the organization of the Church.” A decorative committee, assisted by young ladies, worked to beautify the inside of the tabernacle.10 The August 1 edition of the Exponent described the “grand procession” that took place on that year’s Pioneer Day. The history of the pioneers, symbols of American patriotism, and representation of the growth of the Church were presented in various forms. Ornately costumed women represented education, religion, history, geography, science, art, and purity. As the article summarized, “This celebration will be remembered in Israel as one of the grandest commemorative events which has ever been recorded in the pages of history.”11

The Pioneer Day celebrations of July 24, 1886, were met with bittersweet emotion and a strong political current. During that time, the Saints were subjected to intense persecution from the federal government. Many men in plural marriages faced criminal charges and jail time or had gone into hiding. The lack of pioneer men at that year’s festivities did not go overlooked by the Saints. Those in Utah became concerned for the condition of the plural wives and their children whose husbands and fathers were in exile or imprisoned. They felt their religious rights were being violated and expressed their sentiments in speeches published by the Woman’s Exponent. Pioneer Day speeches delivered “in the large tabernacle” commemorated the sacrifices of pioneers and concurrently criticized the government. Eliza R. Snow spoke passionately:

Fathers and mothers, parents and children were happy in each others’ society. Now, where are the fathers? Some of them to evade the merciless hand of persecution are voluntary exiles in foreign countries. Many of them are wasting their time and energies in the dreary confines of loathsome prisons in our own land—a land of boasted freedom and equal rights.12

Even the decorations demonstrated the political tension between the Saints and the United States in 1886. The Woman’s Exponent reported that banners hung throughout the Tabernacle included statements such as, “Of the Twelve Apostles and Counselors: Those not here are in jeopardy, in prison, and in foreign lands, because they prefer to obey God rather than man.”13

1897 marked the 50th anniversary, a jubilee year, of the pioneering Saints reaching the Salt Lake Valley. The Woman’s Exponent did not wait until July to begin their celebrations. The edition published January 1, 1897, launched that year’s festivities with a poem written by “R. M. F.” The first stanza read:

All hail! the year of jubilee

Proud Utah sends thee greeting

The hills and vales thy welcome ring

The streams with joy are leaping.14

Throughout the year, the Woman’s Exponent did not disappoint in its coverage of jubilee planning and celebratory events. In April, one article focused on the history of some of the Saints who had lived at Winter Quarters.15 In May, a plan was announced to erect a Hall of Relics designed to display items related to the pioneer trek to the Salt Lake Valley.16 And in June, the Exponent discussed the foundation of the Brigham Young Monument that was being built in downtown Salt Lake City.17

In the May 1 edition, the Exponent announced a “Jubilee Prize Competition” organized by the jubilee committee.18 The competition extended the invitation for individuals to submit original poetry and musical compositions. The grand prize for each category was $100. The Woman’s Exponent published some of the poetry submissions within its pages.

As covered in a previous post, poetry was a mainstay of 19th-century entertainment and was commonly featured in the Woman’s Exponent. Pioneer Day provided many poetesses the needed inspiration to compose verse and song later published by the Woman’s Exponent. Of note is a poem by Ellen Jakeman titled “The Lady Pioneers.” “Written for the celebration of Pioneer Day at Ephraim, Sanpete Co., July 24, 1890,” this poem highlighted the experience of three pioneer mothers: Harriet Wheeler Young, Clara Decker Young, and Ellen Sanders Young. Harriet, Clara, and Ellen were members of the Brigham Young Vanguard Company that arrived at the Salt Lake Valley on July 24, 1847. They were the first three female members of the Church to reach Zion. The poem described these three women as “children of destiny” and celebrated all pioneer women as it explained:

Now don’t infer from what I’ve said of sweetness

These women sat down and let men do the work

Things wouldn’t have been done with such completeness

If they had been the kind to faint and shirk.

Beside his plane and chisel stood her scissors

His ax, her broom; his scythe, her buzzing reel;

She matched against his harrow, plow and saddle,

The labors of her loom and spinning wheel.19

July 1897 was, without doubt, a memorable month. The Brigham Young Monument was completed and revealed with much pomp and circumstance. Official festivities and ceremonies in Salt Lake City lasted from July 20 through July 24. Parades featured and honored the survivors of handcart companies. Marching bands, floats, theatrical plays, and other attractions drew large crowds to Salt Lake City. The Woman’s Exponent noted that surviving 1847 pioneers “were the principal object of attraction” and received much honor from the community.20 For example, in Grantsville, the Relief Society “gave a surprise picnic party to Stake President Mary Ann Hunter in their own new meeting house.”21

Pioneer stories and tributes were featured in the Woman’s Exponent through the year of 1897. For instance, in March an article titled “A Tribute of Honor” honored President Wilford Woodruff’s participation in building Zion and leading the Church.22 In June, the Exponent published “In Memoriam,” a segment that included the recent obituaries of three pioneer women.23 Additionally, on June 14, efforts were made to celebrate the birthday of Mary Jane Thompson, “a pioneer of 1847.”24 And in December, a tribute by Lillie T. Freeze honored the life of pioneer Aurelia Spencer Rogers, daughter of Orson Spencer.25

Women supported 1897 jubilee celebrations in many ways. For instance, the Utah silk commission made two silk flags for the jubilee. As reported by the Exponent, “the reeling was done by two young girls, Miss Florence Harrison and Miss Maria Horrocks, and the entire work was done, and the flags were made under the direction of Mrs. Margaret A. Caine, whose untiring efforts in the matter of silk culture deserves public recognition.”26 At a Utah Women’s Press Club meeting, Annie Laura Hyde provided a report about the pioneers of Utah. Hyde commented on the history of the Saints, the challenges of displacement, the role of the Mormon Battalion, and Brigham Young’s iconic entry into the Salt Lake Valley and declaration, “Enough, this is the right place. Drive on.”27

As demonstrated by reports in the Woman’s Exponent, women contributed to Pioneer Day celebrations in nearly every way possible. From creating and designing events, to marching in parades, to writing poetry, to publishing articles, and in other countless ways, women facilitated the perpetuation of a communal tradition that has lasted 170 years.

Pioneer Day holds great significance for members of the Church. It is still a day of cultural celebration and commemoration of pioneer Saints both in Utah and abroad. Members of the Church today mark the day with gatherings, pioneer reenactments, and parades. Families share stories and maybe even discuss what it means to be a pioneer in our modern age. It is a day to reflect on and celebrate the sacrifices made by the early Saints.