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Think you know pioneer history backwards and forwards? These 3 facts will make you think again

If you think all the pioneers came by handcart, you're wrong.

If you think they all suffered extreme illness and death? Also wrong.

And if you think Utah was a desolate desert when the pioneers arrived? Wrong again.

"Unfortunately there are many misconceptions about pioneers," said Keith Erekson, director of the Church History Library. "Across the board, the pioneers were just living the normal 19th century life. They had fun, they played games, they worked, they walked, they fell in love. It was just life."

In honor of Pioneer Day, here are three misconceptions about the people who walked the plains, and the truths behind them:

1. Only between 3 and 5 percent of the pioneers came by handcart. Erekson said the perception of all pioneers coming by handcart is in art, movies and commemorations, but of the nearly 400 pioneer companies, only 10 were handcart companies.

"Mormon Emigrants Crossing the Plains in 1862," by Danquart Anthon Weggeland. Thomas Alexander, who was the president of the National Society of the Sons of Utah Pioneers in 2015, explained that more people came to Utah by wagon than handcart between 1856 and 1861.
"Mormon Emigrants Crossing the Plains in 1862," by Danquart Anthon Weggeland. Thomas Alexander, who was the president of the National Society of the Sons of Utah Pioneers in 2015, explained that more people came to Utah by wagon than handcart between 1856 and 1861. Photo: Intellectual Reserve, Inc.

Thomas Alexander, who was the president of the National Society of the Sons of Utah Pioneers in 2015, explained that more people came to Utah by wagon than handcart between 1856 and 1861.

"So that's the irony, is that if a pioneer came back for Pioneer Day and saw all the handcarts, the pioneer would say 'What is that? I came by wagon. I came by horse. I walked.' The handcarts were very rare," Erekson said.

2. The mortality rate of the pioneers was about the same as the rest of the United States. Though there are notable exceptions like the Willie and Martin handcart companies, Erekson said for the most part, pioneers were just as likely to die staying home as they were walking the plains. Alexander added most pioneer companies averaged about a 3 percent mortality rate.

"Again, we like to portray this in lessons and community events and pageants that the pioneers were walking alone in the wilderness suffering, their children were dying, but in reality… the mortality rate of the pioneers was just about the same as the rest of the United States for those years," Erekson said.

3. Utah was not a desolate desert when the pioneers arrived. Alexander, who is also a former Brigham Young University history professor, said there's a misconception that the Salt Lake Valley was a desert without trees and with difficult-to-plow ground when the pioneers arrived. The average rainfall in the Salt Lake Valley, however, is 16 ½ inches a year, and farming is possible with 15 inches a year in the right season; because most of the precipation in the valley comes in the winter and spring, it is not available for farming during the growing season, and under those conditions, the pioneers had to irrigate in order to grow crops. They also found cottonwood trees and grass up to 10-feet high, and used water from the mountains for irrigation.

Perpetuating false realities

Erekson said perpetuating these misconceptions about pioneers is similar to how people perpetuate false realities about themselves on social media. If people only focus on how hard it was to walk the plains — even though realities like cooking over a fire and walking for miles were everyday realities for pioneers — then the lessons drawn from pioneers is distorted and people miss their true sacrifice.

"For these pioneers, the sacrifice was their conversion to a new faith. It was the adoption of a new culture," he said. "And so that points us to different lessons that we draw about culture, about change, about being around new people, and those are lessons that I think are very helpful in the 21st century."

The misconceptions, however, do affect the way pioneers are celebrated in Utah, seen particularly in the over-emphasis on handcart re-enactments.

"Among all of the possible experiences that pioneers could've had, we've focused on this one," Erekson said.

He also said a better way to honor pioneers is to understand what their actual experiences were like and then tell those stories; Alexander added that people should be concerned with the truth and recognize what pioneers did was "extremely important."

"They established the basis for the society and culture that we have here in Utah," he said. "And I think it's right that we honor them for what they did."

Meaning vs. accuracy

Although facts remain, for some it can be more important to portray pioneers in a meaningful way rather than in a perfectly accurate way.

Alex Stromberg, who is in charge of youth programs at This Is The Place Heritage Park, said there are some historians who believe historical accuracy means things like having the correct stitch count in fabric, but "if you want it to be that authentic, should we allow people to get cholera while they're on their pioneer trek or get gangrene if they get a scratch?" he said. "There is a point that (we ask) 'Can authenticity go too far?'"

Stromberg said the Park tries to create a meaningful experience when portraying pioneer history; this means while not every detail at the park could be considered historically accurate, it's all designed to give people personal takeaways.

For example, the Park has a splash pad, which Stromberg said caused some raised eyebrows when it was installed because it's clearly not historically accurate; however, they use the splash pad to get kids talking about how pioneers used irrigation, and since the splash pad itself actually helps irrigate the Park's gardens, the children do the very thing they're learning about while they're playing. This more meaningful experience — which Stromberg said the Park doesn't pretend is historically accurate — then allows visitors to take away more from their time at the Park.

"Pioneers Arriving," by Minerva K. Teichert. Keith Erekson, director of the Church History Library, said "Across the board, the pioneers were just living the normal 19th century life. They had fun, they played games, they worked, they walked, they fell in love. It was just life."
"Pioneers Arriving," by Minerva K. Teichert. Keith Erekson, director of the Church History Library, said "Across the board, the pioneers were just living the normal 19th century life. They had fun, they played games, they worked, they walked, they fell in love. It was just life." Photo: Intellectual Reserve, Inc.

"The idea is to get people thinking," Stromberg said. "We can tell people the facts as far as we understand (them), but it's almost as important to let them know that there's more information that you can go find for yourself."

Stromberg also said there's a difference between "the past" and "history"; certain things aren't debatable, such as the fact that the pioneers came to the Salt Lake Valley, but the way that fact gets interpreted by various groups becomes different versions of history. For example, while Utah honors pioneers, people with Native American heritage may not believe pioneers should be celebrated.

For this reason, Stromberg said the Park "doesn't want to paint an over-rosy picture of history"; however, they do try to celebrate the good, and the Park approaches pioneer history by acknowledging that the United States would not be as it is today without the pioneers.

"And so in that way, is Pioneer Day something to be celebrated? Absolutely," Stromberg said. "We celebrate it because... it can't be denied that if it weren't for those people before, we wouldn't have things the way we do today."

Stromberg stated that all of the stories of the people who crossed the plains — from mountain men to Native Americans to African-Americans— are pioneer stories.

He added that it's important to recognize history is complicated, particularly because both good and bad information is more available than ever before, but everyone still has something to celebrate about their heritage. Pioneer Day, then, is about remembering those who have gone before and what they've done, learning from their mistakes and trying to make the world a better place.

"A pioneer is somebody who does something for the first time, or who blazes a trail, or who starts something new," Stromberg said. "We try to tell the story of 'What is a pioneer?' and what good came from pioneering. ... Hopefully (that) leaves people with the idea of 'What will you do? What are you pioneering today and what impact will you have in the future?'"