Nearly 200 years later, Utah’s passion for pioneers lives on
Shooting black powder rifles. Fashioning moccasins by hand. Making gourd canteens. Throwing tomahawks. On the second Saturday of every month, some kids forgo their video games and cartoons for a morning of adventure.
Alongside their parents, they’re learning mid-19th century skills from expert members of the Buenaventura Mountainmen. The 501(c)(3) is a reenactment and primitive skills group that gathers regularly at Fort Buenaventura State Park near Ogden, Utah.
A little farther south, visitors to This Is the Place Heritage Park in Salt Lake City can card wool and watch a spinner turn it into yarn, interact with a blacksmith working at a forge, and learn from a leatherworker while stamping their own leather crafts.
Every July 24, cities and towns across the state gather along their main thoroughfares for Pioneer Day parades. Since the first brass band marched in 1849, the state has commemorated the July 24, 1847 arrival of Brigham Young and his company of pioneers from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints into the Salt Lake Valley.
In downtown Salt Lake, thousands take part in the Days of ‘47 series of events, including a marathon, pops concert, the Pioneers of Progress gala, and the Days of ‘47 Rodeo—which has hosted thousands since its inception over 100 years ago. Kem C. Gardner, chairman of the Utah Days of ‘47 Rodeo, says the event has grown in prominence under president Dan Shaw’s leadership.
Competitors in the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association and the Women’s Professional Rodeo Association converge every July in the $17.5 million stadium, built exclusively for the rodeo at the Utah State Fairpark. The rodeo is broadcast on CBS and the Cowboy Channel and the nearly 11,000-seat event often sells out.
Utah’s appetite for all things pioneer doesn’t stop there. Locally produced films like T.C. Christensen’s “17 Miracles” and “Ephraim’s Rescue” have introduced audiences to the 19th century hardships of those crossing the plains to Utah. One of the most recent additions to the genre, Mauli Bonner’s “His Name Is Green Flake,” depicts the real-life journey of the first enslaved black pioneer who was part of Brigham Young’s vanguard party.
Why the fascination with life almost 200 years ago? Are these stories and skills still relevant today?
In her role as editor of the Utah Historical Quarterly, Dr. Holly George says an answer to why Utahns love the pioneer heritage is there’s still a great deal of Latter-day Saints in Utah. “It’s the family and cultural heritage of a lot of Utahns,” George says. “The church encourages understanding the heritage.”
For many in the state, the connection is deeply personal. “The reason I’m involved as much as I am [with the rodeo] is because I had pioneer ancestors that came in in 1847,” Gardner says. “To me, it’s a way of honoring my ancestors.”
"The reason I’m involved as much as I am [with the rodeo] is because I had pioneer ancestors that came in in 1847. To me, it’s a way of honoring my ancestors."
George points out that regardless of religious or cultural background, the pioneer legacy of overcoming hardships is one that still resonates today. “There are frankly a lot of compelling stories. I’m editing an article right now for the spring issue of Utah Historical Quarterly that’s about a woman named Eliza Shelton Keeler. She came to Utah as a girl, eventually lost five children, moved from place to place as a polygamous wife. Her life was really hard, and she just kept going. There are a lot of stories like that you can’t help but admire.”
George cautions, however, that these pioneer stories weren’t uncomplicated. “The pioneers were regular people,” George says. “They made mistakes. Their growing communities displaced Native Americans; you can’t ignore that.”
In recognition of Utah’s Native American culture, the Native American Celebration in the Park will be celebrating its 29th annual event this month. The community celebration and intertribal powwow is held concurrently with the Days of ‘47 Parade at Liberty Park, where the parade route ends.
Among all the community’s embrace of the 19th century way of life, the Buenaventura Mountainmen events deliver the most immersive experience. The nonprofit is led by Charles “Thor” Willis, who explains, “We meet the second Saturday of every month, called Buckskinner Day. We have all kinds of seminars and teach primitive living skills and history.
“The kids can shoot black powder guns, paddle around in the pond in a canoe we dug out from a tree that fell, and see how trappers used to set their traps. It’s a connection to our heritage as well as the history of the indigenous people who lived in the area before Europeans came.”
He explains that many of the trappers and mountainmen were illiterate, so the specifics of their practices are hard to come by. “We do a lot of study and documentation to figure out how they did what they did with what they had. We call it experimental archeology.”
Willis says attendance at the monthly Buckskinner Days has been consistent and growing. The group also hosts a four-day rendezvous reenactment, an event that often draws primitive skills enthusiasts from outside of Utah.
The rendezvous kicks off with a school day, where about 1,000 local schoolchildren experience demonstrations like blacksmithing, fire starting, molding bullets, beaver skinning, and more. Over the next few days, there are shooting events for kids as well as adults.
There’s also an archery course with foam animal targets, a trail walk with blanket shooting, lance throwing, a frying pan toss, a dutch oven cooking contest, and a mountainman run where teams comprised of one adult (over age 16) and one child have to complete a specific set of skill-based tasks.
What is it about the mountainman experience that people find appealing? Willis says people generally enjoy history, imagining the way people lived before there were freeways and grocery stores, and learning primitive skills heightens that understanding. He adds that it also helps offset the vulnerability we have living in a technological world where everything is done for us. He says when the power goes out, people feel a wakeup call.
“People often don’t know they can pour olive oil in a cup, add a wick, and they have an oil lamp,” Willis says. “There’s a group of people who realize we need old technology. I always tell kids, don’t throw away old tech when you get new tech, just add to it.”
While many Utahns may not make it to Fort Buenaventura for Buckskinner Days or a rendezvous, they’ll still grab a spot along a Pioneer Day parade route or watch the mutton busting contest at the rodeo. The continual look to the past speaks to the desire to honor the people who made it possible to live in Utah’s natural beauty, work in its thriving economy, and raise families in its communities.
And for those who may not have pioneer heritage (or a desire to swelter under the July sun as floats go by), there’s always Utah’s alternative, Pie and Beer Day, where whoever you are, wherever you are, you can toast to those early pioneers.