Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Some uncomfortable facts about Pioneers

It's July 24, time to honor our Pioneer heritage, and the extraordinary men and women who looked at an arid desert where the largest water supply was a huge salt lake, and said "yep, looks good to me." What made Salt Lake Valley attractive was precisely the fact that nobody else wanted it; Brigham Young was determined to put a mountain range between Mormons and the people who were trying to kill us.  I have a Famous Pioneer Ancestor: Stephen Markham, who was in the '47 company.  He was married at the time, to Hannah Hogeboom Markham, who arrived the next year, took one look around, got back in her wagon with her three oldest sons, and kept on going, ending up in California.  We're from Stephen's third wife, Mary Curtis Markham; I grew up with my grandmother telling me Mary Markham stories.  He eventually was one of the founders of Spanish Fork, Utah.  My wife's family also has a Famous Pioneer Ancestor, Peter Maughan, who settled Cache Valley.

I absolutely honor their sacrifice, and when I sing "Blessed, honored Pioneer," I can't help but get a bit choked up.  But, talking about the Pioneers, I'm amused to think about who they were and what they did, and what Utah has become.

I. The Pioneers were illegal immigrants. 

When the Pioneers entered Salt Lake Valley, it was part of Mexico.  Granted, Mexico hadn't settled it, England also had a claim, and within a year, it would be ceded to the United States in the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo.  But it's not like Brigham asked permission.  Plus, a good case could be made that the land we settled was 'owned' by the Indian tribes who were living here.  Again, Brigham Young made some effort to get along with the Indian tribes--but we never paid for the land we settled.  (That's before we even get into the questionable legality of President Polk's war with Mexico; let that go.) 

II. The Pioneers were hippie theatre geeks.

Hippies?  Just look at 'em.  Theatre geeks?  More than almost any other religious group of the nineteenth century. Our Theatre Geek In Chief, Brigham Young loved theatre--thought it a 'civilizing influence', though he did cast a gimlet eye on such innovations as theatrical realism and skimpy costumes. Still, our Mormon ancestors set up traveling theatre companies, they had theaters in nearly every town (sometimes called, more palatably, 'opera houses') and shortly after arriving in Salt Lake, a guy named H. E. Bowring threw up a playhouse, in addition to another public building called the Social Hall.  The Pioneers may not have had any standing churches at first, but they had two theaters.  By 1861, they'd built one of their first, biggest structures, the Salt Lake Theater, which became an important road house, as well as home to a local theatre company.  Big big names performed there, from Sarah Bernhardt to Edwin Booth to Enrico Caruso, to no fewer than four Barrymores, including Drew Barrymore.  (No, not her, her famous actor ancestor).  The Pioneers were trying to carve a living out of poor soil and little water, but evenings, it was pull out the fiddle and dance time.  Or go see the latest traveling show. Of course we're totally different today--we attend our semi-annual General Conference in the Conference Center.  Which has a state-of-the-art theater attached.  Even a little burg like Cedar City is home to a Tony-winning Shakespeare Festival.  And I grew up with Road Shows.  So, theatre geeks?  You bet. 

III.  The Pioneers radically re-defined marriage, and their sexual mores were considered shocking, especially by Republicans.

I'm not sure if you're aware of this--like maybe you've just arrived from Mars--but it's possible that some of our Pioneer ancestors married more than one woman.  This was called "polygamy."

Okay, we all know this.  My Famous Pioneer Ancestor had six wives--my line traces back to wife number three.  It's quite true that many early Church leaders, when they heard of polygamy, were appalled by it.  Still, it happened.  A lot.  It was one of the defining features of Mormonism.  Still is: it's often the one thing people know about us.

And yes, it's awful, and it's incomprehensible, and it's a blot on our history, and today, I'm not alone in wishing it never happened.  Am I alone in also finding it funny?  I mean, a lot of our General Authorities said some kind of hilariously anti-monogamous things in our history, stuff that reads oddly today, and it's not surprising that they did.  They were under attack, and they knew full well the manifest hypocrisies of Victorian marriage--the sexual double standard, the astonishing prevalence of prostitution.  And so they defended marriage, their marriage, the version of marriage they were obliged to practice and defend.  As for Republicans--their platform from 1856 on included strong language attacking the 'twin relics of barbarism': slavery and polygamy.  Yep, the Party of Lincoln hated Mormon marriage customs. 

Did polygamy mistreat women?  Not sure that's the right question.  Did polygamy mistreat women any worse than every other institution of the nineteenth century did?  Certainly a great many Mormon women found comfort, sisterhood, and the possibility of equality within polygamy that, in their view, would have been denied them outside it.  Can we say that, while also finding contemporary vestiges of polygamy appalling? 

IV.  The Pioneers were a buncha Commies.

Communists, in other words.  More Karl Marx than Adam Smith.  Not exactly free market champions. 

Well, they actually based it on the New Testament. Call it communalism, or collectivism, or the United Order, our Pioneers shared all things in common, had no poor among them, believed in cooperative stores instead of for-profit stores.  The Godbeites, one of the more prominent Utah splinter groups, rejected Brigham's economic program--they wanted laissez-faire economics.  (They were also into spiritualism, and also wanted to start literary magazines--imagine them as a cross between Ayn Rand, oijue boards, and the Association for Mormon Letters).

I suppose you could argue that Brigham Young got his economics from the likes of Robert Owen more than Marx and Engels.  Brigham founded some 200 United Order-ish communities in small towns in Utah; they don't seem all that different from what Owen was doing in New Harmony Indiana.  But Brigham's mission to England showed him laissez-faire economics in its most completely libertarian incarnation--it's safe to say that he was not a fan.   

Anyway, that's our Pioneer heritage.  Pinko theatre geek sexual adventurers. I'm proud that they're my people.  


  1. Nice! Your talent for writing shows.

    I'm also a Mary Curtis Houghton Markham descendent.

  2. I LOVE to point out the communism and socialism in early pioneer history and current LDS religious dogma. It's OK when church authorities do it but not OK when health care is passed by the party I've been told to be morally opposed to.

    Uh...and there was plenty of crossdressing going on in those olde tyme opera houses.

    (Uh, my friend posted a link to your blog on FB. Nice to meetya.)

    1. Nice to meet you too! I'm glad to welcome another reader!

    2. The big difference between communalism (United order) and Mr. Marx is agency. Communism was forced on people, the United Order was voluntary. BIG difference.

  3. This is a GREAT post. Thank you.

  4. I am not opposed to "Utah Mormon Pioneers," but for the rest of the world who doesn't have roots in Utah, Pioneer Day can be both frustrating and funny at the same time. I hope you don't mind if I poke fun for a little bit but the post, and then the comments brought back a couple of interesting seminary discussions.

    First, most modern day LDS pioneers have never set foot in Utah, and probably never will. (Some really have no desire to ever spend time there.) Utah spends a lot of time looking backwards to find pioneers, while the contemporary pioneers in Asia, Africa, South America and in states that are not Utah are looking at those around them for examples of pioneers. If a pioneer is someone who is on the cutting edge, blazing a trail into new territory, then every new "crop" of converts are contemporary pioneers. While occasional lip service will be given to those new converts, I think a lot of times understanding what that really means is not a focus.

    I consider myself to be a daughter of pioneers. My mother joined the church on her eighteenth birthday. My step-father joined the church in middle school along with his two older brothers. Neither one of them has parents who joined the church. They didn't have ancestors that were easily identifiable to large numbers of church members, they were blazing their own trail, finding ways to live the gospel in places out side of an insular community. They raised children who grew up in the church and now have families of their own. Still they didn't give up all of their own history. I have brave ancestors who left their homes all around the world who came to America to find a better life, one in which their great-great-great grandchildren would be introduced to the gospel.

    I have to admit, Pioneer Day would have meaning to me if the church left off the Utah pioneers for a year or two, and instead told the stories of early members of the church who weren't Caucasian, and how they blazed the trail for other converts, in their own country. Maybe we could rotate through different countries or regions. Ghana has a large LDS population who had to have courage, strong testimonies and a desire to build the Lord's kingdom. Do you know who the Ghanaian pioneers were? I don't. I would like to know though.

    Sorry if this is too much of a rant, but it bothers me when the assumption that "the pioneers" all settled Utah, Idaho and Wyoming. It is great that the descendants of the Utah pioneers want to celebrate their heritage, but I think that assuming those stories will resonate with the entire church ignores the pioneers who are baptized every day.