by Howard Stephenson
July is the month when Utahns celebrate our forbears who sacrificed much that we might enjoy liberty, peace, and abundance.
It was 155 years ago that the pioneers arrived in the Salt Lake Valley which was the beginning place for the settlement of all of Utah and much of the West. These pioneers literally transformed the West. Soon after the Mormons arrived they were joined by pioneers not of theri faith who had a tremendous impact on the economic expansion of the state, particularly in mining. This diversity made possible the creation of wealth which benefitted every Utahn.
This month as we celebrate in comfort, let us not forget the sacrifices of the early pioneers, the incredible suffering, illnesses, starvation, extreme temperatures, and the hundreds dying along the way.
Today it is hard to imagine a people willing to even begin a journey by wagon and handcart of more than 1,000 miles into the wilderness.
They came here fleeing religious persecution, but despite the fact that the government had done little to protect them in Missouri and Illinois, 500 men accepted a request from President Polk to leave their families on the trail in Iowa and join the U.S. Army to fight in the Mexican War. Their trek to San Diego, California became the longest recorded march in military history.
When the pioneers reached Wyoming, Jim Bridger warned Brigham Young of the desolation in the Salt Lake Valley, but the pioneers went ahead anyway. And after they arrived here, many packed up again and headed out to began the settlement of hundreds of communities throughout Utah and the West.
Then came more persecution as Johnson’s Army hounded the Utah pioneers and occupied the territory. Still fifty years later the federal government confiscated much of their property, yet they worked tirelessly to obtain statehood by 1896.
What a contrast to the world’s positive attention on Utah during the 2002 Winter Olympic Games. Look how far we’ve come!
The sacrifices of the pioneers are a reminder of other sacrifices made in the country 70 years earlier. We celebrate the culmination of these patriot sacrifices on Independence Day.
The signing of the Declaration of Independence by those pledging their lives, fortunes, and sacred honor proclaimed to the world that the fight for liberty had begun. As I read the accounts of the winter at Valley Forge just 20 miles from Philadelphia, the capital, the most important city in the Union, which had been captured by the British, I am amazed that the patriot soldiers did not give up.
The soldiers were mostly without shoes, many clothed in rags or with only a blanket to cover them. Rations were short and often dinner was only a mouthful of soup made of burnt leaves. Congress was unable to supply the soldiers with regular wages and tales of suffering at home were frequent.
Three years later, at West Point, the army was in worse shape than at Valley Forge. Hunger stalked the encampment and ammunition was scarce. Once again, gaunt soldiers stood shoe-less in the snow with nothing to cover them but a blanket. Washington wrote: “The prospects of the Continental Army have never been blacker. We have never experienced a like extremity at any period of the war. It seems now inevitable that West Point must be abandoned and the troops dispersed to prey upon the countryside for food.”
Why didn’t they give up? What sustained them?
A vision that Liberty truly was worth dying for.
“We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, that to secure these rights governments are instituted among men. We . . . solemnly publish and declare, that these colonies are and of right ought to be free and independent states . . . And for the support of this declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine providence, we mutually pledge our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honour.”
And so, at this time of the year it is important for us to assess what we have done to protect the liberty which so many sacrificed to obtain. In this election year, maybe more than 10% of us could vote. Or, better yet, we could actually study the issues and know the candidates before we vote.
We’re not asked to pull handcarts into the wilderness or stand shoe-less in the snow, waiting out the long winter. No, we’re just asked to do the little things to ensure that this nation by the people, of the people and for the people does not perish from the earth.