Holiday traffic jams have a long Utah history. On July 23, 1857, the logging road leading to Silver Lake (now Brighton) in Big Cottonwood Canyon was crowded with guests invited to a celebration of the tenth anniversary of the arrival of the Mormon pioneers. By mid-afternoon, 2,587 people, riding in 464 carriages and wagons, with 1,360 horses, mules, and oxen to pull them, had passed up the canyon road.
Serenaded by brass bands from Salt Lake City, Springville, and Ogden, the people set up camp near the lake. Companies of the Nauvoo Legion (the Utah militia) paraded and drilled. At sunset, a bugle call summoned the people to prayer. Brigham Young spoke of the arrival of the pioneers, and how God had blessed them to create a garden in the desert. A prayer of thanksgiving was followed by an evening of dancing in three plank-floored boweries built for the party.
Pioneer Day began with breakfast prepared over hundreds of small campfires. The American flag flew from treetops and from nearby rocky peaks. Just after 9:00, rounds were fired from a small brass cannon in honor of Mormon leaders, and again an hour later to salute a parade of 10- to 12-year-old boys. For the most part, the crowds relaxed in small groups, went swimming and boating, or played on swings suspended from tree limbs.
About noon, four dusty horsemen – Abraham O. Smoot, Judson Stoddard, Porter Rockwell, and Elias Smith – arrived in camp, bringing the news for which Pioneer Day, 1857, is best remembered: The displeasure of the federal government with what they believed were conditions of anarchy in Utah had reached the boiling point. A large portion of the United States Army, estimated at 2,500 men, were marching toward Utah, beginning what we know today as the Utah War.
Many mistakenly believe that this Paul Revere-like announcement was the first inkling in Utah that the federal government proposed sending an army here. Not so. Newspapers brought into the Territory from the East had discussed the progress of the military plan for months. Overland travelers had brought their own rumors and news. Still, the report that reached Utah on Pioneer Day was significant for several reasons.
First, the report confirmed that the army had left the frontier and would in fact approach Utah that very year. There would be no more speculation that the crisis could be postponed, or that the lateness of the season for Plains travel would prevent the launching of the military expedition.
Second, Utahns learned that the expedition commander was General William S. Harney, a brutal man nicknamed “Squaw Killer,” and an officer who had faced multiple courts martial for violent behavior, including the torture-murder of a female slave. Although Harney was replaced as the expedition’s leader before it reached Utah, report of his approach stiffened Mormon resolve that their leaders must never fall into his control.
And third, the messengers brought news of the cancellation of the mail contract recently awarded to the Y.X. Carrying Co., a Mormon enterprise. No substitute mail carrier was appointed. Not only would Utahns be cut off from their chief source of news and contact with family outside of the Territory, but they also faced the loss of hundreds of thousands of dollars invested in building and stocking way stations across the Plains.
Daniel H. Wells, a counselor to Brigham Young and future mayor of Salt Lake City, announced the news to the assembled campers. They recognized the gravity of the situation, but there was no panic, no angry speeches, and no dampening of the celebration. Soon enough the people of Utah would turn to defending their homes and families against what many considered to be an unlawful, unjustified mob invasion, but for the rest of that Pioneer Day they would celebrate the success of their ten years in the wilderness.
The evening was spent in songs and toasts, “after which,” according to reporter George D. Watt, “dancing and general hilarity continued to a late hour.”
Camp was broken early on the morning of July 25th, with a long and orderly train of wagons and carriages proceeding down the mountain and back to the city.
Along with the usual Pioneer Day activities there this year , a reenactment of the events of July 24, 1857, played out in real time, will take place at This Is the Place Heritage Park. The public is invited to enjoy the brass bands, the speeches, and the drama of the arrival of the messengers, beginning at 10:00 a.m.