I grew up in a patriotic household, but we rarely lit a sparkler on the 4th of July.
Throughout Utah and Southeastern Idaho, we marched in parades and set off fireworks on the 24th of July. Like most faithful Latter-day Saints, we celebrated pioneers more than patriots.
“The 24th” as we referred to it, was a day to celebrate Brigham Young’s entry into the Salt Lake Valley—which was then part of Mexico–on July 24, 1847. The story goes that Young was sick enough to be laying down in a wagon, but when the group crossed over the Wasatch Mountain range, he rose up from his sickbed, looked out over the desert valley and the gleaming waters of the Great Salt Lake and said ‘This is the Place.’”
Seventy thousand Mormon pioneers followed. Those oxen-driving men and sunbonnet wearing women (many of whom also drove oxen) were who I honored when I dressed up as a clown, decorated my banana-seat bike with crepe paper streamers, rode down the county seat’s main street and pelted parade-goers with saltwater taffy.
The 4th of July went largely unnoticed since it was the middle of the potato growing season and there was Work to Be Done, though my mother often decorated a cake with red, white and blue frosting.
So why was the 24th given precedence over the 4th? In an L.A. Times interview, former University of Utah professor Dean May attributed it to the “new history” the Mormons were forging in the West.
“There is something symbolically suggestive about a people who are an indigenously developed group to have their ethnic identity be most important,” said May.” They are attached to a new history of their faith as well as to their country.”
Up to that point, Mormons had a fractious relationship with the American government. Their communal economic and theocratic rule made them targets of mobs and government militia. Their burgeoning practice of polygamy would further alienate them. They sought a safe place to practice their religion. Utah, as Young determined, was that place.
(That this was also “the place” for Shoshone and Ute peoples who already lived there is a pertinent topic for another blog post.)
During the trek to Utah in 1847, Mormons did not celebrate Independence Day, but they did carry an American flag with them. They would also dispatch a battalion to fight for America in the Mexican War and petitioned the federal government to make their Great Basin empire a U.S. Territory. Eventually, they would abandon the practice of polygamy as part of Utah’s bid to become a state.
In case you hadn’t noticed, the modern-day Mormon Corridor is now deeply red and full of flag-waving patriots. Festivals and rodeos dot Utah and Idaho on both the 24th and the 4th. My own small town of 1000 people now boasts a 4th of July parade that draws 7,000 attendees a year and has been immortalized in comedian Ryan Hamilton’s Netflix special Happy Face. (Alas, the parade was canceled this year due to COVID-19 concerns.)
Two years ago, I was asked to ride in the parade as a former Junior Miss winner. The drill was pretty much the same as when I’d been a kid clown on a bicycle—wave at the crowd and toss candy. This time though, I wore red, white and blue along with a collection of rhinestone flag pins to show that this descendent of pioneers was an All American Girl.
What were the regional differences in patriotic displays where you grew up?
Linda Ulleseit writes award-winning heritage fiction set in the United States. She is a member of Historical Novel Society, Women’s Fiction Writers Association, and Women Writing the West as well as a founding member of Paper Lantern Writers. Get in touch with her on Instagram (lulleseit) and Facebook (Linda Ulleseit or SHINE with Paper Lantern Writers).