“Utah’s First Thanksgiving,” Ensign, Oct. 1982, 49–51
In 1621 the Pilgrims of Plymouth celebrated America’s first “Thanksgiving.” After months of toil and doubt, the settlers enjoyed their first harvest in a new land, rejoicing in their respite from near starvation and gaining a renewed feeling that God smiled on their efforts. For Latter-day Saints, the 1848 celebration of the first harvest in Salt Lake Valley was a festival of similar significance.
Settlers had crossed the Great Plains and Rocky Mountains before the Mormon pioneers of 1847. But perhaps never before had so many westering colonists headed for unproven and relatively unknown destinations miles from other settlements. Newspapers, books, and pamphlets provided information about the high valleys of the Great Basin. Many reported favorably. But other reports only increased anxiety about one thing: would the growing season prove long enough for crops to mature? No one knew, but those best acquainted with the region had doubts. Jim Bridger, long-time resident of the mountain country, was so sure crops couldn’t be grown that he offered to pay a thousand dollars for an ear of corn ripened in the Salt Lake Valley.1
Had President Brigham Young relied on such information alone, he might have wavered in his determination to settle the interior valleys. But he was also guided by the conviction that in moving west the Saints were fulfilling a long-awaited destiny. He held a firm faith that there was in the West a place prepared where, with God’s blessings, they could succeed. When the time came to leave for the mountains, practical considerations were, in President Young’s mind, secondary. After working to exhaustion during the preparations, he was calmly willing to leave the results to God.2
The pioneers found the valley to be beautiful and grass-filled, crossed by mountain streams—not a burning desert at all. Still, it was higher than any land they had farmed before, and the soil drier. Nor was it timbered. To those raised in the woodlands of the East, it appeared to be a barren country. Harriet Young, wife of President Young’s brother Lorenzo and one of three women in the first company, wrote of the valley: “Everything looked gloomy and I felt heartsick.” Though she had traveled fifteen hundred miles to get there, she “could willingly travel a thousand farther” to get to more congenial surroundings.3 Nonetheless, to skilled farmers the soil felt good, and there was abundant water nearby that could be channeled to plowed fields. There was reason to be hopeful.
President Young, ill when the pioneers first arrived in the Salt Lake Valley, recovered enough a few days later to address the camp at length. By then, men had scouted in every direction to see if there might be a better location than where they had first plowed and planted. As President Young anticipated, they found none. “This is the right spot,” he declared. “I know it is the spot, and we have come here according to the suggestion and direction of Joseph Smith. … The word of the Lord was, go to that valley and the best place you can find in it is the spot.”4 It was, he affirmed when he returned a year later, “the place he had seen [in vision] before he came here & it was the place for the Saints to geather.”5
Once the site was selected, President Young and others hurried east to rejoin their families at Winter Quarters. En route they met hundreds of Saints headed to the Salt Lake Valley with Elders Parley P. Pratt and John Taylor. These settlers arrived in the valley only to discover that the July pioneers had planted too late to produce much of a harvest. In the absence of fences, foraging horses and cattle had trampled some of the fields, further diminishing the fall’s production. Nonetheless, more than fifteen hundred people crowded into the new settlement for winter.
By February 1848, some of the colonists had eaten their last bread. Many who had little shared with those who had none. Then in early spring local Indians taught the Saints to find edible plants such as the sego lily root, tender thistle greens and roots, and, soon, wild berries. Traditional game, along with crow, hawk, and wolf meat, provided additional sustenance.
Warmed by the spring sun, tender shoots pushed up through five thousand acres of plowed fields. By May, pioneers relished the first radishes and lettuce of the season. Peas, wheat, and other crops looked daily more promising. Said one settler of the prospects, “Our crops now looked fine and we looked forward to a day not far distant when we could geather and eat our fill.”6
Within days, however, weather and insects combined to dramatically change the outlook. “There is a great excitement in the camp,” wrote John Steele on June 4. “There has come a frost which took beans, corn and wheat and nearly everything, and to help make the disaster complete, the crickets came by the thousands of tons.”7 Not until mid-June did summer heat end the frost damage, but then sun-baked fields not yet under irrigation suffered further losses.
Summer drought they had anticipated; by extending their system of ditches and gaining experience with irrigation, they expected to meet that challenge. But the killing frosts reinforced fears that perhaps Jim Bridger had been right about the valley’s unfitness for crops. And the crickets … ! They came so unexpectedly, and in such hordes, that nothing, it seemed, could prevent total destruction of the crops.
The pioneers believed that if a man did all in his power to solve a problem, God would step in and do the rest. With this philosophy, they prayed for rain even as they irrigated. They covered vegetable gardens against frost even as they prayed that God would prolong the growing season. For three exhausting weeks they fought the crickets with every possible means. Then flocks of seagulls from the Great Salt Lake combined with the passing season to end the cricket devastation. For some, it was a dramatic confirmation of God’s interest in the success of their New Zion.
Still, the setbacks were severe enough that this was, in the words of one valley resident, “a time to try mens faith.” A few families refused to face another year in the harsh valley and returned to the States or left for California.8
With the end of crop damage due to frost and crickets, farmers quickly replanted. By midsummer, spirits had revived and, once again, there was prospect of a good harvest.9 Some of the Saints had probably participated previously in a harvest feast of thanksgiving, a New England custom echoing the Plymouth Colony celebration of 1621. As thoughts turned thankfully to God for the coming harvest, it was natural to set aside a day for thanksgiving.
Thursday, August 10, was the day selected. By that date the wheat harvest would be complete, other grains available, and vegetables plentiful. “Every family in the city is invited,” noted one woman in anticipation of the feast. To superintend the preparations, captains of hundreds and of fifties were appointed pioneer-camp fashion, with each ten families and their captain “to furnish a table with the produce of the valley.”10 For the celebration, workmen constructed a bowery of poles shaded by willows.
At 9:00 A.M. that thanksgiving day, several hundred Saints gathered for the celebration. There had been near-starvation times, and there might be more, but the Lord had blessed them with harvest. It would be a time of joyful celebration, of feasting “on what the Lord had blessed them with in this desert land.”11
Festivities opened with the raising of a traditional American symbol of freedom—a Liberty Pole sporting a white flag. Sheaves of grain decorated the pole beneath the flag: wheat and barley and oats—and a single ear of green corn. While the flag was raised, the cannon was fired, the band played, and the people cheered then shouted to the mountains: “Hosannah to God and the Lamb, for ever and ever, Amen.”
Young and old then seated themselves on log benches under the bowery, which was decorated with bundles of grain and other harvested produce, for “singing and prayer and appropriate speeches.” With instrumental accompaniment they sang Parley P. Pratt’s “Harvest Song” composed especially for the occasion. (See p. 50.) After a few speeches by prominent leaders, including Elders Parley P. Pratt and John Taylor, Elder Taylor offered the prayer of praise and thanksgiving.
The feast itself was the centerpiece of the celebration. As noon approached, a bugle sounded and the hungry crowd rearranged the benches and put dishes and utensils on the tables. “Everyone brought something of such as they had to make the dinner which was accomplished in good stile,” recorded one. “A Splendid Dinner was Spread under the Bowery prepared for the occasion and Several hundred sat down to a rich repast to which all contributed,” noted another. Elder Pratt summarized: “We partook freely of a rich variety of bread, beef, butter, cheese, cakes, pastry, green corn, melons, and almost every variety of vegetables.” Lettuce, radishes, beets, onions, peas, carrots, cucumbers, parsnips, squash, and beans were available by then; later in the season there would also be pumpkins and a few potatoes.
About 2:00 P.M. the bugle again sounded, ending the feast and beginning the music and dancing. With the tables cleared and benches removed, the bowery accommodated fifty couples at a time in cotillions, quadrilles, Virginia reels, and other dances. This continued throughout the afternoon, the “gray headed, the middle aged and the youth all in one Common Caus[e] of rejoicing and pleasure.”
Participants agreed it was a memorable and refreshing experience. It was a day of “prayer and thanksgiving, congratulations, songs, speeches, music, dancing, smiling faces and merry hearts,” wrote Elder Pratt. “In short, it was a great day with the people … and long to be remembered by those who had suffered and waited anxiously for the results of a first effort to redeem the interior deserts of America.”12
The harvest did not end all doubts and discouragements about the valley, nor did it mark the end of hard times.13 The season’s crop losses had been significant, and with hundreds of new settlers to feed during the coming year, there would again be a “starving time” before harvest. But the harvest did prove that foodstuffs could be produced in the valley—and abundantly.
This first thanksgiving did not establish an annual tradition of harvest celebrations Church-wide. In the Salt Lake Valley, mushrooming population made it impractical to have a city-wide feast. But in the fall of 1851, just over three years after this first celebration, President Brigham Young as governor of the newly formed Territory of Utah proclaimed Thursday, 1 January 1852, a “Day of Praise and Thanksgiving.” Filled with gratitude to God for the thousands of Saints now gathered into the Salt Lake Valley and “in response to the time-honoured custom of our fathers at Plymouth Rock,” Governor Young enjoined the Saints to spend the day as families joyfully, thankfully, prayerfully, sharing their hearts with one another and with God, and sharing their substance with the poor.14
It is a pattern that we might well seek to follow in our own family celebrations.