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In our opinion: The pioneering ethic

Published: Sunday, July 24 2011 12:00 a.m. MDT

Utah youths and their leaders learn about the challenges of the pioneer experience by recreating a handcart trek near the Utah-Wyoming border.

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Moving under the banner of Manifest Destiny and lured by riches, western migration was not unique in 19th-century America. But in most cases — not all — it was young men who first answered the call of national expansionists to "go west."

These sturdy men endured the adventure and privations of the western trail so that they could find economic reward in cheap fertile land or abundant precious ore.

Utah's pioneers, however, seeking sanctuary for their beliefs and a way of life, moved not as rugged individuals, but as families and communities. Women, children and the elderly had to endure and adapt to precisely the same hardships considered challenging by the most adventurous men of the era.

And even many of the young men who migrated to Utah were not, by nature, frontiersmen. Mormon converts from the crowded, industrializing cities of Europe found themselves doing the unthinkable as they foraged for provisions and scrambled across vast expanses of desolate high plains, often alongside others who couldn't even speak their language, all because of a shared call of conscience.

Wallace Stegner wrote, "Where Oregon emigrants and argonauts bound for the gold fields lost practically all their social cohesion en route, the Mormons moved like the Host of Israel they thought themselves. Far from loosening their social organization, the trail perfected it."

Stegner was mostly right. But it wasn't just the trail that perfected Utah's pioneers. As they were asked to settle small communities throughout these mountain valleys and the Great Basin, they further developed their individual and communal capacities.

Instead of landing as anonymous newcomers in a big city or a chaotic mining district, Utah pioneers were welcomed as members of a tightly knit community. Almost before they could catch their breath from the journey west, Utah pioneers were working with neighbors in small settlements, creating from scratch the kind of culture and community that would nurture their families.

So even as they worked to eke out a living for their families, they also learned to work together in building roads and irrigation systems, cultivating orchards, establishing schools, founding clinics, publishing newspapers and developing other cooperative community organizations.

And their adaptation to this amazing new landscape was remarkably creative. For example, Norwegian ship builders who found themselves in the arid valleys of Sanpete County turned their skills and abilities to the construction of houses of worship.

Even as they built infrastructure and community, they also developed their character and talents. In small, accountable communities, they learned that with faith and organization they could accomplish more than many would have thought humanly possible. They learned that with tolerance and good humor they could work productively with others from different backgrounds.

In short, because of the necessity to do so many new things, and the accountability to do the right thing, Utah's pioneers developed the capacity to do great things.

Today most Utahns live in relatively prosperous urban and suburban environments. Thankfully, persecution and survival are not primary motivators. Nonetheless, as the world rapidly changes, Utahns continue to live on conceptual frontiers of commerce, knowledge and creativity.

Pioneering is not a historical status. Pioneering is, rather, an ethic about selflessly preparing the way for others to follow.

On this Pioneer Day we should carefully consider — for the sake of those who will follow us — whether we are exploring and pushing back our challenging conceptual frontiers with the same faith, cooperation, integrity and courage as the women and men who pushed back the physical frontiers in this state.

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