Richard Davis: Today's immigrants resemble earlier pioneers

Published: Thursday, July 25 2013 2:15 p.m. MDT

When the first group of Mormon pioneers entered the Salt Lake Valley 166 years ago, they were immigrants moving into a new land. That first wave started a movement of people coming by wagon, handcart and train.

, Ray Boren

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When the first group of Mormon pioneers entered the Salt Lake Valley 166 years ago, they were immigrants moving into a new land. That first wave started a movement of people coming by wagon, handcart and train. Latter-day Saint Church leaders urged church members to make the trek west to settle Utah territory. And they did. Church members streamed into Utah.

They came from various parts of Europe. B.H. Roberts arrived as a poor teen from England following his mother who had immigrated a year earlier. Roberts later became an LDS general authority and historian. Anna Widtsoe, a widow, came with her two sons from Norway. One of those sons, John, later became president of Utah State University and an LDS apostle. A teacher named Karl Maeser set out from Germany with his wife and children, taking three years to make the trek to Utah. Maeser later presided over Brigham Young Academy. Peter Hughes brought his wife and three daughters from Wales to Utah. One of the daughters died along the trail, and Peter himself died three days after entering Salt Lake City. His wife was left to care for two daughters, one of whom, Martha, became the first female state senator in the United States 35 years later.

These people and many others like them came to Utah to have a better life. The primary reason was religious, but they also believed that if they worked hard, they would succeed economically as well. They made important contributions to their community.

At that time, these new immigrants were welcomed to Utah, regardless of where they came from or what their economic circumstances were. People invited them to stay temporarily in their homes while they built their own houses. Land was given them to work.

As we celebrate Pioneer Day, it is appropriate to consider the plight of another group of pioneers, those modern pioneers who move to the state today. These people are like the 19th century pioneers in the sense that they migrate from their native lands to find a new life, a better life. And they bring their children.

But there are differences. Most do not have European heritage; they come from Latin America, Asia and Africa. They often speak a language other than English, typically Spanish. Even though their children learn English more readily, parents and grandparents find it difficult to learn a new language. Many live in neighborhoods with others who share the same national background and language and watch Spanish television.

At the same time, perhaps those differences are not as stark as we might think. Many of the early pioneers from non-English speaking countries struggled to learn English as well, and foreign-language communities and periodicals were common at that time as a way to preserve language and culture. For example, Swiss immigrants congregated in Midway, while Greeks settled in a small community in the western part of Salt Lake City, complete with Greek stores and a Greek newspaper. Large numbers of Swedish immigrants settled in Grantsville and read their own Swedish language newspapers until the early 20th century.

Many of today's pioneers to Utah come illegally. Fortunately, Congress is working on immigration reform designed to provide a path to legal status for these pioneers. But even that is, in a sense, similar to the earliest Mormon pioneers. When they came to Utah in 1847, the territory was owned by Mexico. It was not until the next year that the United States took title to the intermountain West. The early pioneers did not get legal documentation from Mexico to settle and could have been deported by Mexico if it had wished to enforce its border.

Pioneer Day might be a good time not only to recognize the pioneers of an earlier day, but also to be more sympathetic to the plight of modern pioneers who come to Utah today. Like the early residents, perhaps we should welcome them rather than just complain about their legal status. And we should consider that, like pioneers of an earlier day such as John A. Widtsoe or Martha Hughes Cannon, perhaps their children may make future significant contributions to their local communities, the state and even the nation.

Richard Davis is a professor of political science at Brigham Young University. His opinions do not necessarily reflect those of BYU.

Email: Richard_Davis@byu.edu

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