Today is Pioneer Day here in Utah, where we celebrate the achievements and heritage of the Mormon Pioneers. One hundred and sixty-eight years ago today, Brigham Young looked over the Salt Lake Valley (a barely hospitable desert at the time) and declared “this is the place.”
I feel a great deal of pride for my pioneer heritage. My ancestors walked across the plains in the Willie Handcart Company, they organized one of the most successful cooperatives of the United Order, they fought in the Utah Wars, and they built numerous cities across the Intermountain West. Before the pioneer exodus, they built and later abandoned the Nauvoo Temple, endured the horrible conditions at Winter Quarters, and left trails of bloody footprints as they fled their homes and lands during the Missouri persecutions.
One of my direct-line ancestors was Lyman Wight, leader of the Mormon Militia. When the Missouri mobs captured the Mormon leadership and a kangaroo court sentenced them all to death, Lyman Wight’s reputation was so fierce that the mob hesitated to execute him. They offered to let him free if he would renounce Joseph Smith.
Lyman Wight looked the Missourians in the eye and said “Joseph Smith is the best friend you ever had.”
The leaders of the mob asked him why he said that.
He told them: “if it weren’t for Joseph Smith, I would have slit all your throats years ago.”
The mob then threatened to execute him. Lyman Wight answered without hesitation:
“Shoot, and be damned.”
None of the members of the mob dared to execute him, fearing that his ghost would haunt them to the end of their days.
There are tons and tons of stories like that in my family, and even more that belong to my friends. History is alive here in Utah, where monuments to our pioneer heritage are scattered throughout the state.
The Mormon corridor has a very unique subculture compared to the rest of the United States. It’s a unique and sometimes paradoxical blend of individualism and collectivism, of self-reliance and communal spirit, of libertarian ideals and obedience to moral authority. To an outsider, I’m sure it must be extremely perplexing, but there’s nowhere else in the United States where I feel so totally at home. These are my people. This is my home.
That’s why I found this map of the “eleven American nations” so fascinating. According to the corresponding Washington Post article, almost all of the battles in the culture wars can be explained by the lines on this map. Furthermore, the mobility of American society is causing these regional differences to grow sharper as Americans pick up and move to the places where the dominant culture best suits them.
A further explanation can be found here, where the author of the map (and the book American Nations) states:
The borders of my eleven American nations are reflected in many different types of maps—including maps showing the distribution of linguistic dialects, the spread of cultural artifacts, the prevalence of different religious denominations, and the county-by-county breakdown of voting in virtually every hotly contested presidential race in our history. Our continent’s famed mobility has been reinforcing, not dissolving, regional differences, as people increasingly sort themselves into like-minded communities, a phenomenon analyzed by Bill Bishop and Robert Cushing in The Big Sort (2008). Even waves of immigrants did not fundamentally alter these nations, because the children and grandchildren of immigrants assimilated into whichever culture surrounded them.
The thing that I find most fascinating about this map is how closely the borders of the Far West “nation” parallel the State of Deseret, first proposed by Brigham Young and the Mormon pioneers. The Mormons didn’t get along very well with Congress, and the territory was eventually pared down to the current boundaries of the state of Utah (the name “Deseret” was also replaced). But cultural boundaries cannot be declared by presidents or kings.
According to the author, the development of this region “was largely directed by corporations headquartered in distant New York, Boston, Chicago, or San Francisco, or by the federal government, which controlled much of the land.” I’m not so sure that’s the case, however. Corporations certainly became important players after the railroads crossed the country, but culturally, I would argue the pioneers had a much deeper and more lasting impact.
The Intermountain West is remarkably conservative, with Utah ranking as one of the reddest states in the nation. With the government expansion under President Obama and the Tea Party revolt in the Republican party, the politics in this part of the country have taken a decidedly libertarian turn. As issues like healthcare, gun control, gay marriage, and late-term abortion have each swept the nation in turn, my positions have changed to reflect the libertarian attitudes of the culture in which I live.
In 2008, I considered myself “agnostic” as far as politics were concerned. Perhaps there was a greater truth out there as far as politics were concerned, but I wanted nothing to do with it. Now, however, I believe very strongly that individuals and families should be free to live their lives as they see fit, without being subject to Leftist schemes to redistribute their wealth or bloated, self-serving government that overreaches its constitutional bounds.
I think this view would resonate very deeply with the pioneers. They came to the West to practice their religion freely, and emphasized self-reliance and thrift. Their industriousness was a means of guarding their independence from the governments that had oppressed them in the east, and continued to oppress them as they sought to build their Zion. Though they could be quite collectivist at times, it was local and voluntary, a far cry from State-enforced socialism. And while they cared for the poor and needy, they did all they could to keep them from becoming dependent on welfare.
These are interesting times we live in, and interesting cultures we hail from as well. As I look back on my own pioneer heritage, I can’t help but look forward as well. The “shoot and be damned” independent streak of my ancestors is still with me today, and I have no doubt that pioneer spirit will continue to guide me in the future.