“Early pioneers faced many challenges and some didn’t survive”
A great divide separates San Quentin from Salt Lake City. However, this didn’t stop a small group of Mormon inmates in San Quentin from celebrating Pioneer Day, one of Utah’s biggest official holidays.
On July 21, San Quentin’s Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints hosted its annual banquet to observe Pioneer Day. This is the day in Mormon history commemorating the entry of Brigham Young and the first group of Mormon pioneers into the Salt Lake Valley on July 24, 1847. The Latter-day Saints founded their new home after being forced by state militia from Nauvoo, Ill. and other locations in the eastern United States.
Twelve members from the congregation invited several inmate guests from outside the Mormon faith to join them to learn what Pioneer Day means to them.
“For me, Pioneer Day is about honoring the 25,000 people who migrated to the Salt Lake Valley between 1846 and 1856,” said Danny Plunkett, who comes from a Mormon family and has practiced his faith for the past 23 years of his incarceration.
“I’ve read many touching, joyful, and tragic personal accounts of the pioneers faith in the face of severe hardships. I am incredibly humbled to identify myself with them, and encouraged to face the physical and spiritual difficulties in my life,” Plunkett added.
Bishop Perry, an outside supporter of the group, opened the evening with an invocation welcoming the 25 guests. He first started coming into San Quentin 15 years ago to meet with the Mormon inmates to share their faith. His wife Norma and Brother Dees, the outside LDS spiritual leader, joined Perry. Dees meets with the men every Sunday night for the past nine years for scripture studies and fellowship.
“The early pioneers faced many challenges and some didn’t survive,” said Dees. “I support this group of Mormon inmates, because they should be encouraged to retain their faith despite the challenges they face.”
The evening included prayers, hymns, and talks about the struggles of the early pioneers. Bishop Perry’s wife, Norma, stirred the audience with her talk about the Willie and Martin handcart companies. Pioneers used these handcarts to transport their families and possessions across a grueling 1,350-mile trek lasting five months across the plains before settling in the alkali desert of Salt Lake.
“Mormons celebrate Pioneer Day with parades, fireworks, rodeos, and other festivities,” said Norma, including songs, dances, potlucks, and pioneer-related activities. Next to July 4, Pioneer Day is the second biggest holiday in Utah and most governmental offices and businesses close for the day.
“We owe much to the pioneers and must never forget that the success of today is built upon the shoulders and courage of the humble giants of the past,” Elder M. Russell Ballard wrote in a magazine article on church history.