At 6 a.m. on July 24, 1947, the centennial of the Mormon Pioneers’ entrance into the Salt Lake Valley, the first spectators arrived at the mouth of Emigration Canyon, Utah. By mid-morning, perhaps ten thousand cars were parked over several square miles, with as many as fifty thousand attendees waiting for the festivities to begin. They had gathered to witness the dedication of the sixty-foot tall “This is the Place” Monument, which would honor not only the Latter-day Saint Pioneers, but also the Spanish, British, and American forerunners who had laid a foundation for the Mormon settlement of the Great Basin. At 9:30, the Boy Scouts raised the American and Utah state flags, while the U.S. Marines band from San Diego, California, began playing “America.” Church President George Albert Smith, as master of ceremonies, introduced the program and delivered the dedicatory prayer. Speakers included J. Rueben Clark and David O. McKay, Smith’s counselors in the First Presidency; the Most Rev. Duane G. Hunt, bishop of the Salt Lake Catholic Diocese; Rt. Rev. Arthur W. Moulton, retired Episcopalian bishop of Utah; and Rabbi Alvin S. Luchs of Temple B’Nai Israel, all of whom were members of the monument commission. The dedication marked an important occasion in what Laurie Maffly-Kipp has called the “Long Approach to the Mormon Moment,”as Latter-day Saints sought to claim a prominent place both in the present and the past of the American nation.
The monument itself spoke to this urge to integrate the Latter-day Saint experience into American memory. Commemorating the exact place where Brigham Young cast his gaze across the land his people would soon colonize was part of a broader cultural phenomenon dating to the late nineteenth century of marking important trails and prominent sites in the history of Euro-American settlement of the West. In 1915, Church leaders had identified where they believed Young had made his famous ”this is the right place” declaration, and in 1921 they dedicated a modest obelisk at the site. In 1937, a monument commission was formed to prepare for the 1947 centennial, which selected sculptor Mahonri M. Young, Brigham Young’s grandson, to create for the monument bronze statues and friezes of prominent men (and three women) who had played key roles in the exploration, colonization, and settlement of Utah.The monument emphasized “firsts.” The “first” Spanish explorers, the “first” fur trappers, the “first” trailblazers, and, of course, the “first” Mormon scouts and Pioneers to see the valley. As scholar Jean M. O’Brien has noted, when settlers and their descendants construct their pasts, they focus on “firsts” in order to trace the history of modernity in a place. Europeans had discovered an empty wilderness that they then transformed into what J. Reuben Clark called in his speech a “great inland empire.” This was an American story, articulated most succinctly by historian Frederick Jackson Turner, and through the monument the Latter-day Saints claimed their place in it.
As in Turner’s interpretation of the American past, Indians only played token parts in the drama displayed on the monument. Washakie, an Eastern Shoshone leader who had befriended Young and briefly accepted Mormon baptism (he later converted to Episcopalism), stood in as the “friendly Indian” who had welcomed Mormon settlement. President Smith noted in his introductory remarks that Washakie was “the great Indian who said to those who wanted to have him discourage the people from settling here and to drive them out: ‘I have never encouraged my people to destroy the white men,’ and he refused to be a party of such proceedings. He was always a friend to the white man.” Washakie’s statue on the monument held a peace pipe, a common motif on early twentieth-century Indian statues that portrayed Indians as welcoming settlers, and, by implication, the outcome of settlement.
Smith’s remark betrayed an awareness that some indigenous peoples were hostile to Mormon settlement, although the identity and intentions of these Natives were muted on the monument and in the dedicatory speeches. Like other memorials that dotted the American landscape, the “This is the Place” obelisk disavowed the violent processes that accompanied settlement by emphasizing friendly Natives. The most famous of these statues portrayed Massasoit, the Wampanoag sachem who welcomed the Pilgrims, and who also, in his stone representation, carried a peacepipe (one of these statues stands outside of the BYU library). By emphasizing the peacepipe, these statues highlighted peaceful beginnings, while obscuring the violence that inevitably followed.
The dedication marked the Latter-day Saint desire to participate in American pluralism. Inviting prominent non-Mormon religious leaders to speak ensured that the focus would be on the virtues, character, and heroism displayed by the Pioneers, values that all Americans could embrace. McKay described Joseph Smith’s purported prophecy that the Saints would become a mighty people in the Rocky Mountains, but even that reinforced the image of the Latter-day Saints as a hardworking and dedicated people. The speeches noted that the Saints had fled persecution in the United States, but upon arrival in the Great Basin, Clark recalled, “our Pioneers raised the flag of the homeland from which they had been expelled. . . . From that moment when they raised the stars and stripes until now, they have cherished these rights and liberties and the free institutions which were established by that Constitution.” Like the Israelites and Pilgrim Fathers, God had led them to a Promised Land where they could enjoy religious freedom and uphold the divinely-inspired United States Constitution.
As with the selective characterization of settler-Indian relations, this narrative of Mormon-Gentile relations emphasized early Mormon patriotism while forgetting a half-century of conflict with the American nation over polygamy and theocracy. Kirk Savage has noted that
public monuments were meant to yield resolution and consensus, not to prolong conflict. The impulse behind the public monument was an impulse to mold history into its rightful pattern. And history was supposed to be a chronicle of heroic accomplishments, not a series of messy disputes with unresolved outcomes. . . . The monument is supposed to remain a fixed point, stabilizing both the physical and cognitive landscape. Monuments attempt to mold a landscape of collective memory, to conserve what is worth remembering and discard the rest. (Standing Soldiers, Kneeling Slaves, 4)
The “This is the Place” monument fits Savage’s description of a memorial that sought to smooth out the wrinkles of the past. Non-Mormons willingly accepted this smoothing out. President Harry S. Truman, in a congratulatory letter sent to Utahns for the centennial, admired the Saints’ “courage, sagacity and religious zeal” in making the desert blossom as a rose. “And now a hundred years later Utah stands in a proud place among her sister commonwealths. Her rich agriculture, her business and industry, her pioneering in the social services, her zeal for education, and not the least, her men of wisdom and valiant women have given her a prestige unexcelled by by any other state.” By erasing the “messy disputes” of the past, Truman participated in grafting Mormons into a unified national story.
The participants in the dedication desired that the monument, and the narrative of Utah’s founding it inscribed on the land, would be “permanent so far as permanency can be, from material things.” Clark related that “We are here to dedicate a shaft and base, hewn from the eternal granite hills of this mountain refuge of our fathers—a shaft to stand for all time solemnly to witness and to testify of the honor, the respect, and the love we hold for those founders, for their great achievements, and for their sterling virtues that were more unyielding and enduring than the granite from which this shaft is wrought.” The “This is the Place” monument has proven more resilient than many American memorials that crumble and fade as later generations wander from the world views of their parents, as it has remained an important historic site in Utah. It remains unclear, however, whether the dedication was fully successful when viewed from the perspective of Maffly-Kipp’s “long approach of the Mormon moment.” In recent years, Mormon leaders have called for a more inclusive memory than what the monument or its dedicators could offer, one that acknowledges the devastating consequences for indigenous peoples of the Mormon settlement of Utah. Additionally, many Americans still doubt whether Latter-day Saints can rightfully be remembered as active participants in the nation’s past or accepted as active participants in the nation’s present.
“Dedication Draws 50,000 to Site of ‘This is the Place’ Monument,” Davis County Clipper, July 25, 1947.
James L. Kimball, Jr. “’This is the Place’ Monument,” Encyclopedia of Mormonism, 4:1476-77.
Jean M. O’Brien, First and Lasting: Writing Indians Out of Existence in New England (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2010).
Kirk Savage, Standing Soldiers, Kneeling Slaves: Race, War, and Monument in Nineteenth-Century America (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997).
Paul Scolari, “Indian Warriors and Pioneer Mothers: American Identity and the Closing of the Frontier in Public Monuments, 1890-1930,” (PhD Diss, University of Pittsburgh, 2005)
“’This is the Place’ Monument Dedication,” Improvement Era, September 1947, 570-73.
Lorenzo Veracini, Settler Colonialism: A Theoretical Overview (New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2010).