Heritage Gateways

Official Sesquicentennial K-12 Education Project
sponsored by the Utah State Board of Education, the BYU-Public School Partnership and the Utah Education Network

Life On The Trail

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Music and Dance the Pioneer Companies

There was much suffering during the pioneer treks, but there was also much joy and celebration. Some of the happy times tell us much about the spirit of those pioneers as do the trials. Many of them had a love of music, and found release and solace in singing and dancing.

During the early crossing of Iowa and in Winter Quarters, William Pitt's Brass Band (which had been active in Nauvoo) often played concerts or accompanied dances, including many for the non-Mormon settlers on the Iowa frontier; later, one or two men with fiddles or accordians or harmonicas would have to suffice. Charles Bailey once managed with even less than that; he wrote, "...we had no music [instruments] so I was called to make music for the dance being a good whistler. I had to do my best" (_Our Pioneer Heritage_, 18:159).

This matter-of-fact description of evening activities was recorded by Jessie Belle Stirling Pack: "We left Council Bluffs Aug. 15, 1862, and arrived in Salt Lake October 20, 1862, after traveling all the time. We traveled all day on the plains and if we could not get to water, we traveled all night. When we would camp we gathered buffalo chips and wood where we could and built our fire and cooked a little bacon. Then the boys would get their fiddles and we would clear off the brush and dance and sing Scotch songs. Then we would sing hymns and have prayers and go to bed. We had to make our beds right on the ground and if in the morning when we woke up there was a snake in bed with us, we'd just kick it out." (_Our Pioneer Heritage_, 6:32)

Leonard Hardy was a captain over a hundred during a crossing in 1850. The following was written about a family in his care: "In Capt. Hardy's camp there was a family by the name of Goodridge, father, mother, several young girls and an 11-year-old boy. They were a musical family, full of fun and possessing the happy faculty of making the best and most of every situation. The girls sang and danced; they gathered berries on the way; they laughed. But they also counted the graves and wondered about the sadness and hardships of the travelers and wept for those who were left behind on the prairie. They helped nurse the sick, washed and mended, cooked and carried water; they knew how to work. When necessary they would wade streams without complaining, shake the dust out of their clothing without resentment and gather buffalo chips without disgust. They could fall on their knees night and morning and thank their Heavenly Father for their health and strength, their safety, their food and clothing, and the boundless sea of grass that paved their way to freedom...." (_Our Pioneer Heritage_, 15:266-67)

Brigham Young and others of the leaders were particularly fond of dancing, and many evenings were spent enjoying that passtime. In Winter Quarters, Brigham taught the people "how to go forth in the dance in an acceptable manner before the Lord" -- he considered dancing as a way to worship God.

Joseph Hovey recorded: "Brother Brigham said he was going to have the first dance and his brethren with him so they would set a pattern for the rest. They called for the band, and on they came forthwith. Brother Brigham organized a number of couples and set the band to playing a tune, after which we kneeled down and prayed to the God of Heaven. I can truly say that the prayer that was offered up and the music and the dance were controlled with the Spirit of God which caused me to shed a flow of tears for joy. It was the first meeting I had been to for some time. Truly I was led to say this was the way the ancient fathers praised the Lord in a dance." (Joseph Hovey Autobiography, BYU-S, p. 43)

Brigham's daughter, Clarissa Young Decker, later recorded: "One of father's most outstanding qualities as a leader was the manner in which he looked after the temporal and social welfare of his [people] along with guiding them in their spiritual needs. On the great trek across the plains when everyone but the most feeble walked the greater part of the way, the Saints would be gathered around the campfire for evening entertainment, if the weather was at all favorable. Then songs would be sung, music played by the fiddlers, and the men and women would forget the weariness of walking fifteen miles or so over a trackless desert while they joined in dancing the quadrille. It was his way of keeping up 'morale' before such a word was ever coined." (Quoted in _BYU Studies_, 16:1:126)

In fact, the revelation entitled "The Word and Will of the Lord" received by Brigham Young in Winter Quarters included this admonition: "If thou art merry, praise the Lord with singing, with music, with dancing, and with a prayer of praise and thanksgiving" (D&C 136:28). The pioneers did their best to follow that counsel.

Source: Church History Stories Collection Collection by Dave Kenison - a member of the LDS church. Many of the stories detail pioneer experiences through the eyes of members of the Mormon church.