Pioneer Stars
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The Stars of Our Sky Looked Down Upon Utah Mormon Pioneers 150 Years Ago

+ Von Del Chamberlain +

Utah's celebration of the sesquicentennial of the Mormon Pioneers entering the Salt Lake Valley, got me wondering about how those people, nearing the end of their trek across the continent, might have attended to the starry sky. What stars did they travel under, providing beauty and inspiration amid the hardships of such a monumental journey? The more I thought about this, the greater was my desire to research the situation, and this led to hoping others might be interested enough to pay some special attention to the stars as we approach the apex of remembering the event. Thus, I decided to devote two of my columns to this topic.

Let's begin by considering the sky they moved under in late June 1847, about one month from their destination. Then, I hope you will follow the changes that take place from day to day, considering similar changes watched by the Pioneers as they moved along. My second article will be about the sky they camped under as they started the process of building the community that would become Salt Lake City.

The stars of June 22, 1847 were essentially the same ones we look out upon today. The primary differences between their sky and ours has to do with the Moon and planets.

First, the stars. When you go out and look around, here are some of the stellar features you will see right now, the same stars that looked down upon the Pioneers as they worked around their campfires.

Looking north, you will find the Great Dipper of Ursa Major, the Great Bear, high in the sky nearly overhead. Go from the end of the handle to the last two stars in the bowl of the Dipper, the Pointer Stars. Incidentally, the brighter of these, the one farthest north, is Dubhe, Utah's Centennial Star, being located 100 light years away from us. Following the line connecting these two stars, lower into the north, leads us to Polaris, the North Star, located at the end of the Little Dipper or the tail of the Small Bear. Did the Pioneers see bears on earth as well as in the sky? Being interested in their progress, we can feel quite certain that they looked upon these same stars which provided comfort in knowing their directions as they gaged their progress.

Looking back at the Dipper, this time following the arc of the handle, we can gaze downward toward the south to find the brilliant somewhat orange star Arcturus, in the constellation Bootes. Continuing this same arcing line lower into the south brings us to bright white Spica, in Virgo. Finding Spica, look to the left and notice the small trapezoid formed by four stars, low in the southwest. This is Corvus, the Crow or Raven. As you enjoy these stars, you might well consider the dialogue that must have taken place between the Pioneers and the many ravens as they continually encountered each other. Ravens are, by nature, a very talkative bird. They continually converse with each other as they play upon the breezes, and they seem to call down to earthbound creatures that move so much more awkwardly and slowly. Are they shouting insults? Teasing? Warnings? Perhaps they are really praising us from on high. Most likely they are merely declaring that we are invading their territory and they are glad to see us move on. I wonder what fun and games the Pioneers had with the daytime crows? I wonder what they thought of the night-time Corvus that shown down upon them as it does on us tonight.

Go back to the Dipper once more. This time, scan directly through the bottom of the bowl, downward toward the west. The bright star you see there is Regulus, heart of Leo the Lion. How many of the Pioneers knew the Lion in the sky? How frequently did they see the American version of this creature, the Cougar, in their travels into the Rocky Mountains?

Let your eyes move along the horizon toward the east and pick up the bright reddish star rising upward in the southeast--Antares, heart of Scorpius, the Scorpion. Scorpions must have provided some moments of excitement for the Pioneers.

Continue, now, along the horizon to almost directly east where you will find, low in the sky, Antares in the constellation Aquila, the Eagle. As you gaze at these stars, consider the majestic eagles that soared over the precession of Pioneers. Higher and a bit northward is a brighter star, Vega in Lyra. Lyra represents a tiny Greek harp. This might remind us of the importance of music to the Pioneers: "Come, Come, ye Saints; no toil nor labor fear . . . " Underneath Vega and farther northward is the brightest star of Cygnus the Swan, the star Deneb. Did these early Mormons ever see swans along the rivers? If not swans, they likely saw other birds that somewhat resemble them.

In addition to these celestial symbolic creatures, formed by "suns" surrounding us in space, the Pioneers might have recognized a couple of lesser-known constellations: Lupus, the Wolf, located just west of Scorpius; and Lynx near Ursa Major. If not in the sky, they likely encountered wolves and bobcats (probably not lynxes) among the rocks they passed by.

The things that are different in our 1997 June sky are the Moon and planets. Currently the Moon is just a couple of days past full, rising in our late evening sky and remaining up nearly all the night. On June 22, 1847 the Moon was a couple of days past first quarter, rising in the early afternoon and setting after midnight. We currently have one bright planet in our evening sky. Mars is located between Regulus and Arcturus. The 1847 soon to be Salt Lake Valley people looked upon Mars to the southeast in their early morning sky, as they began their daily trek. They also saw Saturn not too far from Mars, but more to the south. In the evening as they set up camp they would have seen two planets. If they paid close attention, they might have picked up Mercury low in the west in twilight. Higher up and easily seen was brilliant Venus. How they must have enjoyed its beauty as they rested from the long days march. Venus is also in our 1997 evening sky, lower and setting earlier than it did 150 years ago.

In my next article I will continue this exploration, thinking about the sky overhead as the Pioneers celebrated the end of their difficult journey and experienced the joy of starting to build their homes and lay out their new city. In the meantime, I hope you will make it a point to go out several times and look to the heavens, as those before us have done, to enjoy the beauty of light from on high.

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