When was the first United States flag displayed in the territory that is now Utah? Many would guess that the pioneers of 1847 carried the first Stars and Stripes into the state. George A. Smith reported that the Pueblo Detachment of the Mormon battalion marched into the Salt Lake Valley on July twenty-ninth in 1847 "carrying the flag of the United States." Within days he continued, the pioneers hoisted the Stars and Stripes over their encampment. Other flag raisings followed. Nevertheless, the first documented display of the U.S. flag took place twenty-two years earlier.
What is now the boundary between Utah and Idaho, was once the border between Mexico and the Oregon territory. Peter Skene Ogden, a fur trapper with the British Hudson's Bay Company, wrote in his journal, "it was not determined between Great Britain and America to whom [the Oregon territory] belonged." In the 1820s both British and American fur companies competed in the area. Each group of trappers claimed the region a part of their country. The area that is now Utah, however, was clearly Mexican land.
During the spring of 1825, both British and American trappers traveled south of the Oregon territory entering Mexican lands. Ogden camped along the Weber River near what is now Mountain Green. On May twenty-third, while fourteen of Ogden's men were absent from camp, "a party of 25 Americans with Colours [sic.] flying" arrived and set up camp about one hundred yards distant from the Hudson's Bay encampment. Here wrote Frederick Merk, they "hoisted the American Flag and proclaimed to all that they were in United State Territories." Ogden recorded that the leader of the American trappers, Johnson Gardner "lost no time informing all hands that they were in United States Territories." Gardner went on to tell the British tappers that they could leave Ogden and join with the Americans. The Americans would pay "3 ½ dollars" per pound in cash for beaver pelts. Ogden's men had debts with the Hudson's Bay Company. Deserting to the American side would give them a fresh start with American companies. Some of Ogden's men deserted and joined with Gardner's group. Ogden had a license from the Mexican to trap in their territory, but Garner continued to insist that the area was U.S. territory. Outnumbered and having lost some of his men, Ogden withdrew.
From this incident, the location became known a "Deserter's Point." The story gives us the earliest document display of the United States flag in Utah. What did the flag look like that Garner and his party carried into camp and defiantly raised? The official United State flag from 1822 to 1836 displayed twenty-six stars. However, the American flag documented may have also been a "trade flag." Trappers often included trade flags in their stores. These flags often included an American eagle in the blue field.
It is an old tradition for explorers to plant flags. In 1492 Columbus planted Spain's flag thus establishing a pattern in the New World. Spanish, French, British and American explorers carried flags on their expeditions. Over four centuries after Columbus, Apollo 11's crew planted the United States flag on the moon. Two twentieth century polar explorers, also following this practice of "planting" the U.S. flag. Robert Peary carried the flag during journeys deep into Arctic regions, and almost two decades later Richard Byrd also carried the flag during a flight over the South Pole. Interestingly, the claims of both polar explores drew skeptics. Also interestingly, both men displayed the Stars and Stripes in somewhat unorthodox ways. While both men intended to honor the flag of their country, their handling of Old Glory may seem curious today. Some might even consider their display of the flag desecration. Yet, it should be remembered that the U.S. Flag Code was first created in 1923, and it was not until 1942 that the Federal Government adopted it.
In 1898 Peary's wife made a forty-five star United States flag for her explorer husband. The forty-five star flag was the one adopted when Utah became a state. On Peary's several arctic expeditions, he often carried the flag wrapped around his body under the top layer of his clothing. Reaching objectives he would break out the flag, "planting" the flag at locations all over the far North. Actually, his idea of planting the flag was quite literal. He would then cut a rectangular piece from the flag and "cache" it at the site. Upon his return from each expedition his wife would inset a piece of white material to replace the "cached" part of the flag. At lectures he displayed his flag to dramatize his Peary's Patched Forty-five Star Polar Flag exploits. In poetic words he announced to the world in 1909 that he had reached the North Pole, "The Stars and Stripes are nailed to the Pole."
At a 1910 Hudson-Fulton Celebration in Elmira, New York, Peary's "North Pole" flag drew the unwanted attention of an attorney named Roswell R. Moss. He filed a legal action charging Peary with flag desecration. Peary's lawyer filed a demurrer maintaining that the law cited was unconstitutional. A demurrer is a legal term for a challenge to the form of the charging document. It does not consider the merits of the case. The court sustained Peary's position and dismissed the charge.
In 1954, Peary's widow presented the flag to the National Geographic Society. Today, the patched flag is preserved as a treasured historic artifact.
Richard E. Byrd reported that he and Floyd Bennett flew over the North Pole in 1926. Three years later, after Bennett's death, Byrd flew over the South Pole. With him he had carried a stone taken from Bennett's grave. He tied the stone to an U.S. flag and dropped stone and flag from the plane as he flew over the South Pole. The thus weighted flag fluttered down and was "planted" in the ice and snow below.
These two examples may appear to be strange attempts to honor the flag. They certainly don't seem to follow the rules of the United States Flag Code. However, the Flag Code states in summary, "No disrespect should be shown to the flag of the United States of America . . . ." Certainly, neither man intended any disrespect for the flag. Rather, both explorers made the Stars and Stripes a part of their proudest accomplishments. The flag was important to them. They carried U.S. flags with them and "planted" them in the Polar Regions of the globe.
Call John a flag expert, a flag historian or a Vexillologist. The Deseret News called him “Utah’s Resident Flagman.” John has studied flags since he was a small boy. Before he learned to read, John studied the pictures of flags found in his family’s encyclopedia. His childhood interest has grown to obsession. He has conducted original research into the histories of U.S. and Utah flags. He has delivered papers and talks about flags and has written articles about flags for various publications. In 1982 and 2010, John received the William Driver Award of the North American Vexillological Association. The award is given by the association for the best paper delivered at its annual meeting.
John graduated from Brigham Young University with a degree in Political Science. He also earned a secondary teaching certificate and a teaching minor in history at the University of Utah. He served twelve years as an officer in the U.S. Army’s Adjutant Generals Corps. He is currently completing a history of Utah’s flags.