The Mormon Pioneer Trail

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From 1846 to 1869, around 70,000 Mormons followed the Mormon Pioneer Trail from Nauvoo, Illinois to Salt Lake City, Utah, a difficult and dangerous journey.

In 1846, the Mormons, formally known as the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, began their long westward migration. From 1846 to 1869, around 70,000 Mormons followed the Mormon Pioneer Trail from Nauvoo, Illinois to Salt Lake City, Utah. Based on numbers, Brigham Young, the Mormon leader in that period, has to stand as the greatest colonizer of the American West.

The Mormon Migration

The route was over 1000 miles long. Since the Mormons couldn’t afford to spend money on professional guides, they followed established routes. The first parties used maps and reports penned by explorer John C. Fremont. They traveled the length of Iowa, then crossed the Missouri River at present-day Council Bluffs, where they established a ferry and supply depot they called Kanesville. Kanesville was named for Thomas L. Kane, a Presbyterian lawyer who helped negotiate the Mormon passage across Federal and Indian lands on their way west.

After crossing the Missouri, the Mormons followed the Platte River through Nebraska and into Wyoming. The Platte was one of the few reliable rivers that ran across the American Plains and travelers had walked its shores for decades. It had been used by fur trappers since the early 1800s. The Oregon Trail followed its banks. Later, 49ers and Pony Express riders used the Platte as a water source and navigation aid. The Platte was a far cry from the deep, reliable eastern rivers though. Settlers joked that it was “six inches deep and one mile wide.” Others applied the old line that it was “too thick to drink but too thin to plow.”

Despite the river’s shortcomings, the Mormons followed its north branch until they reached the site of Casper, Wyoming. At that point, they left the river and moved towards South Pass, a relatively gentle route over the Continental Divide. They followed the Big Sandy River to its confluence with the Green River, where the Mormons set up another ferry to aid future emigrants. From there, they turned southwest, crossing the Wasatch Mountains in the tracks left by the Donner Party in 1846. Of course the Donners didn’t come to grief until they reached California’s Sierra Mountains, and their route to the Great Salt Lake was perfectly adequate to get the Mormon settlers to the Utah valleys.

Hardships of the Handcart Companies

The Mormons faced the same hardships that all settlers encountered. Inclement weather, rough terrain, wild animals, and faulty equipment were facts of life. The worst danger was faced by those who could not afford a wagon and horses. For those unfortunates, the Church recommended light two-wheeled handcarts that could be pushed or pulled. The handcart settlers were more successful than might be imagined, but when things went wrong they went badly wrong. In 1856, an October blizzard trapped two handcart companies in the Wyoming mountains. The Mormons sent rescue parties from Salt Lake City, but the settlers suffered greatly before they arrived. The National Park Service says the Martin Handcart Company lost about 150 out of 575. The Willie Handcart Company lost 70 out of 500. In total, about 6000 Saints died on the Mormon Trail.

Today, the Trail is something of a tourist attraction. In several places old ruts can still be seen, usually a short walk from the roads that now follow the Platte. It runs through several state parks and national historic sites. The city of Scottsbluff paved over a part of the trail and it is now used by bikers and joggers. In a few places, people built monuments to the Mormon pioneers, including some sites where settlers buried friends and relatives.

Much of the Mormon Pioneer Trail is maintained by the National Park Service, Bureau of Land Management, and state park services.