Mormon Pioneer
Historic Resource Study
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To place the Mormons and the Mormon Pioneer National Historic Trail in historical perspective is difficult, for they were both unique as well as uniquely American. Most Mormons tend to emphasize that which is unique in their history. This is an outgrowth of their theology, which teaches that they are a unique people, a Chosen People, a "peculiar people." They call themselves Latter-day Saints to both distinguish themselves from and identify themselves with the "Former-day Saints" of the New Testament, and to stress their difference from all other Christians of today. (See "Mormon Beliefs," page 7.)

In no way do Mormons stress their uniqueness more than in reference to their exodus, their move west between 1846 and 1869, from Illinois to what is now called Utah. Mormon scholars have discovered at least ten "Uncommon Aspects of the Mormon Migration." [1] These unique aspects are: A religiously motivated migration; the economic status of the participants; Mormons did not employ professional guides; non-frontiersmen were quickly transformed into pioneers; the migration of families; the Mormon Trail was a two-way road; the magnanimous aspect of the Mormon migration; the organization of Mormon wagon trains; respect for life and death; and the Mormon migration was a movement of a community. In this study, the author often refers to these uncommon aspects. Other authors like Wallace Stegner and Bernard De Voto also stress these unique aspects. [2]

While there is nothing wrong with stressing the uncommon aspects of the Mormon westward movement, they are only part of the story. A truer account would present the Mormon migration within its proper historic context, as a part of the great westering movement of the mid-nineteenth century; as part of a national experience.

In many ways the Mormons were very much like their contemporary Oregonians and Californians. West of the Missouri River they shared trails, campgrounds, ferries, triumphs, tragedies, and common trail experiences of the day, with thousands of other westering Americans. Their daily routine, their food, wagons, animals, sicknesses, dangers, difficulties, domestic affairs, trail constitutions, discipline, the blurring of sexual distinctions relative to work, and so forth, were typical. [3]

The Mormons of the 1840s through the 1860s were very much a part of the great westward surge that began in the 1820s when fur trappers started exploring the west, searching out mountain passes for vital water sources and continued through the westering activities of traders, missionaries, and land-hungry settlers, to the completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1869. The Mormons were part of the idea and the realization of the doctrine of Manifest Destiny, the great reconnaissance of the west, and they contributed to the growth of white supremacy in the west. For the most part, the Mormons used the trails already blazed by earlier westering Americans. Many Americans had preceded the Mormons on trips west of the Missouri River. Travel on the Santa Fe Trail commenced as early as 1821, with the trader William Becknell from Missouri, and the numbers of travelers increased until the Santa Fe Railway passed Santa Fe in 1880. This trail, however, was largely a commercial and military road, used by few emigrants. (In 1853, some Texas converts did use the trail to pick up the Mormon Trail in Wyoming.)

The first significant emigrant movement to Oregon began in 1841, when sixty-nine men, women, and children, comprising the Bidwell-Bartleson party, left from Independence, Missouri. Thereafter, increasingly large emigrant parties used the Missouri River as a "jumping off' point (staging site) for Oregon. That same year, the Bidwell-Bartleson party also initiated the first significant emigrant movement into California. When the Bidwell-Bartleson party reached Fort Hall in what is now called Idaho, it split. About half continued on to Oregon, while the remainder blazed a dangerous route across desert and mountains into the lower San Joaquin Valley of what is now California. Thereafter, as on the Oregon Trail, increasingly larger parties immigrated to California. Eventually more than 300,000 (no one knows how many) emigrants went to Oregon and California. The some 70,000 Mormons who immigrated to their new Zion were very much a part of this national westward movement.

Furthermore, during the trans-Missouri Mormon emigrant period (and generally along the route of the Mormon Trail) the Pony Express rose and fell, and the transcontinental telegraph line and the Union Pacific Railroad were completed. Stage freight and mail service to Salt Lake were inaugurated and federal wagon roads were surveyed and constructed. The Mormons were, in one way or another, involved with all these ventures. They, for example, helped supply and build the telegraph line and the railroad, helped construct federal roads, proposed some freighting and mail services, and during the Civil War, provided guard service for ninety days, protecting the overland mail and telegraph in southern Wyoming. To see the relationship of the Mormon Trail to the Oregon, California, and the later Pony Express Trail, refer to Appendix A, Map 15.


Mormon history officially began April 6, 1830, when Joseph Smith (1805-1844) organized the Mormon Church (officially known today as the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) in Fayette, Seneca County, New York, in accordance with the laws of that state. [4]

Although the new church grew well and the western New York and northern Pennsylvania area proved to be a fertile ground for missionary activities, Smith believed God had revealed to him in January 1831 that the church should move to the area of Kirtland, Ohio, and by that spring, the church was headquartered there. [5] The author has called this migration "The New York Saints Trail: The First Mormon Trail West." It started in Susquehanna County, Pennsylvania, and proceeded through Ithaca, New York, Lake Cayuga, the Erie Canal, Rochester, and Buffalo New York. (See Appendix A, Map 1.)

Shortly after the move to Ohio, for reasons that are not entirely clear, but which surely included the concept of "the gathering" and a desire to convert Indians, Smith established a second headquarters in Jackson County, Missouri, and for the years 1831 to 1837, there were two centers of the church. [6]

New England Mormons were very unpopular in rather wild western Missouri for several reasons. In addition to having a strange faith that labeled all other churches wrong, that professed Smith talked with God, and that claimed western Missouri was to become their "inheritance," the Mormons were clannish, economically better off, and were against slavery. Trouble with rough frontier Missourians was not long in coming, and by November 1833, most Mormons were driven from Jackson County into adjacent Clay County. [7]

It was in 1834 that Smith formed and led a paramilitary unit known as Zion's Camp on a 900-mile march from church headquarters in Ohio to western Missouri, in an attempt to restore the Missouri Mormons to the lands from which they had been driven. [8] This trail started in Kirtland, Ohio, and proceeded via Akron, Mansfield, and Dayton, Ohio; Richmond, Indianapolis, and Clinton, Indiana; Paris, Decatur, Springfield and Pittsfield, Illinois; Louisiana, Moberly, and Richmond, to near Liberty, Missouri. (See Appendix A, Map 2.) This journey was plagued by cholera and redressed no wrongs, but it gave the Mormons some basic training in moving large numbers of people, and it helped prepare them for the exodus west in 1846-1847.

The Mormons stayed in Clay County until the summer of 1836, when they were pressured to move northeast into the almost uninhabited upper part of Ray County. They centered in a settlement named Far West, in what became Caldwell County.

The new church continued to grow well in Ohio and Missouri, but early in 1838, misunderstandings and apostasy forced Smith to move himself and as many of his followers as he could, from Ohio to Far West.

The troubles that broke out in Missouri during August 1838 were the beginning of the end for the Mormons in Missouri. By November of that year the general expulsion from Missouri was well under way, and by spring 1839, nearly all the Mormons in Missouri had fled to Iowa and to Illinois.

In the spring of 1839, Smith again set up church headquarters at a new settlement in Illinois named Nauvoo--derived from a Hebrew root meaning a beautiful place or the "green pastures" of the 23rd Psalm. The sparsely settled, twenty-one-year-old state of Illinois welcomed these new taxpayers and Nauvoo quickly became one of the largest cities in Illinois. [9] It was the Mormon headquarters for seven years, during which time the church flourished and even sent missionaries to Europe. The Mormons did not long enjoy the fruits of their industry and dedication. Hostility, suspicions, and trouble increased in direct proportion to their growth and success. The political, economic, social, and religious problems (including from 1841, the new teaching and practice of polygamy, and unusual and secret temple ordinances) that had previously caused trouble in Ohio and Missouri, led to their expulsion from Illinois early in 1846.

This time, however, the Mormons would not move from one state to another. Instead they decided to leave the United States and settle in the Far West, in what was then Mexico, in a new Zion somewhere in the Rocky Mountain area.


The best and easiest way to understand Morinonism and Mormons; to comprehend why they were persecuted in Jacksonian America from their beginnings through most of the 19th century; to grasp why they not only endured persecution, but even flourished because of and in spite of it; to understand why they were driven from New York to Ohio, to Missouri, to Illinois, and finally, out of the United States; and to understand why they were so successful in "westering," pioneering, and in colonizing the Far West, is to first, think of Christian churches in three categories: Catholic, Protestant, and Restored.

Mormons do not consider themselves Protestant, or Catholic. They are not a breakaway from any other church, and they are not a reformed group. They believe they are the "only true church," the true church of Jesus Christ "restored" in these latter days; they believe they are modern Children of Israel led by prophets, Joseph Smith being the first. Today Mormons believe their prophets, from Smith to Ezra Taft Benson, speak for God, as did the prophets of the Old Testament. [10]

This belief in modern-day prophets explains why Mormons were (and are) so disciplined, why they could accomplish what they did on the frontier, on their immigrating trails, and in the valley of the Great Salt Lake. Since their prophets speak for God, Mormons believe that what they are told to do is God's will and little else matters. Certainly persecution could not be allowed to deter them in their duty. Orthodox Mormons are first Mormons and all else second. They believe it is their imperative, their main purpose in life, to proclaim the restoration of the gospel to the world, no matter what the cost. They take persecution to be a sure sign that they are right. It is Satan attempting to thwart their work. [11]

Another important point in understanding Mormons and their discipline and concept of authority is the fact that all worthy Mormon males from the age of twelve "hold the priesthood." They are ordained to certain graded priestly offices, and they share, in varying degrees, the administration of the church. They are expected to honor this blessing or opportunity. They are granted authority by one holding a higher priesthood, and those over whom they preside are expected to be obedient. There is no paid clergy; the Mormon Church is strictly a lay organization. In trail days, as in the present, when the priesthood speaks, Mormons are expected to act accordingly. [12]

It seems clear that Joseph Smith was affected by the religious fervor of the Second Great Awakening, which began in New England in the 1790s and spread rapidly. Western New York of Smith's time was so affected with spiritual awakenings and revivals that it is often called the burned-over district. Many books and articles have been written attempting to show that Smith; the Book of Mormon, a "new testament for Christ," a New World bible translated by Smith from golden plates in 1830; and other distinctive teachings and beliefs of the Mormon Church derive from the mid-19th century phase of the Second Great Awakening. [13] Whether one accepts Mormon beliefs or not, does not change the fact that early Mormons thought they were modern Children of Israel and that is the key to understanding what motivated them.


We are in the midst of a great American western trails renaissance. Our historic trails are now becoming better known, more fully appreciated, more carefully preserved, and more clearly marked. In 1968, Congress enacted the National Trails System Act (Public Law 90-543) and in 1978, added National Historic Trail designations. Also several publishers are devoted almost exclusively to trail publications. Additionally there has been a yearly increase in county, state, and federal road signs pointing out historic sites and markers connected with trail history. As further evidence of the renewal of interest in western trails, there has been an annual increase in the number of markers, parks, schools, businesses, museums, exhibits, events, and tourist attractions developed that pertain to and celebrate the Mormon Trail.

All this fascination with the Mormon Pioneer National Historic Trail (hereafter MPNHT) is well deserved. Interest has never been greater than it is today. There seems to be a direct relationship between the speed with which we destroy our national heritage and our desire to write and read about it, and to go in search of it, to experience the power of place and the spirit of locale. Nowhere is this more true than with our great western trails. For more than twenty years, concern for the trails has been growing. Excellent books have been published, preservation and historical societies have been organized, and there is no evidence that this special and general interest is waning. The belief, however, that the MPNHT was a Mormon creation or discovery is a mistaken one. [14]

It may be that of the thousands of miles of trails and roads the Mormons used during their migrations from New York to Utah, between 1831 and 1868, they actually blazed less than 1 mile. This one bit of authenticated trail-blazing lies between Donner Hill and the mouth of Emigration Canyon, just east of Salt Lake City. The Mormons were not looking for a place in history books. They had a job to do and they did it as easily and as expeditiously as possible, always using the best roads available.


Although the MPNHT was not blazed by the Mormons and has at various times been known as the Council Bluffs Road, the Omaha Road, the Great Platte River Road, the Omaha-Fort Kearny Military Road, and the North Branch of the Oregon Trail, it is best and almost universally known today as "the Mormon Trail." [15]


It is a curious fact that the Mormons, who did not want to go west in the first place, were among the most successful in doing so. Mormons, in as much as they did not go west for a new identity, missionary work, adventure, furs, land, health, or gold, but were driven beyond the frontier for their religious beliefs, were not typical westering Americans. While their trail experience was similar to other westering Americans, their motivation was different. It hardly seems necessary to document such a well known fact, but it will be helpful, in this respect, to refer to the city of Nauvoo, Illinois, itself. It was not a typical frontier community, nor did it resemble other frontier communities peopled by those pushing west. Nauvoo, rather, resembled an established New England city. It contained the many brick and substantial frame homes of people intending to remain, not the temporary log cabins of people on the move.

The pioneer group was not concerned with just getting themselves safely settled, but with making the road easier for others of their faith to follow. Furthermore, the Mormons moved as villages on wheels, transplanting an entire people, rather than isolated, unrelated groups as was the case with the Oregon and California migrations.

As previously noted, Mormons differed from most westering Americans in several important ways. Not only did the Mormons not want to go west, but they were generally much poorer than the average California or Oregon migrants. Mormons used no professional guides, but they did consult many contemporary guidebooks, reports, and maps. Furthermore, many Saints were not rugged frontier types who had come from pioneering stock. Most, especially the European urban converts, had little experience with rural life at all; they traveled generally as families, not as individuals; the Mormon Trail was a two-way road, hundreds--missionaries, "go backs," or disenchanted Mormons, and church wagon trains hauling emigrants from the Missouri River--traveled eastward on the trail. Mormons were conditioned by religious convictions; they followed a chain of command, maintained organized groups and trail discipline. Consequently, the Mormons are generally considered to have been some of the most systematic, organized, and disciplined pioneers and colonizers in United States' history. [16]


Another unusual aspect of the Mormon emigration, was the Perpetual Emigration Fund, one of the biggest single enterprises undertaken by the Mormons in the nineteenth century. [17] Begun in 1850, the idea was that the church would create a revolving (or perpetual) fund to aid the poor, especially the poor European emigrants. Those helped by the fund were expected to reimburse it after settling in the American West.

Perpetual Emigration Fund (PEF) agents in Europe chartered ships, or special sections of ships, at reduced fares, and other PEF agents in New York, Boston, Philadelphia, New Orleans, and St. Louis helped make travel arrangements, at reduced costs, for the overland journey to Utah.

Initially the fund accomplished its main purpose well. Between 1850 and 1859 the fund brought 4,769 emigrants to Zion at a cost of $300,000. By the time of its demise in 1887, the fund had helped to emigrate more than 100,000 people, at a total cost of about $12,500,000. The Saints were slow, however, in paying back their advances. By 1877, $1,000,000 was owned to the fund. Ten years later the PEF was dissolved.


The experience of the trail, the crossing of the plains, turned into a great event not only in the lives of the pioneers, but in the minds of their descendants. It became a rite of passage, the final test of faith. [18] The contemporary Mormon is prouder of nothing in their heritage than of their ancestors who "crossed the plains" for the sake of religious freedom. Even modern Mormons who have no pioneer ancestors vicariously share this heritage.

Today a special mythology and clouds of glory surround the Mormon Pioneers. The most important honor societies in Morinondom pertain to these pioneers. Many Mormons belong to the Sons of Utah Pioneers or the Daughters of Utah Pioneers, whereas no similar societies exist for the founders, the original apostles, or the members of Zion's Camp. Throughout the world Mormons regularly celebrate July 24th as Pioneer Day. It was on this date in 1847, that the pioneers entered the valley.


In trail days, "reading trail" or "reading [Indian] sign" was vital to the welfare of emigrants. This science made use of any evidence that something or someone had been over the ground. An experienced scout could tell from a broken blade of grass, disturbed soil, tracks, a bead, a feather, or dung, such things as what game was near; how many Indians of what tribe had proceeded, when and in what direction; the number of horses, how fast they had been moving, and whether they had been mounted or stolen; whether it had been a hunting party or a whole camp moving; whether an individual had been walking, running, or attempting to leave a false trail.

Today reading trail can be a rewarding pastime as well as essential for serious trail students. And, since authentic trail ruts are the most valuable and interesting resources connected with historic trails, something should be said here about reading and interpreting them.

Because so many current ranch and energy trails and roads look more like the old trails than the old trails do, it is not always easy to identify authentic trail ruts. There are, however, some guidelines. The romantic notion that trail ruts are always two lines stretching into the sunset is just that, romantic. Where possible, westering Americans usually traveled several abreast to avoid breathing dust. All kinds of parallel trail ruts also developed because of water, land features, or browse. Swales (saucer-shaped depressions) in the landscape 50 to 100 feet wide, developed where wagons traveled abreast and close to each other. At other times, what would properly be called "trail corridors" (up to 1 mile wide) developed.

Trail followers should do their homework and have good maps so that they know in advance approximately where trail ruts should be. Most modern trails, or disturbed land (a buried pipeline for instance) run straighter than the old trails. That modern tire tracks can be seen only means someone recently drove down the old trail.

One should study the overall terrain well, especially the vegetation. Sometimes the vegetation is fuller in old ruts, sometimes it is sparse. In some areas where the hard topsoil was broken up (and continually fertilized by the draft animals) rain water penetrated deeper and, as a result, the growth is more lush, even today. It is also true that ruts tend to collect water, which aids growth. In some instances, however, the broken topsoil was simply blown away, leaving a poorer subsoil which, even today, supports only sparse growth. The best way to learn to read trail is by experience.

In the matter of protecting trail ruts, someone once said in reference to following the old trails, 'Take nothing but photographs; leave nothing but footprints." Good advice. Ruts are not as fragile as many think. They were created, after all, by plodding animals pulling wagons weighing tons and rolling on iron tires! They can be damaged, however, by careless use of motorcycles and ORVs, and totally destroyed by road crews, agriculture, urban sprawl, utility corridors, pipelines, mining and other extractive industries, and a host of other modern activities. Walking in ruts seldom causes damage to them, it may even help preserve them. Even careful driving in ruts might do no harm. Proper management, legislation, and parameters for use should be sought.

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Last Updated: 08-Oct-2003