Mormon Pioneer
Historic Resource Study
NPS Logo



We can now turn to a discussion of the Mormon move to the Far West, the story of the Mormon Trail. From its beginning in 1846, to the completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1869, the Mormon Pioneer National Historic Trail, stretching from Nauvoo, Illinois, to what is now Salt Lake City, Utah, has captivated the fancy of both Mormons and non-Mormons, and is one of the most written-about trails in all history. Hundreds of journals were kept during the twenty-two years the Mormons used the trail. Many books and articles and hundreds of stories have been written about it, as well. (For further reading see the bibliography at the end of this study.)

As noted in the introduction, westering Mormons were very much a part of a general move to the west that happened in the 19th century. In spite of all the unique aspects of their move to the west, as detailed in this study, the Mormons were still much like the Oregonians and Californians.

The great trek, although the most important segment, was only part of the story of the Mormon westward movement. During the thirty-seven years (1831-1868) of Mormon immigration to various church headquarters in Ohio, Missouri, Illinois, and Utah, from their removal from New York to Ohio in 1831, through the arrival of the first European converts in New York City in 1840, to the "wedding of the rails" in 1869, Mormons developed or used at least twenty-two points of departure, or staging grounds and many other trails.

Several other trails directly related to the MPNHT will be mentioned briefly in this study—The New York Saints Trail, The Zion's Camp Trail, The Nebraska City Cutoff Trail, and the Overland-Bridger Pass Trail. Other trails used by immigrating Mormons, such as the Mississippi Saints Trail, the Santa Fe Trail, the Mormon Grove Trail, the Dragoon Trail, The Golden Road, and The Ox-Bow will not be treated in this study. In one way or another, however, all westering Mormons eventually intersected the famous MPNHT of 1846-1847 and followed it to their Zion. (However, this historic resource study is restricted largely to the Nauvoo to Salt Lake City route during the years 1846-1868.) [1]


The Mormons used many points of departure during their emigration period. Only the first two groups of European emigrants in 1840 sailed to New York City; thereafter for fifteen years, all emigrants sailed to New Orleans and then traveled up the Mississippi River to various other points of departure. Until 1845 they went straight to Nauvoo, Illinois, where The Exodus of 1846 commenced. Afterwards many other jumping-off places to the Far West were developed:

Winter Quarters (Florence, now North Omaha), Nebraska, 1847-1848

Council Bluffs, Iowa, 1847-1852

St. Louis, Missouri, 1852

Keokuk, Iowa, 1853

Westport, Missouri, 1854

Mormon Grove, Kansas, 1855-1856

Iowa City, Iowa, 1856-1857

Florence, Nebraska, 1856-1863

St. Joseph, Missouri, 1859

Genoa, Nebraska, 1859

Wyoming, Nebraska, 1864-1866

The Union Pacific Railroad began moving west from Omaha on July 10, 1865. Thereafter, Mormons took trains from Omaha to three different railheads.

North Platte, Nebraska, 1867

Laramie City, Wyoming, 1868

Benton, Wyoming, 1868

While the trans-Missouri section of the MPNHT was used extensively by the Mormons between 1847 through 1868, the Iowa segment of the trail was used much less. The Iowa portion was used by the pioneers in 1846, by a few companies from Keokuk in 1853, and by seven handcart companies in 1855-1857. Furthermore, the segment of the original pioneer trail of 1846 between Drakesville, Davis County, and Garden Grove, Decatur County, may have been used but once or twice, because it was too far south and too close to Missouri, where the Mormons had been persecuted in the 1830s. At Drakesville, shorter variants more to the north originated. The handcarters followed the 1846 trail in Iowa only from what is now Lewis, in Cass County.

Four time periods will be treated in this study:

  • Between 1846-1860, the Mormons generally went west in wagon trains organized at different points of departure.

  • Between 1855-1860, they experimented with handcarts.

  • Thereafter, during the years 1861-1866, the Mormons switched to large ox-team church trains sent out from Salt Lake City to haul emigrants and freight west.

  • And, finally, during 1867-1868, they came by "rail and trail."

After 1869, Mormons who came west by trail were dubbed "Pullman Pioneers." [2] Only those Mormons, for example, with ancestors who came to Utah before 1869 can become members of the Sons of Utah Pioneers or the Daughters of Utah Pioneers.


The Saints used all kinds of wagons and carriages, but mostly they used ordinary reinforced farm wagons, which were about ten feet long, arched over by cloth or waterproof canvas that could be closed at each end—almost never the huge, lumbering Conestoga wagons beloved by Hollywood. Because the wagons had to cross rivers, the bottoms were usually caulked or covered with canvas so they would float. While the ubiquitous white tops, or covered wagons, of the era may not have been ideal for travel (they were uncomfortable to ride in, broke down, were slow and cumbersome), they were the most efficient means of hauling goods. Families en route could live in, on, alongside, and under these animal-drawn mobile homes, and at the end of the trail, they could become temporary homes until real houses could be erected.

The pioneers used a variety of draft animals, especially horses, mules, and oxen. They often preferred the latter when they were available, for oxen had great strength and patience and were easy to keep; they did not balk at mud or quicksand, they required no expensive and complicated harness, and Indians did not care to eat them, so seldom stole them. (They could, however, be eaten by the pioneers in an emergency.) The science of "oxteamology" consisted of little more than walking along the left side of the lead oxen with a whip, prod, or goad, urging them on and guiding them, and was considerably simpler than handling the reins of horses or mules. With gentle oxen, widows with children could and did (with a little help, especially during the morning yoking up) transport themselves and their possessions successfully all the way to the valley of the Great Salt Lake.

Along the trail, under normal conditions, the Mormons averaged 2 miles an hour, the usual speed of an ox pulling a heavy wagon all day long. [3]


To keep the emigrant companies together, or at least to keep in touch with the various leaders, mounted couriers were appointed to ride back and forth, and bells, bugles and different colored signal flags were used to communicate messages and call meetings throughout the entire migration period. Beyond the Missouri River, the pioneers occasionally wrote messages on animal skulls and scapula. (See Appendix D, Illustration 1.) An example of this sort of "bone mail" read "Pioneers double teamed. 8 June 1847. Camp all well. Hail storm last night, fine morning. T[homas] Bullock, no accident." [4] Sometimes they wrote on rocks and boards, tied notes to trees, or left letters enclosed between two pieces of wood. A trail "post office" was sometimes made by setting up a pole by the side of the trail, drilling a hole in it for a letter then plugging the hole. [5] After October 24, 1861, when the Overland Telegraph wires were joined in Salt Lake City, the Mormons also used the telegraph, especially with church headquarters in Salt Lake City.

Mormons also liked to leave their names behind, a common practice of emigrants in trail days, and many can be found along the trail today in such places as Avenue of Rocks, Independence Rock, Devil's Gate in Wyoming, and in Cache Cave in Utah. [6]


Injury, sickness, and death were commonplace. Emigrants suffered cuts; broken bones; gun wounds; burns; scaldings; animal, insect, and snake bites; stampedes; overturned wagons; shifting freight; drownings; quicksand; black scurvy; black canker (probably diphtheria); cholera; typhoid fever; ague; quick consumption (tuberculosis); headaches; piles; mumps; asthma; inflammation of the bowels; scrofula; erysipelas; diarrhea; small pox; itch; and infections of all kinds, including puerperal fever, which can follow childbirth. In reference to the latter, the journals of some of the midwives make melancholy reading. [7] Although oxen moved very slowly, there was no quick way of stopping them. Therefore, many women, because their long skirts got caught, were injured when dragged under animals or wagon wheels. Children often fell under the animals or wagons. Emigrants were also stepped on, gored, and kicked by animals.

Also, because emigrant trains moved so slowly, emigrants, especially children, occasionally got lost. This was the result of straggling, gathering flowers or berries, hunting, attempting short cuts, or trying to visit landmarks that were farther away than they appeared because of the clarity of the high plains' atmosphere. Most found their way back (some were helped by Indians), but some never were seen again in spite of searches, rifle shots, and signal fires. [8]

Some emigrants suffered from being physically or emotionally impaired. There were persons with various kinds of physical disabilities, like blindness, inability to speak, and absence of limbs. Emotional disturbances ranged from the mild to the bizarre. The number of physically and emotionally disabled Mormon emigrants who attempted to cross the plains or whose guardians attempted to take them to Zion is surprising. Mormon emigrant companies probably started out with a higher percentage of disabled people, because of their belief in the "power of the priesthood" and in miracle healing. It was common practice among Mormon emigrants to request church leaders to give blessings to the sick and the injured, and sometimes people were healed. Many were not.

Emigrants were also plagued by mosquitoes, chiggers, ticks, lice, gnats, bed bugs, fleas, flies, and other vermin. To these trials must be added the weaknesses of human beings under stress, which sometimes led to abusive language, fighting, quarreling, divorce, stealing, selfishness, sponging, excessive harshness, and alcohol abuse. [9]

Weather was also an important cause of discomfort and death. Emigrants suffered from exposure to heat, mud, wind, rain, cold, snow, and blizzards. Some were hurt and even killed by lightning, and children were occasionally hurt by whirlwinds; one little boy was dropped in the Platte River by one. [10]

Funerals and burials were often hurried affairs, as little time could be spared while en route. Shallow graves were dug, unless the ground was frozen, in which case, no grave could be dug. (In cold but not yet freezing weather, the preferred place to dig a grave was the site of the previous night's campfire.) A few were buried in coffins, many others only in blankets, hollowed out logs, or between pieces of bark. Children were often buried in containers like bread boxes and tea canisters. Some graves were marked, but more often everything was done to obliterate all traces of the grave, to discourage wild animals (and sometimes Indians) from digging up the corpse.

The problem of privacy for the purposes of elimination was solved by following the common rule: men to one side, women to the other. If the women went in a group, several sisters standing with skirts spread wide could provide a privacy screen for each other. Most wagons also had chamber pots.


The basic trail routine, more or less observed throughout the migrating period, might be summed up as follows: arising, praying, cooking, yoking up, pulling out, "nooning" (when people ate [usually cold] lunches and draft animals rested and grazed), pushing on, selecting camp, gathering fuel, cooking, washing up, mending, recreating and socializing, rounding up stray livestock, milking, grazing the animals, praying, retiring, and standing guard. To this routine should be added washing, repairing wagons and equipment, hunting, dealing with Indians, conducting or attending religious services, and occasional births, accidents, sickness, deaths, funerals, marriages, and quarrels. [11]

Discipline was set and maintained by church leaders and, as previously noted, was based on the belief that Mormons were modern day saints, led by living prophets, carrying out God's will. Thus, discipline was generally preserved on the trail. Mormons, like most other westering Americans, usually had some basic trail rules and constitutions, but they were seldom elaborated or written down. Generally Mormon companies felt they were led by the Lord, or at least by His designates, and that they were to follow orders and rules without question. A member of the Mormon ruling priesthood was always in charge of the companies, usually assisted by one or two counselors. Mormons were supposed to be (Web Edition Note: Text missing from published edition)

Such rule by the priesthood usually sufficed. When serious troubles arose, company councils were called and a rough and ready trail-side justice was meted out. Those in the wrong were expected to apologize, make amends, and repent. Men were occasionally flogged. (For improper sex matters emasculation was hinted at, although there is no record it was ever carried out.) Men and women could also be expelled from the company—a serious punishment on, or beyond, the frontier. [12]

The more experience the Mormons gained in westering, the less important rigid rules and regulations became, but sometimes constitutions were written down. A typical one of the period was drafted by a company of English Saints at West Port, Missouri, in 1854. It reads:

Camp Ground, State of Missouri, 14 July 1854

At Council Meeting this evening Elder Empey presiding, it was resolved:

That Bro. Robert Campbell be president of this company.

That Bro. Richard Cook be his first counselor and Bro. Woodard be his second counselor.

That Bro. Brewerton be captain of the guard.

That Bro. Charles Brewerton be wagon master and Bro. Win. Kendall to assist him.

That Bro. Richard be captain of the first ten.

That Bro. Fisher be captain of the second ten.

That Bro. Balliff be captain of the third ten.

That Bro. Thos. Sutherland be clerk and historian of this company.

That no gun shall be fired within 50 yards of the camp under a penalty of one nights guard.

That the captain of each ten shall awaken the head of every family at 4 o'clock in the morning and be ready to roll out at seven, if circumstances will admit.

That all go to bed at 9 o'clock in the evening.

That every man from 16 to 60 years of age be eligible to stand guard.

The above resolutions have been afterwards laid before the whole company in camp and have received their unanimous sanction.

Robert Campbell, Pres.; Thomas Sutherland, Clerk. [13]


Trail larders were well supplied, consisting of staples like flour, bacon, sugar, tea, coffee, beans, dried fruits, canned goods, salt, dried meats, vinegar, cheese, pickles, oat mean, molasses, bran meal, eggs, butter, wine, whiskey, and other alcoholic beverages. In addition, Mormons sometimes had chickens, pigs, sheep, and milk cows. Such supplies were supplemented by whatever emigrants could gather or catch that swam, flew, ran, or crawled or grew. This included fish, turtles, clams, buffalo, antelope, beaver, prairie dogs, mountain sheep, squirrels, rabbits, snakes, bear, deer, elk, ducks, pheasants, quail, prairie hens, turkeys, geese, pelicans, strawberries, cherries, grapes, currents, gooseberries, serviceberries, mulberries, choke cherries, plums, blackberries, wild pears, honey, and volunteer corn. [14]


Most Mormon companies, with the exception of the pioneer company of 1847, had more women (and children) than most non-Mormon companies. This was because most Mormons did not go west for furs, gold, adventure, or a new identity, but seeking religious freedom; they usually traveled as families and often had single women converts along. [15] And because man of these women, like Bathsheba Smith, Sarah Leavitt, Sarah Alexander, Caroline Crosby, Mary Field Garner, Eliza R. Snow (see Appendix D, Illustration 2 and Appendix C, Biographical Sketch 1), Patty Bartlett Sessions (see Appendix D, Illustration 3 and Appendix C, Biographical Sketch 2), Jane Rio Pearce, and Patience Archer wrote trail accounts, we know much of their trail life. [16] Typically, trail life was harder on them than on the men. The lack of privacy in bathing, elimination, and sleeping was especially difficult for Mormon women, as was their task of gathering bison dung, euphemistically termed bois de vache, meadow muffins, or chips for fuel. There were several trail songs about this work. The following is typical:

There's a pretty little girl in the outfit ahead
Whoa Haw Buck and Jerry Boy
I wish she were by my side instead
Whoa Haw Buck and Jerry Boy
Look at her now with a pout on her lips
As daintily with her fingertips
She picks for the fire some buffalo chips
Whoa Haw Buck and Jerry Boy.

Women also were responsible for most of the care of infants and children, as well as the fuel gathering, cooking, churning, sewing, laundering, and nursing. (Many women found it difficult at first to cook in the higher altitudes, where water boils at a lower temperature—sometimes beans and rice could cook for hours and never get soft.)

Many women were pregnant when they left for the west and others became pregnant en route. Both realities added to the difficulties of immigrating women. Probably a tenth of all Mormon emigrants died. The author's study of Mormon Trail accounts indicates that most were women and children. [17]

Women were also greatly hampered and disadvantaged by their clothing. Westering males dressed for the conditions: heavy boots, strong trousers, shirts, jackets, coats and broad-brimmed hats to protect the face and eyes. Tragically the same cannot be said for westering females. While modesty is almost universally considered a great virtue, it, like everything else except good will, can be overdone. The female attire of trail days, decreed by modesty and fashion, got filthy, soaked up water (even from dew), and often caused accidents. Long skirts could get caught in many ways, drawing females under animals and moving wagons.

Even after the super modest and "trail safe" bloomers (of Amelia Bloomer) came into existence in 1852, few Mormon females cared or dared to wear them, for they were considered a costume espoused by feminists as a dress for liberated women and signaled radical sexual and political messages that were denounced at the time. Furthermore, the Bible (Deuteronomy 22:5) decreed, "The woman shall not wear that which pertaineth unto a man...all that do so are abomination unto the Lord thy God." Women also kept their long skirts, petticoats, ribbons, bows, and white aprons to maintain their sexual distinction from men and their "superiority" over Indian women, and to preserve their femininity and domesticity.

Balancing out the grim realities of trail life are female trail accounts of the "romance," beauty of the landscape, the adventure of it all. Activities included dancing, singing, games, recitations, feasts, parties, socializing, tea parties, courting, and weddings. Westering women, including Mormons, enjoyed thinking up trail-related names for their infants born en route, such as Platte, Lucile Platte, Humboldt, Nevada, Laborious, Echo, Handcart, Blue River, La Bonte, and Liberty. Sometimes at night, camp women would place their scanty domestic belongings around their campfire to approximate their "parlors" back home. They also arranged the interiors of their covered wagons to be as homelike as possible. They hung mirrors, pictures, and lamps, spread carpets, and placed other belongings to this end. In fact pioneer women generally did everything they could to preserve their traditional role and image and the niceties of civilization, domesticity, and a semblance of home while westering. [18]

The realities of trail travel, however, greatly altered some aspects of family life. While the nineteenth century clearly distinguished between male and female roles, defining women as agents of civilization and keepers of morals, the differences between male and female work were blurred by the trail experience. Women were often called upon to take over men's duties and responsibilities. (Sometimes men even had to do women's work.) Throughout the Mormon migrations, every possible type of arrangement of family groups formed, including the unique Mormon contribution to the westward movement—polygamy. (See also below, page 44.)

Since polygamy had been practiced at Nauvoo, it existed on the trail. At the beginning of the exodus in 1846, some men took all their wives and children with them, some returned later for the balance of their families. Some women and their children joined their husbands later on the Missouri River, or in Utah. Some never did go west. Some men married plural wives en route; some missionaries returned from Europe with additional wives.

18 Stanley B. Kimball, "Women, Children, and Family Life on Pioneer Trails," Paper presented before the National Convention of the Daughters of Utah Pioneers, Salt Lake City, Utah, October 1980.

There were also single Mormon emigrants, bachelors, maidens, widows, widowers, the divorced and the orphaned. The net of faith brought in all kinds. As far as possible singles were fitted into the emigrant companies and completely accepted. Often such single pioneers were hired hands taken along as teamsters, drivers, cattle tenders, and handymen. Single females were sometimes hired to assist with the children and to aid older family members. [19] Despite the big differences between Mormon and non-Mormon trail emigrants, it appears that in general, the lives of Mormon female emigrants were much the same as those of most women on the Oregon and California trails. [20]


Most Mormon immigrating companies included children and infants, and child care was one of the greatest responsibilities and concerns, especially to the mothers. [21] Proper child care was greatly complicated by the constant traveling.

Older children usually had assignments, such as watching the younger ones, driving, herding, gathering fuel, and helping their mothers. Little children, however, tended to wander off, get lost, play too close to the draft animals and wagons, or step on cacti. Little girls wore the same inappropriate clothing as their mothers did.

A favorite, and dangerous, pastime of young boys was hanging on tent poles or extra axles that were stored under the wagons. An even more dangerous pastime of boys was standing on the wagon tongue and balancing themselves by placing their hands on the backs of the oxen.

Children were attracted to fire and boiling water. They were also susceptible to many illnesses and often there was little suitable food for infants. Some mothers tried to keep their children by their sides, or safely in the wagons. Some companies attempted to protect their children by keeping them all together in one group, supervised by one or more adults. Every morning the group would be marched ahead of the main company, and herded like sheep all day long. This was hard on the children and on their parents, but it did prevent many accidents.

Children made pets of cats, birds, prairie dogs, eagles, chickens, and lambs. Some even tried to tame buffalo calves. And all children, it seems, took a great liking to the family oxen, giving them pet names like Rouser, Brindle, Old Smut, Bill, Tom and Jerry, and Buck and Bright. There were few dogs on the trails. Cats were quiet and good mousers, but barking dogs could cause stampedes, attract Indians, or scare game.

Children played draughts or checkers, cards, hide-and-seek, tag, and ball. Some had toys like iron lions or dolls. Boys had pocket knives. They played with crickets and eagerly looked for anthills, for sometimes they could find Indian beads there—the ants picked them up like small pebbles. Despite all the hardships, most children who made the journey revelled in it the rest of their lives.


Along the MPNHT and throughout their immigrating period, Mormons met with many different groups and tribes of Indians, such as the Potawatomi, Omaha, Oto, Pawnee, Sioux, Snake (or properly, Shoshoni), Ute, and Paiute, but seldom experienced difficulties. This was in part because of the Book of Mormon, which gave Mormons their unique and positive attitude towards Indians. In short, Mormons treated Indians better than other whites treated them. According to the Book of Mormon, many American Indians are descended from several groups of people in pre-Columbian America, who had somehow found their way from the Old World Holy Land to the New, and who had subsequently rejected God and fallen under a curse. This curse was to be removed eventually through the Indians' acceptance of true Christianity—Mormonism. Mormons felt it was their obligation to help the Indians, not only to "civilize" them, but also to convert them and to help them become a "fair and delightsome people." [22] Indians tended to leave immigrating Mormons alone for other reasons as well: the size and preparedness of most Mormon companies, the fact that almost all Mormons merely passed through Indian lands and did not settle on them, were usually considerate in their consumption of game, grass, and wood, and gave Indians presents of salt, tobacco, and food.

Prior to their exodus west, the Mormons had had no sustained relations with Indians. (This was in part because between 1825 and 1846, the U.S. government practiced an Indian Removal program for the purpose of driving all eastern Indians west of the Mississippi.

The Sauk and Fox, for example, had been driven from Illinois by the cruel Black Hawk "War" of 1832.) There had been chance encounters here and there. In the early 1830s, Mormon missionaries had tried unsuccessfully to proselytize some Wyandot in Ohio and some Shawnee and Delaware, west of the Missouri River, near Independence, Missouri. In 1841, Chief Keokuk accompanied by Kiskukosh, Appenoose, and about 100 other chiefs and braves of the Sauk and Fox, crossed the Mississippi from Iowa (whence they had been driven in 1832) and visited Nauvoo. [23]

During the Nauvoo period of Mormon history (1839-1846), several extremely important precedents were established regarding the relations between Mormons and Indians. Some Indians were given the Mormon priesthood, there was some intermarriage, and a few Indians had been permitted to go through the Nauvoo temple and take part in those sacred and secret ordinances. In no other way could the potential equality of red men with white men have been so conclusively demonstrated to Mormons and to their Indian friends. [24]

Because of their unique view of Indians, Mormons generally treated them more fairly than other whites and throughout their migrating period, Mormons had little trouble with Indians. There are only several authenticated cases of kidnappings and killings. [25] (There were, however, a good many Indian attempts along the trail to buy or trade for Mormon wives. To the author's knowledge, no such arrangements were ever consummated, although up to twenty horses were sometimes offered, especially for redheads with ringlets!) [26] Indians did, however, steal Mormon livestock, especially horses, whenever possible.

Contemporary Mormon Trail accounts reveal none of the horror most white Americans held concerning the captivity of white women by red men. On the contrary, Mormon journals mention Indians as being stately, helpful, nice, clean, handsome, stylish, and living in primitive grandeur. Mormons recorded that Indians provided food, rides on horses, guide services, entertainment, such as horse races and bow and arrow demonstrations, and occasional succor to lost pioneers. Some handcarters recorded that mounted Indians sometimes threw a rope on a handcart and helped pull it through rough terrain. [27] When the Mormons settled in the Great Basin, however, and thereby pre-empted Indian lands, they experienced the same type of Indian troubles as non-Mormon settlers. There were intermittent conflicts for about twenty years—from some horse stealing in 1849 through the Black Hawk War of the 1860s.


There were very few Blacks connected with the early Mormon Church and fewer still on the emigrant trails. There were, for example, only three Blacks in the pioneer company of 1847—Green Flake, Hark Lay, and Oscar Crosby. In the much bigger group of 1848, twenty-four more Blacks crossed the plains. Thereafter the records indicate a scattering of Black "servants" going west during the 1850s. Almost all of the servants mentioned in the sources were slaves of white southern converts, who saw no compelling reason for freeing their slaves just because they had become Mormons. Fortunately, most Blacks were later freed in Utah. On the trail, most of these slaves served as teamsters, herders, or cooks. [28]


Mormon missionaries first reached Europe in 1837, and from England, missionaries spread to the continent. There were, therefore, many Mormon emigrants from, not only England, Ireland, Scotland, and Wales, but also from Denmark, Norway, Iceland, France, Italy, and Germany. Many of these emigrants were at a disadvantage in not knowing English in addition to not being accustomed to life on and beyond the American frontier. Mormon emigration officials tried to reduce this disadvantage through the previously mentioned Perpetual Emigration Fund, by organizing the foreign emigrants in Europe so that they sailed and traveled together all the way to their new Zion, and by always putting leaders in charge who knew the requisite languages. The sources indicate the system worked well. [29]


The Mormons, of course, met many traders, freighters, trappers and mountain men at their various points of departure and along the Mormon Trail. Additionally they encountered other westering Americans, the military, including discharged soldiers and even deserters and draft-dodgers from both north and south (during the Civil War, sometimes Mormon trains were even stopped and searched for such men), mail carriers, 49ers, Overland Telegraph workers, government roads workers, and Union Pacific Railroad workers.

During the Civil War, some of the Mormon trains were stopped, usually near Fort Bridger, and all native born males eighteen years or older had to take an oath of allegiance to the United States, while all male aliens eighteen years or older had to swear to act in strict neutrality. [30]


We can now turn to a discussion of just when the Mormons decided to settle in the Rocky Mountain area. The usual place to start the story of the Mormons and the Far West is with a statement made August 6, 1842, allegedly by Joseph Smith, to the effect that the Saints would continue to suffer much affliction and would be driven to the Rocky Mountains. In July 1843, Smith sent Jonathan Durham to investigate a route across Iowa from Nauvoo, Illinois, to the Missouri River. By February 1844, Smith had also suggested an exploring party be sent to investigate locations for possible settlement in California or Oregon. In March 1844, he sent a petition to Congress requesting authorization to raise 100,000 armed volunteers to protect Mormons who might immigrate to Oregon. [31] Nothing came of the projected exploring party or the petition. Among other things, Smith began campaigning for the presidency of the United States, Congress refused to receive the petition, and Smith was murdered the following June by an anti-Mormon mob in Carthage, Illinois.

One important event, however, did come from the abortive petition. Congressman Stephen A. Douglas from Illinois sent Smith a map of Oregon, a copy of John C. Fremont's 1843 map (see Appendix A, Map 3) and a report on the exploration of the country lying between the Missouri River and the Rocky Mountains.

The death of Smith ended further discussion of going west for the rest of that year and the church as a whole dedicated itself to effecting the plans of its martyred prophet—completing the temple, building a better Nauvoo, and expanding the proselytizing program.

It appears that by January 1845, Brigham Young (see Appendix D, Illustration 4 and Appendix C Biographical Sketch 3), Joseph's de facto, if not de jure, successor and other Mormon leaders simultaneously carried on two mutually exclusive programs: (1) to build up Nauvoo, and (2) to prepare to leave. [32] Until October 1845, however, the second program was not generally known. That Young indeed was preparing his followers for such a move is manifested by the fact that on October 30, 1844, the Nauvoo Neighbor, a Mormon newspaper, printed a selection from Washington Irving's Astoria entitled "The Climate of the Rocky Mountains," and that throughout 1845, the same paper published many other articles on Oregon, the Indians, and especially extracts from Fremont's Reports about the Oregon Trail, the Bear River area, and the Valley of the Great Salt Lake. Also published were portions of Lansford W. Hastings' The Emigrants' Guide to Oregon and California, which had just appeared in 1845. Furthermore, in 1845, the New York Messenger, another Mormon publication, printed almost the entirety of Hastings' book. [33] Young even revived Smith's proposal about sending out a party to search for locations in the west, but nothing came of it.

How long Young intended to carry on both programs is not known, for his hand was forced that fall. In September of 1845, anti-Mormons, convinced that the Mormons were not going to leave Illinois, began a program of harassment. More than 200 Mormon homes and farm buildings located outside Nauvoo were burned that fall and the anti-Mormon convention headquartered in Carthage decreed that the Mormons must quit Illinois the following spring. Therefore a western exploring party was organized and the exodus was officially announced and scheduled for the spring of 1846. [34] Mormon historical records show that during December 1845 Mormon leaders studied the works of Fremont, Hastings, and other travelers of the Far West. [35] (See section entitled Western Travel Accounts Consulted by the Mormons, page 29.) Even after quitting Nauvoo during February 1846, the advance group of Mormons continued to gather information about the west. On January 6, 1847, for example, Young wrote to a church member in St. Louis: "I want you to bring me one half dozen of Mitchell's new map of Texas, Oregon & California and the regions adjoining...for 1846.... If there is anything later or better than Mitchell's, I want the best." (See Appendix A, Map 4.) [36]


It will be useful at this point to discuss the accounts, maps, and frontiersmen the Mormons consulted before and during their great exodus to their New Zion. To do this let us examine the trans-Missouri travel/guide literature available to Mormon leaders generally through April 1847, when they left the Missouri River for the Far West. Probably the Mormons were not even aware of much of the literature, still less able to consult it, but it will be helpful, nonetheless, to survey the field.

Travel literature had long been in vogue in the young Republic. Dozens of guides appeared, beginning with a 1748 guide to Kentucky, throughout the nineteenth century, to a guide to the Klondike goldfields in 1897. Perhaps the earliest publication of specific value to the Mormons would have been Edwin James' 1823 Account of an Expedition from Pittsburgh to the Rocky Mountains 1819-1820, based on the notes of Major S.H. Long of the famous U.S. Army Corps of Typographical Engineers. This work detailed Long's 1820 expedition from a point on the Missouri about 10 miles above what was to become the site of the Mormon Winter Quarters, westward along a line of march very similar to that of the Mormons in 1847. That is, along the north bank of the Platte, across the Elkhorn River and Shell Creek, past the Pawnee villages, the ford of the Loup River, and continuing west along the north bank of the Platte to the confluence of the North and South Platte branches. That is where Long turned southwest into what is now Colorado, and discovered the peak that bears his name. The forty-two-page account of this part of Long's expedition would surely have been one of the best works the Mormons could have consulted, for this was the best exploring account of the Great Plains before Fremont.

In 1837, the imagination of the nation was caught by Washington Irving's reworking of the 1833 journal of Captain Benjamin Louis Eulalie de Bonneville into The Adventures of Captain Bonneville in the Rocky Mountains and the Far West. The account of the Oregon Trail between Fort Laramie and the Green River would have been of some value to the Mormons. Of special interest would have been the five-page description of the Great Salt Lake provided to Bonneville by one of his men, Joseph W.R. Walker. Bonneville was also the first to prove the feasibility of taking loaded wagons over the famed South Pass.

The following year a book appeared of which the Mormons might have known. This was the Rev. Samuel Parker's Journal of an Exploring Tour Beyond the Rocky Mountains along the Oregon Trail from Fort Leavenworth to the Green River via Bellevue (in what is now Nebraska); that is, across the Papillion, Elkhorn, the Loup, and along the north side of the Platte to Fort Laramie—the same way the Mormons later went.

The publications of John K. Townsend, Maximilian, Prince of Wied, Father Pierre Jean De Smet, and Thomas J. Farnham in the 1830s and 1840s would have been of little value to the Mormons. Of far greater importance was Captain John C. Fremont's A Report of the Exploring Expeditions to the Rocky Mountains in the Year 1842. Published in 1843, this work was probably worth as much to the Mormons as everything else published to that date combined. This was the Fremont Report mentioned so often by the Mormons. A 10,000-copy edition was reprinted in 1845 as the first part of his A Report of the Exploring Expedition to the Rocky Mountains in the Year 1842 and To Oregon and North California in the Years 1843-44. The seventy-nine-page report of 1843 was the first scientific survey of the Oregon Trail and the first reasonably accurate guidebook to the Far West.

The 1843 Report was useful to the Mormons for its account of the Platte River Valley from what is now North Platte, Nebraska, to South Pass. Of most value to the Mormons in the subsequent 1845 Report was the three-page account of the exploration of the Great Salt Lake (which he reached via the Soda Springs), the Bear River area, and the valley of the Great Salt Lake. Of paramount interest to the Mormons were his comments on the fertility of the valleys west of the Rocky Mountains.

Next to Fremont the most often-mentioned source of information to the Mormons was Lansford W. Hastings' The Emigrant's Guide to Oregon and California, also published in 1845. For all of the fame or notoriety of this work, it is difficult to see wherein its value to the Mormons lay. Hastings' short account of his traveling from St. Louis to the Green River would have been of little help to the Mormons. He devoted exactly one sentence on pages 137-138 to what became the famous and infamous Hastings Cutoff, "The most direct route for the California Emigrants, would be to leave the Oregon route, about two hundred miles east from Fort Hall; then bearing west-south-west, to the Salt Lake; and thence continuing down to the bay of San Francisco, by the route just described." [37] This one sentence sent some to their deaths, while suggesting to the Mormons a shorter way to the Valley of the Great Salt Lake, west from Fort Bridger, rather than via Fort Hall. The Mormons might also have found Hastings' excellent ten-page chapter on "The Equipment, Supplies, and the Method of Traveling" very valuable. [38]


Of far more importance to the Mormons than the travel accounts were the maps available to them. There were many—a plethora in fact. [39] Since at least 1722, dozens of Spanish, French, and American maps had been published showing, in varying degrees of accuracy and fullness, the Platte River area. Over fifty maps of the trans-Mississippi west appeared during the first five years of the 1840s, and in the critical year of 1846 another twenty-eight were published. [40]

From a practical standpoint, there is no use in this study to consider anything published prior to Major S.H. Long's map of 1823, which not only gave details along the north side of the Platte from the Missouri River to the forks of the Platte (see Appendix A, Map 5), but is also generally considered to have been the best map of the Platte area prior to those prepared by Fremont and his cartographer Charles Preuss. (See Appendix A, Map 3.)

It appears the Mormons also consulted the 1835 map of Bonneville. Unfortunately he was an untrained amateur and his map, not based on astronomical observations, was of poor technical quality. Still it was widely known and used in its day.

While there were many maps of the trans-Missouri west published in the 1840s, almost every one the Mormons might have been interested in were either those of Fremont-Preuss or based on Fremont-Preuss. The three Fremont-Preuss maps, which appeared in 1843, 1845, and 1846, were what we would call strip maps today, showing only the area actually explored with no attempt to present wide, general areas. They represent the best American cartography between Long's work and the Civil War. [41]

The first of the Fremont-Preuss series, showing the Oregon Trail in great detail, from the forks of the Platte to South Pass and the Wind River Mountains, was the basis for the two that followed. In large format, 14-1/2" by 33-3/4", it was clearly the finest map of that area ever produced. Preuss prepared another map in 1845 to accompany Fremont's second Report of that year. As the 1845 publication included the 1843 material, the 1845 map embodied everything on the 1843 map. In huge format, 51" x 31-1/2", it showed his route along the Oregon trail from Westport (now part of Kansas City), to South Pass, Fort Vancouver, and on to San Francisco Bay. This map also provided a good sketch of the Platte River west from Bellevue, showing the Elkhorn, Loup, and Wood rivers.

In 1846, Preuss reworked his 1845 map. This map, from Westport to the Columbia River, was constructed on a grand scale of only 10 miles to the inch and was issued in seven sections, each 26" by 16."

Of those maps derived from Fremont-Preuss, which the Mormons may have also consulted, are products that appeared with the 1845 Report of Colonel S. Kearny's expedition from Fort Leavenworth to South Pass; the 1845 Charles Wilkes Map of Oregon Territory; Rufus B. Sage's 1846 Map of Oregon, California, New Mexico and Northwest Texas; and above all, one or more of the three maps published by S. Augustus Mitchell in 1846. It was one or more of these Mitchell maps that Young ordered from St. Louis during January 1846, as cited previously. The map in question was undoubtedly the previously mentioned, "A New Map of Texas, Oregon, and California," which was 20" by 22" and appeared in four colors. (See Appendix A, Map 4.) It would seem then that the maps that hung on the walls of the Nauvoo temple and that were subsequently taken west, besides Fremont's, were surely Mitchell's, Wilkes', Bonneville's, and most likely Long's. Unfortunately none of the copies used by the pioneers has survived.


It is also interesting to note the contacts the Mormons might have made while on the Missouri River, from June 1846 to April 1847, and subsequently along the trail. From the "Manuscript History of Brigham Young" and other sources, we know they consulted with frontiersmen, members of the famous Fontenelle family, Indian agents such as Robert B. Mitchell and Peter A. Sarpy, and Indian chiefs such as Big Elk and Le Clerk. We also know Young talked with the famous Jesuit missionary to the Indians, father Pierre Jean De Smet, while the latter was returning to St. Louis from Oregon. Justin Grosclaude, a fur trader of Swiss ancestry for the American Fur Company, also called on Young and sketched with pencil a map of the country west of the Missouri — a map which, regrettably, has not survived. [42] Not only did the Mormon leaders of the 1840s seek trail knowledge in the Council Bluffs area, but later on, rank and file Mormons in many other places along the Missouri River (such as Independence, Westport, Weston, and St. Joseph, Missouri, and Fort Leavenworth, Kansas Territory) acquired useful information to help later emigrants.

On the trail, the Mormons made the best use of every opportunity to learn from others including traders, guides, and mountain men such as Moses Harris, Jim Bridger, and Miles Goodyear. [43] Whenever possible, the Mormons updated their information with the maps, printed accounts, and personal experiences of the people they met along the way. [44]


There is no evidence that the Mormons harmed the environment of the trail. As modern Saints, Mormons tried to be responsible travelers—considerate of the land and game. Killing for sport, for example, was prohibited and they were usually careful in their consumption of trees for fuel. Perhaps the main reason for the Mormon concern with the environment is that they knew thousands of their faith would be using the same trail. The Mormons were interested in the environment, in the flora and fauna of the increasingly strange world they encountered while westering. Their journals record their pleasure with the dramatic landscapes they traversed. Occasionally some pioneers found time to do some "botanizing" and what we might call "geologizing." In what is now Nebraska, in 1847, for example, they were fascinated by mammoth bones. [45]

The author has found scores of Mormon Trail account references to land features, plants, and animals. They noted, for example, such plants as wild onions, buffalo grass, willows, roses, violets, gooseberries, strawberries, clover, bunch grass, vines, elderberries, thistles, cacti, garlic, currants, mint, sage, rushes, and cedar, ash, cherry, oak, maple, apple, alder, birch, poplar, cottonwood, and pine trees. They also noted squirrels, ducks, snapping turtles, various kinds of fish, goose, lizards, skunks (with which some foreign emigrants had unpleasant experiences), prairie dogs, rattlesnakes, antelope, hares, wolves, buffalo, badgers, deer, crickets, spiders, toads, ants, mosquitoes, mice, eagles, hawks, cranes, martins, pheasants, and magpies—to name a representative sampling.

At times they even ventured to try to describe some unusual living things. One described something, perhaps a horny toad, as being "four to five inches long, including a long tail, body short and chunky, light grey, two rows of dark spots (brown) on each side, head shaped like a snake, appears perfectly harmless." Another described a plant as "a thistle, stem four feet long, six inches wide, one quarter inch thick, ornamented by prickles top to bottom, top is kind of a crown formed by prickly leaves ten inches long and five inches broad."

<<< Previous <<< Contents >>> Next >>>

Last Updated: 08-Oct-2003