The Mormon Trail, also known as the Mormon Pioneer Trail, was used from 1846 to 1869. Over 70,000 Mormons used the trails to travel from Nauvoo, Illinois to Salt Lake City, Utah. The trail is over 1300 miles.
The Mormons were facing religious persecution. The had established a community at Nauvoo, Illinois. Nauvoo was renamed from Commerce, when the Mormons purchased most of the town in 1840. Mormon settlers began arriving in the town in 1839. In less than ten years, the population had swelled to about 12,000. As other settlers moved into the area, Brigham Young sought a way to take his followers west to the Great Basin, where they could escape religious persecution. The Quincy Convention of 1845 required the Mormons to leave Nauvoo by May 1846. They began leaving Nauvoo and heading west in Feb 1846.
On 4 Feb 1846, the exodus began. Expecting the trip across Iowa to take four to six weeks, the trials and tribulations of primitive roads and Native American trails that during rainy weather, mired down wagon wheels, the trip took sixteen weeks. The travellers reached the junction with the Missouri River on 14 Jun. Realizing that they could not make it to their destination that year, and many of those were already poorly provisioned, some settled on the east side of the river, establishing Kanesville, Iowa (now known as Council Bluffs). Some crossed the river and established a community they called Winter Quarters (Omaha, Nebraska).
To make sure that they were much better prepared the second time around, a Vanguard Company was formed. It included 143 men, three women and two children. The men were divided into 14 military companies and militia and night guards were established. The train consisted of 73 wagons, draft animals and livestock and carried enough provisions to last the company for a year. The Vanguard Company left Winter Quarters on 5 Apr 1847. The arrived at Fort Laramie on 1 Jun 1847. At Fort Laramie, the Vanguard Company was joined by the Mormon Battalion, a group of members who were excused due to illness and sent to Pueblo, Colorado for the winter. They were also joined by a group of church members from Mississippi. There was now a much larger group.
The left Fort Laramie and headed toward Fort Bridger. They followed the established Oregon Trail for this portion. Brigham Young met with mountain man Jim Bridger on 28 Jun. The company pushed through the South Pass, rafted across the Green River and arrived at Fort Bridger on 7 Jul. At Fort Bridger, twelve more men joined their party from the Mormon Battalion.
The remainder of the trek is considered the most arduous. Young chose to follow the route taken by the Donner-Reed party the previous year. The company was divided into three groups. There were several, including Young himself, who had taken a fever and were considered to have "mountain fever" a condition believed to be brought on by ticks. Those who were ill were separated in a group and travelled slower. Of the others, several were selected to scout out the path for the main group.
Scouts Erastus Snow and Orson Pratt entered the Salt Lake Valley on 21 Jul. Ground was broken, irrigation ditches dug and the fields of potatoes and turnips were planted. On 24 Jul, Young finally saw the valley where he planned to make his home.
In Aug 1847, Young and selected members of the Vanguard Company returned to Winter Quarters to organize the companies travelling in the next year. By Dec 1847 more than 2000 Mormons had travelled to the Salt Lake Valley. At the time, the Salt Lake Valley was part of Mexican territory.
Initial farming proved difficult as the shares broke on the dry ground. However, with the system designed to provide supplemental moisture, the land was flooded and cultivating the ground became much easier. Salt Lake City was laid out and identified as church headquarters. The new community prospered. The first public building was a theater.
After the War with Mexico, the land became part of the United States.
The first groups to move west used primarily covered wagons. In 1856, it became common practice for the groups to use handcarts. By 1849, most of the Mormons who wished to move west had done so. Those who remained in Iowa or Missouri were too poor to afford the supplies needed for the trip. The church established the Perpetual Emigration Fund to assist those desiring to move west to be able to do so. By 1852, Mormons from Nauvoo wishing to move west had done so and Mormon settlements in Iowa were abandoned.
While other groups had used handcarts from time to time, the Mormon settlers were the first to use them extensively. The carts were mostly wooden and six to seven feet long. They were wide enough to span a narrow wagon track. The handcarts could be either pushed or pulled. Small boxes attached to the carts were three to four feet long and eight inches high. The carts could hold roughly 500 pounds, mostly provisions for the trip with some personal provisions.
Most of the handcart companies made the trip with little incident and few deaths. However two handcart companies, Willies and Martins Handcart Company, left Iowa City, Iowa in Jul 1856, late in the year to attempt the trip across the plains. Just west of Casper, Wyoming, they encountered severe winter weather and continued to cope with deep snows and bad weather for the remainder of the trip. When Young learned of it, he sent a rescue party after the companies. However of the 980 who left Iowa City, less than 770 survived that particular trip. All the other handcart companies had much better success.
In 1869, with the building of the Transcontinental Railroad, the Morman Trail fell out of use as those seeking to move west did so via the railroad.
Points Along the Mormon Trail
Nauvoo, Illinois -- Starting point for many, particularly in the 1840s.
Sugar Creek, Iowa -- Staging area for western trek across Iowa
Richardson's Point, Iowa -- The first trip across Iowa was halted at this location for 10 days due to weather and the first deaths occurred here.
Chariton River Crossing, Iowa -- Young formed the first group into military style groups at this point on the first trek. All future treks would be formed this way.
Locust Creek, Iowa -- On 13 Apr 1846, William Clayton, Young's scribe composed Come, Come Ye Saints
Garden Grove, Iowa -- The first groups planted 715 acres for use for later travelers. Community still exists today.
Mount Pisgah, Iowa -- Second community established. Several thousand acres cultivated for future travellers. Today, all that remains of this community is the park memorializing the trail and the cemetery where 300 - 800 emigrants are buried.
Nishnabotna River Crossing, Iowa -- The first travellers found a Powattami tribe camping there. The tribe was also refugees and left after 1846.
Grand Encampment, Iowa -- On 13 Apr 1846, the first travellers collected. On 20 Jul the Mormon Battalion departed for the Mexican American War.
Kanesville, Iowa -- Mormons established a settlement for outfitting future travellers to Salt Lake Valley. Renamed Council Bluffs.
Winter Quarters, Nebraska -- opposite Kanesville across Missouri River. Travellers stayed at Kanesville and Winter Quarters, traded for supplies and prepared for the journey the following spring. Settlement later renamed Florence and now part of Omaha.
Elkhorn River, Nebraska
Platte River -- This was the path used through Nebraska. However, most travellers used the south side, so the Mormon trail went along the north side of the river.
Loup Fork, Nebraska -- difficult crossing
Fort Kearny, Nebraska -- established in 1848. Named after Stephen Watts Kearny
Confluence Point, Nebraska -- confluence point of North and South Platte Rivers
Ash Hollow, Nebraska -- battle over Sioux in 1855. burial ground for many travellers who died of cholera during gold rush years.
Chimney Rock, Nebraska -- landmark noted by many emigrants in their diaries.
Scotts Bluff, Nebraska -- named for Hiram Scott, a Rocky Mountain Fur Trader abandoned by companions when he became ill. Also grave for Rebecca Winters, mother who died of cholera in 1852.
Fort Laramie, Wyoming -- place for emigrants to renew supplies. In 1856, Willie's Handcart company was unable to resupply, contributing to the deaths during their trek.
Upper Platte/Mormon Ferry, Wyoming -- near Casper, last crossing of the Platte River. Mormons established a ferry which operated until 1853 when a competing toll bridge constructed. Martin Handcart Company forded river 19 Oct 1856, which led to many deaths from exposure and cold temperatures.
Red Butte, Wyoming -- Martin Handcart Company stopped here and were holed up while heavy snows fell. Fifty-six died from cold and disease while attempting to wait out the storm. Rescue parties arrived, encouraging remainder to start moving
Sweetwater River, Wyoming
Independence Rock, Wyoming -- most anticipated landmark on trail. Many carved names or initials on rock
Devil's Gate, Wyoming -- a gorge cut through the rock by the Sweetwater River. Martin's Handcart Company unloaded carts so that the rescue party could carry the travellers. Fort established to protect belongings which were recovered in the spring
Martin's Cove, Wyoming -- Martin's Handcart Company holed up here when another blizzard set in.
Rocky Ridge, Wyoming -- On 19 Oct 1856, the same storm that halted Martin's Handcart Company at Red Butte, halted Willie's Handcart Company at Rocky Ridge. They had run out of flour when the rescue party reached them. The rescue party gave them some flour but pushed on to locate Martin's Handcart Company. The leader of the Handcart Company pushed on to get help for his Company.
Rock Creek, Wyoming -- After their trek up Rocky Ridge, Willie's Handcart Company camped here. In the night, 19 died and they were buried in a shallow grave the next morning.
South Pass, Wyoming -- A twenty mile wide area at the Continental Divide
Green River/Lombard Ferry -- Latter Day Saints operated ferry here.
Fort Bridger -- At this point, the Oregon Trail, California Trail and Mormon Trail separated.
Bear River Crossing, Wyoming
The Needles, Wyoming -- noted landmark on the trail. Here Brigham Young became ill with what was suspected to be Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever
Echo Canyon, Utah -- one of the last canyons on the trail
Big Mountain, Utah -- highest elevation on Mormon Trail
Emmigration Canyon, Utah -- The Donner-Reed Party had gone through this canyon partway, but chose to go up and around the final constriction. Brigham Young's party chose to hack their way through the final constriction on the valley floor and they were through the canyon in four hours.
Salt Lake Valley -- end of the trail
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