The Mormon Trail
or Mormon Pioneer
is the route that members of The Church of
Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints
traveled from 1846 to 1868.
Today the Mormon Trail is a part of the United States National Trails System
, as the
Mormon Pioneer National
Trail extends from Nauvoo, Illinois, which was the principal settlement of the Latter Day Saints from 1839 to 1846, to
Salt Lake City,
Utah, which was settled by Brigham Young and his followers beginning in
1847. From Council Bluffs, Iowa to Fort
Bridger in Wyoming, the trail follows much the same route
as the Oregon Trail and the California Trail; these trails are
collectively known as the Emigrant
The Mormon pioneer
movement began in
1846 when, in the face of conflicts with neighbors, Young decided
to abandon Nauvoo and to establish a new home for the church in the
. That year Young's followers
crossed Iowa. Along their way, some were assigned to establish
settlements and to plant and harvest crops for later emigrants.
During the winter of 1846–47, the emigrants wintered in Iowa, other
nearby states, and the unorganized territory that later became
Nebraska, with the largest group residing in Winter Quarters,
. In the spring of 1847, Young led the vanguard company
to the Salt Lake Valley
, which was
then outside the boundaries of the United States and later became
Utah. During the first few years, the emigrants were mostly former
occupants of Nauvoo who were following Young to Utah. Later, the
emigrants increasingly comprised converts from the British Isles
The trail was used for more than 20 years, until the completion of
in 1869. Among the emigrants were the
Mormon handcart pioneers
1856–1860. Two of the handcart companies, led by James G. Willie
and Edward Martin, met disaster on
the trail when they departed late and were caught by heavy
snowstorms in Wyoming.
leadership of Joseph Smith, Jr.,
Latter Day Saints established several communities throughout the
United States between 1830 and 1844, most notably in Kirtland, Ohio, Independence, Missouri, and Nauvoo.
However, the Saints were driven
out of each of them in turn due to internal disagreements and
conflicts with other settlers (see History of the Latter
Day Saint movement
). They were finally forced to abandon Nauvoo
Although the movement had split into several denominations after
most members aligned themselves with Brigham Young and The Church
of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS). Under Young's
leadership, about 14,000 Mormon citizens of Nauvoo set out to find
a new home in the West.
The Trek West
As the senior apostle
Quorum of the Twelve
after Joseph Smith's death, Brigham Young assumed
responsibility of the leadership of the church. He would later be
sustained as President of the Church
Young now had to lead the Saints into the far west, without knowing
exactly where to go or where they would end up. He insisted the
Mormons should settle in a place no one else wanted and felt the
isolated Great Basin
would provide the
Saints with many advantages.
Young reviewed information on the Great Salt Lake Valley and the
Great Basin, consulted with mountain men and trappers and met with
Father Pierre-Jean De Smet
missionary familiar with the region.
He organized a vanguard company to break trail to the Rocky
Mountains, evaluate trail conditions, find sources of water, and
select a central gathering point in the Great Basin. A new route on
the north side of the Platte
rivers was chosen to
avoid potential conflicts over grazing rights, water access and
campsites with travelers using the established Oregon Trail
on the river’s south side.
The Quincy Convention of October 1845 passed resolutions demanding
that the Latter-day Saints withdraw from Nauvoo by May 1846. A few
days later, the Carthage Convention called for establishment of a
militia that would force them out if they failed to meet the May
deadline. To try to meet this deadline and to get an early start on
the trek to the Great Basin, the Latter-day Saints began leaving
Nauvoo in February 1846.
Trek of 1846
The departure from Nauvoo began on February 4, 1846 under the
leadership of Brigham Young. This early departure exposed them to
the elements in the worst of winter. After crossing the Mississippi River
, the journey across
territorial roads and Native American
trails. Young originally planned to lead an express company of
about 300 men to the Great Basin during the summer of 1846.
believed they could cross Iowa and reach the Missouri River in four to six weeks.
The actual trip across
Iowa, however, was slowed by rain, mud, swollen rivers, and poor
preparation, and required sixteen weeks—nearly three times longer
than planned. Heavy rains turned the rolling plains of southern
Iowa into a quagmire of axle-deep mud. Furthermore, few people
carried adequate provisions for the trip. The weather, general
unpreparedness, and lack of experience in moving such a large group
of people, all contributed to the difficulties they endured. The
initial party reached the Missouri River on June 14. It was
apparent that the Latter-day Saints could not make it to the Great
Basin that season and would have to winter on the Missouri
the emigrants established a settlement called Kanesville on the Iowa side of the river. Others moved across
the river into the area of present-day Omaha, Nebraska, building a camp called Winter Quarters.
The Vanguard Company of 1847
April 1847, chosen members of the Vanguard Company gathered, final
supplies were packed, and the group was organized into 14 military
companies. A militia and night guard was formed. The company
consisted of 143 men, including three blacks and eight members of
the Council of the
, three women, and two children. The train contained 73
wagons, draft animals, and livestock and carried enough supplies to
provision the group for one year. On April 5, the wagon train moved
west from Winter Quarters toward the Great Basin.
journey from Winter
Quarters to Fort
Laramie took six weeks, with the company arriving at the
fort on June 1. While at Fort Laramie, the vanguard company
was joined by members of the Mormon
Battalion, who had been excused due to illness and sent to
winter in Pueblo,
Colorado, and a group
of Church members from Mississippi. At this point, the now
larger company took the established Oregon Trail toward the trading
post at Fort
Young met mountain man Jim Bridger
June 28. They discussed routes into the Salt Lake Valley
, and the feasibility of
viable settlements in the mountain valleys of the Great Basin. The
company pushed on through South Pass, rafted across the Green River
and arrived at Fort Bridger on July 7. About the same time, they
were joined by 12 more members of the sick detachment of the Mormon
facing a more rugged and hazardous trek, Young chose to follow the
trail used by the Donner-Reed party on their journey to California the previous
As the vanguard company traveled through the rugged
mountains, they divided into three sections. Young and several
other members of the party suffered from a fever, generally
accepted as a “mountain fever” induced by wood ticks. The small
sick detachment lagged behind the larger group, and a scouting
division was created to move farther ahead on the designated
Scouts Erastus Snow
and Orson Pratt
entered the Salt Lake Valley on July
21. On July 23, Pratt offered a prayer dedicating the land to the
Lord. Ground was broken, irrigation ditches were dug, and the first
fields of potatoes and turnips were planted. On July 24, Young
first saw the valley from a “sick” wagon driven by his friend
. According to
Woodruff, Young expressed his satisfaction in the appearance of the
valley and declared, "This is the right place, drive on."
In August 1847, Young and selected members of the vanguard company
returned to Winter Quarters to organize the companies scheduled for
following years. By December 1847, more than two thousand
Mormons had completed the journey to the Salt Lake Valley, then in
Farming the uncultivated land was initially difficult, as the
shares broke when they tried to plow the dry ground. An irrigation
system was designed and the land
flooded before plowing, with the system providing supplemental
moisture during the year. Salt Lake City was laid out and designated as Church
Hard work produced a prosperous community. In
their new settlement, entertainment was also important, and the
first public building was a theater.
It did not take long, however, until the United States caught up
with them, and in 1848, after the end of the war with Mexico
, the land in which they
settled became part of the United States.
Each year during the Mormon migration, people continued to be
organized into "companies", each company bearing the name of its
leader and subdivided into groups of 10 and 50. The Saints traveled
the trail broken by the Vanguard company, splitting the journey
into two sections. The first segment began in Nauvoo and ended
Quarters, near modern-day Omaha, Nebraska. The second half of the journey took the
Saints through the area that later became Nebraska and Wyoming, before finishing their journey in the Salt Lake
Valley in present-day Utah.
earlier groups used covered wagons pulled by oxen to carry their
supplies across the country. Later companies used handcarts and
traveled by foot.
By 1849 many of the Latter-day Saints who remained in Iowa or
Missouri were poor and unable to afford the costs of the wagon,
teams of oxen, and supplies that would be required for the trip.
The LDS Church established a revolving fund known as the Perpetual Emigration Fund
enable the poor to emigrate. By 1852, most of the Latter-day Saints
from Nauvoo who wished to emigrate had done so, and the church
abandoned its settlements in Iowa. However, many church members
from the eastern states and from Europe continued to emigrate to
Utah, often assisted by the Perpetual Emigration Fund.
In 1856, the church inaugurated a system of handcart companies
in order to
enable poor European emigrants to make the trek more cheaply.
Handcarts, two-wheeled carts that were pulled by emigrants, instead
of draft animals, were sometimes used as an alternate means of
transportation from 1856–1860. They were seen as a faster, easier,
and cheaper way to bring European converts to Salt Lake City.
Almost 3,000 Mormons, with 653 carts and 50 supply wagons,
traveling in 10 different companies
, made the trip over the
trail to Salt Lake City. While not the first to use handcarts, they
were the only group to use them extensively.
The handcarts were modeled after carts used by street sweepers and
were made almost entirely of wood. They were generally six to seven
feet (183 to 213 cm) long, wide enough to span a narrow wagon
track, and could be alternately pushed or pulled. The small boxes
affixed to the carts were three to four feet (91 to 122 cm)
long and eight inches (20 cm) high. They could carry about 500
pounds (227 kg), most of this weight consisting of trail
provisions and a few personal possessions.
All but two of the handcart companies successfully completed the
rugged journey, with relatively few problems and only a few deaths.
However, the fourth and fifth companies, known as the Willie and Martin Companies
serious problems. The companies left Iowa City,
Iowa in July 1856, very late to begin the trip across
the plains. They met severe winter weather west of
present day Casper,
Wyoming and continued to cope with deep snow and storms for
the remainder of the journey.
Food supplies were soon
exhausted. Young organized a rescue effort that brought the
companies in, but more than 210 of the 980 emigrants in the two
The handcart companies continued with more success until 1860, and
traditional ox-and-wagon companies also continued for those who
could afford the higher cost. After 1860 the church began sending
wagon companies east each spring, to return to Utah in the summer
with the emigrating Latter-day Saints. Finally, with the completion
of the Transcontinental
in 1869, future emigrants were able to travel by rail,
and the era of the Mormon pioneer trail came to an end.
Sites along the trail
The following are major points along the trail at which the early
Mormon pioneers stopped, established temporary camps, or used as
landmarks and meeting places. The sites are categorized by their
location in respect to modern day US states.
- Nauvoo —
Nauvoo was the starting point for the Mormon trail and the early
home base for LDS migrants.
- Sugar Creek ( west of Nauvoo) — Beginning with
their first ferry crossing of the Mississippi River on February 4,
1846, months before many of them were ready, the Latter-day Saints
started gathering at the frozen banks of Sugar Creek. More refugees
continued to cross into Iowa for a number of months many taking
advantage of the freezing of the Mississippi river a few weeks
later. The poorly prepared emigrants suffered from severe winter
weather while camped there. Sugar Creek was the staging area for
the westward trek across Iowa. Ultimately about 2,500 refugees and
500 wagons started west on March 1, 1846. Several thousand more
would follow on later as they sold their property for what they
could get and continued to leave Nauvoo, Illinois.
- Richardson's Point ( west)
— The emigrants made their way past Croton and Farmington to ford the Des Moines
River at Bonaparte. In early March 1846 the party was halted
for 10 days by heavy rain at a wooded area known as Richardson's
Point. Some of the first deaths of the pioneers occurred at this
- Chariton River Crossing (
west) — The trail continues past the modern towns of Troy, Drakesville, and West Grove to reach the Chariton River.
At this crossing, on March 27, Young
organized the lead group of the migration, forming three camps of
100 families, each led by a captain. This military-style
organization would be used for all subsequent Mormon emigrant
- Locust Creek ( west) — The
trail proceeds past Cincinnati to Locust Creek. There on April 13 William Clayton, scribe for Brigham
Young, composed "Come, Come Ye Saints," the most famous and
enduring hymn from the Mormon Trail.
- Garden Grove ( west) — On April
23 the emigrants arrived at the location of their first
semi-permanent settlement, which they named Garden Grove.
They enclosed and planted to supply food for later emigrants and
established a village that is still in existence today. About 600
Latter-day Saints settled at Garden Grove. By 1852 they had moved
on to Utah.
- Mount Pisgah ( west) — As they entered Potawatomi territory, the emigrants established
another semi-permanent settlement that they named Mount
Pisgah. Several thousand acres were cultivated and a
settlement of about 700 Latter-day Saints thrived there from 1846
to 1852. Now the site is marked by a park, which contains exhibits,
historical markers, and a reconstructed log cabin. However, little
remains from the 19th century except a cemetery memorializing the
300 to 800 emigrants who died there.
- Nishnabotna River Crossing ( west) — From Mount Pisgah the trail
proceeds past the modern towns of Orient, Bridgewater, and Lewis. Just
west of Lewis, the 1846 emigrants passed a Potawatomi encampment on
the Nishnabotna River. The Potawatomis were also refugees; 1846 was
their last year in the area.
- Grand Encampment ( west) —
From the Nishnabotna River, the trail proceeds past present-day
Macedonia to Mosquito Creek on the eastern outskirts of
Bluffs. The first emigrant company arrived on June
13, 1846. At this open area, where the Iowa School for the Deaf is
now located, the LDS emigrant companies paused and camped, forming
what was called the Grand Encampment. From this site on
July 20, the Mormon Battalion departed for the Mexican-American War.
- Kanesville (later Council
Bluffs) ( west) — The emigrants established an important
settlement and outfitting point at this site on the Missouri River, originally known as Miller's Hollow. The
emigrants renamed the settlement as Kanesville, honoring
Thomas L. Kane, a non-LDS attorney who was politically
well connected and used his influence to assist the Latter-day
Saints. From 1846 to 1852, it was an important LDS settlement and
the outfitting point for companies traveling to present-day Utah.
Orson Hyde, an Apostle and ecclesiastical leader of the
settlement, published a newspaper called the Frontier
Guardian. In 1852 the major LDS settlements at Kanesville,
Mount Pisgah, and Garden Grove were closed as the settlers moved on
to Utah. After 1852, however, the Church continued to
outfit and supply emigrant companies (mostly LDS converts coming
from the British
Isles and mainland Europe) at this
community, now renamed Council Bluffs, until the
mid-1860s, when the terminus of the First Transcontinental Railroad
was extended to the west.
Quarters ( west) — Although Brigham Young had
originally planned to travel all the way to the Salt Lake Valley in
1846, the emigrants' lack of preparation had become apparent during
their difficult crossing of Iowa. Furthermore, the departure of the
Mormon Battalion left the emigrants short on manpower. Young
decided to settle for the winter along the Missouri River. The
emigrants were located on both sides of the river, but their
settlement at Winter Quarters on the west side was the largest.
There they built 700 dwellings where an estimated 3,500 Latter-day
Saints spent the winter of 1846–47; many would also reside there
during the winter of 1847–48. Conditions such as scurvy,
consumption, chills and fever were common; the settlement recorded
359 deaths between September 1846 and May 1848. However, while at
Winter Quarters the LDS emigrants were able to save or trade for
the equipment and supplies that they would need to continue the
westward trek. The settlement was later renamed Florence and is now located in Omaha.
- Elkhorn River (
- Platte River (
west) — All emigrants leaving Missouri traveled along the Great Platte River Road for hundreds
of miles. There was a prevailing opinion that the North side of the
river was healthier, so most Latter-day Saints generally stuck to
that side, which also separated them from unpleasant encounters
with potential former enemies, like emigrants from Missouri or
Illinois. In 1849, 1850 & 1852, traffic was so heavy along the
Platte that virtually all feed was stripped from both sides of the
river. The lack of food and the threat of disease made the journey
along the Platte a deadly gamble.
- Loup Fork ( west) —
Crossing the Loup Fork was, like the Elkhorn, one of the early and
very difficult crossings during the trek west from Council
- Fort Kearny ( west)
— This fort, named after Stephen
Watts Kearny, was established in June 1848. Another fort named
after Kearny was established in May 1846, but was abandoned in May
1848. Due to this, the second Fort Kearny is sometimes called New
Fort Kearny. The site for the fort was purchased from the Pawnee
Indians for $2,000 in goods.
- Confluence Point ( west) — On May 11, 1847,
three-fourths of a mile north of the confluence of the North and
South Platte Rivers, a "roadometer" was attached to Heber C. Kimball's wagon driven by Pilo Johnson.
Although they didn't invent the device, the measurements of the
version they used were accurate enough to be used by William
Clayton in his famous Latter-day Saints' Emigrants'
- Ash Hollow ( west) — Many passing diarists
noted the beauty of Ash Hollow, although this was ruined by
thousands of passing emigrants. The Sioux
Indians were often on location and were at the site and General
William S. Harney's troops won a battle over the
Sioux there in September, 1855 — the Battle of Ash Hollow. The site
is also the burial ground of many who died of cholera during the
gold rush years.
Rock ( west) — Chimney Rock is perhaps the most
significant landmark on the Mormon Trail. Emigrants
commented in their diaries that the landmark appeared closer than
it actually was, and many sketched or painted it in their journals
and carved their names into it.
Bluff ( west) — Hiram Scott was a Rocky Mountain
Fur Company trapper abandoned on the bluff that now bears his name
by his companions when he became ill. Accounts of his death
are noted by almost all those who kept journals that traveled on
the north side of the Platte. The grave of Rebecca Winters, a
Latter-day Saint mother who fell victim to cholera in 1852, is also
located near this site, although it has since been moved and
Independence Rock, a site along the
- Fort Laramie ( west) — This old trading and military
post served as a place for the emigrants to rest and restock
provisions. The 1856 Willie Handcart Company was unable
to obtain provisions at Fort Laramie, contributing to their
subsequent tragedy when they ran out of food while encountering
blizzard conditions along the Sweetwater River.
- Upper Platte/Mormon Ferry (
west) — The last crossing of the Platte River took place near
modern Casper. For
several years the Latter-day Saints operated a commercial ferry at
the site, earning revenue from the Oregon- and California-bound
emigrants. The ferry was discontinued in 1853 after a competing
toll bridge was constructed. On October 19, 1856 the Martin Handcart Company forded the
freezing river in mid-October, leading to exposure that would prove
fatal to many members of the company.
- Red Butte ( west) — Red Butte was the most
tragic site of the Mormon Trail. After crossing the Platte River,
the Martin Handcart Company camped near Red Butte as heavy snow
fell. Snow continued to fall for three days and the company came to
a halt as many emigrants died. For nine days the company remained
there while 56 persons died from cold or disease. Finally, on
October 28 an advance team of three men
from the Utah rescue party reached them. The rescuers encouraged
them that help was on the way and urged the company to start moving
River ( west) — From the last crossing of the Platte,
the trail heads directly southwest toward Independence Rock, where
it meets and follows the Sweetwater River to South Pass. To shorten
the journey by avoiding the twists and turns of the river, the
trail includes nine crossings of the river.
Rock ( west) — Independence Rock was one of the
trail's best known and most anticipated landmarks. Many
emigrants carved their names on the rock; many of these carvings
are still visible today. The emigrants sometimes celebrated their
arrival at this landmark with a dance.
Devil's Gate, a gorge on the
- Devil's Gate ( west) — Devil's Gate was a narrow gorge
cut through the rocks by the Sweetwater River. A small fort
was located at Devil's Gate, which was unoccupied in 1856 when the
Martin Handcart Company was rescued. The rescuers unloaded
unnecessary equipment from the wagons so the weaker handcart
emigrants could ride. A group of 19 men, led by Daniel W. Jones stayed at the fort over
the winter to protect the property.
- Martin's Cove (
west) — On November 4, 1856 the Martin Handcart Company set up camp
in Martin's Cove as another blizzard halted their progress. They
remained there for five days until the weather abated and they
could proceed toward Salt Lake City. Today a visitor's center is
located on the site.
- Rocky Ridge ( west) — Between the fifth and
sixth crossings of the Sweetwater, on October 19, 1856 the Willie
Handcart Company was halted by the same snowstorm that stopped the
Martin Handcart Company near Red Butte. At the same time, the
members of the Willie Company reached the end of their supplies of
flour. A small advance team from the rescue party found their camp
and gave them a small amount of flour, but then pushed on to the
east to try to locate the Martin Company. Captain James Willie and
Joseph Elder went ahead through the snow to find the main rescue
party and inform them of the Willie Company's peril. On October 23 with the help of the rescue party, the
Willie Company pushed ahead through the biting wind and snow up
Rocky Ridge, a rough section of the trail that ascends to a ridge
in order to bypass a section of the Sweetwater River valley that is
- Rock Creek ( west) — After their grueling
18-hour trek up Rocky Ridge, the Willie Handcart Company camped at
the crossing of Rock Creek. That night 13 emigrants died; the next
morning their bodies were buried in a shallow grave.
- South Pass (Continental
Divide) ( west) — South Pass, a wide pass across the
Continental Divide, is located between the modern towns of Atlantic
City and Farson. At
an elevation of above sea level, it was one of the most important
landmarks of the Mormon Trail. Near South Pass is Pacific Springs, which received its name
because its waters ran to the Pacific Ocean.
River/Lombard Ferry ( west) — The trail crosses the
Green River between the modern towns of Farson and
Granger. The Latter-day Saints operated a ferry at
this location to assist the church's emigrants and to earn money
from other emigrants traveling to Oregon and California.
- Ft. Bridger (
west) — Fort Bridger was established in 1842 by famous mountain man Jim
Bridger. This was the site where the paths of the Oregon
Trail, the California Trail, and
the Mormon Trail separated; the three trails were in parallel from
Missouri River to Fort Bridger. In 1855 the LDS Church bought the
fort from Jim Bridger and Louis Vazquez for $8,000. During the
Utah War in 1857, the Utah militia burned
down the fort so that it wouldn't fall into the hands of the
advancing U.S. Army under General A.S. Johnston.
River Crossing ( west) — At this, one of the last
river crossings on the Mormon Trail, Lansford Hastings and his company turned
north, while the Reed-Donner
Company turned south. Also at this site, the
vanguard company met mountaineer Miles Goodyear on July 10, 1847,
who attempted to persuade them to take the northern track toward
his trading post.
- The Needles ( west) — Near this very prominent
rock formation close to the Utah-Wyoming border, Brigham Young became ill with what was
probably Rocky Mountain
spotted fever during the advance push into the Salt Lake
- Echo Canyon ( west) — One of the last canyons through which the emigrants descended, this
deep and narrow canyon made it a veritable, and frequently noted,
- Big Mountain ( west) — Although dwarfed by the
surrounding Wasatch mountain peaks,
this was the highest elevation of the entire Mormon trail at 8,400
feet (2560 m).
- Golden Pass Road ( west) — Although
unsuccessful in a petition to Salt Lake City for funding, Parley P. Pratt obtained the deed to the canyon and
began the construction of a road through Big Canyon Creek in the
Wasatch Mountains just south of Emigration Canyon in July 1849.
canyon became known as Parley's Canyon and the road he built as the
"Golden Pass Road," due to the large number of gold miners who used it on their way to California. A cutoff was constructed through Silver
Creek Canyon by 1862, diverting much of the traffic on what is
today the route of Interstate
- Emigration Canyon (Donner Hill) ( west) — About a year
before the Latter-day Saint emigrants, the Reed-Donner wagon train carved the first road through the final geographic
obstacle between Big Mountain and the Salt Lake Valley.
About half way through, the group changed course and went up and
around the final constriction near the valley's mouth. The
resulting exhaustingly brutal climb over rock and sage most likely
contributed to the historic tragedy that befell the travelers three
months and to the west. When an advance team from the Latter-day
Saint vanguard company came through, it chose to stick to the
valley floor and hacked its way through to the bench overlooking
the Great Salt Lake basin in less than four hours.
- Salt Lake
Valley ( west) — Although the Salt Lake Valley had a
special meaning to each emigrant, signifying the end of more than a
year of crossing the plains, not all of the pioneering Saints
settled in the Salt Lake Valley. Settlement outside the Salt Lake
Valley began as early as 1848, with a number of communities planted
in the Weber valley to the north. Additional townsites were
carefully chosen, with settlements placed near canyon mouths with
access to dependable streams and stands of timber. Latter-day
Saints founded more than 600 communities from Canada down into
Mexico. As historian Wallace Stegner
stated, the Latter-day Saints "were one of the principal forces in
the settlement of the West."
Notes and references