Hey guys, so the first president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Joseph Smith, was killed in June of 1844. There were many who thought that with Joseph gone, the church he founded would crumble. It didn’t. But to escape persecution, the Saints agreed to leave Illinois, with plans to head West to what would later be known as Utah.
Tens of thousands of Latter-day Saints made the journey by covered wagon, handcart, and/or boat between 1846 and 1868. After the transcontinental railroad was completed in 1869, many Saints completed their journey by train. In this video, we’re going to talk about the who, what, when, where, and why of the Mormon Trail. Specifically, we’ll look at the journey of Brigham Young’s vanguard company. And in the next episode, we’ll talk more about what the first Saints did when they finally reached their destination. Don’t go anywhere.
The original plan was for the first wave of Saints to leave Nauvoo in April of 1846. However, extenuating circumstances, (which you can pause to read more about) caused leaders to leave a tad early. In the dead of winter on February 4th, 1846, Brigham Young and a company of Saints crossed the Mississippi River into Iowa Territory and made camp not too far away, near Sugar Creek. Saints continued to gather there and on March 1st, Brigham and his vanguard company started hoofing it about 300 miles west to the Missouri River. The Saints prepping to cross the river stayed in Kanesville, in Iowa Territory, and those who crossed settled in on the other side of the river at Winter Quarters, near modern-day Omaha, Nebraska.
Getting people out of Nauvoo in 1846 was difficult, as not everyone had the resources that would be necessary for the journey. Teams were sent back to help get people out, and eventually, to help rescue those who were forced out by their persecutors.
On top of that, in 1846, the Mexican-American War broke out. The U.S. government asked for 500 Latter-day Saint men to support the war effort. The government had done little to prevent the years of persecution the Saints had endured, so many Saints were understandably wary about fighting for the United States. Nonetheless, Brigham Young readily agreed to muster a Mormon battalion. It would improve relations with the U.S. government, and the soldiers’ pay would help fund their families’ exodus to the west. But at the same time, the departure of the Mormon Battalion meant that the Saints lost a lot of manpower to aid in the exodus.
As the months passed in Winter Quarters, it soon became impractical to continue any further West in 1846. “By the time cold weather set in, over nine thousand Saints lived in the area, including thirty-five hundred who lived in Winter Quarters. Malaria, tuberculosis, scurvy, and other illnesses claimed about one person in ten.” After a harsh and deadly winter at Winter Quarters, the journey for Brigham Young and the vanguard company continued in April 1847. From Winter Quarters, they traveled West along the North side of the Platte River. Fun fact: The Oregon Trail followed this same river across the Great Plains, but on the south side of the river.
“Each morning, the bugle awoke the camp at five o’clock, and travel began at seven … most days, they managed to travel between fifteen and twenty miles.” About two months after leaving Winter Quarters, on June 1st, they arrived at Fort Laramie in modern-day Wyoming. At Fort Laramie, a sick detachment of the Mormon Battalion re-joined Brigham Young’s company, as well as a group of Saints who had started their journey from Mississippi.
From Fort Laramie, the company crossed the Platte River and followed the Oregon Trail into the south pass of the Rocky Mountains. While on the trail, they were met by Samuel Brannan, who had taken a group of Saints on a different route to the west — by boat. They had traveled all the way around South America and landed in California. Brannan tried to convince Brigham Young to settle in California — a proposal that Brigham rejected. On July 7th, the vanguard company reached Fort Bridger, in modern-day Colorado.
After Fort Bridger, the Oregon Trail veered northwest while the Mormon Trail continued west towards the Salt Lake Valley. On July 12, Brigham Young came down with mountain fever. Most of the company stayed back with Brigham to rest, while a detachment of 42 men led by Orson Pratt pressed on ahead through Emigration Canyon and into the Salt Lake Valley. This first group arrived on July 21 & 22, 1847. Brigham and the sick detachment arrived on July 24th.
Now — a few fun facts and stats for you to consider: Between 1847 and 1868, about 56,000 Saints traveled West. About 1,900 died along the way. The mortality rate was about 3.41 percent. The United States mortality rate for this same time period was about 2.7 percent. So, yes, it was more dangerous to be a pioneer, but not by a whole lot. When a cause of death was recorded, it was usually cholera or diarrhea.
Those in the greatest danger were the handcart pioneers. You’ve probably heard about the tragic story of the Willie and Martin handcart companies. They left too late in the year, were ill-prepared, and, needless to say, a lot of people died. These two companies accounted for about 39 percent of all handcart pioneers. The mortality rate in these two companies alone was about 16.5 percent. The other handcart companies tallied up about a 4.5 percent mortality rate.
Latter-day Saints today sometimes commemorate our pioneer predecessors by reenacting their journey for a few days, handcarts and all. But to add some perspective to this, only 5 percent of Mormon pioneers actually used handcarts.
Anyway, this has been a broad overview of what went down on the Mormon Trail. If you want to dive deeper, check out the resources in the YouTube description, and watch some of our other videos while you’re here. In the next episode, we’ll be covering what the first Saints did when they arrived in the valley. I’ll see you there. Have a great day!
- “Mortality on the Mormon Trail, 1847-1868” via BYU Studies: https://bit.ly/3KJhmLS
- “Going West Wasn’t So Deadly for Early Mormon Pioneers” via LiveScience: https://bit.ly/3szjHmD
- Time-lapse YouTube video “Mormon Trails: Pioneer Pathways to Zion”: https://bit.ly/3v4KA3c
- “The Mormon Pioneer National Historic Trail Interactive Map!” via the National Park Service: https://bit.ly/3rHeOHG
- “Mormon Trails” online exhibit via the Church’s website: https://bit.ly/3w0z2gU
- “Church History Chronology and Maps” via the Church’s website: https://bit.ly/3FfvhYV
- Some background information on Fort Bridger: https://bit.ly/3LJkitl / https://bit.ly/3saZfYI
- “‘The Poorest of the Poor and the Sickest of the Sick’: The Luman Andros Shurtliff Poor Camp Rescue” via BYU Studies: https://bit.ly/3sotPhE
- “Circular to the Mormons” in Weekly National Intelligencer (Washington [D.C.]), August 1, 1846: https://bit.ly/3OIdeyU (This was what was printed in the newspaper calling for the mustering of a Mormon battalion.)
- News report of the vanguard company arriving in Salt Lake Valley: https://bit.ly/3sewo65