Memories of the Way West
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“Memories of the Way West,” Ensign, Jan. 1980, 20

Memories of the Way West

Diaries and journals reveal the trials of reaching Zion.

Authors’ spelling has been retained, following standard historical practice. See reasons for spelling variations in “Nineteenth-Century Spelling,” Ensign, Aug. 1975—including uncertain spelling conventions and spelling as an expression of personality.

Charles W. Penrose was someday to serve in the First Presidency as a counselor to Joseph F. Smith and then to Heber J. Grant. But in 1856, he was a British convert who had never seen Utah. It’s a little surprising, then, to find him, still in England, writing a fervent poem about a place he had never seen:

O ye mountains high, where the clear blue sky

Arches over the vales of the free,

Where the pure breezes blow and the clear streamlets flow

How I’ve longed to your bosom to flee!

(Hymns, no. 145)

But in another way it is not surprising at all. To the nineteenth-century Saints, gathering was as important as building up stakes in homelands is now. For thousands of Saints, the Salt Lake Valley was their home psychologically long before it sheltered them physically.

And the trail was the entrance exam. It tested their faith and their desire to come to Zion. Like most things, it was a compound of opposites. The spiritual glory of sacrificing “Babylon” for Zion was real. But so was the physical dust of the plains, dust that turned to mud in the rains, caked their faces, and fell heavily on bodies buried in scooped-out graves beside the trail.

In many ways, the physical hardships of the trail enhanced the glory; from the very beginning, the Saints sensed the epic proportions of their exodus. Brigham Young spoke of their position in a sermon preached on 29 May 1847 to the first company of pioneers. As Appleton Harmon’s journal records the event, Brigham Young condemned the excessive games-playing, frivolity, and carelessness that had led to a loss of spirituality and then reminded the congregation “that we ware pioneers to the whole Church of God called to a re-Sponsible Station … that we aught to be good men praying men & men of integrity.”1

Almost twenty years later, just three years before the railroad reached Salt Lake and eliminated covered wagons forever, a Danish mother helped her fifteen-month-old daughter toddle a few steps along the trail. Thus, in later years, that little girl “could say I walked on the plains.”2 Even then, they knew it was an honor to be a pioneer, and that the greatest honor went to those who came earliest and struggled hardest.

Usually we think of Nauvoo as the beginning of the journey, the loaded wagons swinging down to the ferry across the river and the wagon trains organizing at Florence, Council Bluffs, or Winter Quarters in Nebraska. But as Wallace Stegner reminds us, “For a very large proportion of Utah’s early settlers the Mormon Trail began at the Liverpool docks”3 and the covered wagons were preceded by a sailing ship.

One of those travelers was Jane Rio Griffiths Baker, a convert of two years when she left London in January 1851. The well-to-do widow of a civil engineer, she brought aboard six sons, one daughter, and four in-laws. A cultured and sensitive woman, she records the shipboard routine, their singing and preaching meetings, the flirtations that were sternly disciplined by the elders, and her pleasure at the voyage itself. On 14 February 1851, she wrote: “I can hardly describe the beauty of this night. The moon nearly at full, with the deep blue sky, studded with stars, the reflection of which makes the sea appear like an immense sea of diamonds. And here we are walking the deck at nine o’clock in the evening without shawls or bonnets. What a contrast from this day three weeks ago when we were shivering between decks and not able to keep on our feet without holding fast to something or another. If we managed to get on the upper deck the first salute we got was a great lump of water in the face. Well, I have seen the mighty deep in its anger with our ship nearly on its beam end, and I have seen it as now, under a cloudless sky and scarcely a ripple on its surface. I know not which to admire most.”

Her journal also records her brokenhearted grief when one of her young sons fell ill, worsened, and died. “I did not think his death was so near,” wrote Jane, “though when witnessing his sufferings, I prayed that the Lord would shorten them. He has done so, and my much loved child is in the land of the spirits awaiting the morning of Resurrection to again take possession of a tabernacle.”4

But life went on. About four weeks later, close to America, a baby boy was born to one of the company, and a few days later they were in New Orleans. The sacrifices demanded by the trail—being uprooted from home, departing into exile, and losing loved ones—began for many long before they saw a covered wagon.

Because of the superior organization of Latter-day Saint companies and the insistence on cleanliness, their ocean voyages were comparatively comfortable. The captain of the first ship chartered by the Perpetual Emigration Fund wrote a letter to the leaders of the Saints praising them for their orderliness and kindness to each other: “‘If such rules and regulations could be followed by all emigrant ships, we should have less, far less sickness and distress at sea. Cleanliness is part of your religion, and nobly you have carried it out.’”5

These shipboard experiences let the Saints practice organization, good cheer under crowded conditions, and group spirit. The rest of the journey—the plains and the mountains—would test their ability to learn quickly and to persevere.

Part of what they had to learn was the ways of a new country, William Atkin, fresh from England, comically tells of Americans who piled butter, meat, and vegetables on “a very nice yellow cake” that he saved for dessert. The first bite taught him that it was not cake. “It was rough and course enough to be made out of saw dust and then I saw at [a] glance it needed both butter and meat and all the good things you could get to help it on its downward road.” This American food was called a “corn dodger” and he adds, drolly, “You can rest assured that I certainly dodged it for a long while after that.”6

Other things they had to learn included the survival skills needed on the plains. George Whitaker, a British convert who had come to Nauvoo in 1846, had never driven a team in his life; but Parley P. Pratt hired him on twelve hours’ notice as a teamster, showed him how to handle the lines, and then sent him on an errand, advising him to let the horses “take their time.” Growing impatient with the horses’ slowness, George “gave them a little whip which made them start up in a hurry, and the first thing I knew they were on the full gallop. I thought they were going to get away with me, but I held on to them with all my might until finally I brought them to.” When he got back, Parley asked him how he had done and George answered, “First rate,” adding sheepishly, “I did not tell him of the runaway.”

That February night, he slept in a tent for the first time, restless because of the cold wind blowing on him. Next morning Parley, the first one up, asked everyone how they had slept. “I did not hear any complaints,” comments George. “I did not make any myself.”

He was impressed by the consistent cheerfulness and courage of Parley and his wives, and reflected, “Bro. Pratt had very recently built him a large and commodious brick house [in Nauvoo]. It seemed as though there was something more than human nature which caused them to feel so joyful and happy to leave their comfortable homes and to go out in the dead of winter with so many young children to face the cold and the storms, and not even knowing where they were going. It seemed to me that we must be in possession of some power besides the power of man.”7

Of course, the assistance of divine power did not preclude difficulties along the way. One of the harsh realities of the trail was the illness that followed them. Although the Saints were relatively immune to the cholera that attacked travelers along the South Platte, it was still a deadly visitor when it came. Canute Peterson, a young man from Norway, had joined the Church at LaSalle, Wisconsin, in 1842, and left for Utah in 1849. His company was still in Iowa when one of the girls, Sarah Ann Nelson, suddenly became deathly ill. Canute felt impressed to go pray in the woods. “I earnestly besought the Lord that He would spare her life, and I became so filled with the Spirit of the Lord that I thought I hardly touched the ground while going from the place of prayer to the wagon.

“When within a few rods of the wagon, I could hear her groan. I went to the side of the wagon nearest to her head, put my hand between the wagon cover and the wagon box, and placed my hand on her head and silently rebuked the Destroyer.

“She immediately straightened herself out of the cramp, smiled, and told the Sisters, ‘I am healed.’”8 The sequel to this story is that she and Canute were married within a few weeks.

Another harsh reality of the trail was its natural danger. Rattlesnakes haunted the Saints, particularly in 1847 and 1848. Their inexperienced animals were often victims, and the Saints, equally inexperienced but strong in faith, frequently invoked the powers of heaven on their behalf. Newel K. Whitney’s journal notes on 24 April 1847 that Heber C. Kimball laid hands on a snakebit horse and successfully rebuked the poison, commenting, “It is just as proper to lay hands on a horse or an ox and administer to them in the name of the Lord, and of as much utility as it is to a human being, both being creations of his creation, both consequently having a claim to his attention.”9

Occurrences like this were part of the trail’s glory, powerfully reinforcing the Saints’ awareness that they were dependent on the Lord in this strange and hostile environment—and also that the Lord responded like a loving father. We learn of that glory through the ordeal—through the deaths, the births, the starvation, the handcart companies caught by the snow, the exhaustion, and the danger from Indians and animals. But the trail had its lighter side too.

James Holt, who crossed the plains in 1852 with only two other families, had a placid and uneventful crossing except for one encounter with the Indians. Outnumbered, the pioneers planted a freckle-faced boy in bed, dusting his skin with flour to make him look pale. They told the Indians that he had smallpox, and the Indians “took one look at the boy and struck for the plain for dear life.”10

Not all of the Saints came to Utah from the East. For a few, California was the gate to Zion, and they followed their wagons eastward, not westward. But the trail was equally dusty for them, and the promise of glory was equally strong. One little migrant was James Gale, whose parents had been baptized in Australia when he was six. They left for America a year later, in 1853, “the first company of Saints to leave Australia to come to America,” stopping at Santa Barbara briefly for supplies, then docking at San Pedro and traveling to a Church ranch at San Bernardino.

At one point en route to San Bernardino, the company stopped to have a picnic. James became enchanted with the wildflowers, and began to wander away from camp picking them. It was the first time he had been “away from a city street” in his life and, he got thoroughly lost. No one missed him until they were packing the wagons to leave in the afternoon. The search continued throughout the night and until ten the next morning; prayer circles were held to implore the Lord for his safety. Finally they concluded that he had fallen prey to a wild animal and prepared to leave.

But his mother refused to budge, even when the others began to drive off, leaving her alone holding her baby. When they looked back and saw her kneeling in prayer, they came back. She arose from her knees “with faith and confidence” and told them to hunt in the same wash they had searched thoroughly the previous night.

Reluctantly they complied and found James, “dirty, tear-stained and sunburned, and with travel-worn bare feet. In my hand was still the wilted bunch of flowers.” He had cried himself to sleep at dark on top of a large rock; when he led them back to it, the footprints of the searching men were all around the rock, and so were the traces of wild animals.11 The petitions in the prayer circle had been honored, and so had the mother’s determined faith. The family eventually settled in Beaver, Utah.

The trail to Salt Lake Valley was long, no matter from which direction the immigrant traveled. But waiting in Salt Lake were fellow Saints of God, organized and ready to help. During the heavy years of immigration, many newcomers would begin their residence in Salt Lake by staying for a few days at the tithing yard on the block where the Church Office Building now stands. Bishops would come to provide homes and jobs for those without relatives. Many of the Saints stayed only long enough to rest, then headed for newer settlements in Cache Valley or southern Utah.

The welcome new arrivals to Salt Lake City received comes through strongly in the records of the first handcart company arriving in 1856. Brigham Young and Heber C. Kimball, relatives, friends, “and an unexpected treat of melons” greeted them in the canyon. A formal reception at Temple Square included a band.12

A nineteen-year-old bride who arrived on a Sunday in 1859 remembers the band—it escorted them down Emigration Canyon—but what made an even more striking impression on her were the crowds of people leaving an afternoon meeting in the Bowery. “I shall never forget how clean they looked. Oh, they all looked so fresh and clean and nice. The women were all dressed in calico dresses and wore sunbonnets. Oh, it was so good!”13

If the trail was glory, arrival was too. To sleep under a roof again, to sit at a table, to bathe in a tub, to stop walking. … After three months or longer without them, these were novelties to be savored with delight and thanksgiving. In such circumstances, the dusty realities of the trail quickly moved into memory. For the sake of the glory of Zion, and their personal and family’s blessings, the pioneers had endured that trail. Now they were home in Zion.


  1. Appleton Milo Harmon, journal, typescript, Church Hist. Dept. Archives, p. 16.

  2. Bherhimmie Caroline Petersen Brown, “My Story,” Treasures of Pioneer History, ed. Kate B. Carter (Salt Lake City: Daughters of Utah Pioneers, 1955), 4:298.

  3. The Gathering of Zion: The Story of the Mormon Trail (New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1964), p. 10.

  4. Jane Rio Griffeths Baker Pierce, diary, cited in Kenneth M. Godfrey, Audrey Godfrey, and Jill Mulvay Dern, book manuscript, Church Hist. Dept. Archives, chapter seven. “Some Little Description of My Travels,” pp. 7–8.

  5. Cited in LeRoy R. and Ann W. Hafen. Handcarts to Zion: The Story of a Unique Western Migration 1856–60 (Glendale, Ca.: Arthur H. Clark, 1960), p. 44.

  6. Cited in M. Hamlin Cannon, “The English Mormons in America.” The American Historical Review 57 (July 1952): 895.

  7. George Whitaker, autobiography, microfilm of typescript, Church Hist. Dept. Archives, pp. 10–11.

  8. “The Story of Canute Peterson” as Told to His Daughter Carrie,” Instructor 81 (1946): 174–75.

  9. Newel K. Whitney, journal, typescript, Church Hist. Dept. Archives, 24 Apr. 1947.

  10. “Reminiscences of James Holt,” Utah Historical Quarterly 23 (1955): 167–68.

  11. “History of James Gale,” The Ancestors and Descendants of James Gale, comp. Mae Gale Milkins McGrath (n.p., 1957), pp. 26–28.

  12. Hafen, pp. 77–78.

  13. Ibid., pp. 177–78.

Illustrated by Dale Kilbourn

The plains grizzly was a frightening natural enemy of the pioneers, though luckily his appearance was uncommon. One story, however, tells of a grizzly chasing Brigham Young. History supports the fact that President Young won the race.

Those who came by handcart probably suffered most on the trail. This painting, entitled Handcart Pioneers, is by Dan Weggeland, 1908, 32″ x 41″, oil on canvas.

The transcontinental railroad through Utah, which was completed in 1869, replaced the long, difficult trek across the plains with a shorter, safer, more comfortable trip.