“Pioneer Trek,” Church History Topics
Between 1847, when Latter-day Saint pioneers first entered the Salt Lake Valley, and 1868, when the transcontinental railroad neared completion, between 60,000 and 70,000 Latter-day Saints migrated from the United States, Canada, and Europe across the North American Great Plains to Utah and the surrounding regions.1 Most immigrants journeyed in wagon trains or handcart companies along a network of trails that generally took months to cross. The records of those who made this trek describe their diverse experiences, which included episodes of disease, danger, bravery, and miracles, but mostly stretches of uneventful travel and inspiring scenes of outdoor beauty.
A revelation given to Brigham Young in 1847 likened this journey to the Biblical exodus: “I am he who led the children of Israel out of the land of Egypt,” the Lord said, “and my arm is stretched out in the last days to save my people Israel.”2 He commanded the Saints to organize into companies and provide for each other, especially the poor, widowed, and orphaned. Answering this call to help all the Saints reach Zion and leave no one behind, Brigham Young and other Church leaders employed multiple methods. Between 1847 and 1861, most migrants made the overland journey in wagons, with a few going by handcart, typically outfitting their companies near the present-day border of Nebraska and Iowa.3 In 1849 Brigham Young established the Perpetual Emigrating Fund Company to provide financial assistance to Saints who could not afford the journey. After they settled, they were expected to repay the company so others could receive similar help.4 Between 1861 and the completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1869, a “down-and-back” system allowed migrants and missionaries to haul supplies in wagons back and forth along the trail in both directions, which considerably reduced outfitting costs.5
For most Latter-day Saint migrants, the roughly 1,000-mile (1,600-kilometer) overland journey capped a much longer passage. Thousands of European Saints crossed the Atlantic by ship, most often from Liverpool to New Orleans, then boated up the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers to the main overland departure site in the greater Winter Quarters and Kanesville area. Some ships, like the Brooklyn in 1846, sailed around the horn of South America and up the Pacific Ocean to California.6 Some traveled other routes to the Salt Lake Valley from California, southeastern Texas, and western Missouri.
The first overland company, called by Brigham Young the “pioneer company” (later the “vanguard company”), left Winter Quarters in April 1847 following the Oregon Trail, a route first blazed by other frontier travelers. Between Iowa and western Wyoming, the Oregon Trail, the Mormon Trail (as the Saints’ route to Utah came to be known), and later the California Trail all followed essentially the same route. For the last leg of the Latter-day Saint pioneers’ journey, the Mormon Trail diverged and headed southwest from Fort Bridger (in present-day Wyoming) toward Salt Lake City. More than half a million migrants, including the majority of gathering Saints, used this trail system from 1843 until 1868, when the Union Pacific Railroad began to connect most of the Oregon Trail’s outposts.7
Published trail guides, featuring maps and references to landscape features, directed pioneer companies along these trails. Most companies encountered other groups along the trail and frequently traveled on the opposite side of rivers from other groups to avoid competing for water, campsites, and forage. Travelers ranged widely to make sure they had food for their livestock and often scouted for shortcuts, creating more of a broad corridor than a narrow trail line. Recognizing they were traversing American Indian homelands, the Saints took precautions against encounters but quickly learned that Indian groups typically helped rather than threatened their travels. While Indians in some instances captured horses and burned prairie grass to divert bison away from Latter-day Saint hunters, they were often hospitable and sometimes offered to push handcarts or help the migrants ford rivers.8
A typical day in a wagon company was full of activity. “I never saw so busy a time as in traveling with the camp—there was hardly ever a minute to spare,” Oliver Huntington recorded in his journal.9 The routine consisted of members of the company rising for prayer and breakfast, then collecting livestock animals from their evening foraging, yoking the animals to wagons, and driving wagons further down trail, a distance averaging 15 to 20 miles (24 to 32 kilometers) in fair weather. Men and boys rotated moving a herd of livestock behind the wagon train and keeping watch over grazing. Upon settling down for the evening, the company unyoked cattle and gathered fuel for cooking.10 Travelers enjoyed reading, playing music, dancing, and gathering for meetings. They seldom rested long, usually only for inclement weather, to partake of the sacrament, or on the Sabbath.
Entering the Salt Lake Valley was a memorable experience for those who made the arduous journey. “I never shall forget the last day we traveled, and arrived in the Valley,” wrote Ann Agatha Walker Pratt. “Oh! how my heart swelled within me, I could have laughed and cried, such a comingling of emotions I cannot describe.”11 As settlements in the valley became more established, most new arrivals received temporary accommodation from Saints already living there until they could find their own new home in Zion.12