The term "Mormon pioneers" refers to some 70,000 Mormons who migrated to Utah in the mid-1800s. Many of these pioneers left from Nauvoo, Illinois, when they were forced out by mobs. Others were converts from other parts of the U.S. Others gathered in as converts from Europe. They made the journey to the U.S. by ship, purchased supplies and handcarts or wagons to make the trip west, and then made the long, ardous journey across the plains. The second prophet of the Mormon Church (The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints), Brigham Young, oversaw most of these migrations.
The Latter-day Saints, as they called themselves, were mostly fleeing from persecution, but were also willing to make any sacrifice necessary to gather together with those of their faith. At the time, "gathering" was a central ideal of the Church. By gathering together, the Saints could nurture each other in the faith and learn the newly-revealed doctrines of the Church. Many revelations had been received by Joseph Smith and Brigham Young, but the Church was growing rapidly, so there were few truly seasoned members of the Church at the beginning.
The first group of Mormon pioneers set out in April 1847 with Brigham Young. In 1869, Mormon pioneers ended their treacherous journey on foot due to the construction of the transcontinental railroad that same year. The completion of the railroad made it much quicker and safer to make the trip.
Video Tribute to the Mormon Pioneers
Reasons for the Westward Movement
Ever since the Mormon Church was founded in 1830, Mormons had been mercilessly persecuted for their faith. In the Midwest, many citizens feared the growing number of Mormons, as they lived isolated in their own communities, built their own private temples, and had a great impact on federal law, as they tended to vote in a block. They were also against slavery and could tip the vote in territories desiring to be admitted to the Union as slave states. Mormons were not welcome in the Midwest. Angry mobs of anti-Mormons ran the Saints out of Ohio, Missouri, and then Illinois. Missouri Governor Lilburn Boggs issued an extermination order against all Mormons living in Missouri. The Mormon Prophet Joseph Smith was killed by an angry mob in Illinois. In 1848, mobs burned the Mormon temple, located in Nauvoo. The Mormon Church would not be able to fully grow and flourish under such hostile conditions.
God directed Brigham Young, the successor to Joseph Smith, Jr. as prophet of the Mormon Church, to lead the Mormon trek west. Brigham Young, with the help of other church leaders, laid the plans. Brigham Young has often been referred to as the “American Moses,” for his leadership in during this time. Brigham Young personally consulted with settlers in the west, consisting of mountain men and trappers, and men such as Pierre-Jean De Smet, a Jesuit missionary familiar with the Great Basin. Brigham Young was drawn to the area, because there wasn’t a large demand for the area, and it offered great resources and advantages to the saints.
Vanguard Company of 1847: The First Group of Pioneers
The Vanguard Company of 1847 was the first group organized to head west. Their role was to gather information about trail conditions, discover water sources and Indian tribes, and select the central gathering point in the Salt Lak Valley. They were to pave the way for future Mormon pioneers. And after the Vanguard Company, the trail would be improved upon. The group traveled on a route on the north side of the Platte River, as to avoid interaction with travelers using the Oregon Trail, located on the south side of the Platte River. The organization of the trek was intricate. Young consulted often with the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, consisting of John Taylor, Parley P. Pratt, Orson Hyde, and others. Money was gathered, maps compiled, instruments for calculating latitude, elevation, temperature and barometric pressure all included. The group was organized in military companies. Young divided the Vanguard Company into 14 companies, each with a designated captain. Because the fear of Indians was high, Young thought it necessary to establish men in a militia, and it was decided to always have a night guard on watch.
Having been driven from their homes in Illinois, many of the Saints were impoverished and had already been decimated by exposure and disease. They had been forced out of Nauvoo in the cold months and wintered in Nebraska in camps. Cold and disease took a great toll there, and many had died.
Pioneers Crossing the Plains of Nebraska
Each morning, the saints would arise at 5 a.m. and would be ready to travel by 8:30 p.m. The company traveled six days a week, taking Sunday off to observe the Sabbath. Within the party, certain members were assigned roles. William Clayton was called to serve as company scribe, to keep a record of the journey, how far they traveled and the conditions of that day. Orson Pratt, an accomplished mathematician, served as the company’s scientific observer. He made regular readings on scientific instruments, took notes on geological formations and mineral resources, and described plants and animals. Journals kept by both Clayton and Pratt have become valuable resources for historians of the Mormon trek west. Women contributed important skills along the trail. They spent much of their time doing traditional activities like cooking, sewing, and tending to children. Women also served as scribes and kept detailed diaries. Pioneers used wagons, handcarts, and some even carried their belongings. Many used covered wagons pulled by oxen. Each family wagon included, on average, 2 to 3 yoke of oxen, 2 milk cows, other livestock, arms and ammunition, 15 lbs of iron, pulleys and ropes, fishing gear, farming and mechanical equipment, cooking equipment and at least 1000 pounds of flour plus assorted other foodstuffs. As the conditions on the trial became more and more treacherous, some were forced to leave luxury items, like book collections and furniture, behind along the trail.
Arriving in Salt Lake
When the Vanguard arrive at Fort Laramie, the group was joined by members of the Mormon Battalion, who had been excused from serving in the Mexican War due to illness. At Fort Laramie, the Vanguard also picked up another group of Mormon pioneers who started out from Mississippi. At this point, the now larger company took the established Oregon Trail toward the trading post at Ft. Bridger. Sam Brannan was the leader of the Mormon emigrant ship The Brooklyn. He met up with the Vanguard Company near Green River, Wyoming, where he reported to Young about his group's successful journey and to San Francisco, and encouraged Young to continue his trek to California. But Young was adamant that Salt Lake City was the chosen place for the Mormons to settle. Young Jim Bridger was a mountain man in the area. They discussed possible routes into the Salt Lake Valley and devised a plan for settling in the area. Passing through the Rocky Mountains would prove to be a challenge for the Vanguard Company. Young decided to take the trail used by the Donner-Reed Party on their journey to California the previous year. During the trip through the Rocky Mountains, the vanguard company divided into three sections. Many party members suffered from mountain fever, probably induced by wood ticks. The group of sick people lagged behind, while the able-bodied larger group moved ahead on the designated route. In 1847, the first company reached the Salt Lake Valley. The land was explored, and the first camp established in the Salt Lake Valley. On July 23rd, Pratt offered a prayer dedicating the land to the Lord. Ground was broken, irrigation ditches were dug, and agricultural developments began. When Young finally arrived at Salt Lake City, ill himself, he exclaimed, ‘This is the place!” This is the place where the Mormons would settle. The location was selected for the Salt Lake City Temple. By December 1847, more than two thousand Mormons had completed the journey to the Salt Lake Valley. Among these pioneers, some chose to return east to organize more groups to come west. After the Vanguard Company, thousands of Mormon pioneers organized into companies and set out for the Great Salt Lake. After the Vanguard Company’s trek, converts to the Church from other areas in the United States and from Europe followed the Mormons trail and joined their fellow Mormons in Salt Lake City. From 1847-1869, church members formed companies and made the journey.
Many of the Mormon pioneers were too poor to afford to purchase wagons and oxen. Brigham Young thought they might be able to make the journey on foot. He proposed a plan whereby they might form companies with a few wagons for food and supplies, but with handcarts pushed and pulled by members of each family. Brigham Young established a "Perpetual Emigration Fund" to which more prosperous Saints would contribute. Poorer Mormons trying to make the trek west could borrow from the fund and then repay the debt once they established themselves in the west.
Many of the Saints in the handcart companies traveled from Liverpool by boat to New York then took the train to its most western point, Iowa City. From Iowa City, the saints walked and pulled handcarts 1,300 miles.
- The first two handcart companies successfully arrived in Salt Lake City on September 26, 1856. These two companies included 486 Mormon pioneers using 96 handcarts. They made the journey in sixteen weeks. A third company arrived on October 2, with 320 people. However, two companies left late and used green wood to make their wheels, which consequently broke down frequently. This, and bad weather further delayed the already late pioneers. These two companies are the well-known Martin and Willie Handcart companies.
- A group of missionaries following the trail, led by Franklin D. Richards, passed the two handcart companies. The missionary group arrived in Salt Lake on October 4, and Elder Richards reported the large number of people still on the trail so late in the season. Many were shocked, especially because they knew that the handcart companies had little extra supplies. Because it was so late in the season, the members in Utah had stopped sending resupply wagons out onto the trail, because they thought that no more companies would be coming.
- President Brigham Young immediately began organizing a rescue effort. At a General Conference of the Church held on October 5, he urged men and women to make rescuing these companies their top priority. If not, he said, "your faith, religion, and profession of religion, will never save one soul of you in the celestial kingdom of our God, unless you carry out just such principles as I am now teaching you. Go and bring in those people now on the Plains, and attend strictly to those things which we call temporal, or temporal duties, otherwise your faith will be in vain; the preaching you have heard will be in vain to you, and you will sink to hell, unless you attend to the things we tell you" (Journal of Discourses 4:112).
- Twenty-seven men left on October 7, with sixteen wagons of supplies. Eventually, 200 wagons of supplies were gathered and sent. Unfortunately, the weather which hindered the handcart companies also hindered rescue efforts. Two weeks after the Utah Saints learned of the late-coming companies, one of the earliest blizzards on record began dropping snow on the Rocky Mountains in central Wyoming, where the ill-supplied handcart companies had just arrived. The extreme conditions began to cause deaths.
- Luckily, the first rescue party found the Willie Company on October 21, just one day after the company had run out of food. The rescue team provided food and rest from the storm, but the company still had to struggle over the treacherous passes in the Rocky Mountains. The Willie Company arrived in Salt Lake on November 9. They suffered the loss of 68 members of their company, and many suffered from severe frostbite.
- The Martin Company suffered worse losses. Three-fourths of this company were women, children, or the elderly. They made camp in a place now known as Martin's Cove in central Wyoming. When the storm hit on October 19, they waited nine days with reduced rations for it to end. After finding the Willie Company, many of the men of the rescue party were sent on ahead to search for the Martin company. They found them east of South Pass, suffering greatly in Martin's Cove. The supplies that were available were not enough for the desperate company. They struggled 55 miles more on the trail, then camped again near Devil’s Gate.
- However, the storm was making it difficult to get supplies to the company. After five days of waiting and losing many more of their company, they broke camp again and continued on the trail. Just as the Martin Company was about to make the climb over South Pass, thirty wagons of supplies arrived. Once they had food, they were able to make the rest of the trip quickly, and they arrived in Salt Lake on November 30. Of the 576 members of the company, 145 died on the trek, and many others suffered from frostbite.
- The decision to allow the handcart companies to leave so late was reckless, and President Brigham Young severely reproved those who had allowed it. This however, did not stop the use of handcart companies, since companies which left early in the season faced no problems. In the following years, six more handcart companies successfully made the trip from Iowa City to Salt Lake City. In all, more than 2,962 people walked to Salt Lake City with handcart companies. Of these, 250 died on the trail. Only 30 of these deaths were not of the Willie and Martin companies.
- Those who came to Utah with the handcart companies were not bitter about what had happened to them, and their stories have been a source of strength to many. One member of the Martin Company recorded:
- Some years after the Martin company made their journey to Salt Lake City, a teacher in a Church class commented how foolish it was for the Martin company to come across the plains when it did. The teacher criticized the Church leaders for allowing a company to make such a journey without more supplies and protection.
- I was an old man sitting in the classroom listening, then I spoke out, asking that the criticism be stopped, ‘Mistake to send the Handcart Company out so late in the season? Yes. But I was in that company and my wife was in it. … We suffered beyond anything you can imagine and many died of exposure and starvation, but did you ever hear a survivor of that company utter a word of criticism? Not one of that company ever apostatized or left the Church, because everyone of us came through with the absolute knowledge that God lives, for we became acquainted with Him in our extremities.
- ‘I have pulled my handcart when I was so weak and weary from illness and lack of food that I could hardly put one foot ahead of the other. I have looked ahead and seen a patch of sand or a hill slope and I have said, I can go only that far and there I must give up, for I cannot pull the load through it. … I have gone on to that sand and when I reached it, the cart began pushing me. I have looked back many times to see who was pushing my cart, but my eyes saw no one. I knew then that the angels of God were there.
- ‘Was I sorry that I chose to come by handcart? No. Neither then nor any minute of my life since. The price we paid to become acquainted with God was a privilege to pay, and I am thankful that I was privileged to come in the Martin Handcart Company’ (Relief Society Magazine, Jan. 1948, quoted from MormonWiki.com ).