Melvin L. Bashore provides history of the pioneer exodus and Mormon trail.

Melvin L. Bashore

Melvin L. Bashore, "'Where the Prophets of God Live': A Brief Overview of the Mormon Trail Experience," Harold B. Lee Library, Brigham Young University, accessed January 23, 2024

Harold B. Lee Library
Melvin L. Bashore
Reading Public


In the dead of winter 1846, Appleton Milo Harmon left his home in Nauvoo with his wife, Elmeda, "Crossing the Mississippi on the ice." [2] Neither the season nor conditions of their move were of their choosing. Having returned from a one-year mission in New York three years earlier, Harmon only briefly enjoyed "the refreshing teachings from the lips of Prest. Joseph Smith and Hyrum."[3] In the spring of 1844, things changed for the Mormons in Illinois. Although they were never generally popular, Illinois had accepted the Mormons in 1838 after Missouri cast them out. That initial welcome and feeling of goodwill gradually diminished until 1844, when Harmon noted:

the tide of emegration in to Nauvoo had for a time been gradualy increasing. and had caused a Spirit of Jelousey to arise in the breasts of our eneymies they feard that if they left us thus alone all men would believe on us and the Mormons would take away their place and nation. and hold the balance of power. acordingly our old enemies renewed the attact and new ones Joined in the prececution until it became quite warm.[4]

In the latter part of June, Joseph and Hyrum Smith were murdered by a mob while in custody in a jail in Carthage, Illinois. Though understandably despondent, most of the Mormons accepted a continuation of leadership by Brigham Young and the apostles.[5] Construction was pushed forward on the temple, in the face of continual and increasing persecution by their enemies. Of this, Harmon wrote:

our enemies Continued to Haras us in the fall of 1845 their percecution became mutch warmer even so they commenced Burning houses grain Stacks driving off cattle catching and whiping the Breathering and some ware Killed. the persecution became So gineral that for the Sake of peace we agreed to leave as early in the Spring of 1846 as Circumstances would admit[6]

After his mother Anna’s baptism in 1833, the family became practiced in moving. They picked up and moved first in 1837 from Pennsylvania to Kirtland, Ohio, then to Springfield in 1838, and Nauvoo, Illinois in 1840, always following the Mormons as they were driven from Ohio and Missouri and at last their final expulsion from Illinois in 1846. Appleton Milo Harmon, married only six weeks, set out to cross Iowa for the frontier in weather so cold that the Mississippi River was frozen solid. He wrote, "we expereenceed a great a mount of Cold . . . weather Snow & rain. High water & Mud." Leaving Nauvoo with "the Twelve and Some 12 or 15 hundred wagons,"[7] the Mormons turned their backs on their homes and set their course west.

The Mormons did not leave Nauvoo without extensive preparations and planning.[8] Before he died and possibly as early as 1831, Joseph Smith had talked about establishing a safe retreat in the Rocky Mountains for the Latter-day Saints. The persecutions they had experienced in Ohio and Missouri hastened their interest in seeking a place of refuge in the unsettled far West. Joseph Smith reportedly prophecied on 6 August 1842 "that the Saints would continue to suffer much affliction and would be driven to the Rocky Mountains."[9] After the murder of the Prophet Joseph Smith, Mormon leaders intensified their study of the West. From 1844 to their departure in 1846, they researched all available maps and printed works to try to determine the best possible place where they might settle. During the winter of 1845, Mormon leaders intensively studied Lansford W. Hastings' Emigrants Guide to Oregon and California.[10] With the prophetic mantle of church leadership falling on his shoulders, Brigham Young sought divine confirmation on where the Latter-day Saints should locate. Mormon leaders close to Brigham Young attested that Brigham Young had seen the Salt Lake Valley in a vision before reaching it. Upon first entering and looking at the Valley, Young's "pre-vision" was confirmed and he said, "This is the right place."[11] In that brief moment, he had received a personal spiritual confirmation that in the fastnesses of the Rocky Mountains the Mormons would be safe from violence and persecution.

Emmeline Wells left Nauvoo only two weeks after Harmon. When she arrived at the Sugar Creek base camp only seven miles west of the river, she viewed a scene that resembled something akin to the wanderings of the ancient Israelites. She wrote, "it looked like pictures I have seen of the ancients pitching their tents and journeying from place to place with their cattle and their goods."[12] Bedding down for her first night in the wilderness with her people, she "slept for the first time on the ground."[13] After spending a week at Sugar Creek, the large company pulled out to start west. In a portent of their experiences making their way through Iowa, they "travelled over a very bad muddy road." Reaching their camping place, they "pitched their tents, made their fires and soon had a place fitted and prepared to pass the night." Even under adverse conditions and forced removal from her home, there is no rancor in her writing. Of her feelings after that day's travels she wrote, "We are all happy and contented as yet and determined to go ahead."[14]

It is that determination and optimism that mark the story and history of Mormon emigration. Years of gathering overland via rail, steamboat, wagon, and handcart followed their enforced exodus from Nauvoo in 1846 and their settlement in the Great Basin in 1847. Prior to the completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1869, more than 250 organized companies transported over 60,000 Mormons to their Far West haven. After each year's emigration, the leaders continually reviewed their methods and made changes where deemed beneficial. Prior to 1851, most migrants came from the continental United States. Thereafter a doctrine of gathering was preached that brought thousands of converts across the oceans to America and then overland to Utah. Most of them were poor. To help them the leaders devised different methods to finance their travel: Perpetual Emigrating Fund, handcarts, and out-and-back wagon trains. Those with sufficient means sometimes organized their overland travel in independent companies. Others with scant means hired on as teamsters in freight companies. In the course of Mormon emigration, outfitting locales changed. The frontier outfitting posts of Florence, Kansas City, Atchison, St. Joseph, and Iowa City at one time or another served as jumping off places for Mormon emigration companies. The all-encompassing object for all these Mormons was to get to Utah— a place where they could find a home, make a living, and where they could be close to their leaders whom they revered as prophets and teachers.[15] Of this place upon reaching the valley, Andrew Ferguson wrote, "we had reac[he]d the place of our destinatin wher the Prophets of God live, & when we can be taught in his ways & walk in his paths."[16]

Despite a sameness in the general content of these overland Mormon Trail narratives, they hold a kind of fascination for the reader to a time in American history when transcontinental travel was measured in months rather than in minutes. For each traveler, the daily routine of camp life presented a monotonous sameness interspersed with occasional adventures and challenges. Oliver Huntington wrote, "every days travel was about alike and as near a monotony as anything I ever saw, the roads all near alike, each camping place alike."[17] Despite these similarities, we see the trail freshly through the differing perceptions of each trail traveler. Admittedly trail journals do vary in quality; some are literary, romantic, and wonderfully descriptive while others tell us little and only report the mundane. Through descriptions of geographic places mentioned in these narratives, we can match places with particular events and incidents. We can read first-hand what it was like to travel over Rocky Ridge and to cross the Platte River. All these variations and the plethora of Mormon Trail documentation all add up to giving us a fuller understanding of the people and places on the trail.

The Pioneer Company of 1847

After crossing Iowa, the Mormons wintered in eastern Nebraska on the bluffs overlooking the Missouri River. They called it Winter Quarters where they spent those cold months in their dugouts and log buildings studying maps and reports and discussing how they would organize for their journey in the spring. Among those maps researched were the 1846 Mitchell map, which Brigham Young requested six copies of while at Winter Quarters in February 1847.[18] In early April 1847, Appleton Harmon joined "a bodey of 143 picked men with 73 waggons" to lead out as pioneers.[19] Levi Jackman also joined this pioneer company "to finde a location for the saints Some whair in the west."[20] With thousands to follow these pioneers led by Brigham Young, their job was, in Harmon's words, "to find a secluded retreat a resting place for the Saints and for the Saints as meney as posable to follow as soon as the Grass should grow so as to afford their teams a good sustanance on the way."[21] This pioneering advance company departed for the west before there was even sufficient grass to feed their animals. They fed them grain for a few weeks until the grasses were mature enough to permit grazing. When they reached the Platte River bottom, they found lush prairie grasses which Jackman wrote "had the appearance of a vast green sea."[22]

. . .

First Glimpse of the Great Salt Lake Valley

At about this time, members of the company began getting sick, including Brigham Young. Scouts sent ahead found evidence of the trail taken by the Donner Party through the Wasatch Mountains: "the mountains on boath sides was verey high." This mountain barrier prevented them from seeing the valley on the other side: "we could not see but a short distance and it looked as thos we ware shot up in a gulf."[40] Jackman and others breached the mountains on 22 July and got their first view of the Salt Lake Valley: "A valley of about 20 eight miles wide lay before us the most of it covered with good gras and various outher vegatables. but timber was handey."[41] Having been very ill, Brigham Young didn't arrive until 24 July. Even before their leader's arrival, they had turned over the soil and "some plantin don that day."[42]

For Jackman, the overland journey had been a great blessing: "we ware out of the reach of our enemis. and that the countrey was well wathered with gods watter and that god had blessed us on our journey verrey mutch."[43] On 28 July, they voted on where to make their permanent location. Of the Salt Lake Valley location, Jackman wrote, it was "unanimoseley aggread that this was the spot." After that expression of approval by the people, President Young said that "he knew that this is the place. he knew it as soon as he come in [s]ight of it and he hav seen this verrey spot before. He then gave us an idea how the city was to be built and the order of things. that the Law of God was to be kept strickley."[44] The Salt Lake Valley, seen in vision by Brigham Young, in this way became the place of refuge to which thousands of migrants traveled in succeeding years over ocean and land.

For Mormons, Salt Lake Valley and the settlements that the faithful colonized in the Rocky Mountain West became more than just protected places where they could live in peace. From the very beginning, members were commanded to gather to the place where the church was established.[45] Nestled in the protected valleys of the Wasatch Mountains, the Mormons viewed their western habitation as fulfillment of an Old Testament prophecy wherein the house of the Lord would be established in the "top of the mountains."[46] The doctrine of gathering, a commandment for the faithful, pulled converts from every corner of the earth until the Church de-emphasized the doctrine in the 1890s.

. . .


Jacob Weiler traveled with Brigham Young in the pioneer company in 1847. Near the end of his life, he recorded some of his memories of that epic experience. He recalled many nights when they sat around a campfire and would "talk over the future of the dreary wastes through which we were traveling. I remember more than once the possibility of a railroad to the Pacific was spoken of as being in the near future."[88] From at least as early as 1830, people had been talking about, writing about, or wishing for a transcontinental railroad, so these conversations about such an undertaking weren't by any means unique, prophetic, or visionary.[89] In the context of the history of the Mormon Trail, it is interesting to picture Brigham Young, weary from a day of walking and riding, anticipating a day when people could cross the plains of America by railroad. In 1868, the final year of Mormon emigration by wagons, Brigham Young reflected on their discussions and anticipations two decades earlier: "I do not suppose we travelled one day from the Missouri river here, but what we looked for a track where the rails could be laid with success, for a railroad through this Territory to go to the Pacific Ocean."[90] Although an astute businessman, his interest in having a railroad bridging the nation went beyond the shipping of freight and merchandise. He said, "We want the benefits of this railroad for our emigrants, so that after they land in New York they may get on board the cars and never leave them again until they reach this city."[91] And beginning in 1869, that is what happened. When the final spike (a gold spike) was tapped in on 10 May 1869 at Promontory Point, Utah, it marked the end of more than twenty years of Mormon travel on foot or in wagons to Utah. Mormon converts continued to come to Utah, but after 1868 they traveled across America by locomotive power in less time and with much less physical exertion. When Fred C. Anderson arrived in Salt Lake City with wagons transporting sixty converts from Europe on 24 October 1868, it marked the end of the pioneer era of the Mormon Trail. It also marked the end of a kind of rite of passage for the Mormon convert. Wallace Stegner observed, "For every early Saint, crossing the plains to Zion in the Valleys of the Mountains was not merely a journey but a rite of passage, the final, devoted, enduring act that brought one into the Kingdom."[92]

Citations in Mormonr Qnas
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