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Accounts of travelling
down the Oregon Trail

The Applegates 1843



Catherine Sagar 1844



Donner and Reed 1846



Francis Parkman 1846



The Mormons 1846-7



Ralph Geer 1847



William Porter 1848



Phoebe Judson 1853



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1840s Emigrants cross
the Great Plains


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The Mormons move to the Valley
of the Great Salt Lake 1846-7

" The land in the Great Basin between the mountain ranges of the Rockies and Sierra Nevada was reputedly infertile owing to lack of rainfall. Thus Gentiles, as the Mormons called others, were unlikely to move there, so they would be able to live in peace, and literally and metaphorically plough their own furrow. However Brigham Young studied John C. Fremont's map and report on the area and decided that it was suited to their needs."


Brigham Young

Brigham Young, the Mormon leader

The Mormons move to the Valley of the Great Salt Lake 1846-7

In 1846 the Mormons, followers of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, were in a desperate position. Since being founded in 1830 by Joseph Smith this religious sect had been so unpopular with their neighbours that they had been hounded out of their first settlement in Kirtland, Ohio in 1837 and again from near Independence, Missouri in 1839. This left them with no practical move west at this time, for the Great Plains were looked upon as uninhabitable, indeed it was labelled as “The Great American Desert” on contemporary maps.

Their move east to Nauvoo resulted in further persecution, so Brigham Young, who had replaced Smith as leader on his death in 1844, made the momentous decision to move west into an area so far uninhabited, and for good reason. The land in the Great Basin between the mountain ranges of the Rockies and Sierra Nevada was reputedly infertile owing to lack of rainfall. Thus Gentiles, as the Mormons called others, were unlikely to move there, so they would be able to live in peace, and literally and metaphorically plough their own furrow. However Brigham Young studied John C. Fremont's map and report on the area and decided that it was suited to their needs. Ironically when Young chose this remote location The Great Salt Lake was in Mexico, but as they made the journey President Polk’s aggressive policy in acquiring more of the continent for the United States resulted in Mexico giving up vast tracts of land, including the modern day states of New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, and Utah and part of California.

One can rationalise the dislike of Mormons for reasons such as their close knit community seeming aloof to others and that when they voted en bloc they offered a serious political threat. Their flight from Kirtland was also mainly the result of a backlash following the bankruptcy of Mormon banks in the economic crisis of 1837. Not only was their religious conviction incomprehensible to other settlers but by declaring themselves the “chosen people” they set themselves above them. Joseph Smith’s introduction of polygamy was controversial within the sect itself and unwittingly led to his death, on June 27, 1844. While he was imprisoned for destroying the printing presses of his Mormon opponents he was broken out of gaol by non Mormons and shot dead. Polygamy also gave non Mormon rabble rousers the opportunity to whip up anti Mormon sentiment.

Despite all these rationalisations, the chief reason was fear of someone different, they looked different and their values were different: most of the other reasons merely justified this prejudice. By 1845 Nauvoo was one of the largest towns in Illinois, with 11,000 inhabitants. Other settlers commonly used bullying tactics to “encourage“ native Americans to move off their lands. They began to burn Mormon homes and farm buildings, in September 1845 about 200 were set on fire.

From 1846 to 1869, more than 70,000 Mormons travelled west. Beginning in Nauvoo, Illinois, they journeyed across Iowa to join the Oregon Trail near Independence, Missouri and then on to their destination near the Great Salt Lake. They called their home Deseret, the Land of Milk and Honey, but the United States government refused to recognize this appellation and referred to it as Utah, first as a federal territory, and, when finally allowed to enter the union following the official ending of polygamy, as a state.

On The Trail

The Mormon emigrants experienced similar hardships and dangers to others who journeyed across the plains. They, too, looked forward to building a new life in the west. The other emigrants were largely moving west for economic reasons: many were relatively well off and were looking to build a fortune in the new lands and others simply wished to escape poverty and unemployment. For the Mormons, however, moving west gave them the opportunity to develop their community free from outside intrusion. It was their sense of community, of the individual contributing to the common good, which was to prove the vital ingredient in successfully transforming a hostile environment so it supported a thriving society. On the trail this sense of community also created a unity of spirit which enabled them to progress in a uniquely disciplined way. In a wagon train people living in close proximity in adverse conditions led to stress which was reflected in petty squabbles. Their common beliefs and commitment enabled the Mormons to travel in military organization, which minimized such negative behaviour. At first, like other emigrants, they traveled by wagon, but between 1856 to 1860 many Mormon emigrants pulled or pushed two-wheeled handcarts carrying their supplies and a few possessions instead using wagons drawn by draft animals.

. Stage 1: 1846 Nauvoo (Illinois) to Winter Quarters (Nebraska)

The Mormons moved from Nauvoo, Illinois to the Valley of the Great Salt Lake in two stages: about 265 miles in 1846 from Iowa to the Missouri River and the following year they trecked on to the Valley of the Great Salt Lake, a further 1,032 miles.

The departure from Nauvoo began on February 4, 1846 led by Brigham Young. Young recalled: "The great severity of the weather, and...the difficulty of crossing the river during many days of running ice, all combined to delay our departure, though for several days the bridge of ice across the Mississippi greatly facilitated the crossing." (Brigham Young, February 28, 1846 Mormon Pioneers website).

The decision taken to travel in winter was taken because the Mormons felt threatened by the United states government. However leaving at this time meant that they experienced adverse weather conditions, torrential rain turned the trail into a sea of mud. A hurried departure also resulted in them being poorly prepared for the journey. Nevertheless they were carried forward by their common belief and strong discipline.

The leading party reached the Missouri River on June 14 of that year. Some of the emigrants remained on the Iowa side of the river while others crossed over to Nebraska, building a camp which became known as Winter Quarters.

Semi permanent stop over camps were established at places like Garden Grove and Mount Pisgah to provide those who would follow them with a safe haven and supplies from crops which were planted. The whole move was approached with a highly organized, almost military precision.

Stage 2: 1847 Winter Quarters (Nebraska) to The Great Salt Lake

On April 5, 1847 the leading group left Winter Quarters with 148 people (143 men, 3 women, and 2 young boys), 72 wagons, 93 horses, 66 oxen, 52 mules, 19 cows, 17 dogs, and some chickens. They were divided into two large sections and subdivided into companies of 50 and 10. Brigham Young's plan for migrating west included this organizational structure, and rules for camp behavior and devotional practices. Thus the experience of the previous year’s shorter journey was utilized. Weather conditions were much better owing to the later departure, and the participants were well prepared and well organized.

They followed the northern bank of the Platte River until Fort Laramie, where they crossed over and continued down the Oregon Trail through the South Pass until Fort Bridger. Here they followed the Hastings cut off through the Wasatch Mountains which the Donner Party had pioneered the previous year. The Mormon leading group were similarly fatigued by the experience, and the 116 miles from Fort Bridger to the Valley of the Great Salt Lake took 14 days to complete, an average of only seven miles per day. Finally, on July 21 1847 the vanguard reached their destination.

Late crops were planted, street plans devised, and temporary shelters constructed Mormon emigrants following the lead party continued to arrive and approximately 1,650 people to spend their first winter in the valley. Brigham Young, with other leading members, returned to Winter Quarters to supervise a further migration next spring.

The Mormons adapted well to their environment using adobe to build their homes and irrigating the fields in order to grow crops where otherwise it would not have been possible. Their unity of purpose, ingenuity, commitment and work ethic helped them to successfully colonise a land which the famous trapper Jim Bridger had warned them was too hostile for human habitation. In the next twenty years about 70,000 Mormons journeyed west to the Valley of the Great Salt Lake to join those who had proved Bridger wrong.

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1840s Emigrants cross
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