Heritage Gateways

Official Sesquicentennial K-12 Education Project
sponsored by the Utah State Board of Education, the BYU-Public School Partnership and the Utah Education Network

Pioneer 1848-1868 Companies

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1856-68, Mormon Emigrants (Railroad, then wagons)

Prior to the 1850s, Mormon emigrants seldom used railroads. There is one account of rail travel in 1837, and a few traveled to Nauvoo, Illinois, by rail in the 1840s. But it was not until 1856 that the use of railroads by Mormons became common."

As has already been noted in the discussion of the handcart companies, Mormon emigrants made little use of railroads until the Chicago and Rock Island RR reached the Mississippi River at Rock Island, Illinois, in 1854, whence it was possible to continue west by riverboats to various jumping-off sites, such as Fort Leavenworth, on the Missouri River. When the railroad went from Rock Island, Illinois, to Iowa City, Iowa, in 1856, many Mormon emigrants, especially the handcart pioneers, "took cars" to that terminal.

Another big rise in the use of rail travel was when the Hannibal and St. Joseph RR reached St. Joseph, Missouri, on the Missouri River in 1859, whence emigrants generally took riverboats to the Council Bluffs-Florence area and proceeded west. (The handcart company of 1859 did this, the first Mormons to do so.)

Thereafter, until 1867 when the Mormons were able to ride the Union Pacific RR to North Platte, Nebraska, this was the most popular manner for Mormon emigrants to reach the Missouri River and points of departure for the Far West. During the Civil War years of 1861-1865, emigrant travel by rail was difficult, especially in Missouri, where pro- and anti-Union forces in that state often clashed: timetables were erratic, routes were interrupted, impeded, and changed. Trail travel was dangerous. Bridges were blown up or burned and track torn up or blockaded. Sometimes the trains were fired on, boarded and derailed by military units. Rail travel, at least the accommodations most Mormon emigrants could afford, hadn't improved much over the conditions of the 1850s. Passenger cars often had no springs, benches had no backs, sometimes emigrants rode in cattle cars full of lice and dirt. Food and water had to be carried or purchased in route.

Mormons also used other railroads to go west. After 1859 when the North Missouri RR, out of St. Charles, Missouri, intersected with the Hannibal and St. Joseph RR, it was possible for Mormons to take the Chicago and Alton RR to Alton, Illinois, and St. Louis, thence to St. Joseph. Some Mormons picked up the Hannibal and St. Joseph RR via the Chicago, Burlington, and Quincy RR (which reached the Mississippi River in 1855). In 1867 some Mormons reached Council Bluffs, Iowa, via the Chicago and Northwestern RR.

After the Civil War, the Union Pacific RR began moving west from Omaha, Nebraska, on July 10, 1865. The following year, the Mormons abandoned the rail terminal at St. Joseph and the connecting Nebraska City Cutoff and, sequentially, took trains to four Union Pacific railheads: North Platte, Nebraska, and Julesburg, Colorado, in 1867, and Laramie and Benton, Wyoming, in 1868. Here the emigrants were met by church trains from Salt Lake.

Because the Union Pacific RR, moving west from Omaha, Nebraska, was in a race with the Central Pacific RR, moving east from Sacramento, California, male emigrants were sometimes offered reduced or free tickets if they would work on the road bed."

Each of the railheads became a wide-open, rip-roaring town, which greatly concerned Mormon leaders. The first three are still prospering, but Benton is distinctive for having become the first ghost town in Wyoming, lasting only from July through September 1868. It was located on the eastern edge of the Red Desert, 11 miles east of what is now Rawlins, near the North Platte River. (The curious can find the exact location of Benton by looking for Union Pacific milepost number 672.1, indicating precisely how far one is west of Omaha, off old Highway 30.) Church wagons transported the emigrants to Utah from each of the three remaining railheads.

In 1867, about 500 emigrants took the train to North Platte right on the Mormon Trail, thence to Utah via that trail. In 1868, five companies totaling about 1,850 pioneers left Laramie during July and August in wagons sent by the church. From Laramie the only reasonable route west would have been via the Overland-Bridger Pass Trail to Fort Bridger, to pick up the Mormon Trail there. Also in 1868, about 2,000 pioneers in five companies left Benton during August and September. From Benton, Mormon emigrants could have gone about 50 miles north and picked up the Mormon Trail, but most went a few miles south and took the Overland-Bridger Pass Trail to Fort Bridger, to intersect the main route. (A few Mormons appear to have jumped off at Julesburg.)

After the Union Pacific RR reached Utah in 1869, emigrants took rails all the way from HIST the east coast. "ne great trek was over and the Mormon Trail began to slowly disappear and fade from memory.

Source: Historic Resource Study - Mormon Pioneer National By Stanley B. Kimball, Ph.D., May 1991. (The study focuses on the history of the trail from its official beginning in Nauvoo, Illinois, to its terminus in Salt Lake City, Utah, during the period 1846-1869. During that time, thousands of Mormon emigrants used many trails and trail variants to reach Utah. This study emphasizes the "Pioneer Route" or "Brigham Young Route" of 1846-1847. The sections on Mormon beliefs and motivations for going west have been omitted. Interested persons can find ample sources for that information. The footnotes, bibliography, maps, pictures, pioneer companies by name and dates for the 22-year period, and historic sites - about 2/3 of the book - have also been left out for space considerations. Thanks to Dr. Kimball and the National Park Service for the availability of this information.)