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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1860-68, Mormon Emigrants (Church Trains)

In 1860 Mormon leaders abandoned the handcart experiment in favor of the church ox-team method. This was done for two reasons: the discovery that loaded ox teams could be sent from Utah to the Missouri, pick up emigrants (and merchandise), and return to Utah in one season, and for better use of the church's own resources, that is to save money. Furthermore, although cheaper and somewhat faster, the handcart system was never popular. In the few instances where emigrants had a choice between handcarts and wagon trains, most chose the latter.

By means of these "down and back" trips, the Mormons could export their own flour, beans, and bacon to supply the emigrants, and use the cash saved to buy and freight back needed supplies not available in Utah. Furthermore emigrants could be saved the expense and trouble of obtaining their own wagons or carts and draft animals to take them west.

The 2,200-mile round trip could be made in approximately six months. Church leaders arranged for the men, equipment, and supplies, and organized the trains into groups of about fifty each. The captain of each company was given complete authority to get the job done.

All the men involved were regarded as "missionaries," and were given credit on the tithing books for the value of service rendered--they were in effect paying their 10 percent church tithing "in kind." There was one other fringe benefit--bachelors often found brides among the emigrants--had first pick, so to speak. Happily, romance flourished throughout the entire Mormon immigration period.

Each wagon was pulled by four yoke of oxen or mules and carried about 1,000 pounds of supplies. The teams were expected to reach the Missouri River at Florence (old Winter Quarters or modern North Omaha), in July and return with ten to twenty emigrants per wagon and all the freight they could load. (Later the jumping-off place moved to a now forgotten community with the strange name of Wyoming, Nebraska Territory," and finally to Laramie and Benton, in the state of Wyoming.)

This system lasted for the period 1860-1868, and required about 2,000 wagons 2,500 teamsters, 17,550 oxen and brought approximately 20,500 emigrants to Utah. The first three years, the jumping-off place was Florence, Nebraska Territory. In 1864, however, the Mormons switched to the community of Wyoming, Nebraska, where they followed the (little known today) Nebraska City Cutoff Trail.

The principal reasons for the Mormons switch from Florence to Wyoming seems to have been because emigrants from the east could take trains directly to St. Joseph, Missouri, then take an approximately 94-mile riverboat ride to the community of Wyoming, and then the cutoff trail shortened the distance from the Missouri River to the area of Fort Kearny, by about 50 miles. The cutoff ran 169 miles directly west to Fort Kearny on the Oregon Trail, where the Mormons could either continue on the Oregon Trail or cross the Platte River and pick up the MPNHT [Mormon Pioneer National Historic Trail].

The community of Wyoming, founded as a river port in 1855, was 45 miles south of Florence and 7 miles north of Nebraska City. The Mormons favored it over Florence because it provided more open area for their staging ground and was well removed from the rough elements of Nebraska City and other lures that might have caused emigrants to not go west."

Twenty-two organized Mormon emigrant companies (see Appendix B, Document 6) left Wyoming during its three-year service (1864-1866). It is estimated that the companies totaled about 6,500 emigrants. In addition, probably some 500 or more Mormons traveled as individuals with non-Mormon trains from nearby Nebraska City."

Of all the early Mormon emigrant trails, one of the least known today among Mormons is the Nebraska City Cutoff Trail. There are about ten historic markers along this old trail, but none refer to the Mormons. No church teams were sent east in 1867, largely because the Union Pacific railroad reached North Platte, Nebraska, that year and immigrating plans were in flux.

In 1868, when church teams were again sent east, they were dispatched to the Union Pacific railhead at Laramie, Wyoming, during July and August and to the Benton, Wyoming, railhead during August and September, and picked up a total of ten emigrant companies. That year was the last year of the wagon, handcart, or church team Mormon emigrant. The transcontinental railroad reached Utah May 10, 1869, and from that time on emigrants could ride the rails all the way to Zion. From these two railheads, at Laramie and Benton, Mormon emigrants would have picked up the Overland-Bridger Pass Trail, followed it to Fort Bridger and then taken the Mormon Trail into Utah.

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.)