Heritage Gateways

Official Sesquicentennial K-12 Education Project
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Pioneer 1847 Companies

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Western Travel Accounts Consulted by the Mormons

In 1837, the imagination of the nation was caught by Washington Irving's reworking of the 1833 journal of Captain Benjamin Louis Eulalie de Bonneville into The Adventures of Captain Bonneville in the Rocky Mountains and the Far West. The account of the Oregon Trail between Fort Laramie and the Green River would have been of some value to the Mormons. Of special interest would have been the five-page description of the Great Salt Lake provided to Bonneville by one of his men, Joseph W.R. Walker. Bonneville was also the first to prove the feasibility of taking loaded wagons over the famed South Pass.

The following year a book appeared of which the Mormons might have known. This was the Rev. Samuel Parker's Journal of an Exploring Tour Beyond the Rocky Mountains along the Oregon Trail from Fort Leavenworth to the Green River via Bellevue (in what is now Nebraska); that is, across the Papillion, Elkhorn, the Loup, and along the north side of the Platte to Fort Laramie--the same way the Mormons later went.

The publications of John K. Townsend, Maximilian, Prince of Wied, Father Pierre Jean De Smet, and Thomas J. Farnham in the 1830s and 1840s would have been of little value to the Mormons. Of far greater importance was Captain John C. Fremont's A Report of the Exploring Expeditions to the Rocky Mountains in the Year 1842. Published in 1843, this work was probably worth as much to the Mormons as everything else published to that date combined. This was the Fremont Report mentioned so often by the Mormons. A 10,000-copy edition was reprinted in 1845 as the first part of his A Report of the Exploring Expedition to the Rocky Mountains in the Year 1842 and To Oregon and North California in the Years 1843-44. The seventy-nine-page report of 1843 was the first scientific survey of the Oregon Trail and the first reasonably accurate guidebook to the Far West.

The 1843 Report was useful to the Mormons for its account of the Platte River Valley from what is now North Platte, Nebraska, to South Pass. Of most value to the Mormons in the subsequent 1845 Report was the three-page account of the exploration of the Great Salt Lake (which he reached via the Soda Springs), the Bear River area, and the valley of the Great Salt Uke. Of paramount interest to the Mormons were his comments on the fertility of the valleys west of the Rocky Mountains.

Next to Fremont the most often-mentioned source of information to the Mormons was Lansford W. Hastings" The Emigrant's Guide to Oregon and California, also published in 1845. For all of the fame or notoriety of this work, it is difficult to see wherein its value to the Mormons lay. Hastings" short account of his traveling from St. Louis to the Green River would have been of little help to the Mormons. He devoted exactly one sentence on pages 137-138 to what became the famous and infamous Hastings Cutoff, "The most direct route for the California Emigrants, would be to leave the Oregon route, about two hundred miles east from Fort Hall; then bearing west-southwest, to the Salt Lake; and thence continuing down to the bay of San Francisco, by the route just described." This one sentence sent some to their deaths, while suggesting to the Mormons a shorter way to the Valley of the Great Salt Lake, west from Fort Bridger, rather than via Fort Hall. The Mormons might also have found Hastings" excellent ten-page chapter on "The Equipment, Supplies, and the Method of Traveling" very valuable?'

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.)