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


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Mormon Trail in Historic Perspective

To place the Mormons and the Mormon Pioneer National Historic Trail in historical perspective is difficult, for they were both unique as well as uniquely American. Most Mormons tend to emphasize that which is unique in their history. This is an outgrowth of their theology, which teaches that they are a unique people, a Chosen People, a "peculiar people." They call themselves Latter-day Saints to both distinguish themselves from and identify themselves with the "Former-day Saints" of the New Testament, and to stress their difference from all other Christians of today.

In no way do Mormons stress their uniqueness more than in reference to their exodus, their move west between 1846 and 1869, from Illinois to what is now called Utah. Mormon scholars have discovered at least ten "Uncommon Aspects of the Mormon Migration."' These unique aspects are: A religiously motivated migration; the economic status of the participants; Mormons did not employ professional guides; non-frontiersmen were quickly transformed into pioneers; the migration of families; the Mormon Trail was a two-way road; the magnanimous aspect of the Mormon migration; the organization of Mormon wagon trains; respect for life and death; and the Mormon migration was a movement of a community. In this study, the author often refers to these uncommon aspects. Other authors like Wallace Stegner and Bernard De Voto also stress these unique aspects.

While there is nothing wrong with stressing the uncommon aspects of the Mormon westward movement, they are only part of the story. A truer account would present the Mormon migration within its proper historic context, as a part of the great westering movement of the mid-nineteenth century; as part of a national experience.

In many ways the Mormons were very much like their contemporary Oregonians and Californians. West of the Missouri River they shared trails, campgrounds, ferries, triumphs, tragedies, and common trail experiences of the day, with thousands of other westering Americans. Their daily routine, their food, wagons, animals, sicknesses, dangers, difficulties, domestic affairs, trail constitutions, discipline, the blurring of sexual distinctions relative to work, and so forth, were typical.'

The Mormons of the 1840s through the 1860s were very much a part of the great westward surge that began in the 1820s when fur trappers started exploring the west, searching out mountain passes for vital water sources and continued through the westering activities of traders, missionaries, and land-hungry settlers, to the completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1869. The Mormons were part of the idea and the realization of the doctrine of Manifest Destiny, the great reconnaissance of the west, and they contributed to the growth of white supremacy in the west. For the most part, the Mormons used the trails already blazed by earlier westering Americans. Many Americans had preceded the Mormons on trips west of the Missouri River. Travel on the Santa Fe Trail commenced as early as 1821, with the trader William Becknell from Missouri, and the numbers of travelers increased until the Santa Fe Railway passed Santa Fe in 1880. This trail, however, was largely a commercial and military road, used by few emigrants. (In 1853, some Texas converts did use the trail to pick up the Mormon Trail in Wyoming.)

The first significant emigrant movement to Oregon began in 1841, when sixty-nine men, women, and children, comprising the Bidwell-Bartleson party, left from Independence, Missouri. Thereafter, increasingly large emigrant parties used the Missouri River as a "jumping off point (staging site) for Oregon. That same year, the Bidwell-Bartleson party also initiated the first significant emigrant movement into California. When the Bidwell-Bartleson party reached Fort Hall in what is now called Idaho, it split. About half continued on to Oregon, while the remainder blazed a dangerous route across desert and mountains into the lower San Joaquin Valley of what is now California. Thereafter, as on the Oregon Trail, increasingly larger parties immigrated to California. Eventually more than 300,000 (no one knows how many) emigrants went to Oregon and California. The some 70,000 Mormons who immigrated to their new Zion were very much a part of this national westward movement.

Furthermore, during the trans-Missouri Mormon emigrant period (and generally along the route of the Mormon Trail) the Pony Express rose and fell, and the transcontinental telegraph line and the Union Pacific Railroad were completed. Stage freight and mail service to Salt Lake were inaugurated and federal wagon roads were surveyed and constructed. The Mormons were, in one way or another, involved with all these ventures. They, for example, helped supply and build the telegraph line and the railroad, helped construct federal roads, proposed some freighting and mail services, and during the Civil War, provided guard service for ninety days, protecting the overland mail and telegraph in southern Wyoming.

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.)