On the Trail in October: A Closer Look at the Journey West


On the Trail in October:

The following representation of events that took place in October 1847 is provided as part of the sesquicentennial celebration of the arrival of the Latter-day Saint pioneers to the Salt Lake Valley. In addition, this month’s article discusses frequent questions about the Mormon Trail.

William Clayton Publishes Emigrants’ Guide

Upon returning to Winter Quarters on 21 October 1847 from the Salt Lake Valley, William Clayton wrote in his diary: “I have succeeded in measuring the whole distance from the City of the Great Salt Lake to this place. … I find the whole distance to be 1032 miles and am now prepared to make a complete traveler’s guide from here to the Great Salt Lake, having been careful in taking the distance from creek to creek, over bluffs, mountains, etc. It has required much time and care” (William Clayton’s Journal [1921], 376).

Titled The Latter-day Saints’ Emigrants’ Guide, the book was an instant success, with an initial printing of 5,000 copies. Besides being helpful to Latter-day Saint pioneers, the book was used by many non-LDS travelers, and portions were copied in subsequent trail guidebooks. The title page summarizes the book’s contents: “Being a table of distances, showing all the springs, creeks, rivers, hills, mountains, camping places, and all other notable places, from Council Bluffs, to the valley of the Great Salt Lake. Also, the latitudes, longitudes and altitudes of the prominent points on the route. Together with remarks on the nature of the land, timber, grass, &c. The whole route having been carefully measured by a roadometer, and the distance from point to point, in English miles, accurately shown.”

Battalion Men Reach Salt Lake Valley

In mid-October 1847, groups of Mormon Battalion men arrived in the Great Salt Lake Valley from California. Some stayed, but many stopped just long enough to obtain what food and clothing they could for their long journey back to their families at Winter Quarters.

Sixteen-year-old battalion member William Pace recalled the stopover in the Salt Lake Valley: “Provisions being scarce in the valley, we were told we could get supplies at Fort Bridger and at Laramie reasonable, and it would be a great help to the people if we would leave our provisions and replenish on the road. Having a common interest we unloaded our supplies, taking only what was supposed enough to do us to Fort Bridger” (as quoted in Norma Baldwin Ricketts, The Mormon Battalion: U.S. Army of the West, 1846–1848 [1996], 180).

A Closer Look at the Journey West

Today our images of life on the Mormon Trail often are based on accounts of some of what might be called the atypical journeys of the 1847 pioneers and of the Martin and Willie Handcart Companies. Also, our images are naturally influenced by Hollywood movies and TV westerns. However, accounts of the 1847 advance company and the Martin and Willie Companies in some ways are probably unrepresentative examples in terms of what trail life was like for the majority of Latter-day Saints who crossed the plains. The following general picture focuses on the majority of the 70,000 Saints who traveled west on the Mormon Trail between 1846 and 1868 and sheds light on little-known facts about the Mormon Trail.

How much of the Mormon Trail was blazed by the Latter-day Saints? The Mormon Trail extends some 1,300 miles across Iowa, Nebraska, Wyoming, and part of Utah. Latter-day Saints actually blazed only the trail route through the western half of Iowa and short segments in eastern and central Nebraska and in parts of Utah. The first Latter-day Saint companies to use the route in 1846 and 1847 followed existing wagon roads as much as possible. Westward from Winter Quarters, Brigham Young’s advance, exploratory pioneers followed rather closely a route along the North Platte River used years before by Oregon-bound traders and settlers. In western Nebraska the pioneers rolled onto the Oregon-California Trail and followed it three-fourths of the way across present-day Wyoming. Beyond Fort Bridger they generally followed a track the Donner Party had blazed the year before as they headed to the Great Salt Lake Valley.

How great a hardship was walking across the plains for those who could not ride in wagons? When pioneer Saints told their grandchildren they walked across the plains, it was more a statement of fact by them than a comment about a hardship. In reality, to have ridden more than 1,000 miles in a covered wagon instead of walking would have been a genuine hardship. Those wagons had no shock absorbers, so the hard, bumpy ride could loosen teeth and bruise tailbones. To ride inside a canvas-covered wagon all day long in the sun would have been at times like sitting in a baking oven. Furthermore, wagon wheels roiled up dust clouds that sometimes enveloped the wagons. Oxen could go only about two miles per hour, but people could walk about three miles per hour, so many walked ahead of the wagons, where they sometimes visited and explored. Most did not envy those who had to walk beside or drive the wagon-pulling oxen.

How often did wagon trains travel single file? Not often. Mormon Trail expert Stanley B. Kimball compares the trail during its 23-year history to a braided rope with many strands that weave in and out. Sometimes wagons traveled two or four abreast. Some wagons passed other wagons. Westbound wagons passed eastbound traffic. Mud or grass fires necessitated alternate routes. Because the wagons often fanned out, we find wagon ruts in just a few places today. Only when all the wagons in a company had to pull hard uphill through a narrow area single file did they really cut ruts deep into the ground.

Were Latter-day Saint pioneers isolated travelers? In 1847 and 1848 not much traffic passed on the Mormon Trail, but the 1849 gold rush turned the trail into a major highway that soon carried much traffic westbound and eastbound. Most Latter-day Saint diarists on the trail after 1848 make frequent mention of other wagon trains, freight wagons, horseback riders, army units, and by the 1860s stagecoaches and mail carriers. In fact, during the 1860s Latter-day Saint wagon trains tried to travel within a day or two of each other for mutual support. Occasionally those wagon companies leapfrogged each other, trying to beat each other to the best campsite by nightfall.

How great a threat were Indians? A few popularized episodes of conflict have colored images relative to Indians on the trail. More common was the Latter-day Saint experience in present-day Nebraska and Wyoming where Latter-day Saint travelers had some slight interaction with Native Americans, who sometimes visited their camps to trade or ask for food. Further, diarists tell of many cases in which Indians provided much-needed help and materials.

How much hardship did Saints face who crossed the plains? Certainly the Martin and Willie Handcart Companies had harrowing experiences when they were caught by blizzards in Wyoming. However, for most pioneers the trek was fairly safe—but it was a work-filled, physically taxing, three-month arduous journey. They faced blisters, sore muscles, sunburn, chapped lips, constant dust and dirt, mosquitoes, bland and sometimes poorly cooked food, diarrhea attacks, wagon and livestock problems, wind, rain, heat, mud, stretches without firewood, and places with bad water. Yet in spite of the arduous journey, most people adapted rather well to the long trek and frequently managed to enjoy themselves by socializing, singing, dancing, telling tall tales around the campfire, sometimes even playing pranks on each other, picking flowers and berries, sharing recipes and utensils, doing creative cooking, reading books, writing letters, keeping diaries, and sewing.

[illustration] Descendants of Mary Hurran, who was with the Willie Handcart Company in 1856, posed for this painting of nine-year-old Mary carrying her sister past Independence Rock. (Stragglers at Independence Rock, by Charles A. Muldowney, courtesy of the Fourth International Art Competition of the Museum of Church History and Art.)

[photo, illustration] Orson Pratt’s telescope (photo by Ron Read, courtesy of Museum of Church History and Art) and (below; The Mormon Battalion, by George M. Ottinger) the Mormon Battalion stopping for water.

[illustration, photos] Above: The Salt Lake Valley in 1849, looking south from present-day Temple Square. (The Salt Lake Valley, 1849, courtesy of Utah State Historical Society.) Below: The Latter-day Saints’ Emigrants’ Guide (historical documents courtesy of Museum of Church History and Art), written by William Clayton (oval inset).