I Have a Question


Questions of general interest answered for guidance, not as official statements of Church policy

Do we know how many Latter-day Saints died between 1846 and 1869 in the migration to the Salt Lake Valley?

Susan Easton Black, associate dean of General Education and Honors at BYU and professor of Church History and Doctrine at BYU, with contributions from Melvin Bashore, Richard E. Bennett, Lyndia Carter, Marjorie Draper Conder, William G. Hartley, Gail G. Holmes, Lu Markham Jones, Michael N. Landon, Jennifer L. Lund, Norma B. Ricketts, and Fred E. Woods.

No. A lack of recorded information prevents us from ever knowing exactly how many died. Nevertheless, a respect for the Latter-day Saints who gathered to the Salt Lake Valley and those who died en route has motivated Latter-day Saint historians—past and present—to search available journals, newspapers, and other sources to estimate more accurately the number of deaths (see chart).

The first era of the migration, 1846–48, stands out in the overall 1846–69 time period as the era with the highest death rate and most prolonged suffering. After 1848 the death rate moderated, though many pioneers at times still suffered accidents, disease, and deprivation. Further, for all who made the migration at any time before 1869 (when the transcontinental railroad was completed), traveling more than 1,000 miles across the American plains and Rocky Mountains was a major event in their lives. The long journey was filled with the natural fears of fatigue, possible illness, concern for food and water, questions about the durability of their wagons or handcarts or their domestic animals, the potential dangers of Indian attacks—indeed, all the fears that go with the unknown. Adding to these fears was the sorrow many felt as they left extended family members behind, most never to be seen again. Cross-country migration was a very significant event in their lives, and it was long remembered by those who made it. In fact, journals suggest that the pioneers viewed their migration sufferings as a sacrifice for the Lord that they willingly made.

The first attempt to answer the question of how many Latter-day Saints died during the migration west was made by a remarkable assistant Church historian named Andrew Jenson. Nearly a century ago, he put his staff to work compiling data about each Latter-day Saint wagon company that came west between 1847 and 1869. They scoured diaries, wagon train journals, and pioneer recollections then on file in the historian’s office. Their massive research produced findings that were compiled into Church emigration files, some of which he published. 1 Based on sources then available, Brother Jenson estimated that about 6,000 LDS travelers died. 2 Since then, those estimates have continued to be used in Church history literature.

However, today we are attempting to provide updated death totals 3 based on sources to which Brother Jenson did not have access. In our computer era, data from all sources, old and new, are being carefully extracted, input, and calculated. Research is still in process. But, based on new research, historians are reevaluating the death figure of 6,000, and many think that the number may be closer to 4,600. 4

While it is impossible to know the exact number of LDS deaths among the 60,000 to 70,000 5 Latter-day Saints who migrated to the Salt Lake Valley from 1846 to 1869, we do know something about the death count. Using 26 sources, Susan Easton Black compiled about 2,000 names of LDS pioneers who died in the migration to the Salt Lake Valley. These names appear on the Mormon Pioneer Memorial in Nauvoo, Illinois. Since records are incomplete, this list is only representative of the Saints who died on the trek. Thus, historians have had to estimate a death count based on existing records.

As we review pioneer death rates, it is important to note that people of the time reported that Latter-day Saint pioneer death numbers were lower 6 than the overall trail death rates, from 4 to 6 percent, for persons using the Oregon and California Trails. Yet LDS pioneer groups included many women, children, elderly, and disabled. Furthermore, after the European LDS emigration was in full swing, pioneer companies were disproportionately composed of people without experience in yoking or driving animals or other common trail skills. One writer commented that the LDS handcart companies would have “looked more like the population of the poor farm on a picnic than like pioneers about to cross the plains.” 7

For these reasons, LDS pioneers might have been expected to die in larger numbers than the usual Oregon or California Trail pioneer who was a young, healthy male from a farming background. But they apparently did not. LDS pioneers, who generally kept to themselves on the north side of the Platte River, were better organized, with better camp rules and cleanliness than other groups. Further, they enjoyed the healing effects of priesthood blessings. It is known that the Saints fared better than others on the trail during the bad cholera years of 1849 and the early 1850s. 8

The same favorable situation existed among Latter-day Saints who crossed the sea. While their privations were very real, the number of LDS deaths at sea were also lower than other groups. In fact, some sea captains preferred to take LDS groups because they were better organized and more cooperative. A few captains believed the Latter-day Saints were divinely protected. 9

Indeed, Latter-day Saints did believe that they were divinely aided as a consequence of their obedience to “the Word and Will of the Lord” (D&C 136) which had been given to them through the prophet Brigham Young.

Nevertheless, two LDS trail death tragedies increased the generally lower LDS pioneer death rates: (1) the experience in the Winter Quarters area, 1846–48; and (2) the tragedy of the Willie and the Martin Handcart Companies in 1856. Both tragedies were the result of harsh conditions and hasty eagerness to gather with the Saints in Zion.

The first tragedy and heaviest concentration of LDS deaths occurred as the Saints fled Nauvoo, Illinois, crossed Iowa, and settled temporarily in Winter Quarters, (then Indian territory, now Nebraska), and in nearly 90 southwestern Iowa settlements. Conditions under which the Saints lived in Winter Quarters and in the Iowa encampments were very harsh. The cold, windy winters of 1846–48, primitive living conditions, malaria, and scurvy resulted in hundreds of deaths.

The second tragedy occurred among the nearly 1,000 members of the Willie and the Martin Companies. Saints in these companies were eager to join the body of the Church in the Rocky Mountains, and they began their journey knowing that it was late in the year and that bad weather was a possibility. Sixty-seven died in the Willie Company, and 135 to 200 died in the Martin Company.

After the 1846–48 era and the handcart rescues, as we look over the entire experience, LDS pioneers enjoyed a considerable measure of safety and peace that seemed to have been a result of their willingness to follow and obey their leaders. The order of LDS pioneer emigration as laid out in “the Word and Will of the Lord” included both organizational structure and a standard of spiritual unity that pioneers were expected to maintain. It was central to their success in the westward trek. Thus, in the end, this success seems to have had more to do with their willingness to obey and to sacrifice in following their leaders than it did with any external factors in their trek.

The following chart shows LDS deaths estimated by historians currently researching this topic. The 1846–69 period has been broken into general groups.

Estimated Latter-day Saint Pioneer Deaths

Group

Low Estimate

High Estimate

Crossing Iowa (1846), including deaths at Montrose, Battle of Nauvoo, the Poor Camps, and the trek to the Missouri River

About 295 a

About 385 b

The 1846 voyage of the ship Brooklyn (New York to San Francisco and San Francisco to the Great Basin, 1847–57)

26 total: 11 at sea and 15 en route to the Great Basin c

At Winter Quarters, Nebraska, and the nearly 90 Iowa settlements in the Middle Missouri Valley (1846–53)

About 800 d

About 1,100 e

Mormon Battalion

33 f

Crossing the Atlantic or the Pacific g

About 670

About 700

At the St. Louis area (1848–52) h

Unknown. Incomplete records prevent us from estimating a high figure, but research is in progress using available records to determine the low estimate. One estimate puts the number at about 125. i

On riverboats and trains (1848–69)

Unknown. Incomplete records prevent us from estimating a high figure, but research is in progress using available records to determine a low estimate. Among the known deaths are the 25 who died in the Saluda riverboat explosion. j

In wagon trains from the Winter Quarters–Kanesville area to the Salt Lake Valley (1847–69) k

Unknown. Incomplete records prevent us from estimating a high figure, but research is in progress using available records to determine the low estimate. A 3.25 percent death rate l would equal 1,950 for 60,000 pioneers or 2,275 deaths for 70,000 pioneers.

10 handcart companies (1856–60) m

About 252

About 340 or more

Total:

About 4,200

About 5,000

These low and high estimates represent the possible extremes. Perhaps the actual number of deaths will fall somewhere between these extremes. In this model, the middle figure would be 4,600.

[illustration] Martin Handcart Company, Bitter Creek, Wyoming, 1856, by Clark Kelley Price

[illustration] The heaviest concentration of pioneer deaths at one place and time occurred at Winter Quarters, Nebraska, and at the nearly 90 Iowa settlements in the Middle Missouri Valley between 1846 and 1853 when somewhere between 800 and 1,100 persons are thought to have died. (Winter Quarters, 1846–1848, © 1997 by Greg K. Olsen, courtesy of Mill Pond Press, Inc.)

[illustration] Of the thousands of Latter-day Saints who crossed the ocean to America, it is thought that about 700 died. (Embarkation of the Saints at Liverpool in 1851, by Ken Baxter.)

[illustration] Though the trek was difficult, most pioneers survived and reached the Salt Lake Valley filled with gratitude to God for their arrival. (The End of the Journey, by Calvin Fletcher.)

a. Richard E. Bennett, author of Mormons at the Missouri: “And Should We Die,” 1846–1852, and We’ll Find the Place: The Mormon Exodus, 1846–1848. Brother Bennett notes that there are no sexton records for Mount Pisgah, Garden Grove, or the many small groupings of pioneers stretching along the Iowa Trail. Private journals make repeated references to unusual numbers of deaths, indicating that people believed they were dying at a higher rate than they had back in Nauvoo. The Nauvoo death rate in 1843 was 3.2 percent, and in 1844 it was 2.5 percent.

Brother Bennett estimates the number of Iowa deaths in 1846–48 at about 85 in camps from Nauvoo to Garden Grove, about 95 in Garden Grove, and about 115 in Mount Pisgah.

b. Richard E. Bennett. Brother Bennett believes that further research will reveal that this estimate should be higher. He bases this belief on journal entries of several pioneers of the time who wrote that they had never seen their family members and fellow Latter-day Saints die at such a high rate. As John Pulsipher, one early pioneer, wrote of the scenes in Winter Quarters in the winter of 1847, “What the number was that died of scurvy I can’t tell, but it far exceeded anything that I ever witnessed before.”

c. Lu Markham Jones, advisory board member of the Ship Brooklyn Association, and chairman of their grave location search project. All 238 LDS passengers have been identified by name, and thanks to the help of many descendant family historians and genealogists we now know what happened to most of them: 11 passengers died en route from New York to San Francisco, and 15 died trying to get to the Great Basin sometime after their 1846 arrival in California. Of the remaining 212 persons, 101 are known to have migrated before 1857 to the Great Basin. Descendant families are now verifying their burial sites. Of the other 111 persons, 56 are known to have remained in California, and 14 returned to the East where they died. While the location of the burial sites of the remaining 41 passengers is unknown, the search for them is going on.

d. Richard E. Bennett; Gail G. Holmes, Nebraska chair of Lewis and Clark Heritage Trail Foundation; and Jennifer L. Lund, curator of education, Museum of Church History and Art, note that death records are incomplete for Winter Quarters, Nebraska, and for the southwestern Iowa settlements.

Winter Quarters: Brother Bennett, Brother Holmes, and Sister Lund have carefully studied the sexton’s records, which list 307 graves for the Winter Quarters cemetery and 63 graves for Cutler’s Park. Additionally, it is known that the names of some of those buried there were not recorded. Estimates differ. For instance, Brother Holmes and Sister Lund believe that the number of unrecorded dead was from 400 to 430, while Brother Bennett believes that the number of unrecorded dead was a minimum of 573, which includes a minimum of 23 deaths at Ponca, north of the settlement at Winter Quarters.

Southwestern Iowa settlements: Brother Bennett estimates that about 220 died in Miller’s Hollow (Kanesville) from 1846–48. He says about 325 died in 1848–69 in southwestern Iowa.

Brother Holmes estimates that in 1846–53 about 400 died in the nearly 90 southwestern Iowa communities. One contemporary source, Frontier Guardian, lists 133 LDS deaths for the short period 1849–52.

e. Richard E. Bennett. Brother Bennett believes this is a minimum high estimate and that further research will reveal it to be higher. Several pioneer accounts indicate the death rate in Winter Quarters–Kanesville area in 1846–48 was considerably higher than it was in Nauvoo in 1843–44. To compare, the death rate in Nauvoo in 1843 was 3.41 percent and slightly lower in 1844.

f. Norma B. Ricketts, author of The Mormon Battalion. All 33 dead identified: 3 en route to California, 15 in Pueblo detachments, 2 in California, 4 en route to Salt Lake Valley after being discharged, 2 as Mormon volunteers following their first year of enlistment, and 7 nonbattalion persons who were associated with the battalion (teamsters, wives, and infants).

g. Fred E. Woods, instructor at Ricks College, has identified nearly 700 deaths from about 180 voyages; his work is still in progress. Final research will result in the most complete list of LDS passengers, ships, and journals available. To date the Millennial Star provides one of the most accurate and reliable Church sources of LDS deaths on the sea. Mormons on the High Seas and other documents also provide information. These Church sources are being compared with the U.S. Customs records to get the most complete list.

h. As Latter-day Saints arrived by ship in America, they headed overland or up the Mississippi River to outfitting posts where they joined wagon trains west. Thousands of Latter-day Saints passed through St. Louis. There was even a stake there from 1854 to 1857. Records are incomplete for this area, but research is in progress to determine the number of LDS dead. It is known that cholera deaths often plagued outfitting posts in the early to mid-1850s.

i. Richard E. Bennett. Estimate based on research in progress.

j. William G. Hartley, “‘Don’t Go Aboard the Saluda!’” unpublished paper in author’s possession. The Saluda, a Mississippi riverboat, exploded in 1852. Of the 90 Latter-day Saints aboard, apparently some had received spiritual impressions warning them not to travel on the boat. Yet their eagerness to join the Saints prevailed. The death toll in the explosion included 25 Church members. How many others died aboard train and steamboat between 1848–69 is still open to research, but it obviously was higher than the 25 listed on the Saluda.

k. Melvin L. Bashore, senior librarian in the Church’s Historical Department, states that for many wagon companies the records are incomplete and in some cases nonexistent. This lack of records makes it impossible to identify the exact number of trailside deaths. Currently a project is under way to compile information from existing rosters.

l. Death estimates are based on a 3.25 percent death rate because it is the midpoint between 2.5 percent and 4 percent.

The 2.5 percent death rate represents the normal death rate for nonmigrants in the time period—deaths that would have occurred had the overlanders stayed at home and died from old age, sickness, and so on (see Unruh, Plains Across, 516). A 2.5 percent death rate would equal 1,500 deaths for 60,000 pioneers or 1,750 deaths for 70,000 pioneers. The death rate for migrating pioneers would, of course, be higher.

A 4 percent death rate represents the low end of the 4 to 6 percent death rate for Oregon and California pioneers. This 4 percent death rate would equal 2,400 for 60,000 pioneers or 2,800 deaths for 70,000 pioneers. But since it was frequently reported by Latter-day Saints and others at the time that LDS pioneers died at a lower rate than other overlanders, the actual death rate percentage for LDS pioneers is likely lower than 4 percent. Thus, the death rate of 3.25 percent was chosen as a reasonable estimate.

The actual rate varied from year to year, of course. For example, Richard E. Bennett estimates that Latter-day Saints traveling west in the 1846–48 era likely died at the same 4 to 6 percent rate as overlanders traveling to Oregon and California (except those who died in the California gold rush, who died at a much higher rate). Thus, the 3.25 percent death rate applies only when we consider the entire migration period.

m. Lyndia Carter, independent scholar with a book on the Martin Handcart Company in progress, notes that a lack of accurate detailed records makes determining mortality figures extremely difficult. These numbers reflect only deaths on the trail. A number of deaths occurring shortly after arrival in Salt Lake City as a direct result of the journey for several of the handcart companies would raise the number somewhat. She estimates that some 202 to 267 LDS pioneers died of about 1,000 pioneers in the Willie and the Martin Companies. Some 50 to 70 pioneers, possibly more, died of approximately 2,000 pioneers in the remaining eight companies.

    Notes for Article

  1.   1.

    Andrew Jenson compiled huge reference volumes called Church Emigration, on file in the LDS Historical Department Archives. He published a series of 22 detailed articles, almost monthly, called “Church Emigration,” in the Contributor, volumes 12 and 13, 1891–92. Today, however, historians have more wagon and ship accounts available to them than did Brother Jenson.

  2.   2.

    Andrew Jenson, Church Emigration, page 1. It is important to remember the following when considering Brother Jenson’s work: First, we are not sure how he determined the number 6,000. Known modern-day working tallies thus far must be stretched considerably to reach 6,000. Second, perhaps his figure of 6,000 includes deaths of people who stopped in Missouri or Iowa for long periods of time and died of natural causes while not really in transit.

  3.   3.

    Often journals and family records are the only source of migration deaths. If you have ancestors who died between 1846–69 as part of the migration to the Great Salt Lake Valley, please send their names, death dates, and death places to Susan Easton Black, 270K JSB, Brigham Young University, Provo, UT 84602-2600.

  4.   4.

    This figure is the average of historians’ low estimate—4,200—and high estimate—5,000 (see chart). The traditional estimate of 6,000 also seems high for the following reasons: John D. Unruh Jr. puts the overall trail death rate for pioneering Americans at between 4 and 6 percent (see The Plains Across [1979], 408). Even taking the highest number of LDS pioneers—70,000—and multiplying it by the highest death rate—6 percent—the total would be 4,200, far below the traditional estimate.

  5.   5.

    Faith in Every Footstep CD-ROM, prepared by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. (This estimate has been revised down from earlier estimates of 80,000 used by historians.)

  6.   6.

    Wallace Stegner, The Gathering of Zion (1964), 209–10. This point is supported from accounts written at the time of the migration, by both Latter-day Saints and others traveling west during the same time period.

  7.   7.

    Stegner, The Gathering of Zion, 221.

  8.   8.

    Michael N. Landon, archivist in the Historical Department, Archives Division, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

  9.   9.

    Conway B. Sonne, Saints on the Seas: A Maritime History of Mormon Migration 1830–1890 (1983), 103.