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The Mormon Trail

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By Charles Dawson in 1912

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The Mormons used many trails in crossing the Plains and through the Rockies to their haven by the inland salty sea. The States of Iowa, Missouri, Kansas, Nebraska and Wyoming were gutted and rutted with many different trails of wheel-marks made by their caravans when the first settlers came to present-day Utah.


While several well-defined and traveled trails were in existence leading from the Missouri River through the mountains, the Mormons seemed inclined to make use of different routes that would parallel or intercept the regular trails. Perhaps this was caused largely by the state of feeling that existed between them and the general public.




Mormon Trail

Mormon Trail Map courtesy Mapsorama




All histories of the Mormons during these times say that there existed deep hatred, coupled with fear, between them and the Gentiles, that eventually led up to an armed insurrection by the Mormons in 1857, following the "Mountain Meadows Massacre," which caused the sending of 5,000 soldiers under General Albert Sidney Johnston to Utah in 1857-58, to quell and subjugate them.


All early travelers of the trails were inclined to be just as watchful of the Mormons as they were of the Indians, and perhaps rightly too, for records show that many depredations were committed by them under the guise of Indians.

Nauvoo, Illinois, 1855Notwithstanding all the present evidence to the contrary, it is the belief of the author that subsequent investigation will prove that the Mormons traveled in greater numbers south of the Platte River than on the north side. Some 15,000 Mormons wintered at Florence and Council Bluffs the first year of their migration from Nauvoo,Illinois and thousands of them annually traveled across Iowa through these portals over the northern trail up the north valley of the Platte River to their destination.


The Mormon converts from England came mainly by two routes to St. Louis and Independence, Missouri, where they took up their overland journey by wagon to Salt Lake City.

Embarking at the different seaports of England, they took passage on ships that sailed for ports that had rail or steamboat connections to the eastern terminus of some trail that led to their promised land. St. Louis had railroads long before Omaha or Council Bluffs, and they could proceed by steamboat from this point up to Independence by a regular and well-established services. However, proceeding to points on up the river, presented many difficulties. At this time Independence was the greatest outfitting point on the Missouri River
, so it was naturally the best point for the Mormons to launch forth. Later on, the railroads reached St. Joseph, Missouri and Atchison, Kansas. These in turn became the ends of the railroad journey for the Mormon pilgrims from England. Thus, by the way of New Orleans up the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers by boat to Independence, Atchison, and St. Joseph, and by train from New York to these points, thousands of Mormons annually arrived and departed overland westward after 1846. To this, was added the great migration of Missouri Mormons.


The first groups of Mormons were the ones that cut the many trails across the plains, while the Mormons of the late 1860's seemed content to use the regular trails. It is difficult to determine what trail or route was the real Mormon Trail across the plains, as they used so many branches and different routes as far out as the mountains, where most of them converged into the Oregon Trail.


 Quite a few of them continued down the Santa Fe Trail, finally pointing to the north in New Mexico. Even all of those who went by the way of Omaha did not follow the old California Trail up the north side of the Platte River. Many thousands of them kept to the north of the Elkhorn or Loups Rivers, and finally converged into the Oregon Trail somewhere in Wyoming, and many of them went up on the south banks of the Platte River, striking the Oregon Trail near Fort Kearny.


The Mormon Trails of northern Kansas and southern Nebraska started from the following points mainly: Independence and St. Joseph, Missouri; Leavenworth and Atchison, Kansas, and quite a number crossed the Missouri River at Brownsville and Nebraska City.


To outline and find their many trails, is to follow the most direct and best routes to a common point on the Platte River near the site of Fort Kearny. Thus, those that diverged northward from the Santa Fe Trail after passing the point where the Oregon Trail diverged to cross the Kansas River near the present city of Topeka, traveled on down to a point a few miles south of the present town of Eskridge, in Wabaunsee County, where they turned to the northwest, passing through Wabaunsee County into Geary County, reaching the Kansas River at a point about half-way between the present Fort Riley and Junction City, Kansas.



Fort Kearny

Fort Kearny by William Henry Jackson, courtesy
Scotts Bluff National Monument




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