The Mormons used many trails in crossing the Great Plains and through the Rocky Mountains 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 led from the Missouri River through the mountains, the Mormons seemed inclined to use 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.
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 they committed many depredations under the guise of Indians.
Notwithstanding all the evidence to the contrary, this author believes 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, Iowa, 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 with rail or steamboat connections to the eastern terminus of some trail that led to their promised land. St. Louis, Missouri, had railroads long before Omaha or Council Bluffs, and they could proceed by steamboat from this point up to Independence, Missouri, by regular and well-established services. However, proceeding to points up the river presented many difficulties. Independence was the greatest outfitting point on the Missouri River at this time, so it was naturally the best point for the Mormons to launch forth. Later, 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 way of New Orleans, Louisiana, 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 1860s 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 those who went by way of Omaha did not follow the old California Trail up the north side of the Platte River. Thousands of them kept to the north of the Elkhorn or Loups Rivers and finally converged into the Oregon Trail somewhere in Wyoming. 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 Traill 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.
There, they crossed the stream and bore to the north, passing near the present town of Ogden, then north to the Big Blue River, following up the west side of this stream past Garrison’s Crossing and Randolph, crossing Fancy Creek near the latter place. Then, they went northward across the prairies to the Little Blue River, near the present site of Waterville, and joined with another branch that had left the old Oregon Trail somewhere in the northeast corner of Pottawatomie County after crossing Vermillion Creek, and had borne almost directly west to the junction of the Blue River, crossing below and going northwest past Waterville into Washington County, towards its northwest corner. On Ash Creek, about three miles south of the present-day town of Washington, was a spring near a high sand-rock wall upon which many Mormons carved their names. This was called “Mormon Springs” by the early pioneers.
This trail entered Nebraska about three miles east of the southwest corner of Jefferson County and followed a ridge down to Rose Creek Valley, where they built a crude log bridge across this stream, about half a mile below the present town of Reynolds. The early settlers of Rose Creek Valley found the pilings of this bridge still in position when they came in 1862, and they used this trail to go to Waterville, Blue Rapids, and points on the Missouri River for supplies.
Old settlers also allege that the Mormons sometimes crossed the Kansas River near Manhattan and struck this trail near Waterville; also that there was another Mormon Trail that followed up the Republican River on the north side from their upper crossing at Junction City or “Whisky Point” past the present towns of Clay Center, Clyde, Scandia, and Republic City, leaving the stream when it bent to the west in the State of Nebraska, going northward across the prairies of Nuckolls County to the Little Blue River, in Adams County, where it converged with the old Oregon Trail.
After crossing Rose Creek, the main branch continued to the north and west, entering Thayer County and joining the old Oregon Trail in the vicinity of Hebron on the Little Blue River.
In the latter days, the Mormons from Atchison, Kansas, and St. Joseph, Missouri, generally used the regular trails from these points connecting with the old Oregon Trail. A few miles from the present-day city of Atchison was a camping place of popular use called “Mormon Grove.” During the 1850s and 1860s, thousands of Mormons paused for a brief rest before starting their trip across what was then known as the “Great American Desert,” now as the “Kingdoms of Alfalfa and Agriculture” — Kansas and Nebraska.
The few Mormons that crossed the Missouri River at Brownville and Nebraska City followed the trails that other travelers had established over the prairies, the lower one joining the Oregon Trail, on the Big Sandy River, in Jefferson County and the Nebraska City Trail joining it a few miles east of Fort Kearny. While these Mormon Trails have not been definitely located, the above is probably correct enough for the purposes of need for recording of their existence. To accurately trace them would be a stupendous task, perhaps impossible, for nearly all of the rutted and scarred evidence of their travel has been effaced by nature and agriculture, and only here and there can be found some unmistakable old-time road descending or ascending some hill, pasture, or meadowlands, that have not been disturbed by the plow.
Many of these marks, especially across the smooth prairies or bottomlands, had been effaced even when the country was surveyed in the late 1850s and early 1860s. On the original surveys of many of the counties of Kansas and Nebraska, through which these trails were alleged to have passed, there appear marks and notations of such roads being designated as “Mormon Trail,” but they are disconnected and somewhat confusing.
A whole volume might be written of this great religious exodus, unparalleled in American History, which reached from the banks of the Missouri River to the Great Salt Lake in an endless procession, toiling with their wagons and handcarts loaded with provisions and material for their new homes. Thousands did not survive the hardships and suffering of the journey. Hostile Indians and blizzards wiped out whole caravans. Mormons continued to use the Oregon Trail from Independence through the 1850s and ’60s. General Albert Sidney Johnston also used this trail during 1857-58 for dispatching various detachments and the supplies for over 5,000 soldiers with which he had been ordered to subjugate the Mormons, who had defied the authority of the National Government.
By Charles Dawson in 1912.
Roughly 70,000 Mormons traveled along the Mormon Trail from 1846 to 1869 to escape religious persecution. The Pioneer Company of 1846-1847 established a route from Nauvoo, Illinois, to Salt Lake City, Utah, covering about 1,300 miles, including constructing new ferries and bridges and the placement of markers for others to follow.
In November 1978, Congress established the Mormon Pioneer National Historic Trail as part of the National Trails System, which commemorates the 1846-47 journey of the Mormon people from Illinois to the Valley of the Great Salt Lake. The almost 1,300-mile-long trail is managed as a cooperative effort among private landowners, trail associations, state and local agencies, the National Park Service, the Bureau of Land Management, and the U.S. Forest Service. Though much of the trail is no longer visible, long stretches can still be seen in Wyoming, and several sites still exist that can be visited. Some of these include the Nauvoo Temple in Illinois, the Carthage Jail in Illinois, the Florence Mill in Nebraska, one of the last remaining structures built at Winter Quarters by the 5,000 plus Mormons who spent a cold, dreary winter after that their exodus from Nauvoo; Devil’s Gate and Register Cliff in Wyoming, and more.
Mormon Trail Facts:
Between 1846 and 1869, some 70,000 Mormons traveled west on the trail. Some 3,000 of them pulled handcarts.
The trail crossed parts of five states: Illinois, Iowa, Nebraska, Wyoming, and Utah.
Brigham Young’s 1847 vanguard company took the longest trip by a Mormon wagon train. The group took about three months and one week to travel from Winter Quarters, Nebraska, to the Salt Lake Valley.
Beehives were among the first items transported to the Salt Lake Valley, along with seeds and tools carried in the wagons. At least 13 apiaries began the journey across the Plains.
The most common cause of death on the trail were trail accidents, disease, and accidental shootings. Accidental shootings, including self-inflicted, were so common that many train leaders banned carrying loaded weapons close to camps.
Orson Pratt and Erastus Snow, who joined the scouting party, were the first Mormon pioneers to arrive in the Salt Lake Valley. July 24 celebrates the day Brigham Young arrived with the main party. Young looked out over the barren, dry desert and declared, “This is the right place.”
While the pioneers demonstrated an admirable attitude, they weren’t free from complaining. To cut down on it, Brigham Young jokingly appointed a “Chief Grumbler,” the only one in camp with the legal authority to complain about the conditions.
The Mormon pioneers were illegal immigrants. When they entered Salt Lake Valley, it was part of Mexico, and no one had asked permission. However, within a year, it would be ceded to the United States in the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo.
The Mormons eventually formed the State of Deseret, Utah Territory, and the state of Utah.
Handcarts were the least typical way of arriving in the valley. Ten total handcart companies migrated between 1856 and 1860, bringing around 3,000 Mormons, about 5% percent of the overall migration. Tragedy struck in the fall of 1856 after the Willie and Martin handcart companies left late in the season with 1,000 people between them. Both companies were plagued by a lack of supplies and hardships, including an early snowstorm that turned into one of the century’s worst storms. The exhausted companies set up camp in deep snow on the Wyoming plains, where more than 200 people died from starvation and cold. A massive rescue effort was launched immediately when word of their plight reached Salt Lake City.
Mormon Pioneer National Historic Trail
National Park Service
324 South State Street, Suite 200
Salt Lake City, Utah 84111
Compiled & edited by Kathy Alexander/Legends of America, updated March 2023.
About the Author: The top portion of this article was excerpted from Charles Dawson’s book, Pioneer Tales from the Oregon Trail and Jefferson County, published in 1912. Dawson lived in Jefferson County, Nebraska, for over 40 years and personally knew many pioneers who traveled along the Oregon Trail. Note: The article, as it appears here, is far from verbatim as it has been edited for clarity, truncated, and updated for the modern reader.
Brigham Young – Leading the Mormons
Mormon Handcart Tragedy of 1856
Salt Lake Tribune