Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor


The Mormon Pioneer National Historic Trail stretches 1,297 miles from Nauvoo, Illinois, to Salt Lake City, Utah. Although the Mormons, members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, did not actually blaze the trail and did not travel it exclusively, their improvements and extensive use permanently affixed their name to it.

The first part of the Mormon exodus commenced on February 4, 1846, when 1,600 Mormons crossed the Mississippi and began the journey to Kanesville (Council Bluffs, Iowa) and Winter Quarters (Florence, Nebraska). In 1847 a group led by Brigham Young began the second portion of the trail, tracing the Platte River's north bank and joining the Oregon-California Trail at Fort Laramie. Four hundred miles later, at Fort Bridger, they diverged from the Oregon-California Trail and continued west to the Great Salt Lake. From 1846 until the completion of the transcontinental railroad in Promontory, Utah, in 1869, 70,000.80,000 Mormons emigrated west over the Oregon-California and Mormon Trails. Approximately 6,000 died along the route.

In 1849 a Perpetual Emigrating Fund was established to enable converts to borrow funds for their trip and repay them after settling in Utah. During the late 1850s Mormon leaders also cut travel time and expenses by implementing two-wheeled handcart travel. Between 1856 and 1860, ten companies comprising 2,962 Mormons used this successful mode of transportation. In 1856, however, the Martin and Willie Companies left too late in the year and were trapped by the Wyoming winter. More than 200 perished before a rescue party arrived.

The Mormon Trail experience was highly organized and less marked by disease or Indian attack than other overland journeys. It served as an initiation, a rite of passage, and was a unifying element for early Mormons. Dramatic reenactments and celebrations of the Mormon Trail occurred in 1897, 1947, and 1997. In 1947 a "Centennial Caravan" consisting of seventy-two automobiles with simulated covered wagon tops and plywood oxen made the journey from Nauvoo to Salt Lake. In 1996 and 1997 an estimated 10,000 joined the sesquicentennial wagon train for a day, a week, or more. The Pioneer Cemetery and Mormon Trail Center at Historic Winter Quarters, Rebecca Winter's grave near Scottsbluff, Nebraska, Fort Caspar in Casper, Wyoming, the Mormon Handcart Visitors Center on the west side of Devil's Gate, Wyoming, and "This Is the Place" State Park in Salt Lake City memorialize the trail, portions of which are still visible in western Nebraska near North Platte and Sutherland and in various places in Wyoming.

See also RELIGION: Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Jay H. Buckley Brigham Young University

Hafen, LeRoy R., and Ann W. Hafen. Handcarts to Zion: The Story of a Unique Western Migration, 1856–1860. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1992.

Kimball, Stanley B. Historic Sites and Markers along the Mormon and Other Great Western Trails. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1988.

Stegner, Wallace. The Gathering of Zion: The Story of the Mormon Trail. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1981.

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