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Cover Story August 31, 2006



by lyle e davis

Those of us living in today’s world may not have survived the pioneer days. When you look back on the difficulties, the illnesses, the various privations they endured, one would be reluctant to start a journey, much less try to finish it.

Only those who were well organized were likely to survive and even organization did not guarantee survival . . it just improved the odds.

There were, of course, the highly oranized Mormons, who made the journey from what was termed Winter Quarters (which was located in what is known today as the community of Florence, a suburb of Omaha, Nebraska) commencing on April 5, 1847, at 2 p.m. That wagon train, the first of many that would eventually bring over 70,000 immigrants to the the west, moved from Winter Quarters and into history.

One of the most complete, historically accurate accounts of the great migration is found in a brilliant work, “Historical Facts of the Mormon Trail,” by O. Ned Eddins.

Four groups of people that paid as great a price as anyone to live in America were Native Americans, the Irish, the Chinese, and the Mormons. My own ancestors watched their farms burn as they were driven out of Far West, Missouri, and then Nauvoo, Illinois. I have never been a church going Mormon, but I am extremely proud of my ancestors and their accomplishments. The Mormon pioneers not only "made the desert bloom," they did it without government funding, and none of them filed lawsuits against Missouri and Illinois for violating their civil rights.

On the 27th of October, 1838, Missouri Governor Lilburn W. Boggs signed the Mormon extermination order. The order declared, "The Mormons must be treated as enemies, and must be exterminated, or driven from the State, if necessary for the public peace." This military directive forced an exodus from Missouri of approximately ten thousand men, women and children. In mid-winter, the Mormon families were driven from their farms, homes, and lands. The vast majority of the Missouri Mormons resettled in Nauvoo, Illinois ... my great-great- great grandparents Patty and David Sessions lost twelve hundred dollars in land and four hundred dollars in livestock and corn when they were driven from Missouri in 1838. Leaving their Missouri farm in the depths of winter, they stayed at one place on the road for fourteen days with nothing to eat but parched corn.

For the next seven years, Mormon converts came to Nauvoo, Illinois. Within a few years, Nauvoo had a population of twenty thousand, rivaling Chicago as the two largest cities in the state. The rapid growth of church membership, financial success of both members and the Mormon church, polygamy, and a well armed militia (Nauvoo Legion), fueled the intolerance of non-Mormons. While jailed in Carthage, Illinois, the leader of the Mormon Church, Joseph Smith and his brother Hyrum, were killed by a mob on June 27, 1844.

The hatred and bigotry continued. In 1845 more than two hundred Mormon homes and farm buildings were burned in an attempt to force the Mormons to leave Illinois. Mob violence forced the church leadership to announce that the Mormons would leave Nauvoo for the West.

In a letter addressed to U.S. President James K. Polk in 1846, Brigham Young gave notice of the farewell:

"We would esteem a territorial government of our own as one of the richest boons of earth, and while we appreciate the Constitution of the United States as the most precious among the nations, we feel that we had rather retreat to the deserts, islands or mountain caves than consent to be ruled by governors and judges whose hands are drenched in the blood of innocence and virtue, who delight in injustice and oppression." Thus, they walked (quoted in B. H. Roberts, A Comprehensive History of the Church, 3:89-90).

Orson Pratt, a member of the church’s Council of Twelve Apostles sent a message to Mormons throughout the eastern and middle states, urging them to join the western migration. Pratt's message stated that “we do not want one saint left in the United States. Let every branch in the east, west, north and south be determined to flee by either land or sea.”

On February 4th, 1846, Samuel Brannan took two hundred and thirty-eight men, women and children aboard the Brooklyn to sail from New York City to Yerba Buena (San Francisco). The arrival in San Francisco of the Mormon emigrants doubled the population. Over the next two years, more than one hundred buildings were constructed by the new emigrants, laying the foundation for the boomtown that would develop during the California gold rush.

By mid-February the exodus from Nauvoo was underway. While crossing Iowa, several settlements (Garden Grove, Mt. Pisgah) were built and crops planted by the first wagon trains. These towns were built to serve as way stations and re-supply points for the Mormons that would follow. By the middle of May (1846), it was estimated that sixteen thousand Mormons had left Nauvoo and crossed the Mississippi River. Many of them stopped to help establish the towns and farms in Iowa, but eventually all were headed for the Salt Lake Valley. The winter crossing of the rivers, streams, creeks and bogs of Iowa was the hardest part of the Mormon migration. Upon reaching the Missouri River, Kanesville (Council Bluffs) was settled on the Iowa side of the river, while Winter Quarters, on the west side of the river, was established in the area of present day Omaha, Nebraska.

Brigham Young gathered all of the information possible on the Salt Lake Valley and the Great Basin while in Nauvoo and later in Winter Quarters. Mountain Men and Father Pierre de Smet, a Jesuit missionary, stopped at Winter Quarters and provided information about the Great Basin area. Despite Samuel Brannan and mountain men advising against the Salt Lake Valley, Brigham Young insisted the Mormons would settle in a location no one else wanted. The Great Salt Lake Valley met the requirement in all respects.

Unlike most wagon trains, the Mormons did not use any Mountain Man guides. The Mormon migration was not a blind, wandering trek across the Plains. It was a carefully planned and organized journey to the Great Salt Lake Valley.

Oregon - Mormon Trails

As the Pioneer Party was getting ready to leave for the Great Salt Lake Valley, John Taylor arrived with five hundred dollars worth of astronomical instruments and other technical equipment to provide accurate trail locations for future companies. The scientific equipment included two sextants, one circle of reflection, two artificial horizons, two barometers, several thermometers, and telescopes. Mormon pioneers traveling over the trail improved it and built support facilities for those that would follow. Ferries were established to help finance the Mormon migration.

Brigham Young and the pioneer party left Winter Quarters on April 5th, 1847 for the Salt Lake Valley. The Pioneer Company (Camp of Israel) consisted of one hundred and forty-three men, three women and two children. The company had seventy-two wagons, ninety-three horses, fifty-two mules, sixty-six oxen, nineteen cows, seventeen dogs, and some chickens. The three women were Harriet Page Wheeler Young (wife of Lorenzo D. Young), Clarissa Decker Young (wife of Brigham Young) and Ellen Saunders Kimball (wife of Heber C. Kimball). The two children were Isaac Perry Decker and Lorenzo Sobieski Young. Brigham Young and his advisers sought builders, mechanics, masons and resolute men to form the Mormon vanguard that would push the frontier beyond the Rocky Mountains. Chauncey Loveland a fifth generation grandfather was a member of the Pioneer Company, as were three "colored" men.

Over the next ten years, thousands of Mormons had traveled by wagon train to the west. By 1856, the number of Mormon converts had reached the point that wagon trains were too expensive. Brigham Young decided that the easiest, cheapest, and fastest way for large numbers of converts to reach the Salt Lake Valley was by handcarts. The use of these two-wheeled handcarts was a feature unique to the Mormon Trail migration. Modeled after carts used by street sweepers, the wood handcarts were six- to seven-feet long, wide enough to span a narrow wagon track, and could be pulled or pushed. The small boxes affixed to the carts were three- to four-feet long and eight inches high. Five people were assigned to each cart. A handcart loaded with provisions weighed four- to five-hundred pounds, and needed two able bodied people to pull it. Adults could carry seventeen pounds of personal belongings and ten pounds for each child on the handcart ... personal belongs included bedding, family keepsakes, clothes, etc. The belongings were closely weighed for each individual and anything beyond the seventeen pounds was discarded, or in case of a family, anything beyond the total weight allowed for the family members ... imagine discarding all of your worldly goods down to seventeen pounds. Even though the converts had little, there were many heirlooms and keepsakes discarded on the prairie outside of Iowa City. In addition to the carts, a wagon drawn by three yoke of oxen was provided for every hundred persons. The wagons carried extra provisions, primarily flour and five tents. Twenty people were assigned to each tent.

Five handcart companies were organized in 1856 to make the thirteen hundred mile trip from the railroad terminus at Iowa City, Iowa, to Salt Lake City. The first three handcart companies arrived in Salt Lake without problems, but the last two, the Willey Handcart Company and the Martin Handcart Company were trapped between Independence Rock and South Pass by deep snow and blizzards. The Willey and Martin Handcart companies had a total of nine hundred and eighty people with two hundred and thirty-three handcarts.

From 1856 to 1860, ten handcart companies made the journey from Iowa City and Florence (1857-1860), Nebraska to the Salt Lake Valley. Over the five year period of the Mormon Handcarts companies, two thousand, nine hundred and sixty-two immigrants walked over the Mormon Trail to Utah. Of the two hundred and fifty people that died during the handcart period, two hundred and twenty were in the Willie and Martin Handcart companies.

Mormon Trail Historical Tidbits:

The move West was considered by church leaders as early as 1842. Oregon, California, and Texas were considered as potential destinations. In 1844, Joseph Smith obtained John C. Fremont's map and reports describing the Great Basin and the Salt Lake Valley, which at the time Brigham Young started West in 1847 belonged to Mexico.

None of the information gathered at Winter Quarters, or from mountain men, about the Great Basin Desert had any effect on Brigham Young's goal of settling the Great Salt Lake Valley. Brigham had insisted from the start that the Mormons were going to settle in a place that no one else wanted. As is evident today, the "desert bloomed" under Brigham Young's leadership.

The exodus of the Mormons from Nauvoo, Illinois, to the Valley of the Great Salt Lake occurred in two segments. The first segment, across Iowa to the Missouri River in February of 1846, took over four months to cover two hundred and sixty-five miles. The second segment, from the Missouri River to the Valley of the Great Salt Lake, covered one thousand and thirty-two miles in four months.

It was during the first segment from Nauvoo to Winter Quarter that Brigham Young finalized his plan for the mass movement of wagon trains. The trains were organized into companies of hundreds, fifties, and tens. This division was based on able bodied men.

In December of 1846, Winter Quarters boasted five hundred and thirty-two log homes, eighty-three sod houses, and an untold number of tents and wagons that were used for shelter. Winter Quarters population was close to four thousand.
Inadequate shelter and food at Winter Quarters during the winter of 1846-47 resulted in approximately four hundred Mormons dying of malaria, scurvy, dysentery, and a host of other unidentified ailments.

In 1846 five hundred volunteers formed the Mormon Battalion to serve in the 1846-1848 Mexican War. The pay of the battalion, seventy thousand dollars, helped fund the exodus to Utah.

The Mormon Trail across Nebraska and Wyoming followed previously used emigrant trails. As the Mormon wagon trains traveled west, ferries were built and the stream crossings were improved for the trains that would follow.

The Pioneer Party spent one hundred and twenty days on the trail. The average distance traveled was eight an a half miles per day. Three of the five handcart companies from Iowa City, traveling roughly three hundred miles farther, averaged sixteen weeks to reach the Salt Lake Valley. With the exception of the Martin and Willey Handcart companies, the handcarts traveled faster than the wagon trains from Winter Quarters.

Just over South Pass at Pacific Spring, Mountain Man Moses "Black" Harris informed the Mormons that the Salt Lake Valley was sandy and destitute of timber; no vegetation but the wild sage. Harris gave Brigham’s Party past issues of the Oregon Spectator, the first newspaper published on the Pacific Coast, and a number of copies of the California Star published by Samuel Brannan. Soon after the meeting with Harris, the Pioneers met "Peg Leg" Smith, who had a post near Bear Lake and then Jim Bridger from Fort Bridger.

Jim Bridger told Brigham Young that it was not prudent to bring a large population into the Great Basin until it is proven that grain can survive the cold. So skeptical was he [Bridger], that he told [Brigham] Young, “I would give $1,000 for a bushel of corn raised in the basin.”

On June 30th in the Green River Valley, Samuel Brannan rode into the Camp of Israel. He gave the Pioneers an account of the Brooklyn voyage to California, and told them of the Donner Party disaster from freezing temperatures and lack of food in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Brannan tried to convince Brigham Young of the virtues of going on to California.

West of Fort Bridger, the Pioneer Party met Miles Goodyear. As the other mountain men had done, Goodyear downplayed the Salt Lake Valley as a place for the church. During a lengthy conversation, Goodyear mentioned his “farm”, Fort Buenaventura in the Bear River Valley (Ogden, Utah).

The Mormon Trail from Fort Bridger followed the trail of the Donner-Reed Party through the Wasatch Mountains. The final one hundred and sixteen miles, from Fort Bridger to the Valley of the Great Salt Lake, was the most difficult of the second stage migration.

An advanced group of the Pioneer Party arrived in the Salt Lake Valley on July 22, 1847. Brigham Young, who was sick, arrived two days later on July 24, 1847.

On July 23, the advanced company moved to (present day) Four Hundred South and State Street (where the Salt Lake City-County Building now stands). That day, William Carter, George W. Brown, and Shadrach Roundy shared the honor of plowing the first furrows in the Valley of the Great Salt Lake.

Orson Pratt, one of the first Mormons to see the Salt Lake Valley, exclaimed, "an extensive scenery open before us, we could not refrain from a shout of joy which almost involuntarily escaped from our lips the moment this grand and lovely scenery was within our view."

Not all of the pioneer party was so enthusiastic about the Great Salt Lake Valley. Harriet Page Wheeler Young on viewing the Salt Lake Valley said, “Weak and weary as I am, I would rather go a thousand miles farther than remain in such a forsaken place as this.”...in 1892, when my grandmother first saw the log cabin on my grandfather's homestead in Star Valley (near Thayne, Wyoming), she hesitated for sometime before saying, "Nobody lives in a place like this." Just as the "desert bloomed", Star Valley is now regarded as one of the most beautiful valleys in the West.

By the time Brigham Young arrived in the Salt Lake Valley (two days later), Erastus Snow pointed to the progress of the advanced company. “We have the creek dammed and the water turned onto our land and several acres of potatoes and early corn already in the ground.”

Mormons were not the first white settlers in the Great Salt Lake Valley. In 1844-45, Miles Goodyear established Fort Buenaventura on the Weber River in present day Ogden, Utah.

Not wanting any other settlers in the Great Salt Lake Valley, the Mormons bought the property from Goodyear, who claimed to have a deed from the Mexican Government. In reality the Mormon Church paid Goodyear one thousand nine hundred and fifty dollars for nothing more than Goodyear's squatters rights to the land. James Brown moved into the fort in 1848 and renamed it, Fort Brown.

My great-great grandfather, Perrigrine Sessions traveled the Oregon-Mormon trail in 1847. He was a Captain of Fifty in the second wagon train to arrive in the Salt Lake Valley ... fifty able bodied men, counting the families would be over two hundred people. The wagon train of six hundred and sixty wagons traveled the one thousand and thirty-two miles from Winter Quarters to the Salt Lake Valley with 124 horses, 9 mules, 2,213 oxen, 887 cows, 358 sheep, 35 hogs, and 716 chickens. On reaching the Salt Lake Valley, Brigham Young sent Perrigrine north with some of the animals to keep them away from the newly planted crops. The first settler of Sessionsville (Bountiful, Utah) and his family spent the winter with their wagon backed up to a dugout in the bank of Big Hollow (250 West 2nd North in present day Bountiful).

I like to think that my interest in western history comes from my ancestors. Between 1847 and 1854, every Grandfather and Grandmother in my direct-line ancestry traveled over the Mormon Trail (thirty-three in all). The oldest, John Parker, was eighty-two, and the youngest was my maternal great-grandfather, Mathew Gilby. Mathew had his fourth birthday in August of 1851, while walking to Utah.

My great-great-great grandparents, David and Patty Sessions were called to go with the first company to clear a trail between Nauvoo and the Missouri River. Patty was given the responsibility of midwifery. Among the hundreds of pioneers that left Nauvoo, nine babies were born on the banks of the Mississippi River.

The next summer at the age of fifty-two, Patty Bartlett Sessions walked beside an ox team in her son Perrigrine's company from Winter Quarters to the Salt Lake Valley. Besides driving the ox team, Patty kept a complete day diary, delivered babies, and treated the sick.

Upon arriving in Utah, "Mother Sessions" delivered the first male child born in the Salt Lake Valley. Known as the Mormon-Midwife, Patty Bartlett Sessions delivered three thousand nine hundred and seventy-seven babies. She died at the age of ninety-seven.

To put this number of deliveries in perspective, Dr. O. L. Treloar practiced (only doctor during World War II) in Afton (Star Valley), Wyoming, for over thirty years. During this time, Dr. Treloar delivered just over three thousand babies in a predominately Mormon community.

The use of the Oregon-Mormon trail by the Mormons lasted from 1847 to 1869. Seventy thousand Mormons traveled over the trail during this period. Use of the Mormon Trail stopped in 1869 with the driving of the "golden spike" at Promontory Point, Utah, for the transcontinental railroad.
State of Deseret

In July 1849 Church Authorities wrote a constitution for statehood; the U.S. Constitution and the Iowa Constitution of 1846 were used as guidelines. When Church Authorities petitioned Congress for a new state, they requested the state be named Deseret. The proposed state boundaries were set at: Oregon on the north, Green River on the east, Mexico on the south, and the Sierra Nevada on the west, including a portion of the Southern California seacoast ... Congress turned down the proposed State of Deseret, primarily because of the practice of polygamy.

The Mormon Trail article was written by O. Ned Eddins of Afton, Wyoming. Permission is given for material from this site.


Cornwall, Rebecca, and Leonard J. Arrington. Rescue of the 1856 Handcart Companies. Vol. 11 of the Charles Redd Monographs in Western History. Provo, Utah 1981.

Hafen, LeRoy R., and Ann W. Hafen. Handcarts to Zion: The Story of a Unique Western Migration, 1856-1860. Vol. 14 of the Far West and the Rockies Historical Series. Glendale, Calif., 1960.

Lund, Gerald N. Fire Of The Covenant. Bookcraft Publishing, Salt Lake City, Utah. 1999. - an excellent book.

Internet Sites:

Schindler, Harold. Camp of Israel. Salt Lake Tribune web site, 1997.

Schindler, Harold. Handcart Company Articles (several). Salt Lake Tribune web site, 1997.






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