Sesquicentennial Wagon Train and Mormon Trail

        long wagon

See more pictures of the wagon train

Our ancestors came to Utah as pioneers, but none arrived in the first year. Some came as destitute Scandanavian immigrants in the handcart companies. Others came in such relative luxury that each of the children was given their own pony for the trip. Some suffered near starvation while the worst calamity to befall others was the drowning of two peafowl in a box carried beneath one of the wagons.

For all the disparity in the modes of travel and the fortune of our ancestors, they all had one thing in common. They had wonderful testimonies of the truthfulness of the gospel that they had embraced.

In 1847, the first groups of the Mormon pioneers left Winter Quarters, near Council Bluffs, Iowa. They travelled the 1200 or so miles to the present site of Salt Lake. An advance group arrived in the Salt Lake Valley on July 19, 1847 and had already started plowing fields before the main group arrived on July 24.

Another group formed the Mormon Battalion. At the request of the U. S. government a party of 543 men, 23 women and 51 children was formed to help out in the Mexican war. They made one of the longest military marches in history, about 2,000 miles from Iowa to California.

There has been a lot of publicity given to Brigham Young's "This is the Place" announcement. Whether such a pronouncement was made is is a matter of speculation. In any case, if Brigham did raise up from his sick bed and make the statement, that was a moot point. For several years, probably even before Joseph Smith's martyrdom, the leaders among the Church knew that they would eventually settle in the Rocky mountains and even that they would settle in the Salt Lake valley.

It is interesting to note that several members of the Mormon Battalion met the pioneers in Salt Lake just weeks after the first pioneer company arrived from the East. They obviously knew where "the place" was to be.

There were approximately 2,000 Saints in the Salt Lake Valley that first year. Brigham Young and many of the other general authorities of the Church returned to Winter Quarters for the winter of 1847-48 so they might prepare those left behind for the next season's travel. It took several years before all the Saints were moved from the area around Nauvoo to Salt Lake.

Much has been made of the handcart companies. RoseMary's 3rd great-grandfather, James O. Peterson, and his family including 7 year-old Hans Peter Peterson was a member of the James G. Willie (4th) handcart company. Somehow James (also known as Jems O. Pedersen) got through with his family intact. About 20% of the Willie company (100 or so out of 500) died in that fateful journey. The Martin handcart company fared even worse, only 110 of the 500 or so in the Martin company survived to see the following summer in Salt Lake.

Nevertheless, 8 of the 10 handcart companies were a success. The poor were given a way to travel to Zion, The emigration fund was able to finance many more Saints' travel, the handcart companies travelled faster than the wagon trains and the problem of finding feed for the horses and oxen needed by a wagon train's animals was greatly reduced. The Martin and Willie companies left too late in the season for safe travel and had been warned of the folly of doing so. That particular mistake was not repeated.

As an aside, the directors of the re-enactment wagon train were concerned about the care and feeding of the handcart people. It turned out that they needn't have worried. The handcart contingent actually proved, just as their predecessor, to be a faster more economical means of travel than the wagons.

150 years later, that first wagon trek was recreated. On July 18 and 19 we travelled to East Canyon Reservoir just a few miles South of Hennefer and I-80 to visit the Sesquicentennial wagon train reenactment. The picture above was one of several photos I took. We visited with several participants and learned much about the problems they faced and the triumphs they celebrated. Every participant that we talked to was quick to point out that our ancestors had faced some of those same problems and many, many more.

After seeing the sesquicentennial wagon train, we decided to travel along the Mormon trail as much as possible in the three days we had. Starting out at the wagon ruts near Guernsey, Wyoming and following through to Salt Lake we saw some of the major points along the trail. Next time we will know that many more days are needed.

The Mormon trail today Wagon Train Photos

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