Mormon Pioneer Trail
From The Encyclopedia of Mormonism
Author: Kimball, Stanley B.
The approximately 1,300-mile-long trail from Nauvoo, Illinois, to Salt Lake City, Utah, was certified by the National Trails Act of 1986 as a National Historic Trail-officially The Mormon Pioneer National Historic Trail. Contrary to popular belief, however, the famous trail was not a Mormon creation. The Latter-day Saints did very little trail-blazing. They followed territorial roads and Indian trails across Iowa; various segments of the Oregon Trail from the Missouri River to Fort Bridger in present western Wyoming; and the year-old trail of the ill-fated California-bound Reed-Donner party from Fort Bridger into the valley of the Great Salt Lake.
Although the trail was not blazed by the Latter-day Saints, and parts of it have at times been known as the Council Bluffs Road, the Omaha Road, the Great Platte River Road, or even the North Branch of the Oregon Trail, the entire route is today almost universally known as "The Mormon Trail" because the Latter-day Saints used it for twenty-three years in such large numbers (at least seventy thousand; no one knows just how many), because of the high drama of their "Exodus," and because they developed separate strands or trails and wove them into their great road (see Immigration and Emigration).
The trail divides into two unequal sections: 1. The approximately 265-mile-long section from Nauvoo on the Mississippi across Iowa to present-day Council Bluffs on the Missouri. This part of the trail was used relatively little: mainly by Latter-day Saints fleeing Illinois in 1846, by some immigrants "jumping off" from Keokuk, Iowa, in 1853, and in 1856-1857 by seven handcart companies from Iowa City who entered the Mormon Trail at present-day Lewis, Cass County, Iowa. Thousands of other Latter-day Saints crossed Iowa on variants of the 1846 route or on other trails, but all these intersected the trail of 1846 somewhere in western Iowa.
2. The approximately 1,032-mile-long trans-Missouri River segment from present North Omaha (one-time winter quarters) and Florence, Nebraska, across Nebraska and Wyoming, into Utah. This part of the trail was used extensively from 1847 until completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1869. As in Iowa, variants evolved, but all LDS immigrants used all or parts of this trans-Missouri trail.
While the 1846-1847 trek from Nauvoo to Salt Lake City is by far the best-known part of the twenty-three-year-long Mormon overland migration, it is only part of the story. Between 1848 and 1868, LDS immigrants traveling west from the Missouri River developed or utilized at least a dozen other points of departure and followed many other trails, such as the Oxbow Trail (1849-1864), the Mormon Grove Trail (1855-1856), and the Nebraska City Cutoff (1864-1866). In one way or another, however, all these trails eventually intersected the Mormon Trail. Furthermore, with the Union Pacific Railroad moving west from Omaha beginning in 1865, during 1867-1868 Latter-day Saints took trains from Omaha to four different railheads (North Platte, Nebraska; Julesburg, Colorado; and Laramie and Benton, Wyoming), from which they eventually picked up the Mormon Trail.
Across the monotonous, undifferentiated, rolling central lowlands of Iowa, the Mormon Trail of 1846 generally followed primitive territorial roads as far as Bloomfield, Davis County, and then vague Pottawattamie Indian and trading trails along ridges from one water source to another, always within fifty miles of the present Missouri state line. Today this part of the Mormon Trail is difficult to follow, not because of the terrain but because modern roads seldom parallel it and because the plow has destroyed most vestiges of it.
West of the Missouri River the Saints passed along river valleys, across grasslands, plains, steppes, deserts, and mountains, and through western forests. Topographically, the trail led across the central lowlands and high plains of eastern and central Nebraska, then the upland trough of western Nebraska and eastern Wyoming, through the Wyoming basin and the middle Rocky Mountains, and into the desert valleys of the Great Basin.
From the Missouri River, Mormon companies followed the broad, flat valleys of the Loupe and Platte rivers for some six hundred miles to present-day Casper, Wyoming, then the Sweetwater River for about ninety-three miles to South Pass, thence along branches of the Sandy River and Blacks Fork to Fort Bridger, finally zigzagging through a series of canyons into the valley of the Great Salt Lake.
In Nebraska, as in Iowa, there is little left today of the Mormon Trail, but modern roads do parallel the old trail closely. In Wyoming, however, with proper maps much of this old trail can still be found because the harsh terrain has held the ruts better and agriculture has obliterated little. In Utah, although modern roads follow the trail closely, very few of the original ruts remain.