The 19th-century Mormon migration beginning in 1846 in Illinois, then through Iowa and Nebraska and eventually to a place of refuge in the Rocky Mountains, was one of the most remarkable episodes in the history of the United States’ great western migration. Unlike the thousands of pioneers streaming west to California and Oregon looking for a better life, the Mormon pioneers migrated involuntary — the result of expulsion from Illinois and Missouri by hostile neighbors. Later, the Mormon pioneer trail would be filled with converts coming from Europe.
- With the assassination of Joseph Smith in 1844 and increasing pressure on the Mormons to abandon their city of Nauvoo on the banks of the Mississippi, it soon became obvious to Church leaders that they would need to move yet again. At first they established a refuge in what was called Winter Quarters, near present-day Omaha, Nebraska. Then in 1847, under the leadership of Brigham Young, the first wagon train headed west for the Rocky Mountains, its precise destination unknown.
- As the first group of Mormon pioneers reached the Salt Lake Valley in the summer of 1847, Brigham Young looked out over what was then a barren, dry desert and declared, "This is the right place."
- In 1849, President Young established the Perpetual Emigration Fund to assist poor Latter-day Saint immigrants. The fund helped some 30,000 immigrants from the British Isles, Scandinavia, Switzerland, Germany and the Netherlands reach America — more than one-third of the total Latter-day Saint immigrants from Europe during that period.
- To cut down on expensive wagons and oxen, some 3,000 of the pioneers subsequently used low-cost wooden handcarts that were light enough to be pulled across the Great Plains. One family or five individuals were assigned to a handcart, with 18 to 20 people sharing a tent. A cart hauled no more than 200 pounds — about 17 pounds of baggage per person. Each highly organized company was led by an experienced guide and was accompanied by at least four oxen-drawn supply wagons.
- The first party of handcarts set out from Iowa City, Iowa, on 9 June 1856 with a company of 266 people from England, followed two days later by a second company of just over 200. These early handcart brigades successfully arrived in the Salt Lake Valley, but the trips were not easy. Pioneer journals recorded harsh weather, the threat of hostile Indians, the death of fellow travelers and the ongoing hardships of hunger and fatigue.
- 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 worst storms of the century. 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.
- In all, whether they came by wagon or handcart, thousands of Mormon pioneers died on the trail. Loved ones including children were often buried in shallow graves that would never be visited again.
- Under Brigham Young’s direction, an estimated 70,000 Latter-day Saints made the difficult journey to Utah from 1847 until the transcontinental railroad was completed in 1869. The collective experience of the pioneers has cut deep into Mormon self-identity. Pioneer ancestors who made the trek are honored and often spoken of not only in family gatherings of descendants but also in meetings of Church members, who see the pioneers’ example of courage and sacrifice as inspirational.