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This is the place for facts you might not know about Mormon pioneers

Published July 24, 2014 11:33 am

Were they loyal Americans? How many pulled handcarts? How did they die? How many women were there?
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2014, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

You may be yawning at the thought of yet another Pioneer Day parade celebrating the heroic arrival of beleaguered Mormons into the Salt Lake Valley.

You've heard of the LDS prophet declaring on July 24 that "this is the right place." The tragic Willie and Martin handcart companies, trapped in snowy Wyoming. The crickets and sea gulls.

But there's a lot you might not know about Mormon pioneers and their historic trek.

We asked several historians to share little-known facts about the day, the people and the history for you to ponder as the colorful floats and trumpeting bands pass you by:

Who were the first Mormon pioneers to enter the Salt Lake Valley and was it on July 24?

Paul Reeve, University of Utah • Orson Pratt and Erastus Snow, scouts for the first group, arrived July 21. The first Mormon pioneers followed, on July 22, camping in the area of present day 1700 South and 500 East. The next day, they moved north and began plowing and planting. Brigham Young arrived July 24. His declaration that day was apparently a confirmation of a decision already made.

Were LDS pioneers loyal Americans?

Reeve • No, they were fleeing the United States. When the Mormons arrived in the Great Basin, they were actually arriving in northern Mexico. The U.S. war with Mexico was ongoing. When some Mormons first learned of that war, they hoped Mexico would win. Within seven months of the Mormon arrival in the valley, the war ended, and Mexico ceded the land which the Mormons occupied to the United States; the Mormons found themselves once again on American soil.

How many women were in the vanguard company?

Andrea Radke-Moss, Brigham Young University-Idaho • Three. Harriet Page Young, wife of Lorenzo Young, Ellen Sanders Kimball, wife of Heber C. Kimball, and Clarissa Decker Young, wife of Brigham Young. The latter two joined the company to take care of Heber's wife, who was sick. But there were some women with the Mississippi company that joined the vanguard company at Fort Laramie . ... Also, don't forget that there were women and children with the Mormon Battalion, which was on its way to California.

What were the most common causes of death along the trail?

Radke-Moss • Contrary to popular belief, deaths on the California, Santa Fe, Mormon and Oregon trails due to Indian attacks were rare, with just over 300 Euro-American deaths due to violent altercations with Native Americans over a 20-year period. For Mormons, it was even lower. Instead, the top three causes of death on the overland trails were trail accidents, disease and accidental shootings. It was common for migrants, especially children, to be bounced out of a wagon and have the wheels ride over a head or limbs. People often "walked and walked," according to the Mormon children's song, simply because it was safer to do so, not because it was a hardship. Diseases, especially cholera and typhoid, resulted from people cooking, drinking and washing in the same rivers that they used for bathing and personal waste disposal. As the season got later into July and August, rivers slowed down and were reduced to a trickle, making these disease outbreaks even worse. And, finally, accidental shootings, including self-inflicted, were so common that many train leaders banned the carrying of loaded weapons close to camps.

What percentage of the pioneers pulled handcarts?

Reeve • Handcarts were the least typical way of arriving in the valley, and the 1847 pioneers did not pull them. There were 10 total handcart companies that migrated between 1856 and 1860, bringing around 3,000 Mormons of the roughly 70,000 Mormon pioneers to the Great Basin, only about 5 percent of the overall migration. The vast majority of Mormon pioneers arrived in wagon companies. The irony is that in the 21st century at Martin's Cove, Wyo., there are some weeks in which more people pull handcarts in re-enactment "treks" than pulled handcarts in the entire 19th century combined.  

What happened to the handcart pioneers' supplies when the people were rescued in 1856?

Thomas G. Alexander, Brigham Young University • The survivors in the Willie and Martin handcart companies and the Hunt and Hodgett wagon companies were brought to Salt Lake City but their supplies were left in a cache near Devil's Gate, Wyo., under the guard of a group of men who suffered through the winter just as the members of the two handcart and two wagon companies did. Daniel W. Jones headed the guard company with Thomas M. Alexander and Ben Hampton as his counselors and 17 other men. After the guards nearly died of starvation, a wagon train arrived in the spring from Utah to retrieve the supplies — and the men protecting them.

Were the Mormons alone on their westward trek in 1847?

Matt Bowman, Hampden-Sydney College, Virginia • No. For most of the way, the trail they followed was well established and frequently used. As they traveled through Iowa, for instance, Mormon men hired themselves out as laborers; they would trade with other traveling groups, and a Mormon band even played in towns as they passed through to raise money.

What was the longest trip taken by a Mormon wagon train?

Brittany A. Chapman, LDS Church History Department • Of the 345 documented companies that traveled to Utah between 1847 and 1868, the longest trip would have been Brigham Young's 1847 vanguard company. It took the group about three months and one week to make the trip from Winter Quarters, Neb., to the Salt Lake Valley. The shortest trip would have been by members of the Daniel D. McArthur Company in 1868. They made their trip in 19 days. However, it is an unfair comparison. With each year, the trail got shorter as the railway got closer to Utah. The first company was leaving from Winter Quarters. The 1868 companies were leaving from Benton, Wyoming. Also, the family trains went slower than the freight trains that were just carrying a few pioneers.

What unusual items did the pioneers carry in their wagons?

Chapman • Along with seeds and tools to help the desert "blossom as the rose," beehives were among the first items transported to the Salt Lake Valley. At least 13 apiaries began the journey across the Plains. Whether all made it Utah is up for debate.

What kind of pranks did pioneer kids play on one another?

Chapman • Zebulon Jacobs, who at age 19 was an out-and-back teamster, recorded the following in his journal: "Saturday, Aug. 17 [1861]. As we woke up in the morning, all hands began laughing at each other, as our faces were besmeared with tar and wagon grease. Some of the boys from the other camp had paid us a visit and left their compliments upon our faces."

How did the Mormons benefit from the Donner and Reed parties' failure?

Radke-Moss • The 1847 Mormon company had a relatively easy time getting its wagons down Emigration Canyon, because the famously ill-fated Donner and Reed parties had cut their way down the canyon the year before, in 1846. That it took them three weeks to do so in part added to the time delay that got them caught in early winter blizzards in the Sierra Nevada. So Mormon success in 1847 was partly at the cost of the Donner demise.

pstack@sltrib.com

Twitter: @religiongal