It is the sesquicentennial--the 150th year celebrating the overland migration of Mormon pioneers to the Great Salt Lake Valley--a story of adventure and despair which began in February 1846 with an exodus from Nauvoo, Illinois, to the tribal lands of the Omaha Indians at Council Bluffs, Iowa Territory. The following year an advance company numbering 143 men, three women and two children, in seventy-two wagons, with ninety-three horses, sixty-six oxen, fifty-two mules, nineteen cows and a flock of chickens, set out from Winter Quarters (today's Florence, Nebraska) on the western side of the Missouri River in Nebraska Territory for the valley in the Wasatch Mountains of the Great Basin that would become their new home. Brigham Young intended to send a party of 144 ("twelve times twelve men") but one, Ellis Eames, took sick and turned back.
The pioneer company moved out on April 5, 1847, and 111 days later, on July 24, the last contingent of that hardy group entered the Great Salt Lake Valley with its ailing leader. Despite three months of hardship and travail, all reached the valley safely. To celebrate that difficult journey that culminated in the founding of Salt Lake City, to honor the spirit of pioneering and to pay tribute to those intrepid souls who traveled overland a century and a half ago, a Mormon Trail Wagon Train re-enactment group plans where possible to trace the route followed by the pioneers in 1847.
Such an ambitious undertaking is not without controversy. From the first announcement, historical purists have argued that the description "Mormon Trail" is a misnomer; that the Mormons did not blaze the route along the northern bank of the Platte River, American Indians and mountaineers did. But when Brigham Young and his followers chose to use that side of the river to complete their exodus and avoid the heavy Oregon-California wagon traffic along the southern bank, they established a route followed by about 70,000 Mormons during the next two decades. The road became known popularly in its own day as the Mormon Trail and Congress recognized the distinction in November 1978 by designating a 1,200-mile-plus corridor from Nauvoo to Salt Lake City as the "Mormon Pioneer National Historic Trail" that made the argument moot.
While the 1847 pioneers actually began their westward journey on April 5, modern roads, bridges and highways, plus 20th-century technology, make for faster and infinitely less rigorous travel. The several hundred participants in the commemorative wagon train will delay their departure almost two weeks and still plan to reach Salt Lake Valley by the July target date. One group known as the North Company will leave Winter Quarters on April 21, following the north shore trail of the Platte. A second wagon train through Nebraska will depart April 18 and follow the Oxbow segment later used by the Mormons, a more southerly route from Council Bluffs. The two companies will meet at Kearney, Nebraska, on May 7 and continue as one train through to the Salt Lake Valley.
Most of the Nebraska portion of the original trail is on private property, which means that the commemorative trek in that state will generally follow established highways, ensuring that what little remains of the actual trail will be closed to what is expected to be thousands of spectators. The situation is different in Wyoming, where historic sites are more available. But that also provoked some concern regarding crowd control because of special events planned by the re-enactment group.
Specifically, the Bureau of Land Management is worried about Martin's Cove, 55 miles southwest of Casper and two and one-half miles from Devil's Gate, where The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints will pay homage to nearly 150 handcart Mormons who perished of starvation and exposure in snowstorms that pummeled the region in early November 1856. The Cove is on the National Register of Historic Places.
It is revered by members of the LDS Church as the last resting place of so many Mormon travelers. Because the handcart disaster occurred nine years after the original overland trek, the Martin Cove site has only peripheral ties to the commemorative wagon train, but the church is using the opportunity on June 18-19, to honor the memory of the hand-carters with a new interpretive station.
The wagon train will continue its journey through Wyoming and enter Utah at Yellow Creek southwest of Evanston on July 14, then wend its way to Henefer and East Canyon State Park on July 18-20. The wagon train will pull into This Is The Place State Park at the mouth of Emigration Canyon on July 22 where a special celebration is planned and the three-month commemorative re-enactment will conclude with participation in the Days of '47 Parade in downtown Salt Lake City on July 24.