History Blazer, January 1996
In the winter of 1848 word spread through the eastern states that gold had been discovered in California’s Sierra Nevada. The following spring over 25,000 fortune hunters headed west. This number increased the next summer to 50,000. In 1851 it fell to 5,000 when more realistic reports stated that 19 out of 20 miners were lucky to cover expenses much less strike it rich.
As the forty-niners crossed the Rockies, one-third of them, after reaching Fort Bridger in southwestern Wyoming, detoured from the main trail through southern Idaho and across northern Nevada. Instead, they took the Mormon Trail southwest to Great Salt Lake City. Those who chose this route usually had a compelling reason—illness, dwindling supplies, exhausted livestock—and looked upon the Mormon capital as an oasis.
Meanwhile, the city had troubles of its own. It was only two years old, and its 6,000-plus residents had suffered two disastrous harvests in a row because of drought, frost, and cricket infestation. With no buffer between themselves and starvation, they needed all the wheat they could grow for their own families and immigrant converts expected that fall from Europe. As a result, Mormon leaders were not eager for a horde of gold-seekers to invade their kingdom. And why should they? Most losses that the forty-niners suffered on the trail came not through poverty and persecution but greed and poor planning.
Thus what happened between Mormons and goldrushers during the summers of 1849 and 1850 is a credit to both groups. Far from being turned away, “the emigrants,” as the Mormons called them, and their animals were welcomed, fed, housed, nursed if they had cholera or mountain fever, preached to, and—some of them—converted. And most of the journals that eventually found their way into historical archives reveal that, for their part, the goldrushers appreciated this hospitality and revised their previous prejudices against the sect.
What led to this happy obfuscation of the maxim, “What can go wrong, will go wrong”? Probably several factors.
First, many forty-niners had already encountered Mormons at ferry and trading stations on the Platte and Green rivers and had found them to be fair and helpful. No doubt these were the emigrants who tended to discount rumors of Mormon hostility in selecting the Salt Lake City route.
Second, both groups needed each other. The emigrants had to recruit or trade their animals for fresh mules and oxen. Some replaced heavy wagons and goods with lighter pack outfits. A fair number of travelers showed early symptoms of scurvy and hungered for greens and other produce—items the crickets had left alone.
Mormons needed iron to repair their own wagons and farm implements and were desperate for some consumer goods, especially fabric, coffee, and tea. As Utahn Joseph Hovey wrote, “Truly do I rejoice in my God for his goodness for just as we are all most out of bread they [emigrants] have come and oblige to sell there flower…and a little of all their provisions an Clothing it is in the right time for we as a people are very destitytute….”
Third, the impromptu trading between local and goldrusher proved amicable, further defusing mistrust between the two groups. Although accounts of Mormons gouging miners and soldiers persist even today, the journals indicate that an overwhelming majority of forty-niners were satisfied with their treatment by the Mormons.
Even most “winter Mormons” recorded positive impressions of their experience. These were goldrushers who did not go on to California the season they arrived but wintered in Salt Lake. They numbered several hundred in 1849, a thousand in 1850. However, three of the most negative accounts, which were later published and helped to solidify national opinion against Mormonism, originated from this group. It seems the longer an outsider remained in Mormon country, the greater his risk of running afoul of the unfamiliar legal system, sometimes inflammatory rhetoric, and strange family customs. Yet most were like house guests overstaying their welcome–eventually they left to good feeling on both sides.
What were the long-term fruits of this encounter between cultures? It established future travel patterns to the Pacific; when the transcontinental railroad was laid out, engineers chose the Salt Lake route. It fixed national attention on the Mormon kingdom, for good or bad. And it made Salt Lake City a base for later mercantile and exploration efforts.
See: Brigham D. Madsen, Gold Rush Sojourners in Great Salt Lake City, 1849 and 1850 (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1983).