The February 2017 issue of the Ensign and Liahona magazines contains an article I wrote titled, “Understanding Church History by Study and Faith.” In the article, I introduce five concepts that help make sense of historical questions:
- The past is gone – only pieces remain
- Facts don’t speak, but storytellers do
- The past is different from the present (and that’s OK)
- Present assumptions distort the past
- Learning history requires humility
Read more at any of these links:
The excitement and value of Church History will be my theme during four presentations at Brigham Young University’s Campus Education Week on August 16-19, 2016.
Church History Can Help You!
1:50–2:45 p.m. in 222 Martin Building (MARB)
T The Top 10 Treasures in the Church History Library
W Use Church History to Understand Your Patriarchal Blessing
Th Find Your Family in Church History
F Answer Questions about Church History
The Top 10 Treasures in the Church History Library
The Church History Library houses the Church’s official archival, manuscript, and print records and among its collections are found many wonderful treasures. This presentation will share stories and high-quality images of each treasure, employing a top-10-style countdown to reveal them. Attendees will be invited to see the treasures in person.
Use Church History to Understand Your Patriarchal Blessing
The Church History Library holds the official copies of patriarchal blessings submitted by patriarchs. It also holds thousands of journals, talks, and letters that document the efforts of Church members and leaders to follow the counsel in their individual blessings. Drawing from published comments, the presentation shares experiences in understanding and interpreting one’s own patriarchal blessing.
Find Your Family in Church History
The Church History Library holds millions of original, authoritative historical records such as diaries, memoirs, personal papers, letters, photographs, and oral histories. Learn how to use these records to uncover historical experiences, personal and family history, and priesthood lineage.
Answer Questions about Church History
A few years ago, a copy of the Book of Mormon surfaced in the Church History Library that was thought to have been given to Jesse N. Smith by Joseph Smith. Speaking today the Jesse N. Smith Family Reunion, I explained why this is not the book and how to find and identify the actual book.
About the Presentation
- Summary of Main Ideas (published in the Church News, July 8, 2016)
- Selected Slides from the Presentation (PDF)
- Authentic Jesse N. Smith Items in the Church History Library (PDF)
Authentic Sources for Jesse N. Smith
- Portrait of Jesse N. Smith, c. 1864 (Church History Library)
- Autobiographical Sketch, c. 1884 (also published in Andrew Jenson’s LDS Biographical Encyclopedia, vol. 1 (1941), pp. 316-322.)
- Statement, 15 February 1894 (Church History Library)
- Journal, 1904-1906 (Church History Library)
- General Conference Address, April 1905, pp. 50-52
- See also Jesse N. Smith in the Early Mormon Missionaries Database
An important part of every Pioneer Day celebration involves rehearsing the stories of the pioneers. Stories about the past inspire us today, and they become more effective as they become more complete and accurate.
In the Church History Library, our historians, archivists and librarians have recently worked to learn and tell a better story about a book that has been in our collection for nearly 70 years. I share this behind-the-scenes view of the process in the hopes that it may help improve your family stories.
This Pioneer Day, may we seek to gather all of the pieces of the past that survive and to record all of the family stories that can be told. May we ask good questions that help us read the sources, stories and artifacts closely. May we have discernment to corroborate those facts which can be established and humility to hold on to the questions that remain unanswerable, at least for now.
1. Distinguish the past from stories and questions.
We must first distinguish the past from the stories told about it. The past is gone and the pioneers who lived through it have passed away. Some pioneers told stories about what they experienced and why it was important to them. Their stories are collected, retold (and sometimes embellished) by descendants for many reasons — to entertain, to instill gratitude, or to win an argument.
Today, we can tell better stories by asking good questions about the past and about the stories told by others. Our inquiry is shaped by the sources and stories available, but also by our own assumptions, values and needs. We will likely begin with more questions than answers, but that’s OK because each question gives us a place to start thinking.
In our case, the stories told about a book in our vault caused us to ask: Did Joseph Smith give a Book of Mormon to his cousin, Jesse N. Smith? What happened to the book? Is the book in our vault the one that was given to Jesse?
2. Read closely to corroborate details.
Good questions lead us to look for all of the pieces of the past and stories that we can find — stories written or remembered, books on library shelves, artifacts in attics or heirlooms in trunks. Once found, read closely and ask additional questions: What kind of source is it? Who was the author or creator? When and where and for whom was the source created or the story told? What is the main idea and what evidence supports it? What remains missing or untold?
In the case of Jesse N. Smith, we found an autobiographical sketch in which he stated that Joseph Smith gave him a copy of the Book of Mormon in 1843. We also discovered that Jesse told the story at general conference in 1905, repeating the fact that a Book of Mormon had been given while emphasizing that it was not a first edition (published in 1830) and that it bore a beautiful binding.
3. Read closely to identify provenance and verify authenticity.
We must likewise closely read material artifacts. Was an artifact actually created in the past? Did the purported user actually use it? Where has the artifact been since its creator or user last possessed it?
In the case of the book in the library’s vault, we found that it contained a handwritten inscription on the inside front cover, a typed note pasted in, and some handwriting beneath the note. The inscription stated that the book was given to Jesse N. Smith in 1842. But, as noted above, Jesse said he received the book in 1843. This error suggests that the inscription was not written at the time, a conclusion corroborated by the fact that the handwriting did not match known samples by Joseph or Jesse. The typed note stated that the book was donated to the Church in 1948 by the president of the Mesa Arizona Temple, so we could begin to establish the book’s provenance — the chain of custody from past to present. Other questions remained as yet unanswerable: When was the book donated to the temple? By whom and for what reason?
The handwriting beneath the note said the book had been repaired in 1944, but a closer look at the physical artifact revealed that the “repair” had been very invasive. The spine of the book had been removed entirely and replaced with a flexible substance called buckram. The first and last pages (including the title page) were missing, and those that remained had been roughly stitched together, leaving them uneven and too tight to open. The text matched the layout and typesetting of this edition printed in Liverpool, England, in 1849 — six years later than Jesse reported receiving a book and five years after Joseph had died.
Thus, by comparing Jesse N. Smith’s stories with the artifact in our vault, we concluded that yes, Joseph Smith did give his cousin Jesse a Book of Mormon, but no, this particular artifact is not that book. Most likely, a descendant who recalled Jesse’s story found this 1849 edition, added an inscription, had it repaired, and then gave it to the temple. This means that the actual book given by Joseph to Jesse may yet be out there somewhere, in a library or attic or trunk. When the actual book is discovered, there will be an even better story to tell.
This essay was published in the Deseret News on July 7, 2016.
Mormon women’s history ‘at a crossroads,’ speaker says
By R. Scott Lloyd, LDS Church News
Published: Thursday, March 17, 2016
The director of what he terms “the largest single repository of Mormon women’s history sources in the world” declared that such history stands at a crossroads today.
Keith Erekson, director of the Church History Library, was the opening plenary session speaker March 3 for the annual Church History Symposium sponsored by the Church History Department and the Religious Studies Center at Brigham Young University. The theme of this year’s conference was “Beyond Biography: Sources in Context for Mormon Women’s History.”
“Being at a crossroads in the 21st century isn’t all bad, considering that about a century ago in Mormon women’s history, we were at a no-roads,” Brother Erekson remarked.
“In the earliest [recorded] histories of the Church, women were typically absent,” he said. “In contrast to these Church histories, women were very present in anti-polygamy literature in the 19th century. They’re described as victims, … as defenseless, as slaves, de-literated, downtrodden, dull, senseless, sorrowful, degraded, shapeless, miserable.”
The next generation of writers in the Church responded to such portrayals defensively, he said, and “that defensive stance has really been a part of writing about Mormon women ever since.”
At the turn of the century, in B. H. Roberts’ six volume History of the Church, he presented Mormon women as “noble-minded, high-spirited, intelligent, courageous, independent, cheerful, profoundly religious, capable of great sacrifice,” Brother Erekson noted.
Thus, by the time the Church passed its first century mark, Mormon women had been portrayed variously “as absent, as victims, as profiled notables, as placeholders of designated spaces, and as symbols,” Brother Erekson said.
“It would be left for another generation of writers to ask, ‘Who were these women? Would we recognize them? Whose are the faces under the big-brimmed, pioneer sunbonnets?’ ”
Later in the 20th century, “Mormon women historians began to look at women and their experience with polygamy, their experience as men left on missions,” he said. “This generation found women active in the Relief Society and other auxiliaries, active in Utah politics and the national quest for suffrage. We began to explore and understand in ways we never had before the leading sisters of the earliest generations of the Church’s history.”
Brother Erekson said that at this point, a crossroads, it is appropriate to ask: “How can we place their lives and their stories in context? What can be learned from more systematic analysis?”
Much, it turns out, largely because of the proliferation of sources of late.
In the Church History Library alone are some 9,000 diaries and autobiographies of which nearly 1,600 are written by women, Brother Erekson said.
A team of cataloguers processes about 500 print and rare materials a month, he said. “I also have a team that processes our archival materials, collections that range from maybe two or three letters to 150 boxes of letters and correspondence and papers. We work through about 300 of these collections a month.”
He invited history enthusiasts to come to the library but said they don’t even have to do that to access its holdings. The library has worked in partnership with BYU to post digital images that can be accessed through history.lds.org.
“Today we have 6.8 million digital images available right now on the catalog; 2.7 million were digitized in 2015 alone,” he said.
Brother Erekson announced to the audience that the library has now published “a brand new research guide to women and Church history; you’re the first to hear about it.”
He said, “Go to our website. Click on ‘Women in Church history.’ … We’ve got links to the minutes, to the handbooks, to periodicals, to the histories. We’ve included research hints. … For example, the Young Women organization in the Church has had about half a dozen names over its history. So one of the hints here tells you what those names are and what years the names applied so you could find the kinds of records you would be looking for.”
Brother Erekson said another way the library is working to make sources available digitally is to provide sources cited in the new “Gospel Topics” essays at lds.org, which cover such topics as Mother in Heaven, and Joseph Smith’s teachings on priesthood and women.
Brother Erekson invited researchers to be creative in the way they use sources, to pay attention to the function women served in the Church as well as the form, and to work harder to uncover women’s participation in institutions.
“Look at impact; look at change,” he said. “That story is told from the perspective of conversion. … We might look at our Mormon Pioneer Overland Travel Database not as a record of people who walked but of people who converted. And we could start to find them and ask about their experience. Together with the new missionary database, we’ve got powerful tools to look at the story in a larger scale.”
Brother Erekson concluded his lecture with some “don’ts.”
“Don’t omit women. Ever.
“Don’t just add women somewhere as a vignette or a sidebar or a chapter or a section or on a pedestal.
“Don’t see women only as wives and daughters and as auxiliary members. There’s so much more to be seen, to be understood, to be contextualized.
“Don’t think that women’s history is only for women or for historians.
“Finally, don’t assume that you have seen all the sources.”
Recently, the acquisitions team in the Church History Library encountered a pamphlet that was not part of our collection. It was understood to be an anti-Mormon pamphlet from 1849, but as we studied its text and placed it into historical context, we discovered that the pamphlet had been gravely misunderstood.
The pamphlet opens with a caustic letter by Rev. Abraham De Witt, the Princeton-educated pastor of Rock Presbyterian Church in Cecil County, Maryland. He condescendingly chastises a young girl for even considering Mormonism, declaring that she has an “excitable and unstable mind” and warning her to “escape as for your life from this vortex of fanaticism.”
This is clearly an anti-Mormon letter and for this reason the pamphlet was considered an anti-Mormon publication. Accordingly, it was not included in Peter Crawley’s descriptive bibliography or in the original print version of Flake and Draper’s Mormon bibliography. Copies of the pamphlet in other library collections are cataloged with De Witt as its author.
But the pamphlet was not assembled by Rev. De Witt. His letter is presented first so that the girl he attacked could rhetorically demolish it.
Sarah Stageman had been born in England in 1826. When she was 14 years old, she had immigrated to Maryland with her parents and four younger siblings. While in her early twenties, she met and listened to Latter-day Saint missionaries. In her excitement, she consulted with Anna De Witt, who obviously informed her pastor husband. Rev. De Witt poured his scorn into a critical letter that he asked Sarah to share with her family and friends. He followed his own advice by repeating his written message in whispers to his flock. Sarah followed his counsel by publishing his folly.
Sarah begins by pointing out that De Witt had not cited any scripture in his 3 ½ page letter. Accordingly, her 8 ½ page response is a virtual tour de force of the Bible that cites more than 40 passages to testify of the truth of Mormonism, the last days, visions and revelations, Joseph Smith as a true prophet, the apostasy, the gathering of Israel, gospel dispensations, the restoration of priesthood authority, and the workings of God in His own way.
When asked by De Witt how she “made the discovery that Mr. and Mrs. De Witt, and the members of Rock Church and of other Churches, have no religion,” Sarah admits that it came with no help from him. “You inquire of me, if I have clearer views of my need of the ‘Holy Spirit.’ I answer, yes! But, was I confirmed by you, in the laying on of hands, to receive the gift of the Holy Spirit;–as was done by the Apostles”?
Sarah likewise had a ready answer for De Witt’s criticism of Joseph Smith. “You say if Joseph Smith was inspired, why did he locate that temple where it would be begun, but never finished: If he had, you would believe. But the Lord works in his own way. There is a city in Ezekiel we do not read of being built.” She pegged De Witt as like unto the unbelievers of an earlier scriptural age: “I say thus it is now, as it was in the days of Christ. In Mark, Chap. 15, ‘They said, let the king of Israel descend from the Cross, that we may see and believe.’”
No, this is definitely not an anti-Mormon pamphlet. Rather, it is a record of the significance of conversion in the life of a young woman newly converted to the restored gospel of Jesus Christ. Its recovery from misunderstanding exemplifies of one of the ways we might re-engage historical sources to see the significance of conversion in the study of Mormon history.
Correspondence between Rev. Abraham De Witt, pastor of Rock Church, Cecil Co., Md. and Miss Sarah Stageman, one of his flock, regarding the principles and faith of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Philadelphia: Bicking & Guilbert, Printers, 1849).
- Read the full pamphlet here (digitized in the Church History Catalog).
- See information about the pamphlet in the Church History Catalog.
- Browse other items in the Church History Library by and about Sarah Stageman.
[Note: This discovery and its story were shared as part of a talk I gave at the Church History Symposium.]
This is a great day for women’s sources. We now have access to more and richer sources than ever before. I opened with a review of 19th- and 20th-century writing about women that pointed to several “crossroads” that highlight the need to better understand women’s agency, individuality, and integration into historical writing. In response, I urge a return to the records of, by, and about Mormon women.
In 1950, one historian justified ignoring women by saying, “Although women had reached the threshold of their modern freedom they were still so much the forgotten members of society that little satisfactory direct evidence about them has survived.” In 1977, Davis Bitton reviewed fourteen libraries and archives in Utah and throughout the United States to find nearly 3,000 Mormon diaries and autobiographies, with 489 created by women (17%). Today, in one of those libraries—the Church History Library—there are 9,001 diaries and autobiographies, with 1,596 created by women (18%).
The scope of the work is staggering. In a typical month, the Library processes an average of 500 printed and rare items and 300 archival collections. In 2015, those figures, together with 1,100 collections that were opened to research, mean that more than 10,000 items and collections became available for research in the Library in a single year.
Furthermore, over the past few years millions of pages of historical sources have been digitized and placed online. The Church History Library coordinates with the BYU Library to post thousands of periodicals and other sources on archive.org. We have posted another 6.8 million images in our online catalog. In 2015, 2.7 million images were posted online, a rate of 307 per hour, or in other words, during the time we are together today another woman’s diary will be posted online. As a result, all of the sources in the new volume of Relief Society documents are already in the catalog, as are most of the sources cited in the Gospel Topics Essays about mother in heaven and about priesthood, temple, and women. To assist with future research on Mormon women, we today published a new research guide on “Women in Church History.”
Today more than ever we must pay heed to the warning of Emmeline B. Wells that the “historian of the present age will find it very embarrassing to ignore woman in the records of the nineteenth century.”
The final segment of my talk made these recommendations for historical writing:
I closed with a list of “Don’ts.” The list is obvious, but I offer them here because, well, people still do them. The best histories of the future will place women in context and provide nuanced understanding, but these make for a clear starting point.
— Keith Erekson (@KeithAErekson) March 3, 2016
[Note: This is a summary of the talk I gave this morning at the Church History Symposium. Future posts will provide additional links, sources, and stories.]
— Benjamin Park (@BenjaminEPark) March 3, 2016
— Benjamin Park (@BenjaminEPark) March 3, 2016
@KeithAErekson keeps Tweeting while he’s talking. Can’t believe he’s not juggling, too.
— Spencer Fluhman (@spencerfluhman) March 3, 2016
— Eliiiiiiiiizaaa (@EtotheNev) March 3, 2016
— Juvenile Instructor (@MormonHistoryJI) March 3, 2016
From the Religious Studies Center blog (March 7, 2016): “Speaking at the BYU Church History Symposium on March 3, 2016, Keith A. Erekson, director of the LDS Church History Library, shared impressive statistics about the library’s digitization of sources, announcing a new research guide on ‘Women in Church History.’ The library houses the largest collection of Mormon women’s history in the world. He urged the sympathetic audience, ‘Don’t omit women, ever,’ eliciting a cheer. He added, ‘Don’t think women’s history is only for women or historians.’”
The Church History Library has recently placed several new items on display in its “Foundations of Faith” exhibit. An ancient papyrus, a record of the first general conference, and the handmade sketch that accelerated the construction of temples over the past two decades are among the items that make the Church’s organization and growth relevant to visitors today.
The oldest item that has been added to the exhibit is a fragment of papyrus scrolls, which date from the second century B.C. The scrolls were acquired by the Church in 1835 after having been discovered in Egypt.
Shortly thereafter, Joseph Smith began translating the book of Abraham.
The scrolls were sold to multiple parties in 1856 and most may have been destroyed in the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. Later, 10 fragments were discovered to be held by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, where Kirtland-era paper was attached to the back side as reinforcement. The fragments were transferred to the Church in 1967.
Visitors can also now see two items from the Church’s first general conference on June 9, 1830. At the meeting, Joseph Smith Sr. was ordained to a ministerial position and the certificate of his ordination was signed by Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery.
Fifteen years later, Lucy Mack Smith dictated a narrative of her life and family. In her history, on the page open to display, she gives emphasis to the priesthood ordination that is documented by the record created at the time of the event.
The “Call to Save Grain” was written in 1876 by Emmeline B. Wells as an editorial in the Woman’s Exponent, which launched a Relief Society program that influences the Church to this day.
The article inspired women to gather and guard wheat carefully, loan it to the poor, and share it in times of drought. These relief efforts expanded in 1906 when the women sent wheat and other supplies to San Francisco after an earthquake and to China during a famine. In 1978, the Relief Society officially transferred its wheat to the Church’s Welfare Services program. The grain storage initiative thus served as a forerunner to the Church’s welfare, family and humanitarian services programs.
The youngest item in the exhibit is a sketch created by President Gordon B. Hinckley in June 1997. After reflecting on how to help faithful Saints in outlying areas receive the blessings of the temple, he drew a floor plan for a smaller temple with only the essential facilities. He announced the concept at the October 1997 general conference and by August 1998 the first small temple had been completed in Monticello, Utah. Since 1997, more than 50 small temples have been constructed or announced in 19 additional countries and 17 U.S. states where none had been before.
The exhibit’s self-guided tour pamphlet has been revised to answer common questions, to explain how the documents are preserved, and to draw out stories about the experience and impact of women as well as the Church’s worldwide mission and growth.
The “Foundations of Faith” exhibit opened in September 2014, promoted a dramatic increase in visitors to the library, and served as the core of an extremely successful youth conference experience last summer. An online version of the exhibit is available at https://history.lds.org/exhibit/foundations-of-faith.
The Church History Library is open Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., with extended hours on Thursday evening until 9 p.m. and on Saturday from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. The library preserves important records so that we may reflect on, write and understand history. Admission to the library and exhibit is free and open to the public.
Several profoundly important questions emerged during the Texas Conference on Introductory History Courses. How important is the introductory survey course? What will its future look like? Do we need to think differently about the survey course? Texas provides an important setting in which to ask these questions for the simple fact that Texas is not like Las Vegas—what happens in Texas will not stay in Texas.
How important is the introductory course in Texas? Texas lies at the center of college history teaching in the United States. During the Cold War, the Texas State Legislature mandated six hours of college-level history for all students, a requirement that continues even as other states have eliminated history requirements or allowed other elective substitutions. This fact, combined with the population size of the Lone Star State, prompted one book publisher to observe that in any given semester there are more students in US history survey courses in the Houston metropolitan area than along the entire eastern seaboard.
Because of the outsized impact of Texas, the future of the introductory survey course in America is tied to the future of college history in Texas. For this reason, it was extremely significant that Texas Commissioner of Higher Education Raymund Paredes addressed the gathering and responded to questions (kudos to the conference organizers!). Paredes began with the larger context that concerns parents and policy makers: Texas’s six-year graduation rate for undergraduate programs is 60%, and its three-year completion rate of associate programs is 14%. Those strikingly low numbers, combined with escalating college costs and postgraduation debt, have drawn the attention of lawmakers. Though a proposed bill addressing the introductory history course did not make it through the legislature in 2015, it will likely resurface at the next session in 2017. What are lawmakers concerned about? In Paredes’ words, “the big shortcoming in American public education is the quality of teaching.” How will lawmakers make improvements? “We are going to have to measure learning outcomes,” said Paredes, and “degree plans will have to demonstrate marketability.” The future in Texas looks like a world in which history professors will have to show that their courses do more than train students to answer identification questions and write book reviews.
What does the rapidly changing world of 21st-century higher education mean for the survey course? The old view of the course held that college was different from K–12 learning, that the course was taught by people with different training, that the course was therefore “harder” than a high school course, and that it was the “first” or “gateway” or “introduction” on a pathway to something like a major or a career. But the expansion of the AP program and the development of dual-credit programs mean that policy makers, parents, and students now look at the course very differently. For instance, to save time and money, a high school student could take the course in high school. Alternatively, a college student living in a community with a university and a community college could take the same course at either institution at starkly different costs (and sometimes the courses at both are taught by the same instructor!). Perhaps most significantly, completion of such a course is often seen as the “end” of history study, a requirement to be eliminated quickly before moving on to the courses that “really matter” for one’s future.
The landscape for history teaching in Texas is changing; and with Texas, the nation. If we are to respond to these changes it will require more than personal reflection and consensus building. We’ll need to develop and apply the scholarly literature that has developed over the past three decades on history teaching and learning. Gatherings like this conference in Texas provide the opportunity to do just that.
This post appeared on the American Historical Association’s AHA Today blog on September 29, 2015.
This essay was published on July 23, 2015, in the Deseret News and the Church News. It it reproduced here with links to the sources cited. I am grateful to my colleagues Marie Erickson, Jenny Lund, Emily Utt, Michael Landon, Tyson Thorpe, and Deb Xavier for their leads, advice, and support.
The first Mormon settlers of Salt Lake City came to the area in 1847, and over the next 20 years they were followed by an estimated 70,000 emigrants. Now, nearly two centuries later, a new database provides fresh new insights about these overland pioneers.
The Church History Library’s Mormon Pioneer Overland Travel database, online at history.lds.org/overlandtravels, attempts to document every overland pioneer and is the product of more than two decades of work. The database currently lists more than 57,000 individuals with links to thousands of original and authoritative records of pioneer experience. The database can be searched by name or browsed to find stories and photos of the city’s first residents.
Here are five things we learn from this powerful new resource:
1. Most of the pioneers did not die.
Despite the fact that tens of thousands of pioneers survived to settle in the Salt Lake Valley, the idea of pioneer death has been perpetuated in popular culture. But, if a person compares rosters of pioneers who started the journey against later censuses of residents in the city, the result is quite surprising.
Using the database, a team of statisticians and a historian calculated the pioneer mortality rate at 3.4 percent, which was only slightly higher than national averages at the time (between 2.5 and 2.9 percent). Of the 1,900 pioneers who died on the trail or within the calendar year of their arrival, many died from illnesses common to the time, such as cholera or dysentery. The year of travel, month of departure, and mode of travel all influenced the likelihood of death (Source: BYU Studies).
2. Very few pioneers pulled handcarts.
Monuments, murals, movies and music have also enshrined the image of a struggling pioneer family pulling a handcart across the plains. But, scan the list of more than 370 companies in the database and you’ll find only 10 handcart companies. This mode of transportation was used in 1856-57 and 1859-60 by roughly 3,000 of the overland pioneers.
The trip by handcart was, however, quite rough. For eight of the companies, the mortality rate was 4.7 percent. Two of the companies, the ill-fated Willie and Martin companies, left late in the travel season, became trapped in early winter snows, and required the aid of rescue wagons sent from Salt Lake City. These two companies suffered a 16.5 percent mortality rate (Source: BYU Studies).
3. Pioneers actually had fun.
If most of the pioneers weren’t dying or pulling handcarts, what did they actually do? Their diaries, letters and other records show that in addition to completing the tasks and chores of traveling, most of them had fun. They formed friendships, helped one another, sang and danced, hunted game, gathered wild fruit, picked flowers and climbed hills.
“We enjoyed the journey much,” wrote Ellen Hallett to her parents in England in 1862. “When night came we were generally tired,” she added, “but not too much to enjoy the dance and song.” William Fuller wrote to his wife’s parents that she “walked almost the entire way. The truth is, you somehow get the spirit of walking, and the travelling is not half so bad as it is to sit and think of it.”
This year, the Overland Travel website begins a new feature sharing “Humor on the Plains,” such as an embarrassing encounter with a skunk, a squishy discovery of soft buffalo chips, and the hijinks of teenage boys with wagon grease.
4. Many of the pioneers traveled east.
One of the striking features of pioneer diaries and letters is how often they met other pioneers going the opposite direction on the trail. Many who completed the journey returned to the east to lead others along the route. Freighters moved goods back and forth. Mormon missionaries left Salt Lake City and followed the trail to the cities and states of the east. At least three pioneers in the database made the westward trip seven times! In this, even Brigham Young provides an example. After leading the vanguard pioneer company that arrived on July 24, 1847, he returned east to Winter Quarters, Nebraska, by December 1847. He led a second company to Salt Lake the following year.
5. Pioneers were not alone on the trail.
Even as Mormon pioneers traveled both west and east, they were far from the only travelers on a very busy trail. Throughout the nineteenth century, hunters and trappers traversed the trails and rivers. The first portion of the overland trail led to Utah as well as Oregon and Montana. Beginning in 1849 westbound gold seekers used the trail to get to California. Express riders and stage coaches carried mail and passengers back and forth. Historians estimate that more than 500,000 Americans traveled west during the 1840s through 1860s. Salt Lake City’s pioneers formed a unique part of the nation’s wider history.
This year, the Mormon Pioneer Overland Travel database has been integrated with FamilySearch, linking the trees of FamilySearch users with the pioneers in the database. The database is also featured in FamilySearch’s international “I Am a Pioneer” social media campaign (#IAmAPioneer), which will encourage individuals today to recognize themselves as modern-day pioneers and emphasize the need to record their own stories of triumph for future generations.