Was it "paths of agony" or "trails of hope" for the Mormon and other pioneers in the mid-19th century?
By 21st century standards, it may seem more like the former. However, "trails of hope" looks to be an almost universal description for the Mormon pioneers themselves, who displayed tremendous faith in coming westward.
According to Melvin L. Bashore, a senior librarian in the history library of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the hope promised by a trek west far outweighed the endurance and suffering required during the journey. Indeed, the 1997 sesquicentennial theme of the Mormon pioneers was "Faith in Every Footstep."
"I certainly believe it was 'trails of hope' for the pioneers," he said. "For many it was not an unpleasant experience."
Bashore agrees those studying Utah history dwell on the rare tragedies of several handcart companies, and that's what dominates our memories.
He said most of the pioneers — some 97 percent —made it to Utah, and about 3 percent perished. The oldest pioneer was age 97, and there was a number of other senior citizens.
The LDS pioneers' motivation for going west is considered unique in the American West — it was not for gold, land or adventure — but for religious freedom.
"We ware out of the reach of our ememis, and that the countrey was well wathered with gods watter and that god had blessed us on our journey verrey mutch," Levi Jackman wrote with imperfect spelling on July 23, 1847, as a member of the original Mormon pioneer group that entered the Salt Lake Valley.
He had joined this pioneer company "to finde a location for the saints Some whair in the west."
For Latter-day Saints, the trek west offered a place of safety, and it also fulfilled prophecies made by both Joseph Smith and Brigham Young.
The diary of another pioneer, Emmeline Wells, expressed her great faith. For her, the first night on the trail was her first-ever experience with roughing it. Bashore said that even under adverse conditions, there was no rancor in her writing.
"We are all happy and contented as yet and determined to go ahead," Wells wrote on March 1, 1846, after leaving Nauvoo.
"It is that determination and optimism that mark the story and history of Mormon emigration," Bashore wrote in his "Trails of Hope" paper.
There was also a lot of monotony to pioneer treks as well as occasional adventures.
"Every days travel was about alike and as near a monotony as anything I ever saw, the roads all near alike, each camping place alike," Oliver B. Huntington, a pioneer, wrote on July 6, 1848.
A lot of scenery was also dreary.
For example, some days, Jackman thought he was riding in an old pasture where the ground was "well covered with dung but the fence is missing."
A lack of trees meant dried buffalo dung (chips) was used in most fires.
Bashore believes, though, that some young people enjoyed the adventure and camping out along the trail.
Despite the negatives, the Mormon pioneers — unlike most other travelers — were thoughtful of those to follow, and they repaired roads and creek bridges.
Even some non-Mormon accounts of the pioneer trek into Salt Lake Valley seem inspiring:
"Before us, the mountains grow lower, and a lovely valley relieves the sight in the south west," the diary of Kathleen B. Waite, a non-Mormon who entered the valley in 1862 with a Mormon group, recorded.
"This is our first glimpse of the Valley of the Great Salt Lake," the account continues. "Here on the summit of 'big mountain, the mormon emigrants fall on their knees and pray; some shout hosannas and hallelujahs; many weep; husbands kiss their wives, and parents their children in their joy, and the very faithful declare that they feel the Spirit of God pervading the atmosphere and enthusiastically believe all their toils fully repaid, for they have at length come home, where the 'wicked cease from troubling and the weary are at rest.
"We felt almost as happy as the mormons, to know that our long and perilous journey was at an end and that only eighteen miles now separated us from rest and society … we cross another mountain ridge, and descend into a most delightfully picturesque gorge, the 'Emigration Canon.' Admiring the beauties of its rocky heights, the slopes covered with shrubbery and painted in all sorts of rich colors, as though a rainbow had been wrecked on the hillside, we turn an abrupt point and the sight that greets our eyes, is indeed beautiful," the account said.
Bashore's research also found that pioneer camp life was extremely busy.
"I never saw so busy a thing as in traveling with the Camp — there was hardly ever a minute to spare to read, write or even to pray," Esaias Edwards, another pioneer, wrote. "The hurding and guarding togather with my daily tasks, kept me beat down and and wore out all the time. The women were as well … beat down as the men. … Sundays were scercely a day or rest, nor could it be if we traveled on Monday."
Brigham Young urged the pioneers to be patient and long-suffering. Brigham was like a father, a modern day Moses or Abraham to the pioneers, and they felt safe and secure with him nearby.
In fact, Bashore has concluded that for the Mormon pioneers, Salt Lake Valley's beauty lay "in its people and prophet — the real objective of their overland journey."
Orson Hyde, a LDS apostle who came across the Plains four times in just 18 months, had some key observations about the experience:
He wrote, "A trip across the plains is calculated to try any and every person to the very core. The good and bad qualities of the heart are most clearly and conspicuously developed."
Bashore found that another LDS apostle, Franklin D. Richards, recognized how people's true natures would be revealed during a journey overland:
"On the Plains, camping in the open air, dusty, tired, and travel-stained; the Saints will show more of their true dispositions to each other, and learn more of themselves than they ever did before in their lives," Richards wrote.
The handcart Mormon pioneer era, 1856-1860, included the Willie and Martin companies, who had some of the worst suffering of all along the trail.
Elizabeth Cumming, 46, of the prominent Adams family of Boston, traveled to Utah with her husband, both of them non-LDS. They were accompanied by Johnston's Army.
She wrote in November of 1857 during her journey west:
"Our animals are all dead and dying & we must stop here all winter, where there is wood and water. … The two or three last days of our journey here, our animals could just stand. We had no corn for them. "
She entered the Salt Lake Valley the next spring.
The Salt Lake Valley was envisioned as the promised land for LDS Church members 157 years ago. Probably 99 percent of the area's residents were LDS Church members well into the 1850s. That domination has steadily declined, as the valley has also proven attractive to non-Mormons. Today it is estimated that Salt Lake County is only 56 percent LDS, as compared to a statewide LDS population of 66 percent.
In Salt Lake City the LDS membership is now estimated at 45 percent, compared to 55 percent non-LDS residents. At 88 percent, Utah County has the highest LDS population among the state's 29 counties.
Yet statistics aside, Pioneer Day — July 24 — remains a state holiday and commemorates the pioneering spirit of Utah's early settlers, Mormon and non-Mormon alike.
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