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Pioneer database thriving and growing

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SALT LAKE CITY — Its subjects are long since deceased, its roots date back three decades, its official launch date came seven-plus years ago and it recently was highlighted with one of those "distinguished service" honors. Still, the Mormon Pioneer Overland Travel Database is an alive, thriving, growing and an admittedly incomplete resource.

Comprised of the names and journal entries of land- and ocean-crossing Mormon pioneers from 1847 to 1868, the database has drawn nearly 340,000 online views since its 2003 Internet launch by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

The database has added about 10,000 names in the seven years since, now totaling 50,000-plus names of Mormon pioneers and excerpts from some 3,200 individual journals, allowing users — ranging from the professional researcher to the personal historian — glimpses into the history of the era's immigrants and pioneers crossing the Great Plains.

The Mormon Pioneer Overland Database recently earned longtime LDS Church history librarian Mel Bashore a Distinguished Service Award from the Oregon-California Trails Association for his vision in starting the database 30 years ago.

The 64-year-old Balshore called the honor an "us award," mindful of the other employees and countless LDS church and service missionaries who have worked on the database over the years.

"It will never end — we still have about a dozen missionaries that do the clerical and the research," he said. "They transcribe new journals and do the proofreading. It's unending. It will keep going on."

He remembers watching patrons more than 30 years ago enter the old Church History Library, hoping to research pioneer ancestors. The primary resource then was an error-laden, century-old index requiring hours and hours of invested time, so Balshore — in addition to his regular duties — created a lengthy bibliography of journals and lists of trans-Atlantic and wagon company rosters.

Starting in the late 1980s, he started compiling the names of passengers from shipping rosters and travelers on wagon company rosters. While the Mormon charter ship lists were fairly accurate, the wagon company rosters weren't — Balshore estimated a third were complete, another third partial at best and the final of the companies without any roster.

Because of the incompleteness, sometimes researchers have to couch a several-year period for a pioneer's arrival. If one came over on a ship, chances are they have an arrival year in the United States — then researchers look for a later Utah date for the individual — a childbirth, marriage, census listing or church ordinance — to suggest a valley arrival period.

As the database information progressed, so did technology — to the point that the LDS Church was ready to create an online site for the initial 40,000 names. Balshore and others rushed to get the first 3,000 journals transcribed to accompany the names.

"We had two dozen church service missionaries transcribe 3,000 journals in just two years — that blows me away," he said "That's a lot of work, and those things are hard to read. Many of them are trail journals, written after a full day of walking, written as they sit down in the dirt near the campfire with mosquitoes biting them."

While all the pioneers didn't keep journals, enough did to have excerpts from a certain company provide perspective and insight of what all faced and overcame en route to the Salt Lake Valley.

"If one person didn't keep a record of it, maybe someone else did," Balshore said. "And what a joy to find it, because every company story is unique — it's a different year with different experiences."

The database continues to grow at a rate of about 75 names a week, each researched, proofed, confirmed and added.

As for Balshore, the database project has little personal impact. A convert to the LDS faith, he joined the church in 1966 as a University of Utah student and doesn't have an ancestor listed in the database.

But he does have a great-great-grandmother who crossed the plains in 1852. "She didn't come through Utah — she instead went up and around the Bear River and on to California," Balshore said. "But she went on the same trail that the Mormons did — it was much of the same Mormon journey that my ancestor took."

e-mail: taylor@desnews.com