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The original content for this article was contributed by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies in June 2012. It is an excerpt from their course United States Migration Patterns  by Beverly Whitaker, CG. The Institute offers over 200 comprehensive genealogy courses for a fee ($).

Bound for Oregon, Utah, California and Texas

The Mormon Trek to Utah

The Mormon migration to the desert Zion beneath the shadows of Utah’s Wasatch Mountains began many years before they made their last trek across the Plains. Persecution directed against their prophet, Joseph Smith, was what drove them from one place to another. Smith’s parents had drifted westward from Vermont to upstate New York. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was organized in 1830 with its first six members. The next year Joseph Smith chose to take his followers to northeastern Ohio, to the village of Kirtland. There the Mormon community prospered until the Panic of 1837 at which time many of the Saints turned against their prophet. Smith gathered his remaining followers and fled westward to join a recently established small Mormon community in the towns of Far West and DeWitt, located on the northwestern Missouri frontier.

Missouri’s pioneers disliked the Mormons from the start, fearing that they might take over their communities by force. During the winter of 1838-1839, Missouri gangs struck again and again, eventually driving the Mormons from their homes into the fields and forests. They had no choice but to leave. One wonders at first why they chose to go East to Illinois instead of West at that time. The answer lies simply in the fact that they could move no farther west because the “permanent” Indian Frontier blocked them.

Smith selected as a site for their new home a swampy lowland near Quincy, Illinois, which earlier settlers had bypassed. In 1839, they reached this spot on the banks of the Mississippi and immediately set about creating “Nauvoo the Beautiful.” The city’s population reached 15,000 in 1844, dwarfing in size all the other Illinois cities. Growing fear of the Saints’ political and economic strength, rumors of polygamy, and destruction of a newspaper published by dissenters, caused anti-Mormon sentiment. The 4000-member Nauvoo Legion, formed to protect the Mormon community, aggravated the citizens of Illinois. After the murders of Joseph and Hyrum Smith, the Mormons began preparations to flee.

The Mormons had agreed to leave Illinois “as soon as grass grows and water runs.” But due to increased tension between them and state officials, they began their exodus in February 1846. Refugee wagons leaving Nauvoo crossed the icy Mississippi River on flatboats and slowly journeyed across Iowa. The Mormons crossed the Missouri River at Council Bluffs and established Winter Quarters at the site of modern Florence, Nebraska, near today’s Omaha. While 3,483 Saints waited for spring, more than 600 perished there. As spring 1847 approached, approximately 10,000 Mormons encamped on both sides of the Missouri River, preparing to move on.

In April the first party started on westward—a well-organized Pioneer Company led by Brigham Young and made up of 146 young men and women, riding in 73 wagons and driving a large herd of livestock. When the Mormons reached Fort Kearny, they remained on the north bank of the Platte River; this is what distinguishes the Mormon Trail from the Oregon Trail in this portion. The latter ran along the south bank. The Mormons chose the north side partly to isolate themselves but also to avoid competing for grazing and campsites; moreover, the higher ground on the north side was better suited to wagon travel. At Fort Bridger, the Mormon Trail diverged from the Oregon and California Trail. The Mormons turned south and west toward the Wasatch Mountain Range.

On July 24, 1847, Brigham Young and a small group of his followers arrived at the Great Salt Lake Valley, establishing the State of Deseret, which would later become Utah. The 1848 migration brought in about 1,800 people and much livestock. Handcart companies were first organized in 1856 by Brigham Young to move impoverished European converts westward from Iowa City and on by way of Florence, Nebraska to the valley of the Great Salt Lake.

Prosperity came to the settlement, in part due to supplying the needs of the stream of miners who poured through Salt Lake City on their way west to the California Gold Rush of 1849.

California Gold Rush

One result of the Mexican War of 1846 was the annexation of California by the United States. Within two years, gold was discovered in California.

In 1849, the first gold seekers arrived at San Francisco aboard the ship, California. Thousands more followed by land and sea from all parts of the United States and from foreign countries as well.

Many of the gold-seekers who went west in 1849 went as individuals. Others, particularly New Englanders, formed organizations for greater security in travel and group efforts in mining. San Francisco was the metropolis of the gold country.

During the late 1840s and 1850s, the California Trail carried over 200,000 gold-seekers and farmers to the gold fields and rich farmlands of California, the greatest mass migration in American history. The trail passes through the states of Missouri, Kansas, Nebraska, Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, Nevada, Oregon, and California.

The specific route used by the forty-niners and emigrants depended on their starting point in Missouri, their final destination in California, the condition of their wagons and livestock, and year-to-year changes in water and forage along the different routes.

Gold-seekers who went overland to California used routes ranging from Mexico north. But the most popular route was the Platte River route, probably traveled more than all the others combined. West of the Rockies, there were several alternate routes, all difficult.

The El Camino Real dated back to 1769 when the Spanish began establishing missions and military posts up the California coat from San Diego to Sonoma. It became a supply route, and eventually a part of the southern route to the gold fields.

The Old Spanish Trail was used in 1830 by American trappers to connect the Santa Fe region with Los Angeles to avoid some of the worst desert further south. It divided into an upper and lower route; the southern trail became U.S. 66. The Mormons improved the section from Utah to California.

The Lower El Paso Road connected Gulf of Mexico shipping at the mouth of the Nueces River to south Texas communities and the Mexico-Santa Fe Trail (which from the 1600s had passed through Santa Fe, between Mexico City and the California missions). The Upper El Paso Road connected San Antonio and El Paso along the Colorado River watershed. It was probably laid out during the 1830s.

Persons seeking the names of early settlers of the West who journeyed to San Francisco from 1850 to 1890 will want to consult the Ship, Rail and Wagon Train series. This is the work of Louis J. Rasmussen who devoted more than 30 years to the compilation of names of persons who went West to San Francisco. First, he published four volumes of steamer and sailing ship passenger lists with the names of those arriving at the port of San Francisco in the period 1850-1875. Sources included newspapers of the period plus rare books and library collections, as well as the records of the San Francisco Maritime Museum. Next he compiled two volumes listing persons who rode the Overland trains to the West, recording the names of persons aboard at the time they passed Carlin and Battle Mountain in Nevada; at Ogden, Utah; and at Mojave, California; the ultimate destination being San Francisco. These entries were for the period July 28, 1870 to Apr. 23, 1873. And finally, he published a volume listing emigrants and their families who journeyed across the frontier by covered wagon, April 5, 1849 to October 20, 1852.

Lists of names are invaluable, but in addition, Rasmussen often gave details which indicate where traveling parties were formed. A typical example from Rasmussen’s California Wagon Train Lists follows; note moreover that some entries are even more detailed.

ST. JOSEPH, MISSOURI (April, 1849)

On April 7, 1849 a wagon train known as the “Washington California Mining and Trading Association” arrived at St. Joseph, Missouri. The group encamped on the side of a hill on the north side of town before beginning its trip to California. Members of this train were from Washington County, New York and the group consisted of...

These trips westward were newsworthy. Consequently, you can turn to microfilmed newspapers for contemporary reports which included accounts of emigrant accidents and fatalities. In California, arrivals were frequently announced in the newspapers; deaths were also reported. Seek such accounts especially in the following newspapers: New York Daily Tribune, Frontier Guardian (Kanesville, Iowa), St. Joseph Gazette, The Sacramento Transcript, and Sacramento Union.


Information in this Wiki page is excerpted from the online course United States: Migration Patterns offered by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies. To learn more about this course or other courses available from the Institute, see our website. We can be contacted at

We welcome updates and additions to this Wiki page.