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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 ($).


Transportation from the East

The Mormon Trail

Mormon Trail (NIFGS.jpg

From Nauvoo, Illinois, the Saints crossed Iowa. Near Sewal, Iowa, they crossed Locust Creek. Their first real way station was at Garden Grove, where 170 men cleared 715 acres in three weeks, for the purpose of providing shelter for those coming behind. They did this all along the Trail. Beyond Garden Grove lies Mount Pisgah. Here, between 1846 and 1852, as many as 800 died. They crossed the Missouri River at Council Bluffs, setting up a new camp on Indian lands, at what is now the Omaha suburb of Florence, Nebraska. It became known as Winter Quarters.

When the Mormons reached Fort Kearny, they remained on the north bank of the Platte River. At Fort Bridger, the Mormon Trail diverged from the Oregon and California Trail. The Mormons turned south and west toward the Wasatch Mountain Range. A work party was sent ahead to build a road through the mountains. The first group of Mormons passed through Echo Canyon, over Big Mountain and Little Mountain and down Emigration Canyon, coming into full view of the Great Salt Lake Valley on July 24, 1847.

Alternate Transportation, 1840-1865

The picture of pioneers that crosses our minds most frequently is a single endless row of prairie schooners. We tend to forget that most of the women and children walked; the men, guarding the wagon procession and livestock, rode horseback or walked. Only the drivers of the teams and the ailing sat in those wagons. Then, as we’ve seen, many pioneers chose river routes, using canoes, rafts, steamboats, and a variety of other vessels. And we must be careful not to overlook ocean and rail routes.

Ocean Routes to California

Some gold-seeking migrants traveled to California by an ocean route around Cape Horn, a six months trip. The journey by sea could be shortened by crossing the Isthmus of Panama by land, then connecting with ships of the Pacific Mail Steamship Company for the remainder of the trip to the gold fields of California.

The Cape Horn ocean route around the tip of South America was favored by 49ers on the East Coast who could afford tickets. In January of 1848, 61 ships left New York; other ports were Boston, Charleston, Mobile, and New Orleans. The Panama Trail consisted of an ocean voyage to Central America followed by a trek across Panama. Although it was a shorter route than going around Cape Horn, the traveler had to cross through the jungles of Panama and survive Yellow Fever. Once reaching the Pacific, he often had to wait months for a vessel with passenger space to continue on to the gold fields.


“It is no exaggeration to say that the settlement of the West depended upon the coming of the railroad. High-yield ventures, such as mining, could be carried out using the wagon for transportation, but this was far too expensive for the farmer. Even before the coming of the ordinary farmer, the range-cattle industry required rail transportation to market cattle. Building western railroads became a national project.” (Riegel and Athearn, America Moves West, 221.)

The earliest American railroads were seen simply as bridges between waterways for the purpose of connecting the seaboard with the interior river system or with the Erie Canal. Beginning in about the mid-1840s, railroads were seen more as independent arteries of trade, displacing the water routes. Improvement came first in the main east-west roads, leading in the North to a commercial alliance between East and West, and a resulting isolation of the South.

By 1840 there were more miles of railroad than there were miles of canals. By 1850 Americans realized that the canal boats and the Great Lakes steamers could not compete with the railroads. Trains were becoming the basic means of transportation east of the Mississippi River.

The Federal government granted land to individual states between 1850 and 1871 to aid railroads. In 1850 a bill was passed granting lands to Illinois, Mississippi and Alabama in aid of the Illinois Central and Mobile and Ohio railroads.

Railroad development in the South slowed down during the Civil War. But in the North, Congress allotted money in 1862 to build a railroad from Council Bluffs, Iowa, to San Francisco; this was completed on May 10, 1869, when theUnion Pacific and Central Pacific joined at Promontory, Utah.

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 at We can be contacted at

We welcome updates and additions to this Wiki page.