September 19, 2021

Mormon Trail still fascinates people 175 years later

John Van Nostrand, CNA Managing Editor

As Highway 2 and numerous county roads across southern Iowa help move people and product today, those paths are reminiscent of what was done in the same areas in 1846.

This year marks the 175th anniversary of the Mormon Trail which winded it way from Nauvoo, Illinois, through southern Iowa to what would become Salt Lake City, Utah, a city the Mormons founded. Followers of the Mormon faith left the tension in the Illinois town for a better life.

“Look at the importance of Mormons in transportation. Many Iowa highways and railroads were superimposed on the Mormon Trail since they already blazed a trail,” said Creston’s Jane Briley and member of the Iowa Mormon Trail Association.

Joseph Smith, a leader in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, had many of his followers living in Nauvoo. But unrest between the Mormons and others in Nauvoo over business and politics influenced the Mormons to leave. On Feb. 4, 1846, the first Mormons left in wagons ferried across the Mississippi River to Iowa. On March 1 some 500 Mormon wagons left which was the beginning of the move of thousands of Mormons across Iowa.

Brad Klodt farms land north of Milton in Van Buren County. Some Mormons died early on in the trail.

“Dad bought the farm in 1970 and dad knew what was on the land,” he said, referring to the multiple graves of those who died while traveling. “After some more research, they had been scattered all over and we own 1,000 plus acres. They camped all over. Having 500 wagons, it took a lot.”

Klodt said it is common for Mormon, non-Mormon and history groups to ask to tour the land to see the grave sites. He knows of only two marked sites, which were probably the first deaths. Knowing the interest, Klodt said he had made some changes to his farm to make it easier for people to view the sites.

“We have gravel roads 520 feet from the graves. People have been very polite and respectful,” he said.

Mary Ann Morris Allen died in May 1846 on the trail leaving behind a husband and five children. A descendant of the woman, who lives in Utah, has done research through diaries and journals recording the trail to approximate the location of the death. Plans are for a plaque dedication Aug. 7 in Davis County in honor of Allen.

Klodt said a family story is of a local man who was born in 1903 and attended a country schoolhouse. The school typically had a new teacher every year and the man would show the teacher the graves and and decorate them with flowers. He said, before the man died in his 80s he continued to be a tour guide of the area for others. Klodt said he, too, has that kind of respect and interest in the trail.

“This may be your history, but it’s country history, state history and world history in all the ground we have,” he said. “These graves have enamored me since I was 8. Since then it’s been a slow process that has unraveled a lot of history.”

Despite leaving Illinois in typical, winter conditions, the Mormons realized they were not well prepared to make such a long journey. Knowing food and other necessities would be needed for the others along the trail, the Mormons established way stations in Iowa. Mormons could stay longterm and replenish supplies at those places. What was called winter quarter was originally in Omaha, Nebraska, before being relocated to Kanesville, which is present day Council Bluffs.

The first way station was Garden Grove, located in northeast Decatur County, and established in April 1846. Although the land was converted to provide food and lodging for the trail riders passing through, the area was unusually known for its rattlesnake population.

“It was a place for those to rest and refill supplies,” said Brenda DeVore, director of the Prairie Trails Museum in nearby Corydon. DeVore estimated Garden Grove lasted 10 years as a Mormon establishment and transitioned into a typical town.

The popular Mormon hymm “Come, Come, Ye Saints” was written by trail rider William Clayton in 1846 in Wayne County.

“That hymn is still important to Mormons today,” DeVore said. The song has been played at Brigham Young University’s campus in Utah.

The trail went in a northwest direction from Garden Grove. Briley explained how the trail should not be considered like today’s sidewalks. The Mormon Trail was wide and had branches in southeast Iowa, but would continue as one trail after Garden Grove.

Another way station was named Mt. Pisgah located northeast of Afton and west of U.S. Highway 169.

“They were looking for the headwater of the Grand River,” Briley said about the determining the location for Pisgah. “There was a good supply of water and lots of wood. Planting crops close to the river was good since there was a source of water.” The trees could be removed to build shelters and clear land for crop production.

“They needed a place to stop, especially those who were sick,” she said. “If you were in Pisgah, you were either sick, tired or ran out of food,” Briley said. During Pisgah’s existence, malaria had spread and killed about 300 people.

During the five years of the trail, Briley said research estimates at least 2,000 people were at Mt. Pisgah at a given time and more than 20,000 passed through.

DeVore said it was common for one person in a traveling family or group to be a designated writer of a diary or journal the trip.

“They did document a lot,” she said. “There are probably graves we don’t even know of.” Those grave sites are probably scattered throughout the trail in Iowa.

Briley said research of Mormon journals and diaries also show the trail’s width. There are references to Mt. Moriah, another settlement, but there has not been any evidence found. “It was probably north of Pisgah,” she said. “We don’t know how far north but we speculate it was at least south of Lorimor.”

The trail would continue in a northwest direction and work its way through Iowa what is known today as Adair, Cass and Pottawattamie counties. Mormon Trail Lake, south of Bridgewater in Adair County, was named so because of its proximity to the trail. Iowa was declared a state in December 1846.

The route the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy Railroad led from Creston to Cumberland in Cass County followed portions of the Mormon Trail. In Union County, the trail is marked with signs and runs north of Creston near Green Valley Chemical.

As part of the National Park Service, the Mormon Trail is scheduled to receive new and improved signage throughout the state.

DeVore knows more is needed to preserve the history of the trail other than motorists seeing a sign while driving 55 mph.

“It has touched people across the nation and world,” she said. “That is why 175 years are something to honor,” she said.

The trail is part of the National Park Service. The Iowa Mormon Trail Association is working with the park service to improve signage of the trail in Iowa.

A symposium to celebrate the 175th anniversary of the trial across Iowa, the founding of Kanesville and the granting of Iowa statehood - all in 1846 will be Aug. 20-21 at the Arts Center at Iowa Western Community College in Council Bluffs. It will feature Mormon scholars, historians, overland trail experts, archeologists and geographers. Admission is free and open to the public. Those attending either in-person or virtually, RSVP to Richard Bennett via richard.bennett@churchofjesuschrist.org, or call the Mormon Trail Center at (402) 453-9372.


John Van Nostrand

JOHN VAN NOSTRAND

An Iowa native, John's newspaper career has mostly been in small-town weeklies from the Rocky Mountains to the Mississippi River. He first stint in Creston was from 2002 to 2005.