June 16, 2024

Walking the Mormon Trail

One family’s journey west

From left, the Johns family includes Peter, Leonora, Alex, Alexander and Sariah. Originally from the United Kingdom, the family now resides in Provo, Utah.

More than 170 years ago, Mormon pioneers fled their settlement in Nauvoo, Illinois, walking a 1,300-mile route (often called the Mormon Trail) to the Great Salt Lake Valley in what is now Utah. Decided as the settlement and base for the church government by Mormon leader Brigham Young, an estimated 14,000 Mormons fled religious persecution to practice with Young.

The Mormon Trail runs through a number of Midwest states, including Iowa. From Nauvoo, the trail runs along the southern counties of Iowa, eventually making its way north into Clarke, Union and Adair counties before getting to Council Bluffs.

Now better known as the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, many modern-day believers celebrate their history and heritage every summer in Nauvoo at the Nauvoo Pageant, a daily performance telling the story of the mass exodus to the Great Salt Lake Valley. A few Latter-day Saints take it a step further, making their own journey by foot along the Mormon Trail.

The Johns are one such family. Hailing originally from the United Kingdom, Peter and Alex are walking the trail with three children: Sariah, 11, Alexander, 9, and Leonora, 3. To carry their trek necessities, the family has borrowed a handcart, making their journey west that much more authentic.

While Peter is from Wales and Alex from the British island of Jersey, they’ve lived with their children in Provo about a year ago.

Alex, a theater professor at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, said following the pioneers west felt like a natural extension after their involvement with the Nauvoo Pageant.

The Mormon Trail starts in Nauvoo, Illinois.

“Those theater plays finish with the story of the early Latter Day Saints leaving Nauvoo due to persecution and beginning the great exodus west to settle the Great Salt Lake Valley,” Alex said. “[We wanted] see what it was actually like for them, to some extent. Obviously our experience is nowhere near as hard as theirs, but I think it was born out of that.”

Additionally, Alex said they felt a connection to the early pioneers, due to their shared heritage, despite not having any ancestors who completed the journey.

“A lot of the early Latter Day Saint pioneers who walked the Mormon Trail were British. Statistically, by 1852, 84% of Latter Day Saints worldwide were British,” Alex said. “They were all coming over here from Wales, from England, where we’re from, and walking through here. That’s also really interesting to us, because it wasn’t that long ago. In the history of things, this is very recent.”

Peter said it’s also nice to see a part of the U.S. that isn’t often portrayed in media.

“I think this is a fascinating part of the world. I’d always been interested in Midwest America. You hear so much about New York and Los Angeles and those places, but there’s this whole massive section of America that only gets a mention in movies like ‘Twister,’” Peter said. “Being able to pass through it in this way, I think, is fascinating.”

Though not everyone would want to bring their kids on such a long journey, their eldest Sariah said she’s been enjoying the trip.

“I like to daydream a lot and like to read a lot, so I use that to get me through. I do get very tired at the end of the day,” Sariah said. “A lot of the places we’ve camped have been really, really fun. Like that rock pile over there is full of geodes and I’ve found quite a few fossils in it. We’ve stayed in quite a few places that I loved.”

Challenges

The Johns left the Creston area earlier this week, having stopped for weather. In fact, the last few weeks have been rife with detours and delays due to Mother Nature.

“The last several weeks we’ve had to dodge storms a bit, planning ahead,” Peter said. “I wasn’t really sure before we came exactly how bad it would be, but obviously we learned we need a tornado plan in place days ahead, we need to anticipate that stuff. We’re walking and sleeping in a tent. Even if there’s not a tornado, even if it’s just thunderstorms, we need to be ready.”

While they’ve been able to plan ahead for weather, Alex said it’s insightful to read how the original pioneers didn’t have that advantage.

“The early Mormon pioneers did not have things telling them about tornadoes. Like Tuesday, when that horrific tornado came through and hit Greenfield. That morning, if we hadn’t had this beep on our phones saying tornado warning, we’d have walked,” Alex said. “Of course you would, because you look up at the sky and it’s clear. I’ve been grateful for the wonders of people reading the weather.”

The Johns started their journey from Nauvoo on May 1, but the planning started far before that.

“Pete spent a lot of time pouring over Google Maps to figure out, because the Mormon Trail doesn’t exist as a physical trail anymore,” Alex said. “It goes through a lot of people’s private property, so you spend a lot of time keeping us as close to the trail as possible while keeping on minor roads.”

Along with the route, the family had to decide what to take on their journey.

“It took months. It was a combination of your own ideas and thinking, I’ll probably need this, and you have this big, long list that you keep adding to as you think of a problem you’re going to encounter,” Peter said.

However, it didn’t take long into the expedition for the family to shed some of their items.

The Johns have pulled the hand cart with them since Nauvoo, carrying all their necessities for the trip West.

“About three or four days into the walk, we were like, we’ve got to get some weight off this thing,” Alex said. “We went through everything we had one morning. We were staying at a person’s campsite in Croton and we ditched 80 pounds of weight.”

Some of the items left behind included scooters for the children, extra clothes and books for research.

The ridding of extra weight is just another way the Johns found sympathy with the original Mormon pioneers.

“You read the accounts of people throwing things off. Things they brought from their life in England and wanted to take with them to Salt Lake and just having to leave it, like musical instruments,” Alex said. “People said they walked the trail when they left Nauvoo and they’d see things left on the side of the trail.”

Extra weight and weather weren’t the only challenges the family have run into so far.

“We’re not getting in enough miles each day,” Alex said. “There are more hills than we anticipated.”

Though it depends on the day, the family is getting about 10 miles in a day. However, even when they can get more miles in, it doesn’t always help in moving forward.

“Even right here, the road just north of here, it doesn’t exist. It’s not a road anymore and it’s all blocked off, so now we’ve got to go back a mile and a half this way and up that way,” Peter said. “We’re encountering challenges as we go that were unforeseen. Mostly it’s fine, but it’s slower going than we expected because we’re running into things constantly that you just can’t exist.”

Though the initial goal was to get all the way to Salt Lake City, the Johns acknowledge that likely isn’t going to happen. Their first goal is the Winter Quarters in west Omaha, Nebraska.

“The Winter Quarters is where they spent that first winter of 1846, but it became major Latter Day Saints settlement for years. We’re going to get there,” Alex said. “That will be our first major goal, and then we’ll rest there for a few days and then take stock and decide whether we curtail it, come back and do other bits, or whether we continue and push in further to Nebraska.”

Blessings

Despite all these challenges and setbacks, the family have made a multitude of friends along the way. Some members of their faith, others simply friendly strangers, the Johns have had countless meetings and meals shared with people from the Midwest.

“Jane Briley, she’s the secretary for the Iowa Mormon Trail Association,” Alex said. “She brought us pizza, she brought us trail mix, she brought us homemade cookies. We sat down for an hour or two while she explained to us all about the history. She’s just lovely.”

Briley is also the chairman of the Creston Historic Preservation Commission and has done a number of events and discussions about Mount Pisgah, the historic Mormon settlement located northeast of Afton.

Another recent community member brought her entire family for an afternoon of fun after meeting with them for breakfast one morning.

“She came with her family and brought us dinner. Her kids played with our kids, we just hung out together and played sports and barbecued for an hour or two, we found out that one of her dear friends is one of our dear friends,” Alex said. “That sociality, that friendship, strangers who become friends. It’s been everything. People have been so kind and so generous.”

Over a month into their trip, the Johns seem happy to be experiencing the trail, despite the hardships. It’s the history and religion that brought them on the trip, and Alex said it’s also what’s keeping them going.

“It didn’t strike me much until we started doing this, but the early Mormon exodus is one of the largest walks for religious freedom that I’ve ever come across, both numerically and distance wise,” Alex said. “It’s partly in homage to their sacrifices, for the price they paid for religious freedom, which has shaped the history of the American west and this part of the world.”

Those interested in the rest of the Johns’ journey can find them on Facebook or Instagram at walking_the_mormon_trail.

Erin Henze

Originally from Wisconsin, Erin is a recent graduate from UW-Stevens Point. Outside of writing, she loves to read and travel.