Mormons Begin Migration to Utah

The shift of almost the entire membership of the Mormon Church from Illinois to what is now Utah was one of the best-organized migrations in U.S. history. It saved the recently formed church from extinction and transformed the settlement of the West.

Summary of Event

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, better known as the Mormon Church, was founded in 1830 by Joseph Smith. Earlier that same year, Smith published the Book of Mormon Book of Mormon , a history of early people in the Western Hemisphere that he claimed to have translated from golden plates revealed to him by an angel. As Smith’s followers increased in number, they were forced to move ever farther west to avoid avert persecution and violence from people who were disturbed by the church’s unusual beliefs and practices. In 1831, Smith moved his church headquarters to Kirtland, Ohio. From there, he moved to Missouri in 1838. By 1840, the Mormons had founded the city of Nauvoo, Illinois, Illinois;Mormons in which grew rapidly, becoming the state’s largest city in 1844, with a population of twenty thousand. Utah;Mormon settlement
Mormons;migration to Utah
Young, Brigham
Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints
[kw]Mormons Begin Migration to Utah (Feb. 4, 1846)
[kw]Begin Migration to Utah, Mormons (Feb. 4, 1846)
[kw]Migration to Utah, Mormons Begin (Feb. 4, 1846)
[kw]Utah, Mormons Begin Migration to (Feb. 4, 1846)
Utah;Mormon settlement
Mormons;migration to Utah
Young, Brigham
Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints
[g]United States;Feb. 4, 1846: Mormons Begin Migration to Utah[2380]
[c]Immigration;Feb. 4, 1846: Mormons Begin Migration to Utah[2380]
[c]Expansion and land acquisition;Feb. 4, 1846: Mormons Begin Migration to Utah[2380]
[c]Religion and theology;Feb. 4, 1846: Mormons Begin Migration to Utah[2380]
Smith, Joseph
Brannan, Samuel
Bridger, James

In Illinois, the Mormons aroused antagonism because they voted as a unit, they openly drilled their militia (the Nauvoo Legion) for defensive purposes, and some of their leaders practiced polygamy. Marriage;plural
Polygamy, Mormon
Mormons;and polygamy[Polygamy] When Joseph Smith Smith, Joseph declared himself a candidate for president of the United States in 1844, a non-Mormon newspaper was established to oppose him. After Smith helped destroy the newspaper, he was arrested and jailed in Carthage, Illinois. On June 27, 1844, a mob attacked the jail and murdered Smith and his brother. Continuing hostilities forced the Mormons out of Illinois in 1846. What farms and homes could be sold were sold at ruinous prices, and the proceeds were used to buy wagons, horses, cattle, and supplies.

Mormon handcart pioneers on the Oregon Trail.

(Library of Congress)

Meanwhile, Brigham Young, who had recently returned from church missionary work in England, was chosen to lead his people. He soon proved to be a hardheaded realist—an organizing genius capable of directing his people in their search for a new Zion Zionism;and Mormons[Mormons] . Smith Smith, Joseph had planned to move his people to the Great Basin in the Rocky Mountains, and Young now put Smith’s plan into effect.

The Illinois;Mormons in Mormon evacuation of Illinois began on February 4, 1846, and during February, approximately sixteen hundred Mormons crossed the ice-covered Mississippi River and established temporary quarters in eastern Iowa Iowa;Mormons in at Garden Grove, where other Mormons soon joined them. There fuller plans were made for the western trek. A small party was sent ahead to select the route across Iowa, to choose camping places, to build and repair roads, and to construct bridges Bridges;and Mormon migration[Mormon migration] where necessary. With foresight, they were instructed to build log cabins at strategic sites, dig wells, plow the land, and plant crops of corn so that those who followed might be comforted and fed. By the time the vanguard of the expedition reached the Missouri River, in June, 1846, the main party, including the very young and the very old, and the ill and the infirm, was ready to start. Their journey was made easier as a result of this careful planning. By fall, nearly twelve thousand Mormons were encamped at winter quarters on the west bank of the Missouri River, opposite Council Bluffs, near the site of present Omaha.

Despite the careful planning, most of the migrants were poorly housed and inadequately fed, and they suffered greatly in the bitter cold of the winter months of 1846-1847. Scurvy and malaria Malaria;and Mormon migrants[Mormon migrants] broke out, and more than six hundred persons died before spring. The able-bodied were taught the most effective methods of crossing the Great Plains. Brigham Young had decided that a small, well-organized “pioneer band” led by him should push ahead of the main party, marking the trail and selecting the destination. Determined that the migration to follow should be orderly and efficient, he organized the people into groups of hundreds, fifties, and tens, with a designated leader over each group. Instructions were issued concerning the driving of wagons and stock, procedures for forming compact corrals at night, and participation in religious services, including the saying of morning and evening prayers and honoring the Sabbath as a day of rest. Young also emphasized the importance of keeping records of the routes taken, the distances traveled each day, and the locations of camping places for the benefit of those who were to follow.

Because of their desperate need for funds, the Mormons had hoped to obtain a contract from the U.S. government to build way stations and stockades along the Oregon Trail Oregon Trail as they moved west. However, U.S. difficulties with Great Britain in the Northwest were settled by an amicable boundary compromise in 1846, and war Mexican War (1846-1848);Mormon Battalion came instead with Mexico in the Southwest. The Mormons therefore were called upon to fight rather than to build. By the middle of July, 1846, 549 men, who made up a unit known as the Mormon Battalion, enlisted in the U.S. Army at winter quarters to accompany the Army of the West headed for New Mexico and California.

On April 16, 1847, the pioneer band of 148 people, led by Young, set out, driving a large herd of livestock and carrying a year’s supply of provisions packed into seventy-three wagons. Instead of following the Oregon Trail Oregon Trail;and Mormon migration[Mormon migration] on the south bank of the Platte River, the Mormons blazed a new route north of that stream, where the banks were higher and the grass was more plentiful because of fewer travelers used that route. The new route became known as the Mormon Trail. The pioneer party arrived at Fort Laramie Fort Laramie on June 2, 1847. From that outpost, they reached Fort Bridger on July 7, 1847, following the regular Oregon Trail across Wyoming. Along the way, they met James Bridger Bridger, James , a mountain man, who warned them about the mountains and the barren deserts that lay ahead on their proposed route. Bridger urged them to select a more hospitable valley, but the Mormons wanted land that was both isolated and productive.

Shortly before they reached the Green River, the party met Samuel Brannan Brannan, Samuel , who had come east from California to intercept them and to urge Young to colonize on the Pacific coast. Brannan had led a group of Mormons from Nauvoo to New York, where they had chartered a vessel to carry them around Cape Horn Cape Horn;and Mormon migration[Mormon migration] to the Pacific coast with all the equipment and supplies for successful colonization. Young turned a deaf ear to Brannan’s praises of California and pressed on over the rugged Uinta Range, across the desert, and into the Wasatch Mountains. As the men labored to clear a pathway for the wagon train, Young lay ill in one of the wagons, suffering from mountain fever. When he caught a glimpse of the Salt Lake Salt Lake City;foundation of Valley from the mountain heights, he announced that it was the place for which he had been looking. Working their way down a defile, now known as Emigration Canyon, the Mormons entered the Salt Lake Valley on July 24, 1847, a day since celebrated by Mormons as Pioneer Day.

The pioneers immediately went to work damming mountain streams and constructing irrigation canals to flood the land before planting crops. They built log houses connected by adobe walls to form a rectangular enclosure or fort. One detachment was sent to explore a route to California and to procure cattle and seed grains. The seeds were planted so late in the season that the crops did not have time to mature; the food supplies they had brought with them were desperately limited, and only by careful planning was starvation prevented.

Young started east with a few followers to organize the migration for 1848. Not far from the Great Salt Lake, he met a Mormon company of 1,553 people, who were driving more than 3,500 cattle, sheep, horses, and hogs. This group had followed the route of the pioneer band. A few weeks later, more than 1,800 Mormons were on the southern tip of the Great Salt Lake Great Salt Lake . In September, 1848, Young returned to Utah, bringing with him 2,500 additional emigrants, who closed the first phase of the migration. It was five years, however, before the remainder of the population from Nauvoo reached Salt Lake.


In 1849, the Perpetual Emigrating Fund Company was started to aid poverty-stricken emigrants, chiefly from foreign lands, in making the trip to Salt Lake, with the understanding that they would pay back their loans with interest so that similar loans could be made to future travelers. Between 1856 and 1860, 2,962 immigrants walked all the way to Salt Lake, pulling or pushing 653 handcarts containing all their worldly goods. Between 1847 and 1857, close to one hundred Mormon communities were established in the Great Basin, proving that cooperative, planned colonization was more effective than individual effort in a hostile physical environment.

The Mormon migration from Illinois to what is now Utah was one of the best-organized and most successful migrations in U.S. history, and thousands more Mormon converts would immigrate to the region before the century was over. Largely free from outside persecution, the Mormons prospered in Utah, which was admitted to the union as a state in 1896. Mormons continued to dominate the region into the early twenty-first century, when more than 60 percent of Utah’s population were Mormons.

Further Reading

  • Bashore, Melvin L. Mormon Pioneer Companies Crossing the Plains, 1847-1868. Salt Lake City, Utah: Historical Department, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1989. Diaries capture the emigration of the Mormon pioneers, from the first company to the last, including the remarkable handcart companies.
  • Bringhurst, Newell G. “A New Frontier Sanctuary.” In Brigham Young and the Expanding American Frontier. Boston: Little, Brown, 1986. Summarizes the Mormon pioneer trek west, emphasizing its importance in colonizing the western United States.
  • Bushman, Richard Lyman. Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling. New York: A. A. Knopf, 2005. Sympathetic biography of the first president of the Mormon Church.
  • Kimball, Stanley B., and Violet T. Kimball. Mormon Trail: Voyage of Discovery. Las Vegas, Nev.: KC Publications, 1995. Follows the Mormon pioneers along the Mormon Trail, identifying significant history and trail sites and markers.
  • Knight, Hal, and Stanley B. Kimball. 111 Days to Zion. Salt Lake City, Utah: Deseret Press, 1979. A day-by-day account of the trek of the first company of the Mormon pioneers from Winter Quarters to the Salt Lake Valley. Drawing from firsthand diaries, it captures the spirit of the travelers who braved more than a thousand wilderness miles. Detailed maps.
  • Smith, Joseph Fielding. “The Settlement in the Rocky Mountains.” Part 5 in Essentials in Church History. 22d ed. Salt Lake City, Utah: Deseret Book Company, 1967. Essential points of Mormon history are portrayed in chronological order. Detailed discussion of the reasons for leaving Illinois, preparations for departure, camp organization and regulations, dangers encountered along the way, the experiences of the Mormon Battalion, and the locating and settling of Salt Lake Valley.
  • Stegner, Wallace. The Gathering of Zion: The Story of the Mormon Trail. Reprint. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1992. Elegantly written history of the Mormon migration by a distinguished novelist of the western frontier. Occasional weaknesses on factual details are compensated for by Stegner’s gift for storytelling.
  • Talbot, Dan. “The Mormon Battalion.” In A Historical Guide to the Mormon Battalion and Butterfield Trail. Tucson, Ariz.: Westernlore Press, 1992. Maps and summary of the Mormon Battalion trek of more than two thousand miles, including name, company, and rank of each member.

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Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints