International Pioneers’ Experiences: The Pioneer Database

by Franco Arellano, Church history specialist
13 October 2020

Join Franco Arellano as he discusses the Church History Library’s Pioneer Database and how he used it to discover fascinating stories about pioneers born outside of the United States who immigrated to Utah.

As an intern at the Church History Library, I had the opportunity to work with the Pioneer Database. This database currently features profiles of approximately 60,810 Latter-day Saint pioneers. It also covers more than 20 years, beginning in 1846 with the Mississippi Company and ending in October 1868, a few months before completion of the transcontinental railroad that would bring many Saints to Utah. As the son of more recent immigrants, I became heavily invested in finding all the information I could on the pioneers born outside of the United States who came to Utah during this early period.

Here’s what I discovered.

From 1847 to 1852, most pioneers en route to Salt Lake City were born in the United States.

Throughout these years, there was a slight upward trend of Saints from outside of the U.S.—mostly from England and Canada—arriving in Utah, culminating in 1852, the year with the most incoming pioneers (almost 6,000). However, most of the pioneers were still U.S.-born.

Suddenly, after 1852, the demographics changed dramatically. From 1853 onward, we see that the rate of immigration from abroad increased until most Latter-day Saint pioneers were from outside the United States.

So what caused this change?

Officially, international missionary work began in Canada in June 1832. Overseas missionary work began in 1837 when members of the Twelve were called to preach in the British Isles. However, international missionary efforts slowed as the Church faced heavy persecution in Missouri in 1838. With priority given to the construction of the Nauvoo Temple—and later with the martyrdom of Joseph Smith—international missionary work moved slowly. The exodus from Nauvoo in 1846 further hindered international missionary work as most missionaries and members of the Quorum of the Twelve were called back to assist in the evacuation.

Once Brigham Young settled the Saints in the Salt Lake Valley, he began to expand missionary work at an increasingly rapid pace, opening 13 missions around the world from 1850 to 1854:

A few missions—particularly those in Asia—did not stay open for very long. But the message of the restored gospel was well received in many countries, and many converts were baptized. Often when the time came for missionaries serving abroad to return home, they would invite the people they had taught to go with them to Utah; many accepted. In total, pioneers who immigrated to Utah came from over 30 different countries (some of which were even outside of declared mission boundaries).

The Church came up with several innovations to help defray the pioneers’ expenses, as many of them gave up everything to make the trip to Utah. The Perpetual Emigrating Fund Company (more commonly known as the Perpetual Emigration Fund, or PEF), handcart companies, and the “down-and-back” companies1 were all efforts to assist this influx of immigration.

Researching the experiences of pioneers born outside of the U.S. gave me the unique opportunity to discover many little-known stories. Consider, for example, the Tait family, who possibly traveled the farthest of any pioneer family to reach Utah. William Tait and his son John journeyed approximately 13,450 miles from Poona, India, to Salt Lake City. They sailed east through Singapore, Hong Kong, and Hawaii before eventually reaching California. After reaching the West Coast of the United States, they traveled northeast from San Bernardino, California, to Salt Lake City.

Elizabeth Tait, William’s wife, immigrated later because she was pregnant. She possibly traveled as far as 15,000 miles. She sailed from Bombay to Liverpool, then to Boston; finally, she joined the Willie handcart company. She became stranded with the rest of the company in Wyoming during the harsh winter of 1856. William Tait, her husband, was a member of the rescue company that came to save them.

Elizabeth and William Tait.

Then there is the Christian Christiansen company of 1857, one of two pioneer companies comprised entirely of Saints born outside of the U.S. (They were Scandinavian, the majority being Danish.) Their journey was especially difficult, as they endured not just the wilderness but also culture shock. Most in the company did not speak English and found their new land to be particularly alien. Initially, they were led by a Scotsman who had little patience for their customs and lack of understanding, and the company struggled under his prejudices. Subsequently, a Scandinavian man named Christian Christiansen was appointed captain of the company. The company loved the way Christian would help ease their struggles by allowing cultural traditions and songs on the trek.

Finally, there is the voyage of the Monarch of the Sea.2 Records indicate that in its 1861 crossing of the Atlantic, the ship held over 1,000 passengers on board, including about 950 Latter-day Saint pioneers—quite possibly the largest group of Saints to cross the sea together. These were converts from all over Europe—from at least 10 different countries—who had gathered in Liverpool, England, making this a very diverse company.

The journey began on May 15, 1861. The ship had a unique problem that other oceanic crossings did not: for sleeping arrangements, the Saints had divided themselves between families, unmarried men, and unmarried women, causing overcrowding in the unmarried sleeping quarters. The company leader’s solution was to wed all those who were courting3 so that they could share bedding for the journey. As a result, many marriages were held in the first few days of travel.

The company experienced many of the challenges common to immigrating Saints: the occasional storm hit, seasickness affected many, and the crew was prejudiced against them. But the pioneers’ faith and organization kept them in good spirits for the monthlong journey. The ship arrived in New York City on June 16, 1861. From there, many of the Saints joined different pioneer companies to continue their journey to Salt Lake City.

The Monarch of the Sea, which brought a large company of pioneers to the United States.

As I continue this project, I keep discovering new pioneer adventures. From my experience, many popular pioneer stories focus on tales of the Mormon Battalion or tragic stories of the handcart companies, and these stories are very inspirational indeed. My research into pioneers born outside of the U.S., however, has shown me many additional (but lesser-known) faith-promoting pioneer experiences, stories that deserve to be heard. And while many pioneer stories feature families from Scandinavia or British territories—as in my examples above—there are plenty of stories of pioneers from other parts of the world too.

I hope the resources I’ve presented here can help others begin their research journey. I invite anyone who is interested to visit the Pioneer Database to learn more about the pioneer experience.

“We contemplate humbly and gratefully the sacrifices of those who have gone before us. … We are thankful for their faith, for their example, for their mighty labors and willing consecrations for this cause which they considered more precious than life itself. They have passed to us a remarkable heritage. We are resolved to build on that heritage for the blessing and benefit of those who follow.”4

Top Image: Embarkation of the Saints at Liverpool in 1851, by Ken B. Baxter.