Mormon emigration stories have been shared over and over through the decades. Today, many youth and leaders in the Church repeat these stories as they pull handcarts and reenact experiences of the early pioneers. The reenactments provide just a glimpse into the emigration experience. To better understand this era in Church history, it’s important to know a few key facts:
- The period of overland emigration of the Mormon pioneers is generally defined as 1847 through 1868. That is when organized companies traveled to Utah by wagon or handcart. After the transcontinental railroad was completed in 1869, Latter-day Saint emigrants who traveled to Utah generally came by train.
- It is difficult to identify an exact number of individuals who came to Utah from 1847 through 1868 because not all the company rosters were turned in to the Church. An estimated 60,000 to 70,000 pioneers traveled to Utah during those years. Hundreds of thousands of other emigrants traveled to other points in the West, primarily California and Oregon.
- Handcart companies were few. Of the more than 250 organized Latter-day Saint companies that came to Utah during the pioneer era, only 10 companies, consisting of about 3,000 people total, were handcart companies. Five handcart companies came in 1856, two in 1857, one in 1859, and two in 1860. Each of these companies had accompanying supply wagons to carry the heaviest items, such as tents, food, and other supplies. One wagon was provided for every 100 people.
- Emigration methods evolved between 1847 and 1868. During the entire period, emigrants traveled in organized wagon trains and in independent companies. Many people also joined freight wagon trains that were delivering goods to Utah. From 1856 to 1860, handcart companies were organized as a more economical means of travel. From 1861 to 1868, down-and-back wagon trains became the main means of gathering to the Salt Lake Valley. Teamsters from wards in the Salt Lake Valley filled wagons with supplies, drove them east to the outfitting posts, and led emigrants in their journey to the valley.
- Companies were organized according to the “Word and Will of the Lord,” as received by Brigham Young (now found in Doctrine and Covenants 136). This was the same model used by Joseph Smith during Zion’s Camp in 1834. Brigham Young appointed captains of hundreds, fifties, and tens. One Church historian noted, “The revelation helped transform the westward migration from an unfortunate necessity into an important shared spiritual experience.”1
Each company had rules for the journey. The following rules were established for the Willard Richards company in 1848 and were followed by other companies in subsequent years. One company member described them as “rules adopted for the benefit of the Camp of Israel in travelling from Winter Quarters to the Salt Lake city.”2 A member of a later company recorded:
“[Captain Gideon] proceeded to read the rules and regulations adopted by the Emigrating Saints in 1848 which were unanimously adopted, And are as follows:
1st That each ten Shall travel ahead alternately according to their numbers.
2nd That all lost property when found Shall be brought to the captains of fiftys quarters.
3rd That all dogs shall be tied up at dark to prevent the annoyance of the Guard.
4th That no man be allowed to leave the Camp by himself or without the consent of the Captain.
5th That it shall be the duty of the Captains of ten to instruct their men to attend to their family prayers at the Sounding of the horn.
6th That it Shall be the duty of the Captains of Fiftys to see that the Guard shall be placed around the Camp at 1/2 past eight o.c. [o’clock] of each night to relieve the Captains of the herd whose duty it Shall be at the Sounding of the horn in the morning with his men & boys exempt from guard duty to take charge of the herd until the night guard is posted.
7th That the sounding of the horn in the morning shall be the Signal for the camp to arise and attend to the duties of the morning.
8th That the Camp Shall be ready to Start each morning at 1/2 past seven o’Clock.
9th That implicit obedience to the officers be required of every man in the Camp.
10th That every man owning horses or Mules be required to bring them into the Camp at Sun down and make them fast.
11th That it shall be the duty of each teamster when the herd is brought in to see that his team is on hand or in the herd without fail.
12th That every member of the camp be at their quarters at nine o’clock, and that the Guard Cry the correct time each 1/2 hour without making any unnecessary noise. Captain Hyde made some remarks. Showed the great importance of vigilence on the part of the herds, men, And night guard. And set forth the character of the Indians, etc etc.”3
- Some people have a perception that tragedy and death were common among the emigrating companies. However, the average death rate was less than 3 percent. One-third of the companies, including the 1847 vanguard company, did not have any deaths. We often hear of the death and suffering of the handcart companies. While tragedy hit the Willie and Martin handcart companies in 1856, and more than 200 people died before they could reach Zion, most members of these two companies survived. The leading cause of death on the trail was sickness, such as cholera or diarrhea. The second-highest cause of death was accidents (such as being run over by wagons or being stampeded) and weather-related events.
Stories will continue to be told of the heroic and faithful efforts made during the more than two decades that pioneers walked across the plains to Utah. Lessons were learned, and methods of travel and communication improved. From its outfitting posts, the first 1847 company traveled more than 1,000 miles by wagon in 111 days; the last 1868 company traveled about 300 miles by wagon in 24 days. Today, thousands of accounts are available to help people understand the many experiences of those who went before.
 Reuben Miller journal, June–September 1849, 4–7, Church History Library, Salt Lake City; spelling and punctuation standardized.