The word pioneer conjures unique images and definitions for everyone who hears it. At a basic level, a pioneer is someone who does something new. For members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, pioneers represent a shared heritage—both those who crossed the plains and those around the world who have become members of a new faith or have remained strong in the face of trials or injustice (check out our Pioneers in Every Land web series for stories). The pioneer spirit is compelling, and the annual celebration of Pioneer Day in Utah ignites an interest in the stories of the pioneers who crossed the plains in the historic two-decade Mormon migration.
Whether you have deep-rooted pioneer ancestry or your connection to the original Mormon pioneers is emotional or academic, the Mormon Pioneer Overland Travel database is the right place to begin your research. This database is the most comprehensive record of individuals and companies who traveled to the Salt Lake Valley from both the east and west between 1847 and 1868. The database contains entries for nearly 60,000 individuals and is growing daily.
The simplest way to search the database is to go to history.lds.org/overlandtravel and type a name in the search bar. If you receive no results, try using simplified versions of the name or alternate spellings. Each individual’s page contains basic biographical information (name, gender, birth and death dates, and so on) and the most accurate travel date and information available. Pages might include a photograph, company information, age at departure, names of travel companions, a link to the person’s page on FamilySearch, and references to additional sources. Sources range from newspaper articles, ledgers and account books, and Church records to personal histories, reminiscences, and journals. For more information about types of records available and how to navigate the database, click here.
Not every pioneer recorded his or her journey in writing, but that doesn’t mean you can’t learn about the travel experience. If there are no listed sources on an individual’s page, take time to look at the company records. You can gain valuable contextual information about life on the trail by understanding the experiences of the company a pioneer traveled with.
Another unique feature of the database is the keyword search, which can help you learn more about a topic of interest. A keyword search for handcart will pull up sources that provide information on handcart pioneers. A search for stampede will pull up every source that includes the word stampede (provided the pioneer record keeper spelled it the way we would today). This type of search can help you discover unique stories, like the account of William Byram Pace. When Pace was on his third journey along the trek route, he encountered a bear while hunting for his company. In Pace’s firsthand account, he describes how the bear leaped from a cliff and landed six feet in front of him and his friends.
“On reaching the open country Mr. Bear retreated leaving us master of the field, but two of the worst scared boys it was possible to find anywhere. I had been in many bear fights and succeeded in coming off victorious but this one, some-how we neither of us, seemed to want[.] possibly the growl which was terrible, and the manner he had of introducing himself caused us to decide rather quickly, then our legs did the rest. Well we told it in camp as a narrow escape, which was variously criticised. It is strange how brave some men are, when there is no possible danger.”1
One man in camp was particularly hard on the boys for running away. Later, this same man ran from a wounded and dying buffalo. Pace wrote, “I mention this to show that men who are so awful brave where there is no possible danger, will not always do to tie too.”2
Stories like Pace’s provide a valuable glimpse into the day-to-day pioneer experience. Pioneers were people who dealt with complex dynamics and learned valuable life lessons, all during the migratory experience.
Library researchers and missionaries are constantly adding new information to make sure the database remains dynamic and current. Efforts are ongoing to ensure that birth and death dates, travel dates, company information, and so on are accurate and supported by documentation. In lieu of confirmed travel dates, researchers can often reconstruct data by comparing ship manifests with census records taken in Utah. For example, if members of a family sailed in 1856 and were counted in the 1860 census in Utah, we know they crossed the plains between 1856 and 1860. This is complicated historical detective work, and we invite your contributions.
By clicking on the large, blue Feedback button on any page or clicking on the Feedback tab near the search bar, you can request that information be changed or updated, send a source or a photo, or even suggest an entirely new pioneer profile.