Beginning in 1846, tens of thousands of Latter-day Saints left homes, friends, and families and endured the rigors of travel by ship, wagon, handcart, and train to gather with fellow Saints in the Rocky Mountains of North America. An exhibit in the Church History Museum in Salt Lake City, Utah, highlights their efforts of faith and commitment through objects they brought with them between 1846 and 1890. This online version supplements the museum’s exhibit with additional artifacts and monuments on display at Church historic sites from Nauvoo, Illinois, to San Diego, California.
Brigham Young led the Camp of Israel out of Illinois in the snows of February 1846. These 2,500 Latter-day Saints journeyed 300 miles across Iowa Territory. Deep mud and swollen streams slowed their progress. They arrived at the Missouri River in May, too late to continue farther west.
About 700 Saints remained in Nauvoo, many of them ill and without means to travel. Mobs forced them out of the city in September 1846. Rescue teams returned east to help them rejoin the Saints at Garden Grove, Mount Pisgah, and other settlements across Iowa.
Winter Quarters was the principal settlement for Latter-day Saints who gathered along the Missouri River in 1846. After 1847, Kanesville (present-day Council Bluffs) became the local headquarters for almost 90 Mormon settlements in the area.
The sailing ship Brooklyn left New York Harbor in February 1846, bound for California under the leadership of Samuel Brannan. The Brooklyn carried 239 Latter-day Saints and supplies for anticipated Mormon settlements in the West.
That summer, the United States declared war on Mexico in hopes of adding California to its territory. About 500 men and several women and children volunteered to march from Iowa to the Pacific Ocean in what became known as the Mormon Battalion. Their service helped provide funds that enabled many of their fellow Saints to gather to Zion.
Latter-day Saint volunteers in the Mormon Battalion sent their army pay back to Winter Quarters to help their families. Besides the money they were paid, soldiers gained experience on the march to California that helped them lead others across the continent to the Rocky Mountains.
The bulk of the battalion soldiers mustered out at Fort Moore in Los Angeles, California, in July 1847. To reach Utah, some took a southern route across Death Valley; others went north to Sutter’s Fort and followed the California Trail eastward.
In January 1847, Brigham Young received a revelation now included as section 136 in the Doctrine and Covenants. Besides practical advice about organizing wagon companies for traveling, the Lord also urged His Apostles to rely on Him along their way. Strengthened by this revelation, Brigham Young’s vanguard company set out in April and arrived at the Great Salt Lake Valley in July. This company of 143 men, 3 women, and 2 children kept careful records that benefited all who followed.
After just two weeks in the Salt Lake Valley, Brigham Young and other members of the Quorum of the Twelve returned to the camps along the Missouri River to prepare their families for the journey west. As they traveled east, they passed westbound wagons that had left Winter Quarters in June. About 2,100 pioneers in 13 wagon companies journeyed to the Salt Lake Valley in 1847. Most arrived in September or early October.
Beginning in 1840, Latter-day Saint agents at Liverpool, England, chartered boats for large companies of emigrating Saints. In 1852, agents in Copenhagen, Denmark, began making similar arrangements for Danish and other Scandinavian converts—later joined by German, Swiss, Italian, and French converts. Beginning in 1852, many European Saints emigrated using contributions to the Perpetual Emigrating Fund—a revolving loan system that subsidized travel costs. As a result of improved organization and funding, the 1850s included the busiest years for the Mormon Trail.
Handcart companies provided determined Saints with an alternative, economical way to reach Zion. Out of about 70,000 Mormon pioneers who traveled before 1869, only about 3,000 used handcarts. Yet their dramatic stories of faith and perseverance have become emblematic of the pioneer spirit.
After 1860, Church-sponsored down-and-back wagon trains replaced handcarts as an inexpensive way for impoverished Saints to reach Zion. Most pioneers during the 1860s came to Zion in companies using this economical method of gathering until the Transcontinental Railroad arrived in Utah in 1869. After that, the combined steam power of ocean liners and rail locomotives made it possible for European Saints to travel from their homelands to the Rocky Mountains in just over three weeks and for a fraction of the cost.
The Pacific islands, Australia, and New Zealand were the homelands of hundreds of Saints by 1890. Like the approximately 55,000 British and 25,000 Scandinavian converts, many Pacific Saints traveled by sail, trail, and rail across ocean, mountain, and desert to reach Zion.