The Mormon Trail — The Overland Route to the Great Salt Lake

19th Century

The Mormon Trail was used by more than 60,000 members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to migrate from the Midwest to the Salt Lake Valley in Utah in the 19th Century. Others used the trail to travel further into the American West. The trail played a role in helping the United States settle the continent, from the East Coast to the West Coast.

Brigham Young, 1853, Portrait

Brigham Young led Mormon pioneers to the Great Salt Lake Valley in 1847. Image Source: Wikipedia.

Mormon Trail Summary

The Mormon Trail was one of the most important “Overland Trails” connecting the eastern United States to the Salt Lake Valley in present-day Utah during the 19th century. It was used by over 60,000 members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, who journeyed from the Midwest to Utah in search of freedom from religious persecution. The trail spanned 1,300 miles, crossing five states and numerous obstacles. The Mormon Trail played a key role in America’s fulfillment of Manifest Destiny.

Mormon Trail Facts

  1. The Mormon Trail was a major route used by settlers during westward expansion.
  2. The trail was blazed by pioneers who were members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the late 1840s.
  3. The trail was used by members of the church who were forced to leave their homes in Illinois. They moved west, looking for a place to start a new life, free of persecution and religious conflict.
  4. Most of the Mormon Trail was blazed by the Donner-Reed Party in 1846.
  5. The trail covers over 1,300 miles and passes through several states, including Illinois, Iowa, Nebraska, Wyoming, and Utah.
  6. It is estimated that more than 60,000 members of the church used the trail between the late 1840s and the coming of the railroad in 1869.
  7. The Mormon Trail was also used by the ‘49ers, Albert Sidney Johnston’s Army during the Utah War, and the Pony Express.
  8. The trail includes several historic sites and landmarks, including Cache Cave, Echo Canyon, Weber River Valley, Little Emigration Canyon, and Emigration Canyon, as well as the “This Is the Place” monument in Pioneer Trail State Park.
  9. Following the introduction of railroads, the Mormon Trail fell out of use.

Where is the Mormon Trail?

This map from the National Park Service shows the route of the Mormon Trail.

Mormon Trail Map, Westward Expansion, Manifest Destiny
Mormon Trail Map. Image Source: National Park Service.

Mormon Trail History and Overview

The origins of the Mormon Trail can be traced back to the mid-1800s when members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — also known as Mormons — were facing religious persecution and conflict in Illinois. 

In 1846, the Donner-Reed Party followed the California Trail and blazed a trail that ended at Donner Hill, which is located near the mouth of Emigration Canyon. It is there that the members of the LDS Church diverged and the Mormon Trail started. The Mormons who left Illinois in 1847 only blazed one mile of the entire trail from Nauvoo to Salt Lake City.

The Mormon Trail spans over 1,300 miles and passes through several states including Illinois, Iowa, Nebraska, Wyoming, and Utah. It’s a natural highway that follows a series of defiles, beginning just west of The Needles at the mouth of Coyote Creek Canyon, along the Wyoming state line. 

The trail includes notable features like Cache Cave Creek Draw, Echo Canyon, Weber River Valley, Main Canyon, East Canyon, Little Emigration Canyon, and Emigration Canyon. Together, the features form a passage through the Wasatch Range of the Rocky Mountains.

The Mormon pioneers who traveled along the trail encountered numerous challenges and difficulties, including terrain, weather, and attacks from hostile Native American Indian tribes and bands. However, more than 60,000 Mormon immigrants braved the trail, along with other groups such as the ’49ers, Johnston’s Army, and the Pony Express. They all followed the path paved by the pioneers of 1847 into the Great Salt Lake Valley.

The Great Salt Lake of Utah, Moran
This 1876 painting by Thomas Moran depicts the Great Salt Lake of Utah. Image Source: New York Public Library Digital Collections.

Today, travelers along the trail can visit numerous historic sites and landmarks, including the Cache Cave Rendezvous Point, and fortifications that were built during the “Utah War” of 1857–1858.

On July 12, 1847, the first Mormon pioneers set up camp in what is now Utah. That evening, several men walked east of the camp and found a cave in a hillside. The men called it “Redden’s Cave” after Jackson Redden, a 31-year-old former bodyguard of the Prophet Joseph Smith, who was the first to spot it. The cave, later known as Cache Cave, became a prominent landmark for the pioneers during their journey from Nauvoo to the Salt Lake Valley. Some people referred to Cache Cave as the “first Mormon church in the West” because it was used it for prayer and sermons.

Cache Cave was also used as a rendezvous point during the Utah War, which started in the spring of 1857. Fearing there was a Mormon uprising, President James Buchanan sent troops to Utah to suppress the Mormons. Mountain Man Jim Bridger led General Albert Sidney Johnston and 2,500 soldiers to Utah with the intent to replace Brigham Young with a new Governor, who was not a Mormon. 

James Buchanan, 13th President of the United States, Portrait
President James Buchanan. Image Source: Library of Congress.

When the Mormons found out about Buchanan’s plan, they prepared to defend themselves. General Daniel H. Wells, who commanded the Nauvoo Legion, made Cache Cave his eastern headquarters. The cave was also used as a station for messengers and spies.

One of the most renowned landmarks on the trail is the Big Mountain crest, which rises over 4,700 feet into the air and marks the eastern boundary of the Great Basin. It marks the spot where the first Momon pioneers first laid eyes on the Valley of the Greate Salt Lake and Brigham Young declared “This is the place, drive on.”

Although the majority of the 60,000 Mormon immigrants who came before the railroad’s arrival in 1869 followed the path blazed by the pioneers of 1847 into the Great Salt Lake Valley, the Mormon Trail was not the only route through the Wasatch Range. 

In 1850, another trail through the Wasatch Range was blazed by Parley P. Pratt. However, most of the Mormons who traveled the Salt Lake Valley followed the Mormon Trail. Pratt’s “Golden Pass Road” broke off from the original trail at the mouth of Echo Canyon and wound its way into the valley.

The Mormon Trail also served as a primary route for many emigrants traveling to California, Oregon, and other western territories. It helped to open up the West to settlement and development, and thousands of people followed in the footsteps of the Mormon pioneers.

Benefits of the Mormon Trail

The Mormon Trail offered many advantages to people who moved to the West. It helped people access territories gained by the United States through the Louisiana Purchase and the Mexican Cession. The westward expansion of the nation established new settlements, helped grow the economy, and added new cultural ideas to American society. It also allowed the Mormons to escape the religious persecution they were subjected to in Illinois.

Disadvantages of the Mormon Trail

Despite the advantages Americans gained from the Mormon Trail, there were also negative repercussions to westward expansion. As Americans moved to the West, they impacted the environment, which contributed to the Dust Bowl during the 1930s. Native American Indian tribes and bands were also impacted by westward expansion, which led to the Indian Wars on the Great Plains. Westward expansion along the trail also brought the formation of new states and territories, which increased the debate between Free States and Slaves States. The intense sectional division was a direct cause of the Civil War.

Mormon Trail Significance

The Mormon Trail is important to United States history for the role it played in leading the Mormons to a new home in the Great Salt Lake Valley and westward expansion. It helped establish the American West and contributed to the United States fulfilling the concept of Manifest Destiny.

Westward Migration and the Mormon Trail

This video from the Daily Bellringer discusses the westward migration of the Mormons and the early history of Utah.

Citation Information

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  • Article Title The Mormon Trail — The Overland Route to the Great Salt Lake
  • Date 19th Century
  • Author
  • Keywords Mormon Trail, Westward Expansion, Manifest Destiny, Oregon Trail, Overland Trails, Overland Routes
  • Website Name American History Central
  • Access Date July 12, 2024
  • Publisher R.Squared Communications, LLC
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update August 17, 2023