Mormon trail: 1968 Congressional act preserves historic thoroughfares

America's trails - the arteries that supplied the lifeblood of 19th Century westward expansion - are attracting increasing attention from 20th Century Americans seeking to rediscover and preserve a national legacy.

Trails have been in the news frequently this year, 1993 being the 150-year anniversary of the Oregon Trail. Both the Oregon and Mormon Pioneer Trail - which run parallel or coincide much of the way - owe their preservation to the National Trails System Act. Congress passed the act exactly 25 years ago, on June 5, 1968.Originally, the act only covered national scenic trails, but it was amended on Nov. 10, 1978, to include national historic trails.

"The Oregon and the Mormon Pioneer were the first trails designated under that component," explained Michael Duwe, National Park Service trail coordinator at the Rocky Mountain Regional Office in Denver, Colo.

"It allowed them to have their own identity in terms of historic importance. It gives more opportunity for involvement nationwide of agencies like the Park Service and the Bureau of Land Management, a lot more opportunity for potential funding for preservation and marking of the trails."

The Mormon Pioneer National Historic Trail - the sesquicentennial of which will be observed in 1996-97 - is worth preserving, affirmed Stanley F. Kimball, professor of history at Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville. A member of the Edwardsville Ward, Fair View Heights Illinois Stake, he has studied the trail since 1963 and has authored six books and dozens of articles on the subject.

"It was used by about 70,000 people for over 20 years," he noted.

Starting at Nauvoo, the city founded by the Prophet Joseph Smith on the western Illinois border, the trail snakes across Iowa, Nebraska and Wyoming, ending in downtown Salt Lake City on the spot where the Church Office Building now stands.

Under National Park Service administration, the trail is historically significant to Americans as a major thoroughfare for explorers, fur traders, gold seekers and others who contributed to the growth of the continental United States. To Church members its import lies in the role it played in the gathering of modern-day Israel to the Zion established in the Rocky Mountains. (See Isa. 2:2-3.)

Though it bears the Mormon name, Latter-day Saints actually were not the ones to blaze the trail, Dr. Kimball pointed out, except for a stretch of about a mile leading into the Salt Lake Valley.

"The best way to say it is that the Mormons found a trail and made a road of it. We [meaning Church membersT followed for the most part pieces of the previously existing Oregon trail. But the Mormons weren't looking for a place in the history books. They wanted to get from Point A to Point B as conveniently as possible."

Others had preceded the Saints as far as the Utah territory, he noted, including the ill-fated Donner-Reed party that entered the valley on its way to California one year previously.

"The real heroism or contribution of the Mormon Pioneers was improving a pretty rough trail," he said.

Far beyond getting one party of pioneers west to settle, the Saints' intent was that thousands would follow, Dr. Kimball said, evidenced by the establishment of way stations at Garden Grove and Mt. Pisgah, Iowa. Their motives, he added, differed from the other West-bound groups.

"Unlike the hit-or-miss groups going for fur, land, gold or adventure, we were a whole group of people going West for religious freedom. We were the only group of people to go West who didn't want to go West. We were driven West for religious reasons.

"Another unique thing is that the Mormons moved as villages on wheels. We moved a whole society, a whole culture. We had an unusually high percentage of families, many women and children."

Tightly organized, the Saints moved under the direction of the priesthood, he noted, with discipline and order carefully maintained. "We were considerate in the use of game and trees, and were unique in our understanding of the American Indians that caused us to treat them fairly, resulting in very little Indian trouble."

Unlike other westering groups, the Saints established their trail as a two-way route, Dr. Kimball said. "Many Mormons returned to the East, missionaries for example."

Passage of the Trails System Act in 1968 began a steadily increasing awareness of the westward movement, particularly the Mormon phase of it, he said.

"During the 25 years I have tramped around on the Mormon Trail, I have found increasing interest in our history. In many communities, it seems that everybody wants Brigham Young to have gone through their back dooryard. Many non-Mormons are very proud of their Mormon Trail legacy."

Paul and Karla Gunzenhauser are a striking example. They live just north of Garden Grove, Iowa, the community that was founded as a permanent camp along the trail.

A former fifth-grade teacher of Iowa history, Mrs. Gunzenhauser said their interest dates from the early 1970s, when the Decatur County Conservation Board established a park on what was reckoned to be the site of the old Mormon cemetery at Garden Grove.

Some of the Gunzenhauser's land surrounds the park, and through the years, they found evidence of Mormon graves and cabins. The evidence included pieces of pottery and china. They felt it to be authentic when, during a family vacation to Nauvoo, they recognized similar china and pottery pieces in museums.

Their efforts at amateur archaeology have been augmented the past few years by busload tours of high school social studies teachers led by Michael Zahf, a teacher from Washington, Iowa, and Loren Horton, a leader in the Iowa State Historical Society. Together, they are forming an Iowa Mormon Trails Association.

"We've got our by-laws approved, and we don't quite have our non-profit status set up yet, but we're close to it," Mrs. Gunzenhauser told the Church News. "We hope to identify some locations, clarify the trail where possible, and just document whatever can be documented by local people at this time to be put primarily in the county history, and then be made available statewide."

Asked why a non-Mormon would be interested in the Mormon Trail, she replied: "We're Iowans, and this is part of our history. It's as simple as that, really. Our school district is called the Mormon Trail School District, and there's a newly formed organization centered out in Humeston, called the Mormon Trail Chamber of Commerce and Development, and it covers the same area as our school district. So we draw our identity from the Mormon Trail.

"We have pretty close ties with the LDS Church in Osceola, Iowa [in the Des Moines StakeT. They're going to put on a pageant at our Pioneer Days this summer, which is an event Garden Grove started last year to get ready for our sesquicentennial. That will be in 1996. So will the trail sesquicentennial, and so will the state sesquicentennial."

The work of the Gunzenhausers and their associates will complement that of the Mormon Trails Assocication formed in Salt Lake City two years ago as an umbrella consortium for groups interested in preserving the trail. Both the Iowa- and Utah-based associations work closely with trail coordinator Duwe of the National Park Service, who suggested the formation of the Utah group.

Its most recent accomplishment was the preparation in April of a proposed development and protection plan for the trail for presentation to the public agencies that have formal responsibility for the trail. The report includes recommendations for supporting trail programs, compiling information, and mapping, marking and identifying trail routes and traces.

Several events planned this summer evidence the increasing interest in the Mormon Pioneer National Historic Trail. One is the planned dedication on July 27 of the Lombard Ferry Site where State Highway 28 crosses the Green River in Wyoming. Mike Brown, outdoor recreation planner for the Rock Springs District of the U.S. Bureau of Land Management said steel-and-concrete signs will mark the spot where Brigham Young and his followers crossed the Green River on June 30, 1847. Funds were raised and the marker erected through a partnership of the BLM, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the high priests quorum of the Rock Springs Wyoming Stake, Mr. Brown said.

Another event with a Mormon Trail theme will be the Mormon Trek Commemorative Run in Iowa City, Iowa, June 12. It is a 5-kilometer race and 1-mile walk/run, the first of what is planned to be an annual event commemorating the occasion on June 9, 1856, when the first Mormon handcart company left Iowa City to join the Saints in Utah.

"Never has interest in the Mormon Trail been higher than today," Dr. Kimball observed. "To experience the power of place and the spirit of locale, to stand in authentic Mormon wagon ruts is a great spiritual experience."

For those desiring that experience, trail maps and information can be obtained from respective national and state park services and tourist information bureaus. Here are a few noteworthy locations (there are many others) along the trail, according to a National Park Service brochure :

Nauvoo, Ill. - The Historic District includes 1,100 acres of restored homes and shops.

Des Moines River Crossing, Iowa - The trail's first major river crossing west of the Mississippi.

"Come, Come, Ye Saints" (Locust Creek Camp Site), Missouri - where William Clayton, inspired by the birth of his son, wrote the words to the famous hymn.

Garden Grove, Iowa - where the Saints established a temporary settlement that was used as a way station for the duration of the Mormon migration West.

Mt. Pisgah, Iowa - like Garden Grove, a permanent camp on the trail.

Council Bluffs (Kanesville), Iowa - including the Mormon Battalion Mustering Grounds, Middle Mormon Ferry, Council Point and Emigrants Landing.

Chimney Rock, Neb. - a national historic site that was a prominent landmark mentioned in many pioneer journals.

Rebecca Winters grave, Nebraska - one of the few known graves of the nearly 6,000 Mormon pioneers who died crossing the plains.

Devil's Gate/Martin's Cove, Wyoming - where members of Captain Edward Martin's handcart company sheltered during a severe November snowstorm in 1856, during which 145 of the 576 pioneers died from exposure and lack of food.

Willie Handcart Disaster site, Wyoming - where 77 members of Captain James G. Willie's handcart company died in October 1856.

Parting of the Ways/Sublette Cutoff, Wyoming - marking a fork in the route where emigrants continuing to Oregon could take a shortcut (popular during the gold rush days) across the Little Colorado Desert to Bear River or could continue on the main route of the Oregon, California and Mormon trails.

Donner Hill, Utah - site of the ill-fated Donner-Reed party's time-consuming climb out of Emigration Canyon in 1846. Brigham Young's followers found an easier route to the Salt Lake Valley the next year.

This is the Place Monument (Pioneer Trail State Park), Utah - where a 60-foot memorial marks the spot where Brigham Young observed the Great Salt Lake Valley.

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