Children on pioneer trail worked hard, had fun

More than half the number of Mormon pioneers who crossed the plains were under the age of 19, according to Susan Easton Black, BYU professor of Church history and doctrine.

"The youthful nature of the travelers slowed the migration process with childhood diseases, accidents, pranks and deaths," said Sister Black, during the James E. Smith Midwest Conference on World Affairs at the University of Nebraska in March 1997. "Yet without the youth much of the work of moving the animals, younger children and helping the aged could not have happened."Sister Black said sacrifices were immediately made by children as the Nauvoo exodus began. Martha Ashworth, 11, was asked to gather her friends, who would not be making the exodus and let them choose from among her play things. She was only allowed to take necessities, and left her favorite doll behind, Sister Black said.

Once the pioneers had trekked through Iowa, the launching place for the nearly 1,100-mile journey to the Salt Lake Valley was across the Missouri River in Winter Quarters. The first pioneer company left Winter Quarters in April 1847. For the most part, the company was composed of men who had the skills to create a new settlement - builders, mechanics, masons and surveyors.

However, two children and one young teenager were permitted to join the company. Isaac Perry Decker and Lorenzo Sobieski Young, both 6, made the journey with their mothers. Teenager Andrew Shumway, 14, cried at the thought of being left behind because his mother had just died, and was allowed to join the first company, traveling with his father.

While the pioneer trail began for some children when they left Winter Quarters, it began in the hearts of others at baptism or when they left their homes in far-away countries. Sister Black said that pioneer children reached maturity by sacrifice and suffering.

Lorenzo Clark, she continued, best summarizes the daily journey of children on the Mormon Pioneer Trail when he said, "My earliest impression is one of work. . . . Though we had enjoyed and remembered the willow whistles and spoon tops made and put into our hand by older persons, the real spirit of the pioneer group was industry and everyone scorned the idler."

Children on the trail, however, still made their own fun. Sister Black said young boys, who were small enough, held tightly to the spokes of the wagon wheels, bracing themselves, as they would ride around and around.

Other children looked for colorful Indian beads along the trail, corralled crickets in the sand, pretending they were herds of cattle, and enjoyed bathing in the river. A few carved their names in stone at landmarks such as Independence Rock.

Their day's journey on the trail usually ended at 5 p.m. - that is when they started their chores, explained Sister Black.

After chores and dinner, the very young went to bed and nightlife began for the teenagers. Some nights they held a dance. Sister Black said some teenagers were even reprimanded for staying out too late at night.

"For many of the children the Mormon Pioneer Trail ended in the depths of the Atlantic Ocean, on steamboats on the Mississippi River, and in shallow graves on the plains," concluded Sister Black. "For those who reached the valley of the Great Salt Lake, the trail seldom ended there. With their parents they established new settlements throughout the Intermountain West."

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