SPANISH FORK, Utah Celebrating the courage of Latter-day Saints who 150 years ago became the first colonists to settle Southern California after statehood, a train of eight wagons with walkers, outriders and a 100-horse remuda set out from an auto dealership here Sept. 8, bound for San Bernardino, Calif., for a scheduled arrival Oct. 25.
"Four hundred thirty-seven pioneers sent out by Brigham Young, including Mormon and African-American pioneers, started on the journey of their lives on the most arduous wagon road in American history," said Marilyn Millls, celebration chairman with the Heritage Trails Association, which is sponsoring the trek, as she addressed the participants prior to setting out. "They set in motion events that changed the economics of western history."
The purpose of the 1851 trek was to establish a way station in Southern California between San Pedro Harbor and the Latter-day Saint settlements in Utah territory.
"Brigham Young needed a coastal port," explained Glenn Franks, association member, in an interview. "He consulted with explorers, mountain men who had been in the area, but he had a much greater source, a source from on high. From that source he understood he needed to have access to the coast in order to have trade and commerce" for the colonies being established under his leadership.
The existing boundaries of the United States were back in the central states where the Latter-day Saints had endured hostilities and had left to escape persecution, he noted. On the West Coast, San Francisco was developing concomitantly with Salt Lake City, but travel to and from that port was hindered by the Sierra Nevada, he added.
As a result of the 1851 trek and settlement, led by Apostle Amasa Lyman, the Church gained the benefit of commerce as well as missionary work to the isles of the Pacific, "a touch with the world that wasn't hampered by what was back east," Brother Franks explained.
Accordingly, the modern-day wagon train with as many as 20 wagons and 100 participants is making its way from central Utah over the Old Spanish and Mormon trails through Nevada and California. After 50 days, it is to end up at Glen Helen Regional Park, the exact location where the pioneers camped for three months before settling the San Bernardino Valley below.
"This is a story of true community," said Sister Mills of the Upland 3rd Ward, Upland California Stake. Among the settlers were African Americans who had been part of the epic 1846-47 trek from Nauvoo, Ill., to the Salt Lake Valley. Ten Jewish merchants arrived as the colony was established, she said. "One of them actually brought a copy of the Torah when he came with a Mormon wagon train. The rabbi at the Temple Immanuel in San Bernardino told us that story, and he has the copy of the Torah."
Following as closely as possible the authentic trail and eschewing highways, the wagon train will wind through 18 major cities and towns, including Las Vegas.
Among trekkers poised to go the entire distance are Lynn and Sharon Bogh from San Bernardino. Lynn is a descendant of Elder Lyman, and when near the destination, the Boghs will join with at least 90 Lyman descendants to walk the last two days of the trek.
Trudy McFarland, Sequim 1st Ward, Port Angeles Washington Stake, is making the trek with her four daughters, ages 4-12, and another 12-year-old who is a family friend.
"I home school my kids," Sister McFarland said. "When I heard about this, I thought: I can talk about pioneers, read stuff out of books, show movies, but they'll never really know what the pioneers experienced without actually doing it."
The wagon train has an Internet web site, www.heritagetrails.cc.