As a commemorative wagon-and-handcart train plods its way through the contoured cropland and across the rolling plateaus of the "Cornhusker State" this spring, many residents of Nebraska are getting better acquainted with the LDS component to their history.
It is catching their imagination as they recognize that one of the greatest pioneer migrations in history occurred in their backyards.Nebraska achieved statehood March 1, 1867, as the 37th state in the Union. But already in 1846, one of its most thriving settlements in its history was established in the Middle Missouri Valley. Winter Quarters was the staging area from which the 1847 vanguard party – and later, thousands of other Latter-day Saints prepared to continue their journey to the valley of the Great Salt Lake.
Pushing on toward Chimney Rock and Scott's Bluff, they greatly improved the Oregon Trail along the Platte River, and made it a major thoroughfare to the West for those who followed, both Mormons and non-Mormons.
Those who trace the Nebraska's Mormon Trail soon learn it is actually two trails – a north trail covered by President Brigham Young and his 1847 followers and a south trail traversed by later emigrants. (Please see map on this page.)
This year's commemorative "Mormon Trail Wagon Train – 150 Years" is recognizing both routes. Branches of the train set out last month from two locations: the south branch from Council Bluffs, Iowa, and the north from Florence, Neb. The two branches of the train will merge in Kearney for the rest of the journey to Salt Lake City.
Gail Holmes, patriarch in the Omaha Nebraska Stake and a local historian, said the Church directed immigrant converts to use the south trail from Kanesville, Iowa, beginning in 1850. Due to the California Gold Rush that year, some 10,000 travelers were taking the north route, and, Church leaders reasoned, the south side of the Platte afforded greater access to water and grass for livestock.
"The next year, however, they moved back to the north side, saying this is a shorter trail," Brother Holmes explained.
Still another trail in Nebraska, he said, was about seven miles north of what today is Nebraska City in Cass County. "It no longer exists, but in 1864-66, some 6,300 European Saints were picked up by the down-and-back wagon trains, coming down from the mountains, taking these people and carrying them back to the Salt Lake Valley. In connection with that, the south wagon train yesterday [May 5] camped at Deep Well Farm. When it was Deep Well Ranch, it was used by the down-and-back wagons."
As the wagon train proceeds, townspeople along the route have warmly welcomed the travelers, who perhaps receive the well wishes as proxies for the Pioneers of 150 years ago.
With this Pioneer Sesquicentennial this year, "there is a lot of interest in the Church here that there has not been before," said Shauna Valentine of the Lincoln Nebraska Stake, who has worked in Church public affairs for more than 10 years. "It is bringing us out of obscurity. (See D&C 1:30.)
She cited an incident 10 years ago in Biatrus, south of Lincoln, where there was opposition among clergy and others to the building of an LDS meetinghouse. It was necessary to speak to the Chamber of Commerce and other groups to dispel the negative feeling. This year, by contrast, the museum in Biatrus was eager to display an handcart-and-photo exhibit about the LDS trek across Nebraska.
"The same feeling prevails all along the trail," she said. "People who are not members of the Church have been working to preserve a lot of the places that are important along the trail. They've tied the Mormon history to their local history. This weekend there was a beautiful pageant in Grand Island about the trail, put on by the local people."
She said Russ Leger, wagon master of the south wagon train has been "a great cheerleader."
"He's not a Church member. But recently in Council Bluffs, Iowa, talking to about 5,000 school children just before the wagon train passed over into Nebraska, he told about Brigham Young and Joseph Smith, and the reason the Pioneers made the trek."
Sister Valentine's husband, Robert, is working with the National Park Service to place 12 additional markers memorializing events and landmarks along the trail.
Here is a county-by-county rundown of locations covered by the Mormon Pioneer Trail in Nebraska. Included are highlights of major landmarks and a summary of celebrations held and yet to be held along the trail as the wagon train – both the north and south portion – passes through. Not intended to be exhaustive, it is based largely upon information gathered form R. Val Rasmussen, a Church Educational System coordinator in Lincoln; and from local Chambers of Commerce and tourism bureaus. Brother Rasmussen, curriculum coordinator for the Nebraska Mormon Trails Association, prepared packets for use by fourth-grade school children in the state.
The following summaries are for counties traversed by the north portion of the wagon train and, from Kearney west, the united wagon train:
As of May 10, the north trail wagon train had passed through Douglas, Dodge, Colfax, Platte, Nance, Merrick, Hall and Buffalo counties.
Landmarks passed include Cutler's Park, the first winter encampment; the Church's Mormon Trail Center at Historic Winter Quarters; Elkhorn River Crossing, so difficult wagons did not organize until reaching the other side; Genoa, a Mormon way station founded in 1857 for freighting service, with visible wagon ruts nearby; Loup River ferry crossing; Lone Tree Monument at Chapman, a marker memorializing an immense cottonwood tree passed by some Mormon immigrants; Grand Island with its Stuhr Museum; and Shelton, settled in 1858 as Wood River Center way station by Mormons whose descendants still live there.
Celebrations have included one at Genoa April 29, in which students from seven schools came to welcome the wagon train and lined the roadside waving flags. They rode day wagons, singing LDS pioneer songs. In Shelton, 6,000 cloth ribbons were placed along a memorial walk to honor 6,000 people who died on the trail.
From May 10, on the wagon train will go through the following counties:
Locations. Lexington; Cozad; Gothenburg; with pony express station.
Celebrations. May 10: Lexington community barbecue, talent show, trail marker dedication, games, museum with Mormon Trail exhibit April-June.
May 11: Lexington community breakfast, evening meal at museum, tours of city.
May 12: In Cozad, proclamation from mayor to be delivered by Pony Express riders on trail; entertainment; muzzle loading; square dancing.
May 13-14: Wagon train led by Pony Express into Gothenburg; education day with area schools; Pony Express station and Sod House Museum visits.
Locations. Brady; Maxwell; North Platte (location of Pioneers' odometer installation); Hershey; Sutherland; Sand Hill Bluff (with wagon ruts) northeast of Sutherland.
Celebrations. May 15: Brady barbecue, music, cowboy poetry, drama.
May 16: At North Platte Municipal Airport, mayor's welcome and proclamation, odometer installation re-enactment featuring descendants of Pratt, Clayton, Appleton, Harmon and others of original company.
May 17: At North Platte, parade, music, Indian dancing, re-enactments, displays.
May 18: At North Platte, Sunday services, tours to historical museum, fireside.
May 19: At Hershey, high school swing choir; Primary children's chorus sings pioneer songs.
May 20: At Sutherland, mayor's ceremony at wagon ruts location, infant grave dedication, campfire program.
Locations. North Paxton; Keystone; Lemoyne
Celebrations. May 21: At North Paxton, musical entertainment
May 22: At Keystone, cowboy poetry, music, square dancing, postal cancellation.
Locations. Ash Hollow (near Lewellen), where travelers had to lock wheels and ease wagons down Windlass Hill with ropes; Osh Kosh; Lisco.
Celebrations. May 24-25: Presentation of portion of Ash Hollow's annual pageant; music; LDS Sunday services.
May 26: At Osh Kosh, supper and sing-a-long.
May 27: At Lisco, fresh salmon-bake supper; LDS historical pageant from branch in Sidney, Neb.
Locations. Ancient Bluff ruins, nine miles west of Lisco, named by English Latter-day Saints for resemblance to ruined castles, location where Pioneers climbed bluffs and wrote names on buffalo skulls; Broadwater; Bridgeport, with Courthouse and Jail Rocks nearby resembling a jail beside a courthouse and seeming to change shape as they are approached; Bayard; Chimney Rock National Historic Site south of Bayard, rising 260 feet in the air.
Celebrations. May 28: At Broadwater, "Pioneer Village" activities from LDS Branch in Sidney, Neb.
May 29: At Bridgeport, dinner and entertainment.
May 30: At Bayard, entertainment from 21st Century Singers.
SCOTTS BLUFF COUNTY
Locations. Rebecca Winters' 1852 grave, recently moved to accommodate railroad right-of way; City of Scottsbluff; Scotts Bluff National Monument, marking end of desert and beginning of Rocky Mountains for Pioneers; Prayer Circle Hollow, where President Brigham Young called Pioneers to repentance after being disturbed by someof their behavior; Gering; Mitchell; Henry.
Celebrations. May 31: At Scottsbluff, living histories, German booths, polka music, Rebecca Winters Living History presentation at memorial, music, square dancing.
June 1: Sunday evening service at Rebecca Winters' gravesite, featuring Elder J. Richard Clarke of the Seventy; also, special summer 1997 display on Rebecca Winters at North Platte Valley Museum in Gering.
June 2: At Mitchell, dinner and family night sing-a-long.
June 3: At Henry, farewell ceremony with governors of Nebraska and Wyoming invited.
SOUTH WAGON TRAIN
From April 19, when the south wagon train left Council Bluffs, Iowa, until May 7, when it united with the north wagon train, it passed through these counties in Nebraska: Cass, Saunders, Butler, Polk and Hamilton.
Major landmarks passed included the site of the former city of Wyoming, Neb., about 7 miles north of what today is Nebraska City in Cass County. At the site, in 1864-66, some 6,300 European Saints were picked up by the "down-and-back" wagon trains from Salt Lake City.
Among celebrations along the south trail were a memorial service in Ashland Sunday, April 27, for John McBride Belnap, a baby who died and was buried at a site overlooking Saline Ford in the 1860s. The service also honored those who died on the trail.