Most people are familiar with the Oregon Trail, but there is another westward migration that played a major role in the expansion of the United States: the Mormon Trail. The Mormon Trail, reaching from Nauvoo, Illinois to Salt Lake City, Utah crosses five states and covers approximately 1,300 miles. This trail is now recognized as a National Historic Trail maintained by the National Park Service (NPS). Starting in Montrose on the Mississippi River and ending at Council Bluffs on the Missouri River, the Mormon Pioneer National Historic Trail includes 317 miles across Iowa. Along the way are interpretive panels that tell the story of these pioneers who left their homes in search of a better life for themselves and their families. Wooden markers were placed along the approximate route of the Mormon Trail between 1933 and 1940 by the Civilian Conservation Corps. A few of these wooden markers still remain, but most have been lost or replaced by the familiar brown and white signs erected by the NPS.
In 1846, the first group of Mormons left Nauvoo under the leadership of Brigham Young, heading west to escape the persecution they had faced in Illinois and before that in Missouri, Ohio, and New York. From 1846 to 1869, more than 70,000 Mormons left Nauvoo in search of religious freedom. The first stop across the Mississippi River was near Montrose. Just north of Montrose on Highway 61 is a small roadside park with information about this initial step in the long journey to Utah. Directly across from the Temple in Nauvoo, this park has a picnic shelter and a long-drop toilet. It was here that the Mormons took their last glimpse of Nauvoo before continuing to the campsite at Sugar Creek. Here, the Mormons congregated and readied themselves for the journey. However, there is no information at Sugar Creek and no traces of the camp remain.
Continuing west across Iowa, the Mormons crossed the Des Moines River at Bonaparte. While in Bonaparte, they stopped at Meek’s Grist Mill to have their grain milled. Meek’s Grist Mill is now home to the Bonaparte Retreat Restaurant, part of the Bonaparte Historic Riverfront District. The Bonaparte Retreat is open for lunch seven days a week from 11 am to 1 pm, and dinner Monday-Saturday from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. A few miles away, the Bentonsport National Historic District has several buildings that were built by Mormons who were trying to earn money for the journey west. Especially worth a stop is the Mason House Inn, built in 1846 which still has most of its original furnishings.
The Davis County Historical Complex in Bloomfield includes the Harbour Log Cabin that was built by Mormons who were looking for work while they waited out bad weather at Richardson’s Point, along with other historical exhibits and information. The Prairie Trails Museum in Corydon (open April 15-October 15; by arrangement during the winter) is conveniently located right on Highway 2 and has a number of exhibits, not limited to the Mormon Trail. One of the exhibits here spotlights the writing of “Come, Come, Ye Saints,” a popular Mormon song, which occurred at the Locust Creek Campsite in southwestern Wayne County. Maps are available to this campsite at the museum.
After two months of mud and bad weather, the Mormons needed to rest and recover. Garden Grove was the first temporary settlement that the Mormons built and served as a way-station for travelers until 1851. Hundreds of Mormons stopped here and built houses, wells, roads, and planted crops. However, there was also a large population of rattlesnakes in the area, so the majority continued west.
Mt. Pigsah, located outside of Thayer, was another settlement. Mount Pigsah served as a way-station on the route from 1846 to 1852, and was a semi-permanent town with houses, fields, and a cemetery. It is now a park with picnic shelters, grills, a reconstructed log cabin, and interpretive information about the trail.
Mormon Trail County Park and Lake and the Pote Farm Ruts are located outside of Bridgewater. The park is 170 acres of prairie and lakes, similar to what it was like when the Mormons crossed through the area. Camping is available, as well as hiking trails, boating, fishing, and picnic areas. Located about one mile south-southwest of the park are the traces of the ruts that were created by thousands of wagons crossing through the area. These ruts are located on private property and should be viewed from the road only.
Thousands of Mormons camped out at The Grand Encampment, the primary encampment along the Missouri River. This site covered more than nine miles and is commemorated by interpretive panels and exhibits at the Iowa School for the Deaf, just outside of Council Bluffs. The Western Historic Trails Visitor Center (open 9:00 am to 5:00 pm, Monday – Sunday) in Council Bluffs has a wealth of information about not just the Mormon Trail, but also other westward trails, including the Oregon Trail and the Lewis and Clark Expedition.
Before it was known as Council Bluffs, it was known as Kanesville until 1852. Kanesville was a major hub for the Mormons on their journey for many years. Here, a reconstruction of the Kanesville Tabernacle where Brigham Young was officially sustained as the second President and Prophet of the Church in 1847. The original tabernacle took 200 men three weeks to build and was one of the largest log structures in the world at the time. The Kanesville Tabernacle and Visitors Center is open daily, from 9:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. April-September and 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. October-March.
More information, including detailed directions and in-depth information about the Mormon Trail and the sites described above, is available online from the NPS, and Auto Tour Route guides for Iowa and other states are available at a number of places, including visitors centers, museums, and tourism centers along the route. The majority of sites are free. These sites can be visited independently or together to learn more about the journey that these pioneers made across the state, and across the country to their new homes in Utah.