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The Mormon Trail, Part 1

The Journey from Nauvoo to Garden Grove

Larry E. HeckPhotographer, Writer

While doing some research into the ancestry of Butch Cassidy, we came across the ship records for all four of his grandparents. In 1856, the Parker family from England and the Gillies Family from Scotland were members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. There is nothing to indicate they knew each other.

They crossed the ocean on different ships and traveled by train at different times to the end of the tracks in Iowa City, Iowa. From that point, they traveled by handcart and by wagon to Lewis, Iowa, where they intersected with the Mormon Trail and followed it to the Salt Lake Valley. The Mormon Trail was established 10 years earlier in 1846 and 1847 when the first Mormons left Nauvoo, Illinois, and traveled across the Continental Divide. Much of it can be found by following backcountry roads and connecting historic points of interest.

This first story is an introduction as to how and why the Mormon church moved its headquarters to the Salt Lake Valley. The story begins in Nauvoo, Illinois, and follows backcountry roads 200 miles to the first settlement they built in Garden Grove, Iowa.

On February 4, 1846, Brigham Young left Nauvoo, Illinois, and crossed the Mississippi River into Iowa. He passed through the town of Montrose and set up camp on a small water flow called Sugar Creek. One by one and day after day, other wagons were ferried across the Mississippi River on rafts similar to the one pictured below. They docked on the Iowa side, but the crossing was much shorter at that time. A dam at Keokuk, Iowa, now forms Lake Cooper, which is the largest such lake in either state. By the end of February, 500 wagons and 2,500 people were camped at Sugar Creek. They named their group the Camp of Israel and retained that designation where ever they went.

Brigham Young became the de facto leader of the Mormon church after the death of Joseph Smith. He spent much of his time meeting with trappers and traders who had seen the unsettled west. At that time, the border of the United States ran along the Continental Divide. Everything west of that line was claimed by Mexico.

One of the stories Young heard was about a valley near a lake of salty water in a land where no one lived except a few scattered tribes of Indians. He wondered if such a place had potential to be a sovereign country where Mormons could practice their religion without interference. After careful consideration and discussion with other leaders within the church, the decision was made to move the church headquarters to a location none of them had ever seen. The Camp of Israel would be the first of several groups to make that journey.

Today, the city of Nauvoo is a historic place to visit. Many of the original buildings are still standing and are being maintained by the Mormon church. Each building has a tour guide to demonstrate the skills shared by people who lived in the 1840s. There is a bakery, a brick factory, a machine that makes ropes, and many more. All exhibits are free of charge and very informative.

The month of February came and went. On March 1, 1846, all 500 wagons left the Sugar Creek camp. With Brigham Young leading the way, they were headed west. The goal was to reach the Salt Lake Valley in time to plant crops that would support them through the following winter. That goal was doomed from the start. Heavy rains and warmer temperatures changed the frozen land into a giant mud bog. Wagons were unable to move.

Members of the wagon train went into nearby towns looking for work to purchase supplies for their families. Remnants of that work can be found along the trail in the form of structures built by those workers. One such structure is the Mason House Inn located along the Mormon Trail in the town of Bentonsport. It is the oldest steamboat hotel on the Des Moines River.

By the middle of April, the company had only traveled about 200 miles. The muddy roads, lack of food, and living without shelter had left many of them on the verge of death. The decision was made to build a way station. The 500 wagons came to a stop in a place they called Garden Grove. The date is disputed as April 19 or 24. Maybe that is the difference between the first wagon in line and the last wagon in line.

The Camp of Israel still had plenty of men healthy enough to work. A historical marker at Garden Grove states, “Within two weeks, 359 men under the leadership of President Brigham Young cleared 300 acres of land, planted crops, built log houses, and cut 10,000 surplus rails for fencing and enough logs to build 40 additional houses.”

Garden Grove served as a good home for the sick and injured until they were healthy enough to travel. It also served as a stopover for those who had not yet left Nauvoo. The site of the original town and its cemetery can be found alongside a dusty road near the current town of Garden Grove. Very few services are available.

For those who would like to follow as closely to the original trail as possible, we recommend getting a copy of a guidebook titled The Mormon Trail Revisited, written by Gregory M. Franzwa. That book covers every turn and stop of the Mormon Trail and includes odometer readings from point to point. It does not have GPS positions, so we included a few of the most important ones in this story.

In the next issue, we will pick up the trail from Garden Grove and continue west across Iowa in the tracks of the original pioneers.

We are using numerous sources for this series, including Emigrating Journals of The Willie and Martin Handcart Companies and the Hunt and Hodgett Wagon Train, both written by Lynne Slater Turner; The Mormon Trail Revisited, written by Gregory M. Franzwa; and National Historic Trails and Mormon Pioneer Trail, both published by the National Park Service. We are also using information from numerous websites and gathering information from historical sites along the way. The GPS software and receiver were provided by DeLorme. For additional information, visit www.lone-writer.com or send an email to leh@lone-writer.com. A downloadable GPS track is available.

Navigation: GPS Positions
The best way to follow the Mormon Trail mile by mile is to purchase the book titled The Mormon Trail Revisited, written by Gregory M. Franzwa. The author has turn-by-turn directions with odometer readings every step of the way. He also includes many stories taken from diaries and other documents. We have only included some major waypoints below. Other GPS waypoints can be found at www.lone-writer.com.
Latitude Longitude Comments
N40 31.9876 W91 24.8340 Park at the River edge in Montrose, Iowa.
N40 32.3263 W91 31.4258 This is the location for Sugar Creek Camp. With 2,500 people and 500 wagons, they would have been scattered pretty wide.
N40 41.6775 W91 48.2079 Bonaparte is east of the bridge. A woolen mill on the riverbank is an obvious landmark, but it was not there in 1846.
N40 47.9255 W92 28.9217 This is downtown Drakesville. Visit the city park to see a cabin that was built by the pioneers to earn money for supplies.
N40 39.4285 W92 45.7364 This is the town site of Sedan. Not much left except a few foundations.
N40 38.6393 W92 45.7426 This is an information panel about the point where they crossed the Charlton River. A hiking path to the actual crossing is available. The trailhead is a short distance past the panel. It is just a hike in the country.
N40 38.8084 W93 9.4766 This is the Tharp Cemetery and the Locust Creek Camp. Somewhere near this area, William Clayton wrote the song “Come, Come Ye Saints.”
N40 49.6277 W93 37.5916 The town site of Garden Grove is west of the current town. It is an open field with some information panels. The pioneers talked about an abundance of rattlesnakes so be alert just in case some are still there.