1. home
  2. events
  3. The Mormon Trail - Part 2

The Mormon Trail - Part 2

Garden Grove, Iowa, to Winter Quarters, Nebraska

Larry E. HeckPhotographer, Writer

The first story in this series began in Nauvoo, Illinois, and followed backcountry roads 167 miles to Garden Grove, Iowa (see the Jan. ’13 issue of this magazine). This story picks up the trail in Garden Grove and continues on backcountry roads across Iowa to Winter Quarters, Nebraska, where Mormon pioneers spent the winter of 1846 into 1847. Out of the 155 miles we traveled for this section, approximately 100 miles were on unpaved roads.

While the pioneers were building their settlement in Garden Grove, political leaders in Iowa City were debating with the state of Missouri about where the dividing line would be for the future state of Iowa. For the pioneers, that fact provided an advantage. There was no one with authority to prevent them from building a settlement or to interfere with their travels. It also provided a nearby state where towns already existed. While in Garden Grove, they traded with the town of Mercer, in Missouri, to build a jail in exchange for food and supplies.

By May 13, 1846, Brigham Young had been in Garden Grove for about three weeks. He packed his wagon and continued westward. Most of the pioneers in the settlement who were able to travel went with him, while those who were sick or had unhealthy members in their families stayed behind with the intention of catching up later. Some of them stayed for a few weeks, some stayed for a few years, and some are still there in the cemetery.

While Young and his followers pushed forward, the evacuation of Nauvoo continued. Thousands more pioneers would soon pass through Garden Grove. It became a resting place maintained by those who chose to live there for the purpose of helping those who passed through. Today, the original town site is just an open field beside a graveyard with a historical marker. The modern town of Garden Grove is a short distance east of the original location.

Some parts of the trail used by the pioneers in 1846 had to be widened or even built from scratch as they moved across Iowa. They were traveling through unsettled wilderness and in some sections, the only trails to follow were those made by Native Americans or wildlife. They built bridges across some rivers and streams to be used by their own group as well as those who would follow.

Tracing those trails today has some challenges. Modern roads mostly follow section lines that form squares, but the pioneers followed the path of least resistance. Today, we must take a stair step approach around private property so, rather than following directly along the trail, we are continually crossing it.

The book referenced at the end of this story frequently points out places in the hills where an indentation in the terrain can be seen. The author defines those as visible wagon tracks from the Mormon Trail. In most cases, it takes some imagination to see them. Any trail that is not being used is eventually reclaimed by the forces of nature and fades away. Nearly all the original trail is on privately owned land. Still, we are able to cross on public roads and view the terrain the pioneers faced. Doing so challenges the most vivid imagination as to how anyone could get a covered wagon from one point to another.

After leaving Garden Grove, the pioneers traveled for less than a week before arriving at a location they called Mount Pisgah. They were so impressed with its possibilities that they decided to build a second stopover to handle any Garden Grove overflow of future travelers. They built cabins, plowed fields, and planted a variety of crops before continuing their journey. Nothing is left today except a historical monument, but the appeal of Mount Pisgah from an agricultural point of view is evident.

By using the book referenced here, we knew where to look for historical markers that have been placed at intervals across the state. In some places, the author suggested certain roads be bypassed due to their condition, but we found those roads to be easy in a 4x4.

We were on Wichita Road when we passed another site with historical significance. After Brigham Young arrived at the Grand Encampment in Iowa, U.S. government officials approached him. The U.S. had declared war with Mexico and expected to acquire all the lands west of the Rocky Mountains. They asked Young for 500 volunteers to form a Mormon Battalion to patrol the new boundary between the two countries. Young traveled back on the Mormon Trail to intercept another group that had left Nauvoo in the spring. They met at this location, where a meeting was held and numerous soldiers were recruited. This request from the U.S. government was a blessing for the Mormons because it provided an influx of money to help pay their way. It also established a line of communication between the U.S. government and Mormon leaders.

The state of Iowa did not yet exist when Young passed through the future town of Lewis on June 8, 1846. Iowa was not admitted to the Union until December of that year. Ten years after the first Mormon pioneers passed through, the Mormon Handcart companies connected to the Mormon Trail at that same location. By then, the town of Lewis was thriving. The 1856 handcarts actually began their journey in Iowa City instead of Nauvoo, but the two trails merged in Lewis.

The pioneers reached the Missouri River on June 14, 1846. It was too late in the year to continue their journey to the Salt Lake Valley. To wait out the winter, they built two settlements: one within current-day Council Bluffs, Iowa, called the Grand Encampment,, and one within current-day Omaha, Nebraska, called the Winter Quarters. It was not an uneventful stay. There were numerous meetings with Native American tribes that did not want them on the Nebraska side of the river. There were other meetings with the U.S. government to form the Mormon Battalion and meetings with the newly formed state of Iowa concerning the 12,000 pioneers who were waiting out the winter in the Grand Encampment.

The winter finally ended and springtime instilled a new determination to be in the Salt Lake Valley. On April 11, 1847, 72 wagons with 144 men, three women, and two children crossed the Elkhorn River in Nebraska. They would blaze a trail to the valley and then return to guide others across the wilderness.

On July 24, 1847, Young entered the Salt Lake Valley for the first time. Twelve days prior to that event, Jane Gillies gave birth to a baby girl in the country of Scotland. That girl would eventually become the mother of the infamous Butch Cassidy, but they had a long way to go. She was 9 years old when the Gillies family arrived at the end of the railroad track in Iowa City, Iowa. They joined the Hodgett Wagon Train and followed the Martin Handcart Company into the wilderness. They had begun their journey too late in the year and ended up fighting for their lives against Mother Nature in devastating Wyoming winter storms. Join us next month as we follow the tracks of the Gillies family on their death-defying, cross-country journey to make their home in Utah.

Our primary source for this story was The Mormon Trail Revisited, by Gregory M. Franzwa. We also used National Historic Trails and Mormon Pioneer Trail, published by the National Park Service; numerous websites; and gained a lot of information from historical sites along the way. Our GPS and mapping program was Topo North America 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 along with more in-depth stories about the history of those fascinating pioneers.

Navigation: GPS Positions
The best way to follow the Mormon trail mile by mile is to purchase the book titled The Mormon Trail Revisited, by Gregory M. Franzwa. The author has turn-by-turn directions with odometer readings every step of the way. He did not include GPS positions, though, so we included the primary sites below. Our route across Iowa included 149 waypoints and spanned 335 miles; 207 of those miles were on unpaved roads. The entire list can be viewed at www.lone-writer.com.
Latitude Longitude Comments
40 49.6277 93 37.5916 Garden Grove, Iowa. The site where the town was built is an open field with historical markers. The cemetery has a monument.
41 2.3630 93 59.9587 This viewing platform has been constructed overlooking a part of the original Mormon Trail.
41 3.0425 94 6.0195 Mount Pisgah town site and cemetery. This is about 40 miles west of Garden Grove on the Mormon Trail.
41 13.7998 94 38.4687 Located 7/10th of a mile north of this point is a Mormon Trail park with camping, playground, picnic area, and boating. There are signs pointing the way.
41 11.2372 94 52.3333 Near this point, a group that left after Brigham Young was camped. Young traveled from the Grand Encampment to this camp looking for recruits for the Mormon Battalion, as requested by U.S. government officials.
41 18.1898 95 4.9827 This is Lewis, Iowa. The 1856 handcarts from Iowa City intersected with the Mormon Trail near this town. From this town, they followed the Mormon Trail to the Salt Lake Valley. A ferry house is located on the west side of town.
41 18.4912 95 5.6429 Nishnabotna River Ferry House. It was not there when Brigham Young went through in 1846 but was there for the 1856 handcart groups.
41 13.3536 95 49.1756 This is the School for the Deaf. It is located near the headquarters for the settlement the pioneers called the Grand Encampment.