Between 1847 through 1869, estimates of 60,000 – 80,000 Mormon pioneers migrated to the Utah mountains on journeys that took months to complete. Today, July 24th, Mormons all around the world celebrate these faithful pioneers who made these treks. This specific date, commemorates the arrival of the first company of Mormon pioneers to the Salt Lake Valley in 1847.
Brigham Young and other Mormon leaders – who had already abandoned many cities in the relatively short time the church had existed – decided once again to abandon their homes in Nauvoo, Illinois, when Joseph Smith, Jr., founder of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, was martyred at Carthage, Illinois, in June 1844. Their move to the West began February 4, 1846 as tensions between the Mormons and other Illinois settlers were continuing go rise.
With the outbreak of the Mexican War, U.S. President James Knox Polk asked the Mormons for a battalion of men. Volunteers were recruited and the Mormon Battalion formed. During their march of 1846-1847 from Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, to San Diego, California, they blazed a wagon route across the Southwest. Their pay and their later explorations also helped the pioneer settlers.
The historic pioneer journeys are celebrated throughout the Church each year with parades, picnics, dramatic and musical pageants or actual trekking re-creations, young and old, newly baptized and long-term members pause to honor and acknowledge the pioneer heritage of the early Church. The festivities honor the sacrifice of tens of thousands of pioneers and are a reminder to Mormons of their faith.
In an 1870 article in the Deseret News, President Brigham Young recounted the trek:
“In April 1847 …one hundred and forty-three pioneers took up the line of march with our ox teams, with our cows and with what we could pick up. We made our own roads from day to day and week to week.…When the wagons were in the mud my shoulder was one of the first that ever lifted the wagon wheel; we pulled them out of the mud, sought our camping places, cut our roads through these canyons, and located on this place …”
More than 350 wagon trains and 10 handcart companies delivered early members of the Church to the Utah Territory during that 20-year period before the railroad was completed in 1869. During this time, the body of Church members, under the direction of Brigham Young, settled more than 400 communities in the western territories. The completion of the rail road, however, did not stop immigration of Mormon converts to Utah which continued on beyond the 1890s. Though it did require more cash in hand, the trip via steam boat and then train took only a few weeks as apposed to the many months that had previously been required.
One possible reasons for the decline in immigration and an end to pioneer treks was the Edmunds-Tucker Act of 1887; bringing to an end to the LDS church corporation that threatened the survival of all Mormon institutions. Additionally, women, who had the vote under territorial law, did not have the right to vote by this act. The Encyclopedia of Mormonism, Immigration and Emigration, p. 675-676 further states,
“After the late 1880s, coinciding with a new wave of emigration from central and southern Europe and with negative publicity and ANTIPOLYGAMY LEGISLATION, LDS immigration was frowned upon by many in the United States. The large number of LDS steamship passengers were still assisted with arrangements by Church personnel, but they were instructed to maintain a low profile and did not function visibly as Mormon emigrant companies. By the 1890s the number of Latter-day Saints in Europe had dwindled, and in view of economic conditions in the United States, Church leaders began to discourage emigration.”
Many other L.D.S. Church Record Sources indicate 1890 as the end of the pioneer era. According to “Glen M. Leonard, “Westward the Saints: The Nineteenth-Century Mormon Migration,” Ensign, Jan 1980, 7“, in the 1890s new converts and members “were encouraged to postpone migration, and then by the 1920s to stay in their homelands”. The Great Depression and two world wars also created temporary barriers to immigration, followed by more effort towards the building up of the church’s infrastructure throughout the world to further discourage immigration; especially in the war torn countries of Europe. Still significant immigration continued from Canada and Central America until the 1970s.
Today, more then a century and a half after the first pioneers, with approaching 170 temples world wide, and over 15 million members, the church has truly grown to be a world wide organization. Today’s Mormon Pioneers do not trek across the glob, but instead struggle in the small congregations to bring the gospel to there local communities. In a January 2010 address to young members throughout the world, Elder M. Russell Ballard of the Quorum of Twelve Apostles noted, “In many ways you are like the pioneers … except in your journey you face new and challenging circumstances. Each of you has your own personal challenges, and each of you is on the pioneer trail toward eternal life. You must always remember you are not alone. All over the world the youth of the Church are walking the gospel path with you.”