Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Road Trip: Mormon Trail


Saturday we left Nauvoo at about 2:00. We crossed the Mississippi at Fort Madison (we were happy to note that the toll is only for east bound traffic). We then headed west along Iowa state road 2 which follows very close to the route of the 1846 exodus from Nauvoo across southern Iowa to Council Bluffs and Winter Quarters.

First stop was Garden Grove--one of the stopping points along the route that became a permanent settlement to supply other Mormon wagon trains that followed.

The tall grass is where cabins were located.

The road west. During part of the drive the kids enjoyed watching a DVD of Field of Dreams while driving across Iowa--"if you build it [a baseball field in the corn fields of Iowa] he will come". We also enjoyed some tunes from The Music Man.


Further down the trail was another permanent supply stop called Mt. Pisgah.

The Mt. Pisgah monument to all those who died there.

The valley below "Mount" Pisgah where crops were grown.

17 year cicadas (magicicada) were everywhere at Mt. Pisgah.

The high pitched sound of the cicadas and their flying about did not please the kids.

Our quest to follow the Mormon trail took us along several rural gravel roads in south central Iowa.

This side road (we didn't take) reminded me of what the wagon trail may have looked like. We stopped in Greenfield for Chinese food and then headed west to Council Bluff Iowa along highway 92. For most of the trip I had made previous hotel reservations, but for the final few days I was not sure of where we would be stopping. I figured we would us just drive until we found something. I figured wrong. We arrived in Council Bluffs at 9:00 pm only to find out that the College World Series had begun the day before in Omaha and that most every hotel room (we did find one smoking room, but that was vetoed) in the entire Omaha area and surrounding hinterland were full-up with partying baseball fans. Our plan was to attend church in Council Bluffs the next morning and then visit the Kanesville Tabernacle and Winter Quarters--two areas where the Mormons wintered over on their trek west. Since west to Omaha was full. I decided to head east as far as Minden on I-80 to see what we could find--nothing.

Meanwhile the kids kept entertained by taking selfies on my phone. We then headed north on I-29 to Missouri Valley, nothing. Then west on 30 to Blair and then Fremont, nothing. We headed further west and finally by 12:30 we found a place in Columbus--80 miles northwest from where we had hoped to be--but at least still on the Mormon Trail. None of us wanted to add three more hours to our next day's drive to go back to Council Bluffs and Winter Quarters so we opted to skip these LDS historical sites and go west. After such a late night we were happy to find that the Columbus Branch started at 10:00 am. We enjoyed the father's day oriented sacrament meeting. We then headed out along US 30 which continued westward along the Mormon Trail and Platte River.

Most cities we passed through had grain silos and a RR track.

In between were corn fields. Sandwiches at Subway for lunch in Grand Island and then for the rest of the day we followed the Platte River and the Mormon trail. Movie for this Sunday across Nebraska: 17 Miracles. Music: Mormon Tabernacle Choir.

The Platte River in western Nebraska.

Winter wheat fields in verdant Platte River Valley between Osh Kosh and Bridgewater. 

The railroad paralleled all of US 26 in western Nebraska. While driving this road we must have passed a dozen or more long trains. Those heading east were full of coal or petroleum. Those heading west (like this one) were returning empty for another load of coal.

For sure to be used in my geography of North America Lectures.

The Platte River valley with the tree lined river bank of the Platte in the far distance.

More coal heading east.

Chimney Rock. In all of my many drives across the great plains (vacations, driving to and from school and work in Chicago and DC) I have never gone this way. It was therefore exciting for me to following the Mormon/Oregon/California Trail and then like those pioneers to look out into the distance and see Chimney Rock. Cool.

This sign reminded me of my great-grandmother Agnes Caldwell Southworth who moved west along this route with the Wilie Handcart company. She was 9 years old and remembers her day with the rattle snakes. She relates: "One day we came to a section inhabited by rattle snakes. Two of us, my friend Mary Hurren and I, would hold hands and jump. It seemed to me we were jumping for more than a mile. Due to the protecting had of the Lord, we were not harmed." (The movie 17 Miracles includes this story).


Pioneer cemetery near Chimney Rock.


We easily found a hotel in Torrington, Wyoming. Next morning we headed out earlier than usual (8:30 am) with the hope that we would make it to Springville that night, one day earlier than planned. We once again crossed the Platte River by car and then by food on this bridge.

We then visited Fort Laramie (named from French trapper LaRemee who died in the area).

The original fort looked like a Disneyland Frontierland type fort/stockade I had envisioned. 

But by the time the Mormon Trail passed through here it was more like a town with no protective wall.

 The barracks.

Fort Laramie had a great location near the confluence of the Platte and Laramie Rivers. It first grew because of the fur trade, then the pioneer trail and finally Indian matters.

When emigrants and Indians came to trade at the Fort they camped across the Laramie River.

When the Wilie handcart company arrived at the fort, my great great grandmother Margaret McFall Caldwell and Christina McNeil, a single 24 year old woman traveling with the Caldwell family in the place of William (who had joined the Scottish Army), had this experience as related by Margaret's daughter Agnes: "Mother visited one of the generals in command at the fort to obtain permission to trade some trinkets and a silver spoon for flour and meat. The office said he himself could not use any of the things but to leave [Christina] in his office while mother went to another station, where he assured her she would be able to obtain the things she desired. He seemed very kind, and not wishing to arouse any feeling of ill will she left Christina and [her son] Thomas. During her absence, the office used the time in trying to persuade Christina to stay there, proposing to her and showing her the gold he had telling her what a fine lady he would make of her. Then he tried discouraging her, pointing out to her how the handcart company would never reach Utah, [that] they would all die of cold and hunger and exposure. Like all noble girls and true to the cause for which she had left her native Scotland...she told him in plain language she would take her chances with the others even tough it meant death. She was greatly relieved to have mother return. The office, however, seemed to admire her very much for her loyalty to her faith and gave her a large cured ham and wished her well in her chosen adventure."

It is not known if Margaret was able to make her trade, but if she did it might have allowed her to buy supplies in Sutler's store.

Margaret was a master at providing for her family. Her daughter Agnes remembers: “Winter came in October with eighteen inches of snow, but in spite of this we did not suffer from hunger, due to Mother’s careful and frugal planning. In Iowa City Mother sold a quilt and a bedspread for the sum of twenty-four cents. With this she bought food. She had a way with Indians: she traded trinkets for dried meat, which proved to be of great help to us on the journey. Frequently it would be stormy so that a fire could not be built; then mother would allow each of us to have a piece of dried meat on a piece of bread. As food became more and more scarce and the weather colder, she would stew a little of this meat and make a delicious gravy over it.”    

In remembering the journey, Margaret remembers that she “tried to be industrious, thrifty and, most of all, courageous.”  These qualities most likely saved her family. When early snows trapped the pioneers on the high plains of Wyoming, 68 of the 404 members in the company died of cold and starvation, none were from the Margaret Caldwell cart.   

We next stopped in Guernsey for a short hike up to see wagon ruts carved into the sandstone by the pioneer trails that all passed here.

Sego Lillies, Utah state flower in eastern Wyoming.

We then followed the trail up northward around the Laramie Mountains. This is the first view of mountains from the trail. We ate a quick lunch at Hardees in Caspar and then continued to follow the Platte River for a short while then the pioneers jumped river basins to the Sweetwater River.

The trail passed by Independence Rock (which we climbed)

Looking west to Devil's gate and Martin's Cove.

Nice flag. The wonderful score to Dances With Wolves appropriately accompanied our drive across eastern Wyoming

Like the Willie and Martin handcart companies, we too were running late by the time we reached the Sweetwater. We learned a lot at the visitor center.

Until this drive along the whole Mormon Trail I had never realized how relatively flat the journey was up until South Pass and then the Wasatch Mountains. The Platte and Sweet Water river valleys provided a much easier route than up an over the Colorado Rockies as witnessed in our first days drive along I-70.

From a list of all the Wilie company members. Those who died are in yellow. Margaret Ann McFall Caldwell age 40 was a widow from Scotland. She and her four children set sail to America in 1856 and were members of the Willie Handcart Company that traveled westward late in the season to the Salt Lake Valley using cheaper and faster hand-pulled carts. Men were often the primary pullers of the handcarts, but for the Caldwell family it was a female endeavor. Unable to help were oldest son Robert (age 16) who was assigned to drive one of the supply wagons and Thomas (age 14) who broke his collar bone early on in the trek. That left Margaret and Christina, a young single woman traveling with the family, to pull the cart the full 1,300 miles across the Great Plains and Rocky Mountains. Helping push while the older women pulled were 11 year old Elizabeth and 9 year old Agnes.

We pulled and pushed a handcart a mile up to entrance of Martin's Cove.

Will Emmett and Agnes Caldwell were both nine when they pulled handcarts. There antics were sometimes similar. Agnes writes: "I can yet close my eyes and see everything in panoramic precision before me. The ceaseless walking, walking, ever to remain in my memory. Many times I would be come so tired, and childlike, would hang on the cart, only to be gently pushed away. Then I would throw myself by the side of the road and cry., Then realizing they were all passing me by, I would jump to my feet and make an extra run to catch up."

Buffalo chip gathering.

The Sweetwater River that had to be crossed nine times.

Martin's Cove.

A snake that crossed our path and startled Marie.

From Martin's Cove we drove about an hour westward to the sixth crossing of the Sweetwater. This is where the Wilie Company was when the snow fell.

Of the rescue further along the trial Agnes writes: “Just before we crossed the mountains, relief wagons reached us, and it certainly was a relief. The infirm and aged were allowed to ride, all able-bodied continuing to walk. When the wagons started out, a number of us children decided to see how long we could keep up with the wagons, in hopes of being asked to ride. At least that is what my great hope was. One by one they all fell out, until I was the last one remaining, so determined was I that I should get a ride. After what seemed the longest run I ever made before or since, the driver…called to me, “Say sissy, would you like a ride?” I answered in my very best manner, “Yes sir.” At this he reached over, taking my hand, clucking to his horses to make me run, with legs that seemed to me could run no farther. On we went, to what to me seemed miles. What went through my head at that time was that he was the meanest man that ever lived or that I had ever heard of, and other things that would not be a credit nor would it look well coming from one so young.  Just at what seemed the breaking point, he stopped. Taking a blanket, he wrapped me up and lay me in the bottom of the wagon, warm and comfortable. Here I had time to change my mind as I surely did knowing full well by doing this he saved me from freezing when taken into the wagon.” (Susan Arrington Madsen. I Walked to Zion, Deseret Book, 1994 and Andrew Olsen et al, Follow Me to Zion, Deseret Book, 2013).

We drove in three long days what it took Margaret, Agnes and many other of our ancestors months of walking and wagon riding to do. What faith they had. I am honored to be their descendant.

All along the trail for the past few days we read stories and accounts from these books. We used all six volumes of the Sacred Places guide books to Mormon History to help in our travels from Sharon to the Sweetwater. The maps really helped in following the Mormon Trail.

We then headed out for home. We had to drive along lonely Wyoming roads, including this one climbing up to South Pass. We stopped here for a post Gatorade break for the boys.

A few miles earlier I was pulled over for going too fast. Luckily the nice Wyoming HP officer took pity on me when I told him we were on the last day of a 3 1/2 week road trip and we were trying to get home to Springville Utah that night.  I think it also helped to have a wife and three kids in the car. I only got a warning.

Sunset half way between Lander and Rock Springs. We got to Rock Springs at 9:30 pm. Dinner at Wendy's (there's not much between Sixth Crossing and Rock Springs) and then pressed on. By 12:30 we were rounding Deer Creek reservoir when for the second time this day and for the second time on this trip I was pulled over for going too fast. The nice Wasatch County officer likewise took pity on a father at the end of a road trip just wanting to get everyone home to their own beds. It is a rare thing for me to get pulled over. It is also a rare thing to only get warnings twice in one day. We pulled in at 1:35 AM only to find that we were locked out (long story about how that came to be) and so when we couldn't find our hidden spare key I luckily was able to get a window pried open and climb in.

I want to thank Dr. Pepper (something I most often only drink when driving) and Trader Joe for food (these almonds are pretty yummy and spicy) and drink to help keep me awake on long drives. Thanks to Marie for keeping us fed, for getting laundry done on the fly and for begin my navigator (all this practice has been good preparation for when we are selected for the Amazing Race). Thanks to Sarah, Joel and Will for being such fun and pleasant travelers. I hope this road trip provides you with many happy and enriching memories. Thanks to the Pritchetts for the use of their road worthy van (and its express pass) that carried us 6,600 miles. Thanks to the Struves, Paksimas, Andersons, Deardens, and Krumpermans for sharing their homes with us and to Holiday Inn Expresses for the good breakfasts and fun pools.


  1. Thanks for chronicling another amazing family adventure. I love seeing the world vicariously through your post and can't wait for next year's voyage around the world.

  2. How many days do you recommend going from Nauvoo to SLC following the Mormon Trail? We're also going to make a little detour north to Mt. Rushmore, when we are south of the area.