Mormon Migration Myth
Mormon Trail Maybe Not as Deadly as Once Believed
July 24th, 2006
John Hollenhorst Reporting
For 159 years we've been celebrating the bravery and sacrifice of those who hit the trail to Utah, but it turns out that many people have had a false impression of how dangerous and deadly the Mormon migration really was.
Re-enactors of the pioneer trek get a taste of the adversity on the Mormon Trail. Historians used to think 6,000 died during the first two decades of Mormon migration, but then Mel Bashore started combing through sketchy records and pioneer diaries, counting up the deaths.
Mel Bashore, LDS Church Librarian-Historian: "I was pleased, I think, to discover that it was less than had been previously thought, a lot less."
Instead of 6,000, he believes it was only 1,800 deaths out of more than 60,000 who hit the trail in those years -- a death toll not too much greater than if they'd stayed at home.
Mel Bashore: "During that time period in the rest of the United States, the death rate was around two percent and in Mormon travel across the plains, three percent."
Which is not to say the pioneers had it easy.
Mel Bashore: "No, the trail was tough. And I'm amazed at how people survived under difficult conditions."
In one awful incident, 200 died in the snow in the famous Wyoming handcart disaster. Other companies were wracked by disease.
Mel Bashore: "Cholera was the big killer. I would say close to half of those who died on the plains in Mormon companies died because of cholera, unsanitary conditions."
But many handcart companies and wagon trains had no deaths at all. Bashore says what's amazing is how so many survived and got tougher as they went.
Mel Bashore: "It simply amazes to think how many 60, 70, and even 80-year olds went out to push a handcart."
The oldest on the trail was a 94-year-old woman.
Mel Bashore: "These are champions. These are champions."
He predicts we'll always look back with pride.
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