As the winter snows descended upon the Missouri frontier in 1838,
Gov. Lilburn Boggs issued an extraordinary decree: 12,000 people
then huddled in makeshift settlements 120 miles to the west were
to be "exterminated or driven from the state." So, for the fourth
time in seven years, members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day
Saints gathered all they could -- leaving what they couldn't --
From Missouri they retreated to Illinois, where they built
a town that within six years rivaled Chicago in size and vitality.
They established a university, hosted dignitaries, published a newspaper
and built a beautiful temple, regarded by many as the finest building
in the state. But in the summer of 1844 their leader, Joseph Smith,
and his brother Hyrum were shot to death by a mob. Rage and persecution
having followed them to Illinois, the Latter-day Saints, now numbering
around 20,000, prepared to abandon one more home.
It would be their final exodus.
They would leave, once again in the heart of a brutal Midwestern
winter. Their leader was Brigham Young, and their trail covered
half a continent -- 1,300 miles across the Great Plains and the
Rocky Mountains. It was the largest forced migration in the history
My grandfather, barely out of his teens, built his own wagon
and with his young wife, his baby daughter and his younger brother
set off for the West. Near Fort Laramie, Wyo., his wife sickened
and died. His brother died on the same day. Grief stricken, he split
logs for coffins and buried them both in unmarked graves on the
open prairie. He said goodbye, picked up his baby and walked on
to the valley of the Great Salt Lake. His faith in God sustained
him then and for the rest of his life.
It took more than a year for the original wave of Latter-day
Saint pioneers to travel from Illinois to what is now Utah. "This
is the right place," Brigham Young declared on July 24, 1847 --
150 years ago today. Although fewer than 3,000 made the entire trek
that first year of settlement, nearly 70,000 men, women and children
completed the journey before the transcontinental railroad was finished
in 1869. Upward of 6,000 of them made the ultimate sacrifice for
religious freedom. Their unmarked graves lie scattered along the
While arduous, this was a trail of hope for a hopeful people.
Organized in companies, with captains, committees and choirs, the
Latter-day Saint pioneers worked their way across nearly half a
continent, building bridges, planting crops and erecting shelters
in an orchestrated effort to ensure a better passage for those who
would inevitably follow. The magnitude of the endeavor required
both strength and ingenuity. Many lacked the financial means to
complete their journey. As a result, Brigham Young developed a new
mode of transport -- the human-powered handcart. It was at once
one of the most brilliant and tragic experiments in all western
The handcart was a wooden wheelbarrow of sorts. Fully loaded,
a handcart could hold some 500 pounds of provisions and possessions,
within which adults were allowed 17 pounds of clothing and bedding,
children 10 pounds. Frequently, even this amount became onerous,
so belongings were abandoned along the trail. While the vast majority
of migrants arrived safely by handcart, a great tragedy occurred
when more than 200 poor European immigrants from two different companies
died on the high plains. Most froze to death in unexpectedly early
snowstorms near the Continental Divide in central Wyoming.
The Mormon Trail has a pivotal place in American history.
In the words of Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Wallace Stegner,
a contemporary of mine at the University of Utah who is not a member
of our faith, these Latter-day Saints "were one of the principal
forces in the settlement of the West," eventually founding more
than 400 communities between southern Canada and northern Mexico.
Today, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has
grown to nearly 10 million members in more than 160 nations, with
missionaries covering the globe. It is the seventh largest religion
in the U.S. and is one of the most rapidly growing religions in
the world. In fact, last year we reached a milestone: A majority
of our members now live outside the U.S. Small wonder that millions
will pause today to remember the Latter-day Saint pioneers, to celebrate
their wondrous accomplishments, and to rejoice in the miraculous
thing that has grown from the foundation they laid 150 years ago.
--- Mr. Hinckley is president of the Church of Jesus Christ
of Latter-day Saints.