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Highway to Zion: The Kansas Connection

by Morris W. Werner

The forced exodus of Mormons from Nauvoo, Illinois, on the Mississippi River in Feb. 1846, was the beginning of a mass migration which is unparalleled in the history of the American West. Led by Brigham Young, the Latter Day Saints established a base camp at Kanesville, Iowa, on the Missouri River opposite present Omaha, and sent a Pioneer Company to settle Great Salt Lake in the Spring of 1847. Their route up the north side of the Platte River to Ft. Laramie, across Wyoming to Ft. Bridger, end through Emigration Canyon in the Wasatch Mountains is well documented by hundreds of diaries of participants and fellow travelers.

A Mormon Battalion was organized at Kanesville in 1847 as part of the Mexican War effort. This unit, which included wives of some of the Saints, joined Gen. Stephen Watts Kearny's Army of the West at Ft. Leavenworth, and traveled the Santa Fe Trail to participate in the invasion of New Mexico and California. This episode is also well documented, but it was not the first Mormon party to cross Kansas.

Less well known are two parties of Saints which crossed Kansas in 1846, under orders from Brigham Young. The first of these, led by Thomas Rhoads, consisting of members of his extended family in ten wagons, crossed the Missouri River at St. Joseph May 5 and 6, 1846. Their instructions are obscure, but Mr. Young probably intended that they provide supplies for the main body of the Church on the Plains. A reporter for the St. Louis Missouri Republican wrote his newspaper on May 17, 1846, that of the 174 wagons which had passed the Great Nemaha Subagency (present Highland) "....twelve were supposed to be Mormons, with a large lot of loose stock, which it was believed they intended to feed on the prairies and fatten, until the main body came up....(there are) reports that large bodies of Mormons, well armed, were on the way, but I can learn of none except the above..."

Francis Parkman, who blundered into the St. Joe Road on May 16, had been warned about the Mormons at Ft. Leavenworth. He apparently thought that only Latter Day Saints were on the trail from St. Joseph in 1846. He was a few days behind the Rhoads Party, and there is no positive knowledge that the two groups were in contact, but Parkman comments frequently on the Mormon party he was following.

The other 1846 LDS party to cross Kansas is known as the "Mississippi Saints" under the leadership of William Crosby. This group consisted of 19 wagons and 43 persons, mostly from Southern States. They followed the original Oregon Trail from Independence, Missouri, and at first traveled in company with non-Mormons. When they reached Ft. Laramie, they discovered that the main body of Saints was still on the Missouri River, and turned south along the front range of the Rocky Mountains to winter at Pueblo, Colorado.

Perhaps the least known aspect of the Mormon migration in Kansas is their activities of 1853-56 in organizing groups of European converts for the trip across the Plains to Utah. Mormon missionaries in Europe were reaping a bumper crop of new members, mostly in England and the Scandinavian countries. The Church provided a revolving travel fund to transport these new converts to the Rocky Mountains, with the understanding that the new Saints would earn money and reimburse the fund so that more converts could be transported. Many of these converts spoke no English, and there are few accounts of their experiences, or little knowledge of the route traveled in Kansas.

The first of these parties, consisting of 500 converts from Liverpool, England, was met at future Atchison by Elder S.M. Blair in 1853. Their leader, Sylvester H. Earl, reported that the party was ravaged by cholera when two days' journey on the Plains. About one third of this group is reported to have died. The only clue as to the route followed by this party is a tradition in Nemaha County that a party of Mormons spent the winter of 1853-54 at Murphy Lake eight miles north of Seneca. There were no eye-witnesses to this encampment, since there were no settlers on the South Fork Nemaha River until the summer of 1854, when the Kansas-Nebraska Bill was signed into law.

In 1854 the Latter Day Saints organized their European recruits at Westport, Missouri. Three companies, totaling more than 200 wagons and perhaps 2000 persons, (one diarist said 10 persons were assigned to each wagon) started for Utah on a "new road of 330 English miles." The first two parties followed the Santa Fe Trail to One Hundred Ten Creek, and then broke a new trail northwest to newly established Ft. Riley at the junction of the Republican and Smoky Hill Rivers. Maj. O. F. Winship, who visited Ft. Riley in 1854 several weeks ahead of the Mormons, understood that they intended to follow the Republican River, crossing over to the Platte River near Ft. St. Vrain. A post script added to his report stated that he later learned that the Mormons had traveled across country directly from Ft. Riley to Ft. Kearny. The Mormon Road plotted by the Territorial Surveys of 1857-60 through Riley and Washington Counties no doubt represents this route. But a tradition in Republic County that there is a Mormon Cemetery containing 19 graves on a hill east of Scandia, suggests that some Mormons may have followed the original plan in 1854 or later years. The tradition says they were killed by Indians, but cholera is the more likely cause; an Indian massacre of this proportion could scarcely have been overlooked on the frontier.

The trail plotted by the Surveys north of Ft. Riley crosses Wildcat Creek at Riley and Fancy Creek at May Day Spring. It then angles northwest to Mormon Spring on Ash Creek about 2 miles south of Washington, and continues mostly west to cross Mill Creek about 8 miles west of Washington. The trail then ascends Bowman Creek to the Nebraska border and joins the original Oregon Trail on Little Blue River near Hebron, Nebraska.

The third party from Westport in 1854 traveled north to Ft. Leavenworth, where a party of Mormons was assembled at Pleasant Grove in the Salt Creek valley west of the fort. This encampment may have included survivors from the 1853 party of Liverpool Saints, but this is conjectural. The route followed by this party is also conjectural, but it seems probable that they followed the newly established Military Road to Ft. Riley in order to support the two companies which had pioneered the new road south of Kansas River.

A party of east-bound Mormons on the Platte River in August 1854 met their compatriots whom they described as "...comprising in the whole, over two hundred wagons, besides many smaller scattering companies."

In 1855-56 the Church returned to Atchison and established a base camp at Mormon Grove about four miles from the Missouri River in the NE1/4 S5 T6S R21E. According to Stanley B. Kimball, an authority on Mormon history, eight companies totaling 337 wagons and 2041 persons were organized at Mormon Grove in 1855. Cholera took a heavy toll at this camp; a cemetery at this location contains approximately 50 unmarked graves.* More than 60 deaths from cholera were reported on the trail in 1855. Some of these deaths were at Murphy Lake on the South Fork Nemaha River. The encampment is documented by the Eli Williams family from Atchison County, Missouri, who settled on Deer Creek about three miles east of Murphy Lake in 1855. Their daughter, Mrs. Posey W. Cox, told the editor of the Sabetha Herald in 1916 that the Mormons had drained the lake to catch the fish, and that 40 or more had died from cholera. These graves can no longer be identified, since grave stones have since been used in a barn foundation. Only 97 Mormons were transported from Mormon Grove in 1856 before it was abandoned.

Perhaps this marks the end of Mormon travel in Kansas, but Theodore Weichselbaum, who settled at Ogden on the east edge of Ft. Riley in 1857, says that he saw Mormon companies on the old road through Ft. Riley in 1858, and Perhaps later. He said that only Mormons used the trail, and that some took out strings of fine horses. Perhaps these were straggling LDS families from Missouri or Kansas. The last formally organized parties of the Church had gone west from Omaha in 1852, but a few families stayed behind. Churches of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints are still scattered on both sides of the Missouri River between St. Joseph and Omaha in Iowa, Nebraska, Missouri and Kansas.

*Names of eight victims have been preserved: ____ Gubler, David and Peter Harrock (father and son), William Parkes (b. Eng.), Mary Redd Twigg (b. 1814 in Wales), Emily, John and George Twigg (ages 14, 10 and 7 yrs. respectively). All deaths in 1855.

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