THE MORMON TRAIL
IN VAN BUREN COUNTY IOWA



Part II


Trails criss-crossed Van Buren County by 1840 and without the annoyance of fences and established property lines, they ran mostly where the traveling was easiest. As the need for roads arose, the county government ordered them to be laid out and surveyed.

Of all the trails in the county, the Mormon trail is the best known, even though the Mormons mostly used already marked trails throughout the county as they moved west. The reason for the notoriety probably came from the Works Progress Administration first marking the route with wooden markers and then later the Church and the state of Iowa cooperated in replacing the wooden markers with metal signs identifying the route along state highways. It was estimated 15,000 people and 30,000 horses and cattle moved throughout the county by the winter of 1846-47.

The vanguard of the Mormons seeking their Promised Land, entered the county at or near Farmington. They moved upstream, along the left bank of the Des Moines River, and established the first camp in Van Buren County at the mouth of Reed's Creek, just east of Bonaparte. This group contained most of the Church's leaders including Brigham Young. Moving on, the caravan forded the river at Bonaparte and circled in a southwesterly direction, eventually striking the Keosauqua Portland road previously laid out by the county commissioners. From one of the diaries kept by a Eliza Snow is the story of her dipping a cup of river water at the Bonaparte crossing and marveling at the water's sparkling and refreshing goodness.

The Keosauqua-Portland road crossed the river at Rising Sun and sometimes at Ely's Ford. Laid out up the Pittsburg hill, it followed closely the present-day county J40 road. Just east of the Lebanon Cemetery it curved northwest and a mile-and-a-half north of Lebanon followed today's V64 crossing Chequest Creek at Green's Mill, one of the specifications for the road. A short time later the road was extended west from where it had curved northwest, to Stringtown, near the Van Buren-Davis county line. This is the road the Vanguard followed.

The largest number of Mormons, following behind their leaders west, traveled a much simpler and sensible route. Leaving the Mississippi landing in Iowa, this trailing group drove the Dragoon trail from Montrose to Bratton's Grove in Van Buren County. From the Grove, the Military Road was used until the wagon train was just north of Keosauqua, here they turned west to Pittsburg. There is a stone monument at Ely's Ford in the State Park proclaiming that site as the Mormon Crossing, however most of the Pilgrims undoubtedly crossed the river at Pittsburg. The river bottom is a stable nature here and would not be influenced by the turbulence caused by the rapids of the Des Moines at Ely's Ford.

Climbing Pittsburg hill they moved along the Portland road curving into Des Moines township then to the township lines between Des Moines, Van Buren, Jackson and Chequest. Where the four townships corner at the Lebanon Cemetery is one of two sites where this occurs in Van Buren County. The other place is at Utica. The wagon trains run almost straight west through Lebanon towards Stringtown, however, in Section 32 of Chequest Township, the trail turned northwest and on the county line a camp was occupied at Richardsons' Point.

As with all migrating pioneers, sickness and death stalked the Mormons. A short distance east of Richardsons' Point, is a burial site of the deceased occupants of the camp. It is thought there are at least 24 graves in the little burial site. Old-timers tell of granite fieldstone with the letters J.S. and the numbers 46 being chiseled on it. Diaries tell of the deaths of James Monroe Tanner and Edwin Little, a nephew of Brigham Young at this camp. These graves have been marked. There is another tale of a cache of weapons being buried here, too.

The previously described route is the main Mormon Trail, but the Mormons fanned out all over the county to secure work to finance their trek to Utah. They offered their labor to the citizens of the county for a mere pittance. The price of labor market was already depressed with the influx of their services, the labor market became ridiculously low. The material for many of the rail fence was cheaply prepared. Innumerable cabins and substantial buildings were built with the cheap labor. They left throughout the county, many exhibits of their handiwork. (This article was written by Van Buren County historian, Ralph Arnold.)

WHAT THEY TOOK ON THEIR TREK

What did the migrating people from the east carry with them on their way westward? A list of necessities for the Mormon trek to the Great Salt Lake was published on November 14, 1845, in the Nauvoo newspaper, the Illinois Neighbor. The Mormon list of goods was for a much longer trip than most pioneers made to Iowa.

The Mormon leaders recommended, in fact insisted, each family of five members take with them the following: One good strong wagon, provided with a light box; two or three good yoke of oxen between the ages of 4 and 10 years; three or more good milk cows; and one or more beef animals; three sheep, if they could be obtained; 1000 pounds of flour or other bread stuffs in good sacks; a working rifle or musket for each male over 12 years old; one pound of gunpowder; 4 pounds of lead; 1 pound of tea; 5 pounds of coffee; 100 pounds of sugar; 1/2 pound of cayenne pepper; 2 pounds of black pepper; 2 pounds of mustard; 10 pounds of rice; 1 pound of cinnamon; 3/4 pound of cloves; 1 dozen nutmegs; 25 pounds of salt; 5 pounds of saluterious; 10 pounds of dried apples; 1 peck dried beans; a few pounds of bacon or dried beef; 5 pounds dried peaches; 25 pounds of seed grain; 1/2 gallon alcohol; 20 lbs of soap; 4-5 fish hooks; 15 lb.. of iron and steel; a few pounds of wrought nails; one or more saws and grist mill cranks; 2 sets of pulley blocks per wagon; a coil of rope to fit blocks; a fish seine and hook; 25 to100 pounds of farming tools or mechanical tools; cooking utensils were to be; a bake kettle, frying pan, coffee pot, teakettle and cups, plates, knives, forks, spoons and other pans, the fewer the better; a good tent to be used by 2 families; clothing and bedding for each family not to exceed 500 pounds.

At the end of the list was the notation, horses or mules could be substituted for ox teams.

The approximate weight of a wagon load was a little over one ton. (taken from a news article written by Ralph Arnold)

RESEARCH SOURCES

Used to research the Mormon Trail across Van Buren County include:

  • Original land survey of Van Buren County
  • E. R. Harlan's History of Iowa
  • 1937 Agricultural Adjustment Act, Aerial Photographs
  • Various weekly newspapers of Van Buren County
  • Brown Diary of Mechanicsburg
  • Governor Carroll's letter to Editor, 1926
  • Word of mouth stories of elderly Van Buren County Residents
  • Mormon Journals

It should be noted that Van Buren County was well organized by 1846 with the county seat being established at Keosauqua in 1838 and the Court House built in 1840. This Court House building is still in use, the oldest in Iowa and west of the Mississippi River.

PITT'S BRASS BAND

The Pitt Brass Band that traveled with the Brigham Young Company, were a source of strength to those traveling with them. It is recorded in journals that when the pioneers spirits would be down that the band would start playing and they would start singing. According to The Journals of William Clayton and A History of the Church from 1846 to the Present by Russell R. Rich, the band was asked to play for the people in Farmington and Keosauqua. While camped at Reed's Creek a number of people from Farmington came into camp and gave a very pressing invitation for the band to go to Farmington and play some. They first played at the principle hotel and then went to the schoolhouse and played until nearly dark when they returned to the hotel and were provided with good supper and five dollars in money.

While the band was camped west of Keosauqua, at Richardsons' Point, the band accepted three different invitations to play in the town of Keosauqua. On their first trip to town they played for the grocery keepers and a beer keeper. They then marched to the Des Moines Hotel, near the court house, where they ordered supper before they went to the court house for their concert. The courtroom was crowded and they were well received. We made nearly $25.00 clear of all expenses. They were invited to return the next night, which they did. The house was again filled. We made only $20.00, beside all expenses. They returned for yet another concert a few nights later.

An interesting element to this story on the band is that the Van Buren County Court House where they played these concerts in 1846 is still standing and remains in use today.

REMNANTS OF THE TRAIL

With the guidance of local history buffs in Van Buren County sites along the trail have been photographed and they will be marked.

The first such site is a wooded hill that descends to Reed's Creek. It is very visible where the trail was, as there are still no trees growing on the trail area. After crossing Reed's Creek there is a space where the first encampment in Van Buren County took place. On down stream is the village of Bonaparte. Here is the crossing that was made below the existing bridge. A historical marker is on the current bridge. The first Interpretive Panel will be placed in Bonaparte Riverfront park commemorating this event.

On to the first major campsite since Sugar Creek, Richardsons' Point where they camped from March 7 to the 19th. They stayed longer than they had planned because of rain.

Other sites that were used by later groups are the crossing of the Des Moines River at Ely's Ford in Lacey Keosauqua State Park. Another is on a farm adjacent to the park. Marks from the trail are still visible.

It is believed that the Mason House Inn in Bentonsport was built by Mormon Craftsman in 1846.

Mormon Trail in VBC - Part I