About the Collection

Trails of Hope: Overland Diaries and Letters, 1846-1869 is the first digital publication jointly sponsored by the Utah Academic Library Consortium. It builds upon the overland trail diaries and letters found in the rich collections of the L. Tom Perry Special Collections, Lee Library, Brigham Young University; Special Collections, Marriott Library, University of Utah; and Special Collections, Merrill Library, Utah State University. The years 1846-1869 are significant, representing the Mormon exodus from Nauvoo, Illinois, the joining of the Union Pacific and Central Pacific railroads at Promontory Point, Utah, and the ending of the overland pioneer era.

The 49 diarists and their stories, represented in 59 diary volumes, are the central focus and the important voices in this publication. Forty-five men and four women wrote of their experiences while traveling along the Mormon, California, Montana or Oregon trails. Twenty-three writers (21 men and 2 women) were travelers along the Mormon Trail, while 19 men and one woman were chroniclers of the California Trail. Three men wrote about their travels to Oregon. John C. Anderson traveled with his brother-in-law and a cook by "ambulance" to Montana and returned by boat to the east, while Kate Dunlap traveled with her husband and children to settle permanently in Bannock City, Montana. Benjamin Ross Cauthorn, along with his parents and brothers, thought their destination was the 1860s gold rush territory of Montana, only to discover, upon reaching Montana, that it was late in the gold game and so they pushed on to Oregon.

Most of the diaries were donated, on an individual diary-by-diary basis, to one of the three institutions noted above and were not part of a larger manuscript collection. Seven of the California Trail diaries and two of the Oregon Trail diaries were purchased by Brigham Young University, from various dealers. There are numerous Utah and Mormon references in these diaries, whether they are diaries written by Mormons or by individuals heading to California, Montana, and Oregon. Overlanders were likely to be in contact with other companies traveling west and these were often Mormon companies, or they might find themselves traveling to Salt Lake to re-outfit and re-provision before continuing west to California or north to Montana. There are even diary entries that refer to disaffected Mormons traveling east to escape the hardships of life in Utah.

Their significance as trail diaries varies in descriptive eloquence and volume of information. For instance, Scotsman, Andrew Ferguson, traveled the Mormon Trail in 1855, but devoted only four pages, of his 370-page diary, to that experience. In contrast forty-one year old, Gordon C. Cone, California gold rush traveler, who left St. Joseph on 6 July 1849 with the Mock Company, devoted his entire diary to his travels, and did so with descriptive eloquence.

The length of a diary entry, however, does not necessarily correlate with reader impact. Witness the brief entries of Orley Dwight Bliss, who at the age of twenty-three was "called to go to the Missouri River as a teamster to gather the poor."[1]search He traveled east to the Missouri in 1864 and joined with the William S. Warren Company, known as the 4th [Mormon] Church Train. Heading west, he now assisted the many new arrivals from Europe to travel to Salt Lake. His brief, matter of fact entries of twenty-three deaths recorded in a little over two months of overland travel, is devastating in its cumulative impact. Entry-after-entry are similar to that of Friday, September 16, 1864.

Traveled 5 miles and nooned on sweet water sister Lord died and was buried here I went a hunting killed an antelope afternoon traveled 12 miles and camped at the Warm Springs sister Hutchinson and Bro Buckley died here they were both buried in one grave I went a hunting this afternoon killed nothing [2]search

Interestingly, the California, Oregon, and Montana diaries are much more likely to be completely devoted to the overland experience than are the Mormon diaries. In fact, it is evident that these men and women were keeping a diary just for this momentous experience in their lives. The Mormon Trail chroniclers, however, ranged from Bathsheba Bigler Smith, who devoted all of her 27-page diary to her travels, to that of John Boylston Fairbanks who wrote six pages out of 39 about the trail. It was more common for the Mormon diarist to include his or her overland experience simply as a part of the larger picture of their lives. Perhaps reflecting the scriptural references to be a record-keeping people, their diaries were as likely to describe family and religious life, missionary travels, and experiences in Utah, as they were to describe the "gathering" to Salt Lake.[3]

Further analysis of the lives of these people also reflects the "staying" power of the Mormon diarists, with all 23 choosing to stay in Utah.[4] The transitory nature of the California Trail chroniclers is reflected in the fact that only two of our California Trail diarists are known to have stayed in California. Most of these men traveled without their families and it was evident that, unless they struck it rich, their intention all along was to return to their homes in the east. Kate Dunlap, who traveled with her husband and children to Bannock City, Montana, and John Alkire Powell, who traveled with his wife and children to Oregon also stayed in the west.

One added benefit to the land travel stories of these diarists is their descriptions of sea voyages. Three of the California Trail voyagers, and one from the Oregon Trail chose to write about their travels back to the east on steamers from San Francisco via Panama. A surprising 47 percent of the Mormon Trail chroniclers in this collection also described sea voyages from England, primarily from Liverpool.

Selection and Context

One criterion for inclusion in Trails of Hope was that the diary had to be "penned" on the trail in hopes of minimizing the ever-expanding mythology of the trail experience. However, it proved difficult to determine when a diary was amended or editorialized at a later date. It does appear that the California Trail diaries of Schuyler Colfax and Edward Jackson were later textually enhanced. The Mormon Trail account by George Henry Abbott Harris and that of the Montana/Oregon Trail by Benjamin Ross Cauthorn could well be later journal narratives written after the actual trail experience.

In addition, we wished to introduce readers to unique trail diaries and letters that had never been published. It was thought that this digital publication provided a wonderful opportunity to introduce readers to new material that they were unlikely to have ever seen. Once again that criterion was not wholly realized. Out of the 49 diarists, it was found that the accounts of three California Trail voyagers, Schuyler Colfax, James S. Tolles, and Edmund Hope Verney were published in nineteenth century newspapers and periodicals; John C. Anderson's account of his Montana gold rush out-and-back trip was published in 1974, although the publication is based on what appears to be a later textually enhanced diary and not the diary written on the trail and included in this digital publication. Also, the trail portion only of Mormon, Levi Jackman's diary was published as a chapter in a book; while three publications told the stories of Montana bound Kate Dunlap, F.F. Keith and Shoemaker's California Trail experiences, and finally Mormon, Appleton Milo Harmon's journals were published in a 1946 Arthur H. Clark publication. Complete bibliographic entries for these previous publications can be found in the catalog records for these diaries.

It is clear that the diaries and letters could have stood on their own--each with their own unique and, yet in many ways, familiar stories. However, we placed research information in the metadata, to add further context to the stories themselves. These metadata enhancements include: the age of the diarists, ranging from 18 to 59; the trail name; the name of the company; the diarist's gender; and the year of travel, with 21 of our chroniclers traveling the trail in 1849 and 1850, perhaps reflecting the trail traffic explosion from the California gold rush. To further add value, XML searchable tagging was applied to the diary transcripts. These tags identify geographic and personal names, along with ten other topics i.e., children, commerce, death, discipline, diseases, food, Indian encounters, Mormons religious life, religious life, and women.

As these diarists did not live their trail experiences in a historical vacuum, supporting material was written to provide reader context. This material includes two scholarly essays on the Mormon and California trails; an extensive "Suggested Readings" to take the interested reader further along the path of overland trail discovery; and brief biographies of 45 of our 49 diarists. Three of the four diarists without biographical information are unnamed in their diaries, leaving only known diarist Alphonse B. Day without any biographical information.

Trails of Hope is a story of people-people often faced with life-changing experiences. These are people who chose to leave the well-watered lands of England or New England or Ohio to travel into the "Great American Desert," and on to the barren, water-starved lands of the Great Basin, the gold rich San Joaquin and Sacramento valleys on the western slopes of the Sierra Nevada mountains, the vast Montana expanses, or the rain soaked Columbia River watershed. Undoubtedly many readers will never have the opportunity to travel these routes. Therefore, a selection of 82 photographs, original sketches, and watercolors, were selected from repositories throughout the west to be included in this collection. Brigham Young University contributed 41; the University of Nevada, Reno, 13; Church Archives of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 12; the Utah State Historical Society, 8; Dr. Paul Link, professor of Geosciences, Idaho State University, 6; and the Churchill County Museum in Fallon, Nevada, 3. Furthermore, with the creation of an interactive trails map, the reader can more easily experience the changing terrain and the difficulties of the trail from Nauvoo, Illinois to the jumping off places of Winter Quarters or Florence, Kanesville or Council Bluffs, to the trek along the Platte River Valley to South Pass, and finally to Salt Lake City or across Nevada and along the Humboldt River to California.

Geographic knowledge was an ever present need for the overlander. To further provide the reader with greater trail knowledge, 43 maps and seven trail guides are included, all of which were available to these pioneer travelers and their leaders. The maps were selected from the Special Collections, Marriott Library, University of Utah, and the L. Tom Perry Special Collections, Lee Library, Brigham Young University, and the trail guides were also selected from the collections at Brigham Young University. Each map and trail guide is fully cataloged and a brief essay describes these collections and their context within the broader trail experience and, in some cases, to the specific experiences of our diarists and letter writers.

What It Isn't and What It Should Be

The 49 diaries and letters found in this first digital version of Trails of Hope provides an excellent representative sample of the Mormon and California Gold Rush trail experience but a much weaker view of these experiences for the Montana and Oregon trail travelers. If Merrill Mattes is right when he estimates that between 1841 and 1866, 500,000 men, women, and children traveled from the east to the west, using a variety of trails and that of these overland pioneers there was one record-keeper for every 250, then much remains to be done.[5]

It would greatly increase the value of this digital publication to add original diaries, journals, and letters from manuscripts collections found in other libraries. Many such manuscripts exist in well-known repositories such as Yale University, Princeton University, the Bancroft Library of the University of California-Berkeley, The Huntington Library, and the Church Archives of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. By expanding efforts to other repositories, one of the serious gaps in the presentation of the trail experience in this collection-no Mormon handcart accounts--could easily be remedied, thereby substantially enhancing the holdings from the three originating libraries at Brigham Young University, the University of Utah, and Utah State University. Agreements to link to existing web sites or to add digital content to this site, with proper citation, attribution and provenance to the originating repository, would need to be established.

There are also many missing voices in this collection. Certainly women and their perspectives and experiences are under-represented and, unless, we count eighteen-year-olds Ezekiel Headley and Emmeline B. Wells as children, there is no real understanding through this publication of the effects of the trail on children. With the addition of more diaries, and the possible addition of reminiscences, then these important voices will be heard. Although reminiscences can make it more difficult to discern real trail experiences from trail mythology, new voices will appear and the perspective of age and experience can hopefully place the trail within the larger context of lifetimes.

The long-term concerns noted above, will take some time to solve. There are, however, smaller, yet important gaps in the contextual material surrounding the diaries and journals in this first version of the publication. For example, the reader interested in the Oregon and Montana trails will immediately notice that there are no essays or photographs, beyond the common trail experience of the Platte River Valley to South Pass. The California Trail enthusiast will also note that there are gaps in the photographs provided in this collection that depict the journey from the eastern slope of the Sierra Nevada until the arrival in San Francisco. In addition there are several trail guides, some owned by the participating libraries, and others found at Yale University, which should be added to this publication.

A second version of Trails of Hope that will add the missing essays, photographs, and trail guides is scheduled for release in January 2003. It is hoped that additional trail diaries and letters, and selected reminiscences, found at other repositories, including the Church Archives of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, can be linked to this publication in 2004.


  • 1. Orley Dwight Bliss, p. 3.
  • 2. Ibid., 16 September 1864, p. 23.
  • 3. Book of Mormon, Alma 37:8; Doctrine and Covenants 21:1; 63:3-8.
  • 4. As some of the diarists note, not all Mormons chose to stay in Utah. Perhaps the "staying" power of this particular Mormon group reflects the fact that the contributing repositories are in Utah and often these diaries were donated by descendents of these pioneers.
  • 5. Merrill Mattes, Platte River Road Narratives: A Descriptive Bibliography of Travel over the Great Central Overland Route to Oregon, California, Utah, Colorado, Montana, and Other Western States and Territories, 1812-1866. (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1988), 5.