Trail Guides: Their Place “Into the Western Country”

Scott Duvall, Assistant University Librarian
L. Tom Perry Special Collections
Lee Library, Brigham Young University


On January 20, 1846, the Nauvoo, [Illinois] High Council of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, issued this statement. "We ... embrace this opportunity to inform you, that we intend to send out into the Western country from this place, some time in the early part of the month of March, a company of pioneers .... Our pioneers are instructed to proceed West until they find a good place to make a crop, in some good valley in the neighborhood of the Rocky Mountains ..."[1] Two weeks later, on Feb. 4, 1846, because of rumors and threats, the first wagons ferried across the Mississippi River from Nauvoo, Illinois and the Mormon exodus began.

The Mormons, of course, were not the first emigrants to go "into the Western country." The California-Oregon Trail was in use for several years before 1846. Before any emigrants traveled westward, however, they consulted various guidebooks as they made their preparations. These trail guides usually listed items that people would need for the trail: food, clothing, wagons, stock, and weapons. They also described the route: suitable camp sites, the presence or absence of wood, water, and grass, the fords of rivers and other points of general interest. Although the Mormons were not the first to travel west, however, they were the first to attack the problem of accurate measurement of distances. (See description of William Clayton below.)

Emigrant guidebooks had their genesis in personal diary accounts of the trek west that were later printed, and in letters written to eastern homes and newspapers. Newspapers, in fact, were a primary source of advertisement for published trail guides. It is clear that many early travelers assumed that others would be interested in their personal experiences. They also believed that published accounts of their travels would be marketable. Ray A. Billington, noted researcher and author, has termed such guides as "Books that Won the West."[2]

Several guidebooks were published before 1848, but hundreds of them were printed after the discovery of California gold. John D. Unruh in his book The Plains Across writes of the "instant" guidebooks that appeared with the discovery of gold. [3] In the rush to cash in on the market, many guidebooks were published that were unreliable and not very well researched. Unfortunately, for the sake of history, many of these have not been preserved; they were poorly printed, poorly bound, and were handled to the point of extinction.

In several accounts of the overland experience that are found in Trails of Hope, the pioneers mention using trail guides as they traveled west. One man, whom we know only as Shoemaker, wrote: "The country back from the river is nothing but sand bluff, the day is clear it froze a little last night the day are warm & the nights are cold. The ox teams that left the missouri when we did are passing us to day, here is the grave of George Washington gordon from de buke Co. io.wa.  He died may 1st 18.50 with the congestion on the brain, we are now, according to guide, 302 1/2 miles from the missourie & 728 1/2 miles from salt lake."[4]view

Another interesting diary entry was written by Edward Jackson on the California trail in 1849. Near Bear River, he wrote: "Our course now lays in a southerly course over a dry sage plain. One creek, called Deep Creek, we forded with much difficulty. Two of our animals laid down & we were obliged to unpack them. Altho the water was quite salt here, we filled our canteens, for the Guide book said we should not find any for 12 miles. After passing over the plain, we wound round a mountain, & half way up we found a spring, (the Guide book is very incorrect at times,) & refilled our canteens."[5] p68 p69 Thus, we see that overland emigrants relied on their trail guides, whether correct or incorrect.

In this website we have chosen to digitize seven guides that are owned by the Harold B. Lee Library at Brigham Young University. Except for the 1855 Route from Liverpool, a book published specifically for Mormon emigrants leaving Great Britain, we have limited our digitizing scope to guides that fall into the category of pre-Gold Rush publications. We anticipate adding copies of other trail guides in future "editions" of Trails of Hope.

There are other notable guides from the pre-Gold Rush era which Brigham Young University does not own and therefore they are not found in this digitized collection. These include, for instance, Sketch of the Oregon Territory, or, Emigrants' guide, by Philip Leget Edwards, printed in 1842 and known in only one copy at Yale University Library; A journey to California, 1841, the first emigrant party to California by wagon train, the journal of John Bidwell, printed in 1842 and known in only one copy at the Bancroft Library.

Description of the Digitized Trail Guides

James, Edwin, 1797–1861

Account of an expedition from Pittsburgh to the Rocky Mountains: performed in the years 1819 and 20, by order of the Hon. J.C. Calhoun, Sec'y of War, under the command of Major Stephen H. Long, from the notes of Major Long, Mr. T. Say, and other gentlemen of the exploring party, compiled by Edwin James, botanist and geologist for the expedition. Philadelphia: H.C. Carey and I. Lea, 1823.

In 1816 Stephen Harriman Long, a West Point graduate, was assigned to go to St. Louis and to work in the newly formed Corps of Topographical Engineers. In the spring of 1820, after four years of exploring much of the Mississippi and forming plans to survey the Missouri and its branches, Long received orders to seek the source of the Platte River. His party included Dr. Edwin James who wrote the actual account of the exploration. They followed the north bank of the Platte River westward along a route over which the Mormons later traveled and along the same route that the Union Pacific railroad was to run one day. On page xxiii-xxiv of the 1972 reprint of this publication we read, "Upon reaching the forks of the Platte the expedition ascended the south bank of the south fork of the river until they came to the foothills of the Rockies .... Notebooks began to be filled with observations on the size, nature, and habits of each Indian tribe encountered .... On June 30, the expedition sighted the Rocky Mountains ...." It is clear that the account of the Long expedition had a lasting influence on government policy and on western settlement for a long period of time. In a sense, Long bridged the gap between Lewis and Clark and John C. Fremont.

Parker, Samuel, 1779–1866

Journal of an exploring tour beyond the Rocky Mountains, under the direction of the A.B.C.F.M. performed in the years 1835, 36, and 37: containing a description of the geography, geology, climate, and productions, and the number, manners, and customs of the natives with a map of Oregon Territory. Ithaca, N.Y.: Published by the author; Mack, Andrus & Woodruff, Printers, 1838.

Throughout the 1830's the Platte River Road was traveled by groups associated with the Rocky Mountain fur trade. In 1835, however, the missionary efforts of the Reverend Samuel Parker and Marcus Whitman marked a new, religious reason to travel west. Parker kept careful notes of his journey with Whitman and upon his return to the east coast in 1837, he prepared a manuscript that he published in 1838.

As Parker said in the preface to the first edition, "In presenting to the public the Journal of a Tour beyond the Rocky Mountains, the only apology, necessary to offer, is the hope of promoting a more extensive and particular knowledge, than has hitherto been furnished, of the condition of that important section of our country. The author's mode of traveling furnished many opportunities for observation, being conducted with leisure, through one of the most interesting portions of the wide territories of the west." The account of Parker's "tour" was very popular with the eastern public and with those also contemplating a western trek. It was printed in three more editions in 1840, 1842, and 1844. Parker evidently liked the country "beyond the Rocky Mountains," because he traveled back across the trail in 1838 with his new bride.

Fremont, John Charles, 1813–1890

Report of the exploring expedition to the Rocky Mountains in the year 1842, and to Oregon and north California in the years 1843-44, by J.C. Fremont; printed by order of the Senate of the United States. Washington: Gales and Seaton, Printers, 1845.

John C. Fremont was one the most famous and popular of western explorers. His first venture was under the direction of Joseph Nicolett who led a group of explorers, surveyors, and mapmakers for the Corps of Topographical Engineers. Fremont's next assignment, of which he was the leader, was a survey of the Oregon Trail (1842) and northern California (1843-44)

In hindsight, scholars have indicated that it was not Fremont's intent to scout out a trail to the west and therefore emigrants should not have used it as a guide. Nevertheless, the report of Fremont's first expedition was greeted by Americans with great interest. In addition to routine surveying, Fremont's writings served the purpose of making the West very attractive to those who lived east of the Mississippi. The popularity of his writings earned Fremont the nickname of "The Pathfinder." Hence, although Fremont published his report "by order of the Senate of the United States," there were many who used it as a guide into the western country. Because of the nature of this report, as an exploring expedition to Northern California as well as the Oregon Trail, we have chosen to digitize only the first 79 pages, the section that deals with the trail.

Hastings, Lansford Warren, 1819–1870

The Emigrants' Guide to Oregon and California, Containing ... All Necessary Information Relative to the Equipment, Supplies, and the Method of Traveling. By Lansford W. Hastings, Leader of the Oregon and California Emigrants of 1842. Cincinnati: Published by George Conclin, 1845.

Lansford Hastings was only 23 years old when he made a trip to the Oregon country in the spring of 1842. After being disappointed with what he found in Oregon, Hastings left the following spring for California and the next summer (1844) he prepared the manuscript for his Emigrants' Guide. The guide is much more a description of Oregon and California than it is a guide of the trail. He gives careful descriptions of settlements, forts, natural resources, climate, geography, and economic development possibilities in California and Oregon. He does not give details on how to get there. He does, however, give good practical advice on the kinds of goods, equipment, and livestock necessary to make the overland journey. His advice was especially good for those taking wagons. In spite of its deficiencies, however, it is clear that many emigrants consulted Hastings with care and deliberation.

One piece of advice that Hastings gave in his book, however, proved disastrous for the Donner-Reed Party of emigrants that came west in 1846. He suggested that a shorter route south of the Great Salt Lake would save time for California bound emigrants. But the heavy wagons sank into the soft, salty surface and severely impeded the progress of the Donner Party. They were trapped by heavy snows in the Sierra Nevada Mountains and suffered enormous hardships. Of the original 87 members of the party only 47 survived.[6]

Bryant, Edwin, 1805–1869

What I saw in California: being a journal of a tour, by the emigrant route and South Pass of the Rocky Mountains, across the continent of North America, the great desert basin, and through California, in the years 1846, 1847, by Edwin Bryant, late Alcalde of St. Francisco. New York: D. Appleton & Company; Philadelphia: S. Appleton, 1848

Edwin Bryant, for whom Bryant Street in San Francisco is named, was born in 1805 in Massachusetts. At age 11, he migrated with his family to Kentucky. As an adult, he entered the journalism trade, working for several Kentucky newspapers. In 1846, citing poor health as the reason, he set out from Louisville, Kentucky for California. The account of his trip west and his stay in California is recorded in his What I Saw in California. Because of his literary talent, Bryant's work provided valuable information for emigrants concerning the route, i.e. length of the trip, when to start, etc. He also listed supplies needed, such as provisions, arms and ammunition, wagons and teams.

Bryant's best seller was published in early 1848. In fact, Bryant left California seven months before the discovery of gold. In 1849, Bryant's publishers, D. Appleton and Co., rushed to reprint What I Saw in California with additional maps and information concerning the gold discovery and the mines. Critics such as Charles Camp and Edwin Gudde have termed Bryant's work as one the most important and reliable of all of the overland narratives and guides.

Clayton, William, 1814–1879

The Latter-day Saints' emigrants' guide, being a table of distances, showing all the springs, creeks, rivers, hills, mountains, camping places, and all other notable places, from Council Bluffs, to the valley of the Great Salt Lake. Also, the latitudes, longitudes, and altitudes of the prominent points on the route. Together with remarks on the nature of the land, timber, grass, &c. The whole route having carefully measured by a roadometer, and the distance from point to point, in English miles, accurately shown. St. Louis, Mo: Republican Steam Power Press, Chambers & Knapp, 1848.

William Clayton was a member of the original Mormon pioneer company of July 1847. After staying in the Salt Lake Valley for the summer of 1847, he returned east in the fall and compiled this Latter-day Saints' Emigrants Guide. The guide is the best of its time for the Mormon route and included numerous pieces of valuable information for emigrants. It lists the names and occasional locations of prominent points, the distances in miles between the points listed, the distance from Winter Quarters, and the distances from Great Salt Lake City. The emigrant who used this guide always knew how far he had come, how far to the next camp, and how far it was to the Great Salt Lake. This guide was also widely used by the first wave of gold rush emigrants.[7]

Piercy, Frederick Hawkins, 1830–1891

Route from Liverpool to Great Salt Lake Valley, illustrated with steel engravings and wood cuts from sketches made by Frederick Piercy ... together with a geographical and historical description of Utah, and a map of the overland routes to that territory from the Missouri River, also an authentic history of the Latter-Day Saints' emigration from Europe from the commencement up to the close of 1855, with statistics. Edited by James Linforth. Liverpool: Published by Franklin D. Richards, 1855.

Frederick Piercy set sail in February 5, 1853 on the ship Jersey with a company of 313 Mormon emigrants bound for America. He was only 23 years old. His purpose was to document this journey through his art. He wished to produce an illustrated travel guide to encourage British Mormons to emigrate to Utah. Thus, Piercy's Route from Liverpool contains his detailed narrative of the journey as well as illustrations, steel engravings made from his own drawings. These illustrations include the prominent landmarks between Council Bluffs and Salt Lake City as well as sites between New Orleans and Nauvoo along the Mississippi. This guide is known as "the most beautiful book published by the Latter-day Saints."

Among the diaries that are provided in this digital collection we find several accounts that begin in England and give us a description, not only of the trail, but of the sea voyage. Please refer to the narratives of William Ajax, James Bunting, Appleton Milo Harmon, George Henry Abbott Harris, Oliver Boardman Huntington, Elijah Larkin, Jesse Bigler Martin, Job Taylor Smith, and George Thomas. Elijah Larkin provides us with a good description of life on board the ship. "June 5[one day after departure], Almost all on board more Sea Sick. We had a head wind, & the Ship was often Tacked to enable her to make head way. .. June 6th. Sickness prevailed almost Generally. ... June 16th. Patty was taken very Sick again. Bro. Mitchell & Self administered to her. I also assisted Bros. Bramall & Sloan to administer to Bro. Stoken of our ward who had been Sick more or less even since we have been on board. & has five Children Ruth done all she could for him & his family. Last Night the Infant Son of Bro. & Sister Laney of London died."[8]viewp61 p62


  • 1. Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, A Circular of the High Council. To Members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, and to All It May Concern [Nauvoo, 1846]
  • 2. Ray A. Billington, "Books that Won the West: the Guidebooks of the Forty-Niners & Fifty-Niners," American West, 4, no. 3 (August 1967) : 25.
  • 3. John D. Unruh, The Plains Across: The Overland Emigrants and the Trans-Mississippi West, 1840-60 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1979), 75.
  • 4. Shoemaker, May 11, 1850, p. 47.
  • 5. Edward Jackson, August 3, 1849, pp. 68-69.
  • 6. George R. Stewart, Ordeal by Hunger: The Story of the Donner Party, Rev. ed. (NY: Houghton Mifflin, c1936, 1960), 45.
  • 7. Unruh, p. 317.
  • 8. Elijah Larkin, June 5-6, 1863, vol. 3, p. 61; June 16, 1863, p. 62.