Today’s Alta Vista country road has significant Mormon migration history

On an 1854 map, the Mormon Trail is shown crossing Richardson County which later became Wabaunsee County.

“Is the Mormon Trail near Alta Vista?”

That was semblance of query wondering more about location, history and significance of what is actually a road. Having driven by its clearly identifying state highway sign many times, exactly where that was didn’t come to mind.

Research began by calling area natives and finding information including local historians with vast study and knowledge on the subject.

Well, the Mormon Trail Road turnoff is about a mile south of the main Alta Vista turnoff on Highway 177. The “trail” is actually Highway 4 to the west and a country road to the east. It’s easily found and identified following guidance of hometown newspaper editors-writers Gloria Smith and Joann Kahnt.

Several years ago, Michael Stubbs, of Eskridge, named Wabaunsee County roads, including “Mormon Trail Road,” generally based on locale history. A board member of the Kansas Historical Foundation and Wabaunsee County Historical Society, Stubbs researched the area. He concluded the road was whereabouts of the original trail.

Public Land Surveys of Kansas Territory in 1855-60 recorded a “Mormon Road” in Osage, Wabaunsee, Geary, Riley, Marshall and Washington counties. That’s according to Morris Werner, Manhattan-area architect in the 1940s and ’50s, who wrote articles describing settlement of the West. He based his writings on dedicated records study as well as somewhat on those Kansas Territory Public Land Surveys.

“Origin and existence of ‘the trail’ have been largely overlooked by students of Mormon history,” Werner wrote.

“It appears Mormon emigration into Kansas was in 1854,” Werner wrote.

The Mormon Church is the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, often also informally known as the LDS Church. It’s defined as a “nontrinitarian, Christian restorationist church.” Members are said to consider it to be the restoration of the original church founded by Jesus Christ.

“There may have been three Mormon wagon trains traveling across Kansas in 1854 averaging about 65 wagons each,” Warner wrote. “It’s reported that 11 persons were assigned to each wagon, a very high average.”

Under the leadership of Joseph Smith, the LDS Church established several communities throughout the United States between 1830 and 1844. These included Independence, Missouri. However, historical records indicate the Saints were driven out of each of them, due to conflicts with other settlers. This included the actions of Governor Lilburn Boggs, who issued Missouri Executive Order 44. It called for the “extermination” of all Mormons in Missouri.

Viewed from the south on Highway 177, the Mormon Trail Road sign marks the country roadway east into Wabaunsee County. Viewable signs verify Highway 177 and Highway 4 coincide in the one mile stretch to the main Alta Vista turnoff east.

The Mormon Trail is the 1,300-mile route that members of the LDS Church traveled from 1846 to 1868. Today, the Mormon Trail is a part of the United States National Trails System, known as the Mormon Pioneer National Historic Trail.

The Mormon Trail extends from Nauvoo, Illinois, which was the principal settlement of the LDS Church from 1839 to 1846. They went to Salt Lake City, Utah, which was settled by Brigham Young and his followers beginning in 1847.

The trail was used for more than 20 years, until the completion of the First Transcontinental Railroad in 1869. Fort Riley Historical and Archeological Society records indicate, “Between 1846 and 1869, thousands of Mormon immigrants traversed the Great Plains. The main route ran through Nebraska, paralleling the Platte River.”

“A cholera epidemic in the fall of 1853 caused the bulk of the immigrants to seek a new pathway west,” wrote historian writer Shane A. Baker. “Cholera proved to be one of the deadliest diseases that nineteenth-century immigrants faced.

“The malady struck quickly and killed with amazing rapidity. In less than a day, a person could progress from apparent health to total incapacitation.

“Both suddenness and mysteriousness of the disease terrified many travelers of the period. Doctors were unable to explain many of the disease processes that are understood today,” Baker wrote.

Mormon wagon and handcart companies traveled from Westport, Missouri, down the Santa Fe Trail to 110-Mile Creek crossing, in Osage County.

West of the Missouri River, the Mormons shared trails, campgrounds, ferries, triumphs and tragedies, wrote Stanley B. Kimball, historian-writer.

The Saints used all kinds of wagons and carriages, but mostly ordinary reinforced farm wagons. These were about ten feet long, arched over by cloth or waterproof canvas that could be closed. Mormons used a variety of draft animals, especially horses, mules and oxen. Preference was for oxen, which had great strength and patience and were easy to keep. Oxen did not balk at mud or quicksand, required no expensive and complicated harness, and could live better on sparse grasses.

Between 1850 and 1859, the Perpetual Emigration Fund brought 4,769 Mormon emigrants at a cost of $300,000. By the time of its demise in 1887, the fund helped more than 100,000 immigrants for about $12.5 million.

In 1860, Mormon leaders abandoned handcarts in favor of the church oxen teams. These teams could be sent from Utah to Missouri, pick up emigrants and merchandise, and return in one season, saving money.

The 2,200-mile round trip could be made in approximately six months. Each wagon was pulled by four yoke of oxen and about 1,000 pounds of supplies.

This system from 1860 to 1868 required about 2,000 wagons, 2,500 teamsters, and 17,550 oxen, and brought 20,500 emigrants to Utah.

“The Mormon Trail in Wabaunsee County is not a mystery,” Stubbs emphasized. “It followed the ridgeline that is the divide between the Kansas River and the Neosho River. The early part of the trail at 110 Crossing was actually on the divide between the Maris des Cygnes and Kansas Rivers.”

It left the Santa Fe Trail at the crossing of 110 Creek and headed northwest to Auburn in Shawnee County.

“From Auburn, it picked up the main dividing ridgeline and followed it west to the county’s border south of Alta Vista. All you have to do is ask yourself how would you travel if you were headed west? Wouldn’t you take the easiest, most level route with the least amount of waterways to cross?

“A government map shows the ridgeline from Eskridge to Gunbarrel Hill. The trail runs the length of the ridge and its ruts are quite evident there today. The original government survey shows the trails location precisely, within 100 yards in most cases.

“An aerial Lidar, ‘ground penetrating radar,’ survey revealed the old Topeka Fort Riley Road as it passes through the Mount Mitchell Heritage Prairie south of Wamego. It showed how accurate the original survey was, even though they were using a chain they dragged across the countryside.

“Intent of the road naming project was to preserve our history for future generations and keep it alive in daily life,” Stubbs said. “When a person drives past the sign Mormon Trail Road, he might wonder, ‘What’s that about? Did the Mormons pass through here? I thought that road was in Nebraska.’”

“The modern county road is in the vicinity of the old trail, it is not part of the old trail,” Stubbs clarified. “It’s naming is meant as a commemoration of the old road.

“Remnants of the trail can indeed be seen in pastures that have not been plowed or altered. But most remnants around Alta Vista have been destroyed by row crop production.

“One of the few places where a current day county road runs on the exact route of the old trail is the county road that runs southwest up Gunbarrel Hill,” Stubbs said.

Mormons who used this route for the short time were mostly poor European converts with destination to Utah.

This same route through Wabaunsee County later became known as the Salina Road, and is listed as such on later maps. Fort Riley records indicate; “The trail went into Geary County, Fort Riley and on north linking the main Mormon route.”

Used heavily by Mormon wagon trains in 1854, the route descended diagonally down the face of Grant Ridge. From there just south of Interstate 70, the trail crossed Marshall Army Air Field and forded the Kansas River. It crossed Fort Riley’s Main Post into the rim rock area behind the headquarters and ascended Custer Hill.

“After the Mormons abandoned the trail, it was used heavily by the military, settlers and freighters,” records show.

The northern segment became known as the Fort Kearny Road in 1858.


030615-franksmug2Frank J. Buchman is a lifelong rancher from Alta Vista, Kan., lifetime newspaper writer, syndicated national ag writer and radio marketing consultant.


One Response to Today’s Alta Vista country road has significant Mormon migration history

  1. Awbw says:

    This is so interesting! Learned lots of info that was totally new! Great article!

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