Traveling the Mormon Emigrant Trail

image of traveling the mormon emigrant trail (September 2001)

By Anthony M. Belli

It had been over a year since the men had seen their families. Now with the construction of Sutter's Mill at Coloma complete, it was time for the many Mormon workers to return home to Salt Lake Valley, Utah. On April 9, 1848, a little more than two months after Marshall discovered gold in the mill's tailrace, the workers held a meeting. The question at this meeting however was not gold, but how to move a wagon train over the austere and uncharted Sierra wilderness...

Pleasant Valley

The Mormons sent word that parties interested in forming a wagon train that would travel to the Salt Lake Valley, should meet at a small valley in the foothills, which they named Pleasant Valley. By mid-June, a wagon train had been formed which consisted of 45 men, one woman, 17 wagons, several yokes of oxen, and about 300 head of livestock.

Three advance scouts, Henderson Cox, Daniel Browett, and Ezrah H. Allen, set out into the mountains on saddle horses to scout a route for the wagon train. Ten days passed without word from the advance team so ten men were dispatched to search for the missing scouts. Meanwhile, the wagon train moved northeast about ten miles to another valley to await news from the search party. They named this encampment after James C. Sly, a member of their party. Today this place is known as Sly Park.

Another ten days passed and then on July 14th, the search party returned reporting no sign of the missing scouts. They had, however, found passage over the mountains. The Mormons broke camp and began the slow, laborious, ascent over the Sierras, building a road as they went. They camped at and were responsible for naming Log Spring, Leek Spring, and Tragedy Spring.

Tragedy Spring

It was at Tragedy Spring that they discovered the murdered remains of their three advance scouts; buried in a shallow grave. In his diary, Henry W. Bigler, one of the members of the wagon train, noted the following:

"We cut the following inscription in the Balsam Fir that stood near the grave. To the memory of Daniel Browett, Ezrah H. Allen, and Henderson Cox, who were supposed to have been murdered and buried by Indians on the night of June 27, A.D., 1848. We call the place Tragedy Spring."

Hope Valley

After passing through the rugged Sierra Nevada Range, the wagon train camped at Hope Valley, which, according to Bugler's diary, they named because here "they began to have hope" that they were going to make it to Salt Lake. [Hope Valley lies about 20 miles South of Lake Tahoe with intersections of Highway 88 and 89.]

The Mormon Emigrant Trail

The opening of the Mormon Emigrant Trail created the first east-west road for wagons into Northern California. On the California side, of the California/Nevada state line, the first trading post/way station was established. It was called Old Mormon Station and was 107 miles east of Placerville.

[The Mormons followed a trail from Sly Park that approximates the path of the present Mormon Emigrant Trail, which extends from an intersection with Sly Park Road at Jenkinson Lake and runs generally southeast to a junction with California Highway 88 about five miles west of Silver Lake. There is one major deviation, however: The original route led around the north side of Iron Mountain instead of the south side as the road does today...Richard Hughey, The Carson Emigrant Trail to Tragedy Springs April 15, 1999.]

For the next 16 years, tens of thousands of immigrants passed over the Mormon Emigrant Trail into the new El Dorado. .By 1854, more than 40 way stations were operating between Placerville and Old Mormon Station. Way stations like "David Barber, ranch, trading post, and blacksmith shop, eight and a half miles from old Mormon Station", "Illinois House, groceries and meals at all hours. Elk Horn, hay, and barley station, seven miles from Placerville", and "Stonebreaker house" built adjacent to the emigrant road.


Edited by Stephanie Bishop, IS Dept.

BOOKS: "I remember ..."
By: Betty Yohalem Published by: The El Dorado County Chamber of Commerce - 1977

By: Covington - May, 1974