Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Headlong down the Mormon Trace

This map shows the general route of the main Mormon Trace/Trail through Lucas County. I used the 1875 Andreas Atlas map of the county as a base.

There are days that, when confronted by trail markers that say "Mormon Trace," I'm tempted to go down to Russell and kick Henry Gittinger's tombstone.

It was Henry, bless his heart, who from his then-perch as editor of The Chariton Leader complained long and loud when state and D.A.R. officials kept referring to the leg of the 1840s Mormon route through Lucas County as "Trail" rather than "Trace."
"Trace" in this instance is just a synonym for "Trail," and it's not at all clear that "everyone" here actually called it that, as Henry and others insisted. But he was so vocal and so annoying about it that he finally got his way and "Trace" it's been ever since.

The difficulty is, "Trace" is not a word used much in this context these days and while it's good local nomencalture was preserved, its use tends to confuse the already mildly disorienting situation in Lucas and its southerly neighbor, Wayne, where there actually are three and in at least one case four threads of trail. Here's how it goes:

The Mormon Pioneer Trail, entering far southeast Wayne County from Appanoose and leading northwesterly to Garden Grove in Decatur County, was used by the first parties of Saints departing southeast Iowa in the early spring of 1846, including Brigham Young, William Clayton and others. Young ordered the Pioneer Trail abandoned as soon as he reached Garden Grove in April of 1846.

Young directed subsequent parties to use the Mormon "Trace" (aka Trail) route that passes through Lucas County and avoids a Chariton River crossing by following the ridge dividing the Des Moines/Mississippi and Chariton/Missouri river drainages. This was the route west followed by virtually all of Saints from the early summer 1846 through the autumn of 1848. It enters Lucas County's southeast corner, angles northwesterly up through Greenville to the approximate site of Russell, then heads almost due west to Chariton Point.

A major shortcut also developed in Lucas County. This headed west from Greenville, rather than swinging up to Russell, and passed thorugh the neighborhood later known as Ragtown before rejoining the main Trace/Trail near Salem Cemetery, just southeast of Chariton.

During early 1849, a fairly easy Chariton River crossing was discovered in northwest Appanoose County that allowed travelers to cut directly west from Dodge's Point across northern Wayne County to Garden Grove. Although a majority of the Saints already had moved west by this time, those still on the trail generally used this middle route until 1851, when the move west through southern Iowa was nearly complete. It remained popular, as did the Mormon Trace, with other westward bound travelers who followed.


Truth be told, there had been little interest in Iowa in tracking the Mormon Trail precisely until the second decade of the 20th century when Edgar R. Harlan, then curator of the State Historical Department, paired up with the formidable Daughters of the American Revolution to do just that. It was this joint effort that led to the two substantial stone monuments in Lucas County, one on the courthouse square and the other southeast of town along the Blue Grass Road.

Locating the Mormon Trace was a fairly simple task from Lucas County's eastern boundary west because it was marked clearly on the first survey maps of the region and described  in survey notes. The survey began in Lucas County during 1847, when the ruts of the "Mormon Road" were about the only man-made landmark for surveyors to note.

Part of the locating process involved the collection of stores from those who remembered the trail as a busy highway, and Henry Gittinger and The Leader were instrumental in this, working with Laura Gibbon and others of the Chariton D.A.R. chapter.

Many of these published memories date from 1850 or later, when the Trace was still a busy road but Mormon use had diminished.

This first memories here, an account by Nathan W. Kendall published in The Leader of March 23, 1911, deal with the trail shortcut west from Greenville to Salem. The Kendalls did not arrive in Lucas County until 1850, and at that time travelers on the Trace would have included a broad mix of Mormon refugees, '49ers headed west to California gold fields and pioneers interested in establishing new homes as western Iowa opened to settlement.


Editor Leader: It gives me great satisfaction to read those articles of Thomas Brandon, S.C. McKinley and others in regard to the old Mormon Trace, as it carries me back to my boyhood days. I will give you my version, taking Dodge's Point (Iconium, in Appanoose County) as my starting point, and to the best of my recollections the old Mormon Trace, after leaving Dodge's Point, passed in a northwesterly direction following the main divide and passing just north of or through the farm known as the Alex Black place, thence northwest passing the farm known as the Mark Henion place, in Jackson township, Monroe county, thence west past the John C. Evans farm, thence a little northwest --- coming into Lucas county about two and a half miles north of the Wayne county line, cutting off a coner of the Abner McKinley quarter section, on the northeast, continuing northwest, cutting off the southwest corner of the Abbott Kendall quarter section, thence to the X.E. West home. There the travel went due west down a long ridge, lying about forty rods north of the Greenville school house, thence across the foot hills of the Lem Fenley and Jonathan Aldrich farms, crossing the Ricker branch about 250 yards north of the site of the present bridge, thence up the hill spoken of in S.C. McKinley's article, in which he speaks of the old trace yet being plain to be seen, which is true, to the top of the hill.

Now, I just want to tarry on this hill for a little while. A that time I think I was about twelve years old, the age in which one's memory is so active and impressions so lasting. At the time of which I speak there came a Mormon train of fifteen or twenty wagons, camping on the hill for several days. From what reasons I do not know. Possibly to rest their teams, or may be on account of sickness, as two or three children died there and were buried on that hill. These little mounds were noticeable for a long while but the ravages of time have obliterated them and I could not locate them now, but the little forms sleep there in peace to be gathered to the Father many days hence.

From here the old trace continued north and west I think through what is known as the Fulkerson farm (until quite recently the Kells farm --- FDM), thence west through the Marcus Evans farm, crossing the Rag Town slough about a half a mile north of the present Rag Town bridge, where there is a small grove of timber, thence passing a little north of the Salem church, which is west of Russell, thence west by the Jackson Berry and Ananias McKinley farms, and on to Chariton Point. Here the trail becomes dim but I think it ran south of Chariton, bearing west, about where the old cemetery is, south and east of Chariton. In conclusion I will say that I have given a description of th Old Mormon Trace from Dodge's Point, in Appanoose county, to Chariton Point, in Lucas county, a distance of abut twenty-five miles, to the very best of my recollection, and hoping that Colonel Warren S. Dungan, and other interested parties, will take up the old trace subject and carry it on as it is very interesting to me. Yours truly, N.W. Kendall, Russell, Iowa.


The following letter, sandwiched between editorial notes by Gittinger, was published in The Leader of April 13, 1911, and deals with the route of the Trace through what now is Chariton:

Mrs. L. R. (Laura) Gibbon of this city, who is the member of the committee appointed by the D.A.R. for investigating and marking the old Mormon Trace, for the central section, recently received the following interesting letter from Mrs. Hall, one of the pioneers of Lucas County, but who is now residing in Denver, Colorado. The letter was written by an emanuensis (it was dictated rather than written by Mrs. Hall):

371 Broadway, Denver
April 2, 1911

Dear Mrs. Gibbon: I have been very much interested in reading of the proposed marking of the old Mormon Trace by the Daughters of the Revolution. I came over the Trace from Dodge's Point in the fall of 1850, and as there seems to be no one in Chariton who knows whether the road went through where the town now stands I have been wanting to write to you what I know about it, but I have been in very poor health for the past six months so I have turned the writing over to another, (her daughter, Margaret Hall).

Finding on our arrival in Chariton no house in which we could live, we returned to Eddyville for the winter, returning to Chariton the next spring, in March, and building a small house on the street you now live on (South Grand Street), about where the Sam McKlveen house now is. I could stand in the door and see the long, white wagon trains coming from Chariton Point and past our door, the people stopping to beg water with their lips parched and dry --- sometimes covered with court plaster. I could not refuse although we had to haul all the water from the Chariton river. The first well in Chariton was dug in 1851, on what is known as the Smyth corner, but it only afforded a small pail of water each day, for drinking purposes, for five or six families.

The trains went on west and passed the Jake Wyant place. A Mr. John Mansfield, who lived out southwest of town, near what was known as Grave Hollow, told our folks that he had counted as many as two hundred wagons passing in a day, and this was in the spring of 1851, and in 1852 there were still Mormons and gold seekers going trough in great numbers. This same Mr. Mansfield told me that Grave Hollow took its name from the fact a Mormon fell from an over crowded wagon broke his neck, and was buried there. (The victim actually was a woman, Sarah Gabbut).

I think that Mrs. J.A.J. Bentley ought to be able to give valuable information, and that Mr. Bentley no doubt knows where Grave Hollow is. I think Mr. Kendall's description in last week's Leader was very good.

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