Wednesday, June 22, 2005

Rocks of ages: The Mormon Trace

This boulder with commemorative panel was placed during 1917 by the Daughters of the American Revolution at the first curve of the Blue Grass Road just south of Chariton. It marks the approximate location of the first permanent dwelling in Lucas County, along the Mormon Trace at a place called Chariton Point where Latter-day Saints families during 1846 made the first settlement by non-Native Americans in Lucas County.

I'm a sucker for Mormon shrines. The reconstructed temple at Nauvoo (glorious), Far West (wonderful), Garden Grove (chills just thinking about it), Mount Pisgah (wow!). Offer me a trek down the trail and I'll follow you anywhere.

I'm not sure why this is. Some of it's probably genetic, since I'm a member in good standing of an obscure and imaginary society dubbed "Almost-a-Mormon," and there are more of us in southern Iowa, especially in Monroe County, than you might think.

My ancestors William and Miriam (Trescott) Miller, converted in Ohio, trekked west with Joseph Smith to what now is Caldwell County, Missouri, but took a sharp left into southern Iowa when ornery Missourians chased the Saints out of there and most headed for Nauvoo on the Illinois banks of the Mississippi downstream from Fort Madison and upstream from Keokuk.

Uncle George Miller, brother to William, is credited by some with converting Sidney Rigdon, a major figure in early Mormon history, by convincing him (with aid from George's brother-in-law, Robert Rathbun) of the veracity of The Book of Mormon). George went back to Ohio after getting chased out of Missouri, but eventually ended up in Monroe County, too.

Once parked in Monroe County with a substantial contingent of other ex-Saints dubbed by some of their snooty neighbors "the hairy nation," the Millers wandered off spiritually into their original Baptist as well as the Brethren and Disciples of Christ folds, thus missing the Latter-day Saints boat.

So that's part of it.

Another part certainly is the fact that all Lucas Countyans grow up and live astraddle the Mormon Trace, a route used by a majority of the Saints as they headed for Utah commencing in early 1846 after being chased out of Nauvoo by the good people of Illinois.

This is the panel on the Blue Grass boulder just southeast of Chariton commemorating Chariton Point, where Mormon pioneers wintered during 1846-47.

The Mormon Trace doesn't get the respect it deserves, however, always coming in second in the hearts and minds of Mormon historians to what's called the Pioneer Trail, even though far more of their biological and spiritual forbears traversed the trace than the trail.

Here's what happened. When Brigham Young led the first band of Saints out of southeast Iowa during early 1846, he followed rough trails to about where Drakesville now is located, northwest of Bloomfield, then veered southwest through Appanoose County almost to the Missouri line before heading west through southern Wayne County, then gradually northwest to Garden Grove, in Decatur County, where hundreds of men labored as summer approached to establish the first way station for pioneers who would follow them.

This is now called the Pioneer Trail, rich in sentiment. Brigham Young trod it. William Clayon penned the great LDS anthem, "Come, Come Ye Saints," while camped along it southeast of Corydon.

But Young realized immediately that the trail he blazed was too rough and the river and stream crossings too difficult for further use. So he sent couriers back from Garden Grove, warning Saints who followed to take a more northerly route up the great prairie divide that bisects Lucas County.

And so from late spring 1846 onward, thousands of Mormon pioneers continued west from Drakesville through the current general locations of Unionville, Moravia and Iconium to a point just west of Iconium (in Appanoose County) called Dodge's Point.

From there, skirting the north banks of the Chariton River, the pioneers nicked Monroe County's southwest corner before passing into what now is Washington Township, Lucas County. The trail meandered up through the general sites of Greenville and Russell, then followed the course of what now is known as the Blue Grass Road past Salem Cemetery to the area just southeast of Chariton along the wooded east flank of a place called Chariton Point.

Chariton Point is called that because the Chariton River, rising in Clarke County to the southwest, flows northeasterly to the current location of Chariton, comes to a point, then turns sharply southeast along the wooded bluffs where many of those early Saints paused to rest.

The trains then continued up and around Chariton Point through what now is Chariton, then off southwest past Goshen and Last Chance until finally reaching the approximate site of Smyrna Friends Cemetery in Clarke County where it branched south to the way station at Garden Grove or west-northwest to a newer and larger way station at Mount Pisgah.

Many thousands of Saints passed through Chariton during the years 1846-49 before a fairly easy Chariton River crossing was discovered during 1849 southwest of Dodge's Point (a crossing now under the waters of Lake Rathbun). That crossing allowed the Saints to cut straight across northern Wayne County to Garden Grove, so use of the Lucas County trail diminished as the final Mormons of the great initial exodus headed west. It continued, however, to be an important route for other pioneers for many years to come.

This is the Mormon Trace interpretive marker on the shore of Lake Rathbun commemorating the shortcut that beginning in 1849 supplanted the Trace route through Lucas County that had served thousands of Saints.

This portion of the panel explains how the shortcut was discovered and the impact it had on the last of the initial wave of Saints moving through Iowa toward Utah.

The second portion of this panel section is a first-hand account of the discovery of the shortcut and the blazing of a more direct route to Garden Grove.


Two giant boulders erected during 1917 by the Daughters of the American Revolution can be found along the trace in Lucas County. The first is located at the first curve of the Blue Grass Road just south of Chariton. It marks the general location of William "Buck" Townsend's log house, built on a claim that was among several pre-empted along the eastern flank of Chariton Point (the actual bend in the river is out of sight over the horizon to the west) by the first Mormons to reach here.

Perhaps as many as 30 people, including members of Elder Freeman Nickerson's extended family, wintered near here but right down alongside the river during 1846-47, then remained for some time thereafter to build log shanties on the prairie edge above the riverbend before moving on toward Utah. This was the first almost-permanent settlement in Lucas County by non-native Americans. Elder Freeman and a grandson died there during that winter and probably were the first to be buried in what now is called Douglass Pioneer Cemetery.

This boulder, placed by the Daughters of the American Revolution in the courthouse square during 1917, commemorates the location of Chariton along the Momon Trace during 1949.

The other boulder, supplemented by an informative LDS panel, is located in the southwest corner of the courhouse lawn, and marks the spot where Chariton was organized along the trail during 1849.

This is the memorial panel on the courthouse square boulder, noting the place where the city of Chariton was founded along the Mormon Trace during 1849.

The LDS commemorative panel near the DAR marker in Chariton's courthouse square provides the following general information: "Beginning in February of 1846, the vanguard of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (the Mormons) struggled across southern Iowa on the way to their "New Zion" in the Rocky Mountains.

"The trek from Nauvoo, Illinois, to Kanesville (Council Bluffs), Iowa, tested the endurance of humans, animals, and equipment. The frozen landscape of an Iowa February soon turned into a thawing mixture of nearly impassable mud and muck. Their unshakable faith and determination sustained them, however, and thousands of men, women, and children arrived at the Missouri River, having completed this first portion of the journey west under extremely difficult conditions.

"After wintering in the present-day Omaha/Council Bluffs district, the Saints continued across Nebraska and Wyoming to the Valley of the Great Salt Lake. Today, a marked 1,624 mile long auto tour route closely parallels this historic route."

This section of the LDS commemorative panel in the courthouse square tells first-hand the story of how Grave Hollow, located just southwest of Chariton, got its name. Click on this and read it for yourself. Printed on the panel near it is this more general description of the event:

"Tragedy along the Trace: West of the city of Chariton, one of the scenic roads of Lucas County passes down through an area known as Grave Hollow, a declivity between the wooded hills, gradually sloping down to the Whitebreast River (actually Whitebreast Creek). Grave Hollow came by its name through an unfortunate accident.

"A family named Gabbut was making the long trek along the Northern Trace of the Mormon Trail in October 1846. After crossing the Chariton River, Sarah Gabbut tried to get back into her wagon but slipped and fell. Startled, the oxen bolted and the heavy wagon ran over her abdomen. She lingered for an hour and then died. The company carried her body until the end of the day's travel and buried her at their camp in Grave Hollow.

"Accidents with wagons and stock were common along the trail. Such events were usually not fatal for pioneer families, but they did cause many unfortunate injuries during the trek west."  
These rocks have been around so long and are so familiar, I'm not sure Lucas Countyans even see them anymore. But they are permanent reminders of the days when Lucas County's prairies were abloom this time of year as they rolled off toward the endless horizon, wolves still traversed the wooded creek valleys and trains of prairie schooners sailing west day after day were as common a sight as the coal trains that now roar along the Burlington Northern & Santa Fe tracks that parallel the trace in Benton Township.


The other Trace-related marker at Chariton is an interpretive panel, canted so that you look up from it toward the southwest,  located south of the frontage road north of U.S. Highway 34, just in front of the Indian Hills Community College Chariton center. If it weren't for Highway 34, the Burlington Northern & Santa Fe railroad tracks and various Chariton Industrial Park buildings, you'd be able to see the Blue Grass Road, just the other side of the railroad tracks, as it angles northwesterly into Chariton. And that's the point, since this panel provides a good, concise explanation of the role the Mormon Trace played in the great movement of Latter-day Saints pioneers through south central Iowa to Utah.

This LDS interpretive panel is located in southeast Chariton, south of the frontage road north of U.S. Highway 34 and in front of the Indian Hills Community College Chariton center.

This portion of the LDS interpretive panel explains the role of the Lucas County route in the westward movement of Mormon pioneers. Click on the image and it will enlarge, or read the text here:

"The high ridge that is visible beyond this panel was heavily traveled by Mormon Pioneers starting in June of 1846. The southern route, used by Brigham Young's Pioneer Party, was soon abandoned for the more easily navigated Northern Trace. This route carried thousands of Mormons westward.

"The ridge they traveled separates the tributaries of the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers. The courthouse, which is on the horizon to your right, sits directly on top of this ridge. Water east of the courhouse flows into the Mississippi, and water west of the courthouse flows into the Missouri.

"The Northern Trace proved an easier route for the Mormon Pioneers to travel, but there was also another reason for staying north. Rumors of resurfacing hostilities with Missourians made the southern Pioneer route along the Missouri border appear somewhat risky. As the area developed, more roads and trails sprang up along the Northern Trace which the Mormons continued to use."


I'm referring consistently here to the route through Lucas County as the Mormon Trace (rather than Mormon Trail) --- to avoid having Henry Gittinger come back and haunt me.

 Henry was a long-time Lucas County newspaper editor and publisher, first prior to the turn of the 20th century in Russell and then in Chariton, and a local historian to boot. His ancestors were among the first to settle down around Greenville (on the Trace) in Washington Township, so he felt that he had a somewhat proprietary interest in it.

Anyway, when the Iowa Daughters of the American Revolution memorials were placed during 1917, Henry was extremely miffed that they referred to the route as "Trail" rather than "Trace." He carried on and on about this in print and even tracked down and scolded Edgar R. Harlan, of the Historical Department of Iowa, who practically single-handedly first traced the Mormon route from Nauvoo and Kanesville (Countil Bluffs), for careless nomenclature. Henry's contention was that both the Mormon emigrants and the permanent settlers who followed them referred to the route as "Trace," not "Trail," and that to use the term "Trail" was inaccurate historically.

Well, Henry may have been right --- even Harlan acknowledged it. So in the interest of Henry's eternal rest, "Trace" it is.

It's also interesting to note that Harlan's tracking of the Mormon route entirely eliminated what now is known as the Mormon Pioneer Trail --- the briefly-used route blazed by Brigham Young through southern Wayne County to Garden Grove. When, during the 1930s, the state decided to mark the Pioneer Trail route at the expense of the route through Lucas County, Henry --- although quite elderly by that time --- was off and fuming again.

And I certainly sympathize. The Lucas County route doesn't get the respect it deserves. But it's very hard to compete with ground that Brigham Young, William Clayton, Lorenzo Snow and others had trod, even if relatively few Saints followed them down that particular branch of the "Trace."

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