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The Donner Party | Article

Call of the West

Old Mormon Trail, Colorado. 1908. Library of Congress

The promise of a fresh start in a wide open land. The opportunity to escape the oppression of overcrowded cities. The lure of undiscovered riches and the conceit of a Manifest Destiny. For legions of Americans in the mid-19th century, the call of the West could not be ignored. And so they came — saints and sinners, dreamers and schemers — to claim their place in the ever-expanding American landscape.

Incident in Nauvoo
The early followers of Joseph Smith, collectively known as the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, or Mormons, were no strangers to religious persecution. Local hostility and resentment had driven the believers from New York, Ohio, and Missouri before they settled for a time in Nauvoo, Illinois. It was in Nauvoo that events would conspire to urge the Mormons westward.

In June 1844, Joseph Smith and his brother Hyrum were killed by an angry Nauvoo mob. Smith had earlier speculated that Mormons would not be safe within the territories of the United States, and spoke of visions of a purer world beyond the confines of the Rocky Mountains. His followers, now led by Brigham Young, determined to follow Smith’s prophecy and migrate toward the West.

An Efficient Migration 
Having never ventured west of the Mississippi himself, Young was an unlikely candidate to lead such an expedition. Nevertheless, Young was able to coordinate the most superbly planned pioneer migration of the 19th century. Having read the writings of explorer John C. Fremont, Young surmised that the Great Salt Lake River valley might prove to be the haven he and his people were seeking. After consulting with mountain trappers and missionaries familiar with the territory, Young and 148 followers set out for Great Salt Lake in April 1847. The party followed a route that took them north of the well-traveled Oregon Trail in order to avoid encountering other groups. The migration was conducted with great efficiency, averaging twenty miles per day on what would come to be known as the Mormon Trail. In July, Young first set eyes upon the Great Salt Lake valley and declared that this was indeed the place for which he and the Mormons had been searching.

Transforming a Wasteland
The Mormons’ destination did not immediately prove to be the bountiful valley John Fremont had described. Instead of finding plentiful water and grass for cattle, the Mormons were confronted with a ragged sage-brush wasteland. Undeterred, the Mormons went on to construct the first community irrigation projects in America. Within a few years, 186 permanent communities sprang up, complete with over 1000 miles of canals to bring water to the formerly barren terrain.

The Mormons’ desire to live and practice their faith — including the highly controversial practice of polygamy — was sorely tested by the onslaught of westward travelers during the Gold Rush years of 1849-50. Yet the Mormon community turned the tide in their favor. They benefited economically from the traffic headed west and never lost the tenets of their faith.

Although critics quarreled with the Mormon lifestyle, few could deny the significance of what the group had accomplished. Armed with little more than an abiding faith, they tamed a brutal wilderness and made the West their own.

In Search of Freedom’s Promise
Soon after the Civil War, huge numbers of freed slaves left the South. Aided by societies established by their peers, these emigrants went north, west, and even to Africa, particularly to Liberia. Between the years 1879 and 1881, about 60,000 African Americans moved into Kansas and Oklahoma alone. One of the strongest reasons for the migration was the fear of white violence, which was a reality of Reconstruction life. But many African Americans simply sought economic opportunity, which they believed awaited them in Kansas.

For many African Americans, Kansas was held dear because of its role as a center of the abolitionist cause. Although many African Americans settled throughout the Great Plains, by the late 1870s, those still in the South saw Kansas as their last hope, and it became a major hub of settlement.

Crossing Hostile Territory
Migration out of the South was extremely difficult for many reasons. The violence that African Americans hoped to escape often awaited them when they attempted to leave; Southern whites did not want to lose cheap labor. The huge migration of 1879 was completely spontaneous and had neither leaders nor organization, so the huge numbers of emigrants often simply overwhelmed the communities in which they stopped. Of course, there were many areas which were overtly hostile to the emigrants — especially the old slave state of Missouri, which most had to cross on their way to Kansas.

Furthermore, most African Americans set out with scarcely enough resources to get themselves to their destinations. Many were forced to walk most, if not all, of the way.

African American Towns
A community called Baxter Springs in southeast Kansas was formed by Benjamin Singleton in 1875. Singleton became one of the best-known figures of the exodus movement, although many felt he was nothing more than a land promoter seeking economic gain. There were other scattered communities in the early years of the 1870s, but one of the most successful and long-lasting of the African-American colonies was Nicodemus, in northwestern Kansas.

The first group to settle Nicodemus consisted of about 350 settlers, who arrived late in the autumn of 1877 and wintered over. In the spring they began to work the land and managed to plant a crop despite being short-handed and lacking sufficient farm equipment. About 150 more emigrants arrived in the spring. Within a year of the first settlement, a Baptist church had been built, and by 1880 about 800 citizens were thriving in Nicodemus. Nicodemus was a successful community for many years, but eventually went into decline — like so many rural farming towns. It failed, in the end, because it didn’t have access to a railroad, and because the prairie was difficult to farm. Yet before Nicodemus was established, there had been fewer than 1000 African Americans in Kansas; by 1880 there were 50,000. Descendants of the original settlers still own land in the town.

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