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New Pioneer Mortality Rates Put Trek Deaths in Perspective

Harold B. Lee Library
A group of Mormon pioneers at South Pass, Wyoming, circa 1859. Photo by Charles Roscoe Savage

Every year on Pioneer Day, we hear about the hardships and sacrifices made by Utah’s early Mormon settlers. But a new study from Brigham Young University shows most of those who made the trek arrived in good shape. 

Statistics professor Dennis Tolley wanted his students to work on an actuarial problem, like an insurance company calculating its rates. So he turned to a database compiled by the LDS church on Utah’s pioneer handcart companies and wagon trains.

Mal Bashore, a retired historian who’s worked with that data, says about 60 thousand people crossed the plains from 1848 to 1868, and about 1,900 of them died from exposure, accidents and disease. There were even a couple who were eaten by wolves.

“Those things did happen, and for those 1,900 people, they paid the ultimate sacrifice," Bashore says. "But for the bulk of people who started across the plains, they got here.”

Tolley’s class calculated a mortality rate of 3.5 percent for the Mormon pioneers, somewhat higher than the overall rate of 2.9 percent for the United States as a whole in 1850.

Tolley says the most common cause of death along the trail was a disease common in 19th Century America.

“One thing that was a surprise to me is that there are two wagon trains that left that had cholera in them," Tolley says. "They didn’t know at that time, and they had mortality rates up to 20 percent. They actually had a higher mortality rate than the Willey and Martin handcart company.”

The oldest of the pioneers was a 94-year-old woman who died before reaching Utah. But almost half the pioneers were under the age of 20 when they made the trek, and their mortality rate was much lower than the general population at the time.

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