Growing up a devout Mormon, Ted Demars always knew his family descended from pioneer stock.
But he didn’t have an inkling of what that really meant until now. This week he is sampling the journey his ancestors made 150 years ago to find a home for the Church of Jesus Christ Latter-day Saints.
In 1846, church elder Brigham Young and his followers fled mobs and persecution in Nauvoo, Ill. They wintered in Nebraska and set out across the Rocky Mountains in 1847.
Upon seeing the Valley of the Great Salt Lake, Young declared it to be the new home of the Latter-day Saints.
Within weeks of settling, Young sent missionaries back East and to Europe with hopes of gaining more converts to come West.
During the next 22 years, 70,000 Mormons followed Young to Salt Lake in what is now described as the Great Migration. They rode on horses and in wagons, driving cattle and other livestock. Later, the most destitute walked, pulling their babies and provisions in handcarts. They left 6,000 buried in shallow graves along the trail.
Today, the Great Migration is to Mormons what the Exodus is to Jews: the story of God’s faithfulness to the promise to deliver a persecuted people. The migration ended with the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad in 1869.
This year, thousands of families are re-enacting the migration to commemorate the 150th anniversary of Young’s descent into the Valley. The historical trip was chronicled in thousands of journals, a practice common among Mormons.
I was six or seven thousand miles from my native land, in a wild, rocky mountain country in destitute condition, the ground covered with snow, the waters covered with ice and I with three fatherless children. I will not attempt to describe my feelings under such excruciating conditions.
— Elizabeth Horrocks Jackson Kingford, 1856.
Demars decided last October that he and his family would join the trek. He had raised mules and horses at his State Line, Idaho, ranch for years, but had never driven a team. He didn’t own a wagon.
“I wasn’t too excited about it,” said his wife, Jean Demars, who is in charge of preparing breakfast and dinner for the 14 people in their party. “It’s a lot like a camping trip for us.”
Jean Demars, mother of 11 children, has been a good sport about the trip. She sewed period costumes. She even made a lightweight leather vest at her husband’s request.
Ted Demars drove to Kentucky earlier this year to buy a wagon and tow it back to Spokane.
The Demars family will join the migration today in Casper, Wyo. They will follow the Sweetwater River for 75 miles to Martin’s Cove, some 700 miles from Salt Lake City. It is one of the darkest locations in the history of the trail.
In November 1856, several hundred members of the Martin hand cart company hit a snowstorm along the Sweetwater. They were weak and many already had died. They turned off into a spot later named Martin’s Cove, where they sought shelter from the storm. Without provisions, most of the members of the company assumed that campsite would become their grave as well.
Horsemen traveling west on the trail delivered word to Salt Lake that the Martin company was in desperate peril. Brigham Young immediately urged church members to mount a rescue party. His words became the foundations of the church’s extensive welfare program.
“I will tell you all that your profession of religion will never save one soul of you in the Celestial Kingdom of our God, unless you carry out just such principles as I am teaching you now,” he said. “To bring in those people now on the plains.”
The bottom of the Sweetwater was lined with wagon tires, chains and other irons. And fresh graves could be seen in all directions.
- Samuel Kendall Gifford, who rode out to help the Martin company in 1856.
Demars looks with pride on his brood - 11 children, half of them grown, all of them firmly planted in the faith.
He knows it is an accomplishment he and his wife should be proud of. At least one wayward child is common for large Mormon families.
“We believe in our church that family is the hub of our existence,” he said. “We believe that families can be united together eternally.”
For that reason, he said it is important to understand what their ancestors endured.
The Demars have been poring over family journals focusing on ancestors who migrated to Salt Lake City. Jean Demars’ great-grandparents, the Nebekers, were among the second wave of pioneers after Brigham Young, setting out from Omaha on June 17, 1847, and arriving in Salt Lake Sept. 29.
Ted Demars’ great-grandmother was among the last to make the journey, converting to the faith in Scotland, emigrating to New York and eventually joining a wagon train that arrived in the Salt Lake Valley in November 1864.
Demars hopes the modern-day wagon trip will help shape his children for a lifetime.
“By reminding them of the sacrifice they made for their beliefs in Jesus Christ, this will help them mold their lives,” he said. “It’s kind of like telling them, ‘Here’s what’s expected of you. You have these traditions to carry on.”’
Demars wants his children to learn to rely on their faith when they meet with pain and grief in life. He said he has.
While loading a mule into a trailer earlier this year, the animal balked and fell on his leg, shattering the knee and the leg bones.
Following surgery, the pain was immense. But he never considered canceling the trip.
“Pain and suffering is something we sometimes feel we can’t go through,” he said. “That’s when our ancestors and relatives can really teach us a lesson.”
Before we left Iowa my dear Mother had given birth to a son Peter. She was naturally weak with the care of a nursing baby and five other children. Father was weak from want of food, having denied himself for us. The terrible strain of the journey was too much for him and one night, near the Sweetwater, he passed quietly away at the age of 35. Our little brother Peter died the same night. They built a fire to thaw the ground so that a grave could be dug, then with my baby brother clasped in his arms, they wrapped him in a blanket and laid him tenderly away. My darling Mother had to take up the journey alone with us five children.
- Mary Lawson Kirkman, 1856.
After the Demars leave Martin’s Cove, they will drive to Provo, Utah, where they will drop off their son Todd, 19, at Missionary Training School. He will be gone for more than two years, a rite of passage for most Mormon men.
It will be a bittersweet moment for his mother. He is her fourth child to go on a mission to a foreign land. Each time it’s gotten easier to let go. Still, the urge remains to grab the child, run to the car and speed home to safety. And she represses it.
“There’s a lot to focus on,” she said. “He’ll be able to learn and deepen his own faith and gain a stronger testimony of things he believes in.
“I guess that’s what this whole trip is about.”
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color Photo; Graphic: Faithful trail
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