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Pioneering the Bear: Southeastern Idaho teems with early Mormon and emigrant history

By Ray Boren

For the Deseret News

Published: Thursday, Oct. 6 2011 5:00 a.m. MDT

Chesterfield, Idaho, is a ghost town, but it was a rural Mormon village around the turn of the 20th century in Idaho's Portneuf Valley. Well-preserved, through efforts of landowners and the Chesterfield Foundation, the town site is on the National Register of Historic Places.

Ray Boren,

MONTPELIER, Idaho — For centuries, the region where the Bear River wriggles north from the Uinta Mountains then turns south toward the Great Salt Lake has been a pathway and a crossroads.

Indians, trappers, explorers and emigrant wagon trains bound for Oregon and California passed this way. Today, the borders of Idaho, Wyoming and Utah meet here. Modern U.S. 30 makes a generally southeast to northwest diagonal slice through the landscape, following, with modern engineering variations, the Oregon Trail.

And for those interested in days of yore, this section of U.S. 30 makes a fine, and enlightening, day-trip (or longer).

Here, in the 19th century — as many a roadside historic marker records — Mormon pioneers established a few dozen hamlets. They settled in the Bear Lake Valley (Garden City, Paris, Montpelier, among others), along the Bear River (Cokeville, Georgetown and Soda Springs) and in the adjacent Portneuf Valley (Chesterfield, etc.).

A tall placard beside a park in Georgetown, Idaho, records that the spot was originally known as Twin Creeks. Mormon leader Brigham Young wanted to send families north from Salt Lake City, so "Joseph C. Rich surveyed the site in 1871. In 1872, the new settlement was named Georgetown in honor of George Q. Cannon."

Notes another sign, in Cokeville, Wyo.: "The Mormon Church sent the first permanent settlers to the area in 1874 to found a community. Sylvanus Collett and Robert Gee arrived with their families at the Smith's Fork River, soon to be followed by the John Bourne family."

When Mormon settlers — members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — proposed the massive State of Deseret in 1849, much of the area was included, for the proposed state's boundaries reached north to an unsurveyed border with the Territory of Oregon, which then included most of Idaho.

Maps of Deseret, which stretched from the Rocky Mountains in modern-day Colorado to the Sierras in California, show a bump north to the area of the Oregon Trail. The borderline flattened when Congress created Utah Territory in 1850.

Ultimately, territorial and state lines didn't matter much to Brigham Young and his followers. The State of Deseret was an idea. The mountain and valley province they proceeded to settle proved vast, as well, over time.

"Utah Territory, let it be remembered, did not contain all of the Mormon immigrants," historian Gustive O. Larson wrote in his 1947 book "Prelude to the Kingdom." "More than half of Idaho's population in 1890 were Latter-day Saints."

In fact, several towns have their own Daughters of Utah Pioneers relic hall, as is the case in Utah itself, often housed in an antique church building, such as a bishop's tithing office.

Montpelier, at the top of Bear Lake, settled in 1864 by Mormon pioneers led by Charles C. Rich, once had just such a hall. Today the DUP's collection is arrayed on the lower level of the Idaho community's National Oregon/California Trail Center.

In one corner a pioneer-style bed is covered with a pioneer-era quilt, a rocking chair nearby. Framed photographs of patriarchs like Brigham Young look on. The collection includes housewares, clothing, tools, books and keepsakes. On the same level of the museum are displays about the area's history, including its ties to the Oregon Trail (of course) and the railroads that succeeded the route.

Artwork notably includes an encyclopedic series of paintings about places along the Oregon Trail by Gary Stone, as well as a Western painting by renowned LDS artist Minerva Teichert, an area native. There are also photo and quilt displays. A docent-led "trek" through the emigrant experience and artifacts is one of the trail center's special attractions.

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