Wagons, ho! Nauvoo to Salt Lake City one more time

Published: Tuesday, July 17 2012 6:41 p.m. MDT

Danny Van Fleet leads a handful of riders on horseback and three wagons as part in a re-enactment of the historic Mormon trek of 1847. They began five years ago and are closing in on Salt Lake City. Near Echo Canyon, Monday, July 16, 2012.

Derek Petersen, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — With the Days of ’47 rapidly approaching, a wagon train is closing in on Salt Lake City.

It's come all the way from Nauvoo, Ill., only the second time Brigham Young's historic trek of 1847 has been re-enacted.        

"Well, we have a few creeks to go through and some pretty rough territory to go over," said Glen Nelson of Atlantic, Iowa, as he drove his covered wagon from Wyoming into Utah.

Nelson has been on the wagon train since it departed from Nauvoo in 2008. Over the last five years, the re-enactors have trekked just a few weeks each summer. The wagon train is expected to enter the Salt Lake Valley on Friday.

Danny Van Fleet organized the expedition and said the hardships of the trail have taught many participants about the faith held by those who followed Brigham Young in 1847.

"Oh, yeah, if it wasn't for the spirit of this trail, probably nobody would finish this thing," Van Fleet said. "We had lost some people in the last couple years. It's not easy and some people just drop out."

With only three wagons left, and a score of riders on horseback, the effort is a far cry from the memorable re-enactment of 1996 and 1997.

On July 22, 1997, tens of thousands of cheering Utahns greeted more than 100 wagons as they emerged from Emigration Canyon. Participants then were stunned to see such large crowds waiting at This Is the Place Heritage Park. One woman riding in a covered wagon that day was overheard saying, "This is no longer our wagon train. This belongs to the people."

Van Fleet went the full distance 15 years ago and was so impressed that he had to do it again.

"I decided that sometime before I got too old, I'd retrace the Mormon Trail," Van Fleet said, "and pay a little more attention to the history of it."

In 1996, Van Fleet lived near Nauvoo but knew almost nothing about The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He got caught up in that first re-enactment and stayed with the wagon train all the way to Utah. Along the way, as the wagon train crossed Wyoming in 1997, Van Fleet decided to join the church and was baptized.

"It turned my life around," Van Fleet said. "I met a lot of nice people on that ride. I was needing a change in life and this was a nice fit."

After Van Fleet launched the new re-enactment in 2008, participation has varied each summer. When it began, there were 13 wagons. It peaked at 20 and has since fallen to three.

Many participants have gained a new appreciation for the original pioneers of 1847. "Seeing what they had to go through when they came out here," Nelson said, "and the hardships they had when they came out," the trek has been an eye-opener.

"It makes me appreciate the sacrifices and the endurance and the faith in every footstep," said Kristie Bennion of Bridger, Wyo., who's been on the trail each of the last three summers.

"I'm a descendant of 13 pioneer ancestors that crossed this trail," Bennion said. "And so it's a legacy trail for me."

She even gave the name "Legacy" to the purebred Arabian horse that carried her into Utah this week.

The five-year re-enactment will climax Friday at This Is the Place Heritage Park. It's a low-key affair compared to 1997, so no one is expecting to be greeted by cheering multitudes.

E-mail: hollenhorst@desnews.com

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