New study: Mormon pioneers were safer on trek than previously thought, especially infants

Published: Sunday, July 20 2014 11:05 p.m. MDT

A group of Mormon pioneers is shown at South Pass, Wyoming, about 1859.

Charles Roscoe Savage, Courtesy BYU

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PROVO — From 1847 to 1868, Mormon pioneer babies traveling across the Plains were safer — yes, more likely to live — than infants in the general U.S. population, according to a dynamic new study.

The infant mortality rate on the plains was 9 percent, while the general infant mortality rate in 1850 was above 15 percent.

"I think we have this misperception every July 24th" — the Pioneer Day holiday in Utah — "where we dwell on the suffering in the Willie and Martin handcart companies," said Mel Bashore, a retired LDS Church history librarian who fathered the study. "But I can't look at the Mormon Trail movement as really anything other than a success."

In fact, the report found the mortality rate for Mormon pioneers who crossed the plains was 3.5 percent, not much different from the 2.5-2.9 percent mortality rate of the general population in 1850.

"I always thought that people were dying left and right," said Aaron Smith, a BYU student who graduated in April after working on the research team. "But in reality, it wasn't much different than the general population. If you randomly select 100 people in America at that time, you'd expect 2.9 to die. If you randomly select 100 pioneers, you'd expect 3.5 to die. Crossing the Plains was more dangerous, but it was a small difference."

The Willie and Martin handcart companies suffered a mortality rate of 16.5 percent, the study found. The other eight handcart companies were far safer, with a mortality rate of 4.7. One handcart company had no deaths.

The research team can only speculate about why pioneer babies were safer than other American infants, but they found additional surprises about the male-female ratio among pioneers, the large number of pioneers who were younger than 20, and causes of death on the trail.

Unexpected help

BYU Studies agreed to publish Bashore's intense research into pioneer mortality rates, but only if he improved the statistical analysis. The project languished until a figurative cavalry arrived out of the blue in the form of BYU students studying how to set life insurance rates.

"Working on life insurance premium calculation can seem sort of boring to students," said Dennis Tolley, chairman of the BYU statistics department. "We were looking for a fun project of interest to the culture here that required actuarial statistics."

Eight students volunteered, and they contacted Bashore with an interesting question in mind related to their field of study.

"If you were an insurance company in Nauvoo and were issuing life insurance policies to pioneers leaving for Utah, how much would you charge?"

Bashore had the data the students needed, thanks to a five-year period during which he supervised LDS Church service missionaries as they combed through journals, diaries and pioneer company reports. They gathered extensive data on 56,000 pioneers, 1,900 of whom died on the trail or before the end of the calendar year in which they made the trek.

Bashore believes there were 10,000 more Mormon pioneers for whom no records exist.

Missing data

In some ways, the study is the product of 100 years of effort by church historians to gather information about pioneers and pioneer deaths — numbers that always proved elusive.

Bashore's involvement began during the 1997 sesquicentennial celebration of the first Mormon pioneers when an LDS Church magazine asked Bashore to write an article about the number of pioneers who died on the trail.

He wrote the article, but remained haunted by a feeling that the numbers in it weren't accurate enough.

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