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

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

"To know how many died, you need to know who died, you need to know the names," Bashore said. "A lot of people think we know every person who crossed the Plains. We don't. We do for those who crossed the ocean on ships and then headed out on the Plains."

Of the 270 or so Mormon pioneer companies, one-third left comprehensive rosters, one-third left partial rosters and one-third left absolutely no lists. Bashore thinks company clerks often arrived in Utah and moved with their companies to settle outlying parts of the region before turning in their rosters.

He said one old Deseret News report told the story of an express rider carrying rosters to Salt Lake City. One night while he was camped out, Bashore said, "a big wind blew all those rosters to the North Pole."

Causes of death

For two years, Tolley's students crunched the 56,000 pioneer records provided by Bashore, who retired a year ago. Together, the unusual team made several surprising discoveries.

"What was amazing was the great number of people under 20 who came across," Tolley said.

About 46 percent of the pioneers were younger than 20, and they traveled with a mortality rate of just 1.75 percent.

The gender ratio also was surprisingly even, with 26,615 females and 28,306 males. Interestingly, female pioneers had similar mortality rates to men, until age 60, after which women fared significantly better on the trail than men.

So what killed the pioneers? That remained mostly elusive, as records provided no cause for 80 percent of the deaths. But the No. 1 killer was cholera, which accounted for 40 percent of the deaths of those for whom a cause was listed.

Diarrhea and the general category of "sickness" come next, followed by those run over by wagons (19 deaths) and stampedes (16). More died from accidental shootings — six — than by Indians — four. Three died of lightning strikes and two were eaten by wolves.

Only four women are listed as dying in childbirth, and three infants died at birth. Tolley speculated that some pioneer women carefully timed their departure on the trail so they and their babies were as strong as possible.

Student benefits

Smith, the actuarial science major who graduated from BYU in April, said his work on the study became a big part of his job interviews.

Smith, who is from Idaho, landed a position at The Hartford, one of America’s largest investment and insurance companies, in Hartford, Connecticut.

"I brought it up in all the interviews I had," he said. "All of the interviewers were intrigued by it. For one thing, most students don't get that type of experience in college. For another, they were just interested in the idea of looking at the pioneers from a different perspective, so they were interested in the historical part of it, especially comparing the pioneer event to the mortality rates of the time."

The students created a table to determine how much an insurance company should have charged for life insurance policies for the pioneers.

Smith said that for a family with a father in his 30s, a mother in her 20s and a child between the ages of 1 and 9, a one-year policy would have cost $116 in today's money for every $1,000 to be paid as a death benefit.

It's difficult to compare those numbers to today's rates because of the differences both in dollars and in today's mortality rate, which is .008.

That seemingly unusual application of statistics is typical of Tolley's career, however, as his research has ranged broadly. He's applied statistics to solving the mystery of why a Stradivarius sounds better than other violins (there is a significant difference in the 17th century wood related to the chemicals Stradivarius soaked it in for pest control), exploring for coal and understanding parasitic diseases. More recently, he's been working on the rapid detection of biological warfare agents and a device for efficient chemical analysis.

This time around, he and his students helped Bashore complete his research in a way that Bashore thinks could help change the perception of the Mormon pioneers.

"We have a skewed view of our pioneer experience," Bashore said. "I don't think we should view our Mormon pioneers as beleaguered, troubled, always suffering, sacrificing their lives. If you read the journals, you get a different picture. Many enjoyed it. They may not have enjoyed the mosquitos, the snakes, the dust, but many remembered the trek with fondness."

Email: twalch@deseretnews.com

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