I always thought that people were dying left and right. 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. —Aaron Smith
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.
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.
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.
"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.
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.75 comments on this story
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."