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Mortality rate of Utah pioneers matched national average, study says

By Faith Heaton Jolley, | Posted - Jul 22nd, 2014 @ 8:04pm

SALT LAKE CITY — With Pioneer Day around the corner, many Utahns are honoring their ancestors who traveled to Salt Lake City by handcart or wagon. While many of these pioneers died on the journey, a new study shows their mortality rate was not much greater than national averages at the time.

The study, released by Brigham Young University, analyzed 56,000 pioneer records from 1847 to 1868. Of the 56,000, an estimated 1,900 people died on the plains or within the calendar year, creating a 3.5 percent mortality rate, according to the study. However, the national comparison group of U.S. citizens had an annual mortality rate between 2.5 percent and 2.9 percent in 1850.

Researchers involved in the study found the pioneers' mode of travel proved to be a major factor in the mortality rate. The majority who traveled to Utah by wagon had a 3.5 percent mortality rate, but the 3,000 pioneers who traveled by handcart had a much higher mortality rate, with the 1,000 in the Willie and Martin companies suffering a 16.5 percent rate, according to the study.

The frequent telling of the ill-fated Willie and Martin handcart stories lead many Utahns to believe that the handcart experience and high mortality rate was the norm, [according to a BYU news release.]( pioneer.aspx) However, the study reported only 5 percent of LDS immigrants traveled to Utah by handcart, and excluding the Willie and Martin companies, the handcart pioneers experienced a 4.7 percent mortality rate on average.

Retired historian Mel Bashore helped researchers analyze the data for the study. He said the statistics might clarify the misconception that the majority of pioneers died.

“The (LDS) youth go out and learn that a lot of people died and they push the handcart (during re-enactment treks), and after three days, they think they are practically dead,” Bashore said in a BYU news release. “But, most people traveled in wagons to Utah. The whole Mormon trail movement that spanned 20 years was a really successful endeavor.”

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