ST. LOUIS — Every Wednesday afternoon, 91-year-old Katherine Kercher dons a vintage skirt and joins her neighbor Lois Roos to tell the Mormon pioneer migration story at the city’s Museum of Western Expansion . To authenticate her pioneering stories, Katherine wears the skirt and shawl her own grandmother wore when she crossed the plains in the 1850s.
“When Katherine tells her family stories, the whole pioneer history comes to life,” explains Roos. “The young children and their parents see what they could and could not take in their wagons, what kind of games they played or what food they ate. It’s not really us talking; we’re the representatives of our ancestors.”
Another Mormon volunteer at the museum, Gary Pedersen, reminds visitors “they are all part of someone’s history, but the history of the westward movement was based on the basic staples — beans, bacon, biscuits and butter.” Pedersen, in his presentations, engages the crowd with harmonica music, a butter churn and a buffalo chip (explaining that children collected chips as fuel for campfires).
The Mormon story is a recent addition to the museum inventory, an inventory that covers the explorations and settlements of the western frontier in the 1800s. The museum is located below the famed Gateway Arch — a St. Louis landmark that symbolizes the reach to the western lands — and details expeditions of Lewis and Clark, adventures of the mountain men, and the sagas of the American Indians.
“We used the Mormon migration story to expand our museum,” explains Rick Ziino, superintendent of programs and operations for the St. Louis facility. “The church volunteers really help us to get people looking back; they put them in the mind-frame of the pioneers.”
St. Louis claims an important place in Mormon emigration history as a stopover for thousands of weary travelers bound for the settlement in Nauvoo , Illinois . It continued to function as such in the years following as Mormon wagon trains headed to the West.
“A stop in St. Louis was an economic necessity for many of the early Saints [members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints],” says Fred Woods, Brigham Young University professor of Church history. “Hundreds of the early travelers stopped there to regroup, to replenish their funds or to outfit wagons for their journeys west.”
The Missouri Republican newspaper, in 1851, noted that “our city is the greatest recruiting point for Mormon emigrants from England and the Eastern States, and the former especially, whose funds generally become exhausted by the time they reach it, generally stop here for several months, and not infrequently remain among us for a year or two pending the resumption on their journey to Salt Lake.”
In 1854, with a concentration of nearly 3,000 members, a Latter-day Saint stake was organized in St. Louis , the first to be organized beyond the Salt Lake region after the Mormons’ exodus from Illinois . At about the same time, a local Church newspaper, the St. Louis Luminary , described the city as “a fine, large and flourishing city that has furnished employment to many hundreds and thousands of our brethren who have here in a short time made a good outfit for the gathering place of the Saints.”
Mormons gathering to the West found ready access to necessary supplies in St. Louis .
Brigham Young, the pioneering leader of the Church for more than 40 years, assigned emigration agents to major port cities in an effort to aid the colonizers in their travels. St. Louis was among those cities staffed by a full-time emigration aide. The St. Louis Luminary noted, in 1855, that St. Louis “supplies the Utah markets yearly with nearly all the merchandise required; there is probably no city in the world where the Latter-day Saints are more respected and where they may sooner obtain an outfit for Utah, than in this city.”
An unknown number of pioneering Mormons passed through St. Louis on their journeys west, some staying longer than others, but all moving forward under the direction of Brigham Young, the heralded colonizer of the Utah Territory .
Under Young’s leadership, the gathering members from many parts of the world pioneered 350 settlements in the West. “His main success,” according to Richard L. Jensen, a former professor of church history at Brigham Young University , “was to gather together converts of diverse backgrounds to form remarkably harmonious communities.”
July 24 is a state holiday in Utah marking the day Mormon pioneers arrived in the Salt Lake Valley in 1847. The anniversary is also celebrated by Latter-day Saints worldwide, although church members in other areas often focus on the Latter-day Saint pioneers in their own part of the world.
This article was prepared by the LDS Newsroom at lds.org.