Pioneer trail database
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When Mel Bashore hired on with the Church History Department in 1975, "strictly tasked to create finding aids for research," he noticed a deficiency that he set about to correct. Now, 30 years later, a national historic trails association has honored Brother Bashore for the database he launched in that pre-Internet age and has built up over the years into a convenient, on-line resource.
"I would see people come into the library, and I estimate about a third of the people coming in were interested in that pioneer experience of their ancestors, and we had nothing, really, to help them," Brother Bashore reflected in a recent interview.
An old index created by the Church Historian's Office around the turn of the century was error-ridden and relied too much on secondary sources, Brother Bashore said. "For example, there's an entry in there that someone came in the '1847 Brigham Young handcart company.' Handcarts in '47? That's 10 years before they did come!
"So I really thought, with so many people coming to the library, we needed to do better, and this thing sort of grew over the years."
It's not just Church History Library patrons who have benefitted, nor is it strictly Latter-day Saints. This is evidenced by the Distinguished Service Award given Aug. 11 to Brother Bashore by the Oregon-California Trails Association.
As noted in the association's Fall 2010 newsletter, the Mormon Pioneer Overland Travel Database that Brother Bashore envisioned and coordinated is today "the most complete listing of Mormon pioneer emigrants and companies who traveled to Utah from 1847 through 1868. It indexes over 350 known emigrating companies, lists rosters for each company, provides excerpts from trail narratives, includes photographs of company captains and allows individuals to submit changes or additions."
Containing more than 50,000 emigrant names, the database provides full-text transcriptions of nearly 3,200 Mormon Trail narratives — diaries, recollections, correspondence and newspaper reports.
One obvious reason for the association's interest in the database is that the Mormon, Oregon and California trails coincide in some portions.
"One of those parts goes right by our Martin's Cove," Brother Bashore said, referring to the site near present-day Alcova, Wyo., where members of the ill-fated Martin Handcart Company camped awaiting rescuers from Salt Lake City.
The respective trails "all sort of funnel in at that Sweetwater Valley area to a single trail," Brother Bashore said. "There are other parts in the beginning where they jump off at different locations. But for a good part of that section passing Independence Rock, Devil's Gate, right along through there, it's just a single trail."
Much of the shared interest comes from the fact that many Mormon trail diaries and other documents will mention non-Mormon companies and vice versa, he said.
As the database has grown over the years, technology has emerged to facilitate it.
Taking guidance from Perpetual Emigration Fund records, Brother Bashore began by systematically going through the Church History Department's archival collection, examining handwritten and published diaries and reminiscences, endeavoring to identify what traveling company a pioneer may have been part of and what ship he or she may have sailed on to come to the United States. The earliest product was simply a bibliography. It was the late 1980s, and personal computers were in their infancy, so the bibliography was produced in hard copy.
As computers became more sophisticated, missionary volunteers with the Church History Department began to load names into a spreadsheet initially and later a database.
Brother Bashore has found that rosters of ship passengers are generally complete, but not so with the overland companies. Only about a third of the companies that came to the Salt Lake Valley before the coming of the railroad in 1869 have complete rosters. Another third or so have partial listings.
"And then for a third, maybe 80-plus companies, we have no roster at all," he said. "So our first course of business was to create an index to those companies that we did have rosters for," Brother Bashore said. "Now, we're trying to add people to the database who we know came to Utah, either from a census or some other source, and we're trying to identify which year. We probably can't ever identify which company, but we add them to the database."
In many cases, the time period of an immigrant's arrival can be pinned down to a span of time, say, 1855-57.
It helps, of course, when members of the public contribute.
"Every diary adds new information," Brother Bashore said. "Every journey across the plains was unique. Everybody had different experiences, and these unique journals help us know the details of what happened in crossing the plains."
Occasionally, someone will deposit a new trail journal with the Church History Library. More often, users of the database will submit information online. Meanwhile the project keeps growing, in content and availability.
Typical is the experience of a Church News reporter who accessed the database at its website, Mormon Pioneer Overland Travel Database. Typing in the first and last name of his Mormon pioneer ancestor who immigrated from Sweden, the reporter found that the ancestor came to Utah in 1861 with the Samuel A. Woolley company. Clicking on the link for the Woolley company yielded the information that 338 individuals and 61 wagons were in the company. Further links took the user to an alphabetical listing of individuals in the company (including the ancestor's wife and two young children) and to a list of sources for more information about the company, including several diary excerpts.
"In doing genealogy, who would think to look at a trail journal for information?" Brother Bashore remarked. "But we're putting up very accurate information now, based on primary sources that we have here in the Church History Library."