Keepapitchinin, the Mormon History blog » Guest Post: “Down and Back” Immigrant Companies

Guest Post: “Down and Back” Immigrant Companies

By: Kevin Folkman - September 13, 2010

Companies of immigrant converts traveling to Utah prior to the completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1869 had many experiences in common. They had to get to the embarkation points in Iowa, Missouri, and Nebraska; they were met by immigration agents who helped them overcome obstacles in preparations for the journey; and then all had to endure the seemingly endless overland trek, subject to storms, heat, dust, hunger, sickness, and even death.

Immigration, though, from the standpoint of church leaders in Salt Lake City, was a constantly evolving physical and financial challenge to accommodate an ever increasing number of new Saints. The initial companies of the late 1840s had to be very self sufficient. It took time for Brigham Young to work out the best way to move the hundreds, then thousands, of Great Basin-bound church members and new converts. The Perpetual Emigrating Fund (PEF) is pretty well documented and known. Less is generally understood about arguably the most successful pre-railroad immigration plan, the down and back companies.

A combination of factors played a part in the evolution of expediting the westward migration in the late 1850s. It became obvious after the handcart experiences of 1856 and 1857 that while relatively inexpensive, the hardship and human toll of hauling handcarts 1500 miles across the Great Plains and the Rocky Mountains was not worth the savings. Also, the Utah War stopped all immigration in 1858, and sharply curtailed the number of companies in 1859.

Even during the 1850s, many companies of both wagons and handcarts had to be sent relief supplies as they crossed Wyoming, as the food that could be carried dwindled and the late season weather slowed the final stages of the overland journey. By 1859, President Young and other church leaders knew that the handcart companies could not continue, and a new plan was put in place to assist immigrants.

Short of hard cash, the church nevertheless had a surplus of livestock and experienced teamsters. It was decided that starting in 1861 complete wagon trains would leave the Salt Lake Valley in April, arriving at the terminus of the railroads in Nebraska in June or July, and carry the westbound Saints back to the Valley before winter set in. Communities and wards were given assignments to provide teams, wagons, and men to drive them. Those donating the outfits or providing their service as teamsters were given tithing credit for their time and labor, rather than being paid in cash.

The first set of wagons left for Nebraska April 23rd, 1861, consisting of 200 wagons, some 260 men, and some 2,200 oxen. They carried with them 150,000 pounds of flour and other non-perishable provisions. Preparations had been hard under way, and the teams and teamsters gathering, when just two days earlier, word of the fall of Fort Sumter arrived in Salt Lake City, heralding the start of the Civil War.

Under the shadow of impending war, Missouri’s status as a border state and potential battlefield created unanticipated problems that had to be dealt with as the train pushed east. In Nebraska and elsewhere, immigration agents suddenly were faced with the prospect of bridges being burned, possible predation by partisan raiders, railroad interruptions, and a sudden shortage of supplies and the basic tools of immigration. Saints were already in transit from England and Denmark, with a large contingent of converts from Pennsylvania.

Jacob Gates, the immigration agent in charge at Florence, Nebraska, where the railroad ended that year, scrambled to set up a camp to accommodate some three thousand anticipated immigrants, the first arriving in late May. The first company started west almost immediately, some buying their own wagons, others using wagons provided by Gates. More Saints arrived over the next six weeks, eventually numbering 2,500 in camp by July 2nd. Elder Lorenzo Snow had estimated some 300 wagons would be needed. Ultimately, almost 600 were bought locally, came west with some of the immigrants themselves, or came overland from the Salt Lake Valley. Probably due to the threat of war, up to an additional one thousand church members made their way to Nebraska unanticipated by the agents or church leaders.

Approximately four thousand men, women, and children made up the companies of 1861, and all companies were able to escape the most direct consequences of the expanding Civil War. By late summer, most railroad routes that crossed Missouri had interruptions due to bridge burnings or the tracks being torn up. Some trains were indiscriminately fired on by troops from both sides. All in all, it was an auspicious start to the Church’s new emigration program, and another example of the great role that emigration agents like W. C. Staines and Jacob Gates played in smoothing out the process for the Utah-bound emigrants.

The down and back companies suspended their operations for 1865, resumed again in 1866, were briefly interrupted in 1867, with a final year of service in 1868. The trips were quicker, sometimes taking as little as eight to ten weeks to cover the distance from eastern Nebraska to the Salt Lake Valley. With hard cash a limited commodity in Utah during these years, the church found itself rich instead in livestock and willing laborers. Often additional ox teams were herded east to be sold to help defray the costs of emigration, or to finance the purchase of manufactured goods and raw materials not available in Utah. Apostle David B. Haight’s grandfather, Horton D. Haight, captained four companies over the lifetime of the program. In 1866, his team of 60-plus wagons brought back only a handful of families, instead hauling wire, batteries, and other goods for the Deseret Telegraph.

In 1869, with the completion of the transcontinental railroad, wagons were no longer the preferred means of westward migration and the down and back companies ceased. During their eight-year duration, Leonard Arrington estimates that almost two thousand wagons and their drivers, carrying over a million pounds of flour and other food items, made the trip east to bring back over 20,000 immigrants to Utah. Compared to the ill-fated handcart experiment of the 1850s, the down and back companies provided more food, more security, and less of the physical challenges that plagued the handcart companies.

My own ancestors spanned this time frame. My father’s great-grandfather, Jorgen Christoffer Folkman, and grandfather Jens Peter Folkman, traveled in a company of handcart pioneers in 1857. The majority of the immigrants in that group came together from Denmark, and few spoke any English. The first captain of the company was a short tempered Scotsman who spoke no Danish, and communication problems created additional hardships and misunderstandings for the Danish converts. Part way across Nebraska, the company was overtaken by a group of returning missionaries from the Midwest, including Christian Christiansen, also a Dane and fluent in both English and Danish. At the request of the Danish Saints, Christiansen agreed to replace the original captain of the company, and while not without difficulties, the rest of the trip to Utah proceeded more smoothly. (This new captain Christiansen was not the artist C.C.A. Christensen, but by coincidence, C.C.A. was a member of this handcart company and wrote an extensive account of his journey.)

My paternal grandmother was the daughter of a young English convert, Charlotte Senior, who came with her family from England in 1869. On the transatlantic crossing, she met a returning missionary, Frederick King from Ogden, an English native, who had difficulty with seasickness and didn’t come up on deck until several days into the trip. They traveled together on the railroads in the first company of European saints to complete the entire crossing of the plains by train.

They renewed their acquaintance once in Utah, and married in 1871. In 1873, they traveled from Ogden to Arizona as part of Horton Haight’s unsuccessful first colonizing mission south of the Colorado River in Arizona, first having to purchase and outfit a covered wagon. Having missed the wagon crossing of the plains, they more than made up for the experience in the deserts of Arizona. That unsuccessful mission turned out to be somewhat of a “down and back” experience of their own.

[Sources: Leonard Arrington, Great Basin Kingdom, University of Nebraska Press, 1958, 205-211. All references to the down and back trains are from this source: William Hartley’s article in the September 1985 Ensign, and various journal accounts available on the Overland Travel Database.]



  1. Thanks for the review, Kev. Just like most things, we have the tendency to simplify the overland narrative and by doing so, we miss much of the richness.

    Comment by J. Stapley — September 13, 2010 @ 9:41 am

  2. Great stuff. Thanks for the info and links. I heard rumors that the flour and wheat they carried on the “out” portion of the journey was intended for sale in eastern markets. On the other hand, it seems the Utah settlers were always starving, so it doesn’t make much sense to haul food OUT of Utah…

    Comment by Clark — September 13, 2010 @ 10:09 am

  3. The down and back teamsters were really making a sacrifice in behalf of their brothers, weren’t they? I mean, being on the Plains all summer long meant they were not available to work their own (or fathers’) fields for an entire season, yet they had to eat all winter after they got back.

    Freighting food to sell in the east wouldn’t have made any sense. The cost of living in Utah was much higher than in the eastern states because the freight costs for everything that couldn’t be produced in Utah were so high. Hauling flour east, with the cost of freighting tacked on, would have made it far more expensive than food grown in the east. Utah flour wouldn’t have found a market. No, it was definitely intended to sustain the immigrants during the “back” part of the trail.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — September 13, 2010 @ 10:16 am

  4. Thanks for the comments. From what I’ve read of the overland experience, the diet was pretty much what you could make with flour and water, and whatever game could be shot by hunters along the way. Some additional foodstuffs were sometimes available at the embarkation points for the early stages of the trek, and occasionally, they would find some berries along the stream beds and river banks. It would be a pretty dull diet, but at least they weren’t in as much danger of starving as were the earlier handcart companies.

    Comment by kevinf — September 13, 2010 @ 10:51 am

  5. Thanks for the interesting post, Kevin. That’s a great review of the topic. My, this blog is educational.

    One of my ancestors, James Glade, drove a “Down and Back” wagon in 1863. His passengers on the return trip included Welsh sisters Eliza and Joan Litson. After they reached the valley, Eliza and James were married. She wrote the most amusing letter about her marriage to her parents in Wales.

    It must have been quite a romantic trip for many young couples.

    Comment by Researcher — September 13, 2010 @ 11:28 am

  6. Ardis kindly provided all the pictures, which I hadn’t even thought of. She also kept me from a couple of errors, just like any good editor does. Thanks to Ardis for letting me post this here. It’s an outgrowth of stuff I learned while researching my gg-parents 1873 experience in Arizona.

    Comment by kevinf — September 13, 2010 @ 11:36 am

  7. Having just made a “down and back” trip of my own–flying from NY to SLC and then driving with daughter-in-law and grandsons to Pennsylvania–I’ll shout “bravo” to the men who made those months’ long trips 150 years ago.

    And to think that we were concerned about not making the 775 miles that we had planned for the first day of the trip!

    Great post, Kevin.

    Comment by Mark B. — September 13, 2010 @ 12:45 pm


    Feb. 18th 1861
    We get newse now from the states each week. There are more of the states withdrawing from the union. Now the emogration from the Urope to Utah ware taken in to consideration and desided on to sent teems and waggeons and teemsters to bring them from the U.S. Willow Creek sent three waggeons and 12 yoak of cattle (I sent one yoak of cattle). This ware a long trip on cattle it ware 1200 miles (twelve hundred). Hostilities had commenced in South Carolina took foart Sumpter Aprel I3th /6l.

    Andrew took a second wife in 1868, Louisa Rogers Meek. She was an immigrant with the
    1866 Thomas E. Ricks down & back company. Her husband, Benjamin Ennis Meek, had died a few weeks out on the trail in Nebraska. Her small daughter Annie made the trip with her, being raised by Andrew and becoming the ancestor of Jack H. Goaslind.

    The Down and Back trains affected many of us.

    Comment by CurtA — September 13, 2010 @ 1:32 pm

  9. Sheesh. Talk about ward assignments. And to think we had trouble keeping our scouts adequately supplied with leaders for a whole week of scout camp. Can’t imagine having to provide a couple men and wagons for an entire summer.

    Comment by Martin — September 13, 2010 @ 1:34 pm

  10. Wonderful.

    Comment by David Y. — September 13, 2010 @ 3:27 pm

  11. Nice job Kevin. You may be aware that William Hartley also gave his MHA presidential address on the Down and Back system. It was subsequently published in JMH.

    When I was doing research in the Hebron, Utah (ghost town today) ward record I was struck by the call that came to the members of this tiny ranching outpost 40 miles northwest of St. George to provide teams and wagons in a given year for the down and back migration. The teams and wagons, in other words, didn’t just come from the SL valley, but those from southern Utah who answered the call added c. 600 miles round trip to an already long journey.

    Comment by Paul Reeve — September 13, 2010 @ 9:00 pm

  12. Paul,

    I was aware that Hartley had published about the 1861 events in BYU Studies, but I had not read the article in the JMH. I’ll have to look it up. And thanks for the note about the Hebron folks. I did not know how far the south or north the calls for teams and wagons extended. That would likely have added an extra two months to the round trip, basically from March to October. Wow.

    Comment by kevinf — September 13, 2010 @ 9:28 pm

  13. kevinf,

    Thanks for the interesting post.

    Comment by Maurine — September 14, 2010 @ 9:05 pm

  14. Thank you Kevin,
    My great grandfather Christopher Walton Burton was a down and backer. He went from Kaysville, UT and it was noted that there were two big reasons for going. 1. It gave you a summer without the usual chores and maybe as inmportant, 2. The down and backers had the first shot at the new girls coming to Utah. He was in his late teens or early twenties. He found that the girl of his dreams was his neighbor.
    There is a wall size picture a group of down and backers hanging on the wall in the Winter Quarters visitor center.

    Comment by Richard McFadden — August 29, 2011 @ 6:52 pm

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