Beautiful are the feet

For several years volunteers have collected and digitized information on individuals that crossed the plains in the Mormon Pioneer Overland Travel Database, 1847–1868. Not only a rich tool for family history, by transcribing thousands primary source documents the website is an astonishing and accessible window to many facets of our history. We all owe our thanks to the workers who have devoted significant time and talent to this project. Judy and David Wood are, I understand, on their fourth mission consecrated to it and many, many others have participated unsung.

Mormon Pioneer Overland Travel Database, 1847–1868

Mormon Pioneer Overland Travel Database, 1847–1868

As an example of the bounty proffered by these volunteers’ dedication, I have gathered some excerpts to share. There are many accounts of ritual healings in the database, something of an interest for me; but I was particularly moved by a certain genre of healings that are perhaps more common during this period than others. The anointing of feet. More than a decade before the great migration west, the priesthood gathered in the Kirtland Temple, having been washed, anointed and sealed. Church leaders then knelt and washed their feet, absolving them from the culpability of their time and place. I have always been moved by Jonathan Hales’ description of his participation in these rituals, “April the 6th, which was the solemn assembly, then I received the washing of feet by Elder Heber C. Kimball and he pronounced me clean of the blood of this generation. I had traveled up to this time 2740 miles mostly on foot.” [1]

Jonathan’s juxtaposition of his feet being washed and the mileage of those same feet spent itinerating is deeply poignant to me. I also find great beauty on the trail, as a similar contrast was common. Latter-day Saints walked and rode their way west. Many suffered and the ministry to feet of the afflicted ensured that they reached the mountain with good tidings.

James Willard Bay wrote on July 3, 1852:

day warm[.] was mooving my loading and getting watter for my wife to wash[.] some of the Brethren went a hunting[.] Br. Isaac Perrey [Perry,] Br. Josiah Hardy and Br. John P. Hide [Hyde] in the morning[.] I annointed a foot of Wm. Wesley Swadley[.] it was bitten by a spider[.] it sweled quite much but was relieved. and at night I[,] Br. Perrey [Perry] and Br. Hardy annointed and laid hands on it[.] [2]

Accidents were also common. A wagon wheel rolled over John Johnsen Davies foot, but he “took Some oil and anointed my foot and in a Short time it was all right.” [3] Mosiah Hancock wrote that “While we were going down East Canyon Creek, mother’s foot got caught in between the box and wagon tongue and broke the toe at the upper joint; but the skin was not broken. So father anointed her foot there and administered to her and it was healed quite soon.” [4]

Some of the scenes reveal a familiarity with mortality that I doubt many of us can easily comprehend. On June 21, 1853, George Sims of the Christopher Arthur Emigration Company, wrote in the official journal:

Tuesday. Very fine morning[.] Started 9 oclock – Willy very Bad – died at ½ past 11. With [w]Hooping Cough and inflammation – at 2 oclock was Buried at White Thistle Prairie – in a Box of Bro Till. – Travelled about 22 miles – and camped at 7 oclock at a Branch of Grand River[.] an abundance of Wood[.] Watch appointed[.] (Bro Lyon superintended – the Burial of Wm Davies. age 2 ys & 2 months.) Had a Bath. groin Better through using Salt Water to it. anointed my feet with Con[secrated] oil as ministered to Julia. [5]

Anointing the area of affliction, though not practiced today, was standard ritual practice among the Latter-day Saints from Kirtland on. And healing along the Trail functioned to instruct the Saints and to solidify ritual practice.[6] As with many other types of studies, the Mormon Pioneer Overland Travel Database, 1847–1868 is an important and underutilized resource. I’m grateful for the hard work of all those who dedicate themselves to the project.


  1. Aroet Lucious Hale, Journal, 3, Writings of Early Latter-day Saints, BYU Special Collections.
  2. Bay, James Willard, Diaries, 1850-1853, vol. 2 in the Mormon Pioneer Overland Travel Database, 1847–1868. (MPOTD)
  3. Davies, John Johnson, Transcription of journal, 9-14. Trail excerpt transcribed from “Pioneer History Collection” available at Pioneer Memorial Museum [Daughters of Utah Pioneers Museum], Salt Lake City, Utah, reprinted in In the MPOTD.
  4. Hancock, Mosiah, The Mosiah Hancock Journal, 25-26 in the MPOTD
  5. Christopher Arthur Emigrating Company, Journal, 1853 Feb.-Oct in the MPOTD
  6. Stapley and Wright, “The Forms and the Power: The Development of Mormon Ritual Healing to 1847,” Journal of Mormon History 35 (Summer 2009): 42-87. Anointing the entire body was also common. See for example the August 13, 1849 example from the Isaac Clark Emigrating Company, Journal, 1849 July-Oct, in MPOTD: ” Travelled only about 5 miles, and encamped near Skunk Creek Crossing. did not leave until late—as Elder Benson was very sick, with Cholie [cholera], and had been sufron [suffering.] Saturday evening, However, he was anointed from head to feet, and administered to in the name of the Lord and before Elder G A Smiths Camp left[,] he was better[.] Elder Bensons Camp tarried behind, and did not move.”


  1. J, I’ve found this database very useful in my research about individuals involved in the 1873 AZ mission that I am working on. I’ve also found a few gems, unrelated to my research, including some about my own family history. One story tells about an older Danish convert, coming across with a handcart company in 1857, who apparently had lost his sense of smell due to an illness earlier in life. He had gone out hunting to supplement their meager provisions, and shot a black and white animal that was unfamiliar to him, and then couldn’t quite grasp why the folks with the emigrant company didn’t want the meat, or him around either. It’s a great resource, and fun just to read.

    Many thanks to the Woods and others involved.

  2. Steve Evans says:

    Beautiful stuff, J. Tell me — what on earth were they anointing with? Where’d they get the oil?

  3. That is a great question and the answer is not particularly obvious. I imagine that there was some flexibility as to the type of oil used.

  4. Nice write-up, Jonathan.

    Last I heard, they had identified only about two-thirds of the pioneers (well, they know the names of many, many more, but don’t have evidence of which companies they traveled with). These last few thousand have to be identified one or two at a time as clues are squeezed out of records kept for other-than-migration purposes. Anyone whose family is not listed, but whose travel can be documented through family sources, can click a link in the database to submit information and have their ancestors memorialized in this way. It’s so cool to succeed in giving back the name and history of some individual who has been forgotten!

  5. Ardis, I know that you have done some great work on this project (Ardis also gave me the image for this post – thanks Ardis!). Thanks.

  6. Kevin Barney says:

    This was great. I looked up my ancestor Thomas Grover, who was in the BY pioneer company, and there are all sorts of trail journals and other accounts, so when I get a chance I’m going to read those and get a sense for what his experience was like.

  7. Liberal Mormon says:

    I didn’t know anointing of the feet was done in early days of the church. I do know of the rituals of washing the feet and shaking the dust off your feet, though. Thanks for the information. I learned something new today.

  8. WOW,

    This is amazing. I was really quickly able to find some of my own ancestors. Kevin we are related.

  9. My wife desends directly from Jonathan Hale through his son Solomon. ‘Solly’, as Joseph Smith called him, was JS personal message carrier as a young boy in Nauvoo. I still have the neck watch Solomon gave his wife on their 50th wedding celebration.

  10. I was recently listening to the new interview at with Church History librarian Mel Bashore about the Mormon Trail. He references the many hours put into this project by service missionaries. (Can you image spending a big chunk of your mission where all you do is scour journals or articles for details about the pioneers?)

    Incidentally, Bashore makes the point that, for most pioneer travellers, the trail was not fraught with death and danger. However, it did mean lots and lots and lots and lots of walking and walking. How beautiful are the feet, indeed!

  11. I love all the connections to journals on the same company. It is fascinating how differently people record the “same” journey

  12. What a great resource!

  13. bbell, # 8, we are? I’m always surprised at some of the connections. How and where do we relate? That’s great. I also found out in one of these this forums, I once dated Ben Pratt’s mother-in-law. Awkward.

  14. This is in deed a great resource. I have used it extensively to research my own ancestors. With some of them, I have been able to recreate the trip west almost day by day. The journal excerpts put you right there on the trail with these people. It’s so interesting to discover who your ancestors traveled with as well. Thank you to all who have made this available.

  15. #14: When I do Family History, I often find the ‘trip’ lead to bonds that continued. I see the bonds in generational marriages, business partners, the founding of towns, governing bodies, even cemeteries.

  16. Thanks for the riteup, J. Definitely a fantastic source.

  17. Sister Wood told me yesterday, and I don’t think she’d mind my bragging on behalf of the project, that they have now identified 50,048 pioneers by name and at least year of emigration, with most tied to a specific overland company, of which 358 have been identified. They have located, typed, proofread, coded, and posted the text of 3,187 documents, and have posted citations to three times that many other sources.

    When the project started they intended only to document east-to-west travel, but they have in the last year or two also posted material on west-to-east travel — so if your ancestors came from Australia, or went to Utah after California service with the Mormon Battalion, or otherwise approached the Valley from the Pacific Coast, they want to document that.

  18. This is great. Thanks, J.

  19. This is simple incredible, Ardis. Astonishing, really. Thanks for the heads-up. I imagine that I have some info on some Australian emigrants that may be of use.

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