Researchers examine mortality rate of Mormon pioneers

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PROVO, Utah – Many Utahns are familiar with the hardships faced by the Mormon pioneers who crossed the plains to come to Utah, and now researchers have examined the mortality rates of those pioneers and found that the trip may not have been as deadly as some may think.

Mel Bashore is a retired historian and librarian who worked with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and he spoke about the mortality rate.

“Most everybody who started, got here,” Bashore said.

The research began when Professor Dennis Tolley of Brigham Young University posed a question to spice up an actuary statistics course he was teaching. He said that of the 56,000 pioneers who crossed the plains from east to west between 1847 and 1868, 1,900 of them died. He wondered how that compared to the rest of the population at that time.

Tolley phrased the thought this way: “If you're constructing an insurance policy, insuring someone crossing the plains, a pioneer of 150 years ago, how much would that policy cost?"

Tolley began searching for information, which is how he found Bashore. The two teamed up with students in a BYU statistics class to carry out the study. Researchers found the mortality rate of those pioneers was about 3.5 percent, which is twice that of the general population in 1850, but still low.

Researchers said slightly more males died, and they said despite the fact that almost half of the Mormon pioneers were under the age of 20, that group had a surprisingly low mortality rate of 1.75 percent.

"There were 300 plus, about 309, wagon trains and handcart companies that came across the plains, of those, 111 of them had no deaths at all,” Tolley said.

Researchers said the major causes of death were exposure and infectious diseases like cholera. Bashore said he thinks the relatively low death rate is a testament to Brigham Young’s abilities at organizing the crossings.

"Death, yes, it was an ever-present concern and in some cases a reality,” he said. “But in terms of the whole picture, the large picture, it was one of accomplishment, and achievement."

For more information about the Mormon pioneers’ journey, click here.

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