For the earliest pioneers making the overland journey to the west coast, Utah was a problem that most chose to go around. By providing excerpts from early explorers’ journals and reports, West from Fort Bridger documents the pioneering of emigrant trails (1846–50) that did cross Utah. The editors include notes and commentary to clarify the journal entries.
West from Fort Bridger, first published in 1951, has a tangled genealogy. In 1941, Dale Morgan started an eight-year correspondence with J. Roderic Korns, a Salt Lake businessman, and Charles Kelly, an amateur explorer who rediscovered the Salt Desert trails in the 1920s. The three men performed the research at the heart of the book and argued out facts, theories, discoveries, and problems through “hundreds of pages of letters” (ix). When Korns died in July 1949, Dale Morgan compiled and published the book in the name of his friend. It was an instant success but was published in a very limited edition, and it has always been difficult to find.
Working from extensive notes left by Morgan, who died in 1971, the current editors have clarified and expanded the work. One of the stated purposes of the new edition is to update the geographical descriptions to reflect modern highway routes and names. Nevertheless, the maps (or lack of maps) accompanying the volume are perhaps its greatest weakness.
The book offers a thorough discussion of the route south of the Great Salt Lake, the “Hastings Cutoff.” Perhaps in his desire to promote the road which carried his name, Hastings consistently misrepresented the length of the waterless crossing of the “Salt Plain,” resulting in losses of animals for most of the early travelers. For the Donner Party, the losses were disastrous (55).
West from Fort Bridger is a companion to Peter DeLafosse’s Trailing the Pioneers, which attempts to correlate the old trails with modern roads and highways. The book, which describes itself as a “series of automobile tours . . . intended for the general tourist traveling in an ordinary passenger car” (1), includes five trail tours, each written by a different author: the Spanish Trail from Monticello to St. George; the Bidwell-Bartleson Trail from Soda Springs, Idaho, to Wendover, Nevada; the Pioneer Trail from Fort Bridger to Salt Lake City; the Hastings Cutoff from Salt Lake City to Wendover; and the Salt Lake Cutoff from Salt Lake City to City of Rocks, Idaho.
Using Trailing the Pioneers as my guide, I recently took a visitor from England on a circumnavigation of the Great Salt Lake. We followed the Hastings Cutoff tour to Wendover. Then we backtracked the Bidwell-Bartleson Trail and Hensley’s Salt Lake Cutoff to Salt Lake City. The tours are not set up well for backtracking, and we frequently felt like the pioneers, looking at our vague, nearly featureless maps and scratching our heads in dismay.
This, however, was a minor problem, and we made it back to Salt Lake City having gained an appreciation for this handy little guidebook and for the pioneers we trailed across Utah’s rugged terrain.