History of the Church Series | BYU Studies

History of the Church Series

The Mormon Pioneer Odometers
November 21, 2018
History of the Church Series
The Mormon Pioneer Odometers
Author Norman E. Wright,

This daily feature is an introduction to a full article by Norman E. Wright. Each Wednesday we focus on an aspect of church history, beginning in New York in the early 19th century and progressing throughout the year to Utah in the 20th century. To read the full text of this article, follow the link below.

The wooden odometers built and used by the first Mormon pioneer company of 1847 have fascinated students of western history for one hundred and fifty years. Two odometers were constructed. The first built by Appleton M. Harmon during the westward journey, was used from a point near present day North Platte, Nebraska, to the Great Salt Lake Valley—May 12 to July 24, 1847. The second, built by William A. King during the three-week hiatus in the valley was used during the return trip to the Missouri River—August 17 to October 21, 1847. The well-publicized accounts of the creation and use of these machines are found primarily in the journals of William Clayton and Orson Pratt.

Not so well known, however, is the history of another wooden odometer (figs. 1, 2) built by Idaho pioneer Thomas G. Lowe in 1876, while he was serving as a missionary to the Oriba Indians in northern Arizona. This instrument was, in 1911, mistakenly identified as the original 1847 machine. Ten years later, the misidentification of Lowe's odometer was associated with another error—the claim that it was the first such measuring device ever invented.