In all its history, the American West never saw a more unlikely band of pioneers than the four hundred-odd who were camped on the bank of the Iowa River at Iowa City in early June, 1856. They were not colorful—only improbable. Looking for the brown and resolute and weather-seasoned among them, you would have seen instead starved cheeks, pale skins, bad teeth, thin chests, all the stigmata of unhealthy work and inadequate diet. There were more women than men, more children under fifteen than either. One in every ten was past fifty, the oldest a woman of seventy-eight; there were widows and widowers with six or seven children. They looked more like the population of the poor farm on a picnic than like pioneers about to cross the plains.
Most of them, until they were herded from their crowded immigrant ship and loaded into the cars and rushed to the end of the Rock Island Line and dumped here at the brink of the West, had never pitched a tent, slept on the ground, cooked outdoors, built a campfire. They had not even the rudimentary skills that make frontiersmen. But as it turned out, they had some of the stuff that makes heroes.
Mainly Englishmen from the depressed collieries and mill towns, with some Scots and a handful from the Cape of Good Hope and the East Indian Mission, they were the casualties of the industrial revolution, life’s discards, to whom Mormonisrn had brought its irresistible double promise of a new start on earth and a guaranteed Hereafter.