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The Forgotten Trail: A Solemn Journey to Carthage Jail

Across the fields of western Illinois, there is a little-known trail, which follows the footsteps of the prophet Joseph Smith as he left Nauvoo for the last time, and rode 21 miles to his eventual death at the hands of a mob at Carthage Jail. The “martyrdom trail,” as it is known, takes a long zig-zag path down country roads, over bridges, and through fields. It is not a trek for the faint of heart— taking about 8 hours for experienced hikers. 

On February 8, 2024, I was a part of a group of young adults who walked this trail. We set out on a cold, windy morning at 8 o’clock. There were 13 of us, (though another joined around lunchtime), and we had a friend who graciously offered to meet us every five miles to provide water and emergency relief- should that be necessary. It was meant to be a team building exercise. We would all walk together and work together to get to Carthage.

Rachel Clayton #NauvooHistorian and her sweetheart on the forgotten trail to Carthage Jail.

I accepted the challenge with relish. I love walking and hiking, I love history, and I love accomplishing hard things.

I accepted the challenge with relish. I love walking and hiking, I love history, and I love accomplishing hard things. I had my lunch, some gatorade, and an iron-clad determination to not be the team’s “weak link.”

As a native of Colorado and a relatively experienced hiker, it wasn’t much of a challenge. I loved seeing the farms and petting the animals. I found the fields starkly beautiful. I spent a few hours chatting, and even brought a book to read while I walked. Around lunchtime, my sweetheart joined us, and all my aches and pains disappeared— such was my excitement at seeing him.

It was a wonderful time, and an ideal way to pass a day. It was, however, a very long walk. My less experienced “team members” (I sadly did not treat them as such) needed frequent breaks, and I became impatient by the end of the day. I walked at the front of the pack and hated being told to “wait up.” Yes, after 21 miles, my legs hurt, but I felt sour at taking so long and arriving well after dark. 

Rachel Clayton #NauvooHistorian on the forgotten trail to Carthage Jail.

I had quite missed the point, hadn’t I?

I had quite missed the point, hadn’t I?

This was no ordinary hike. This wasn’t just meant to be a physical challenge, but also a spiritual challenge.

I neglected to consider how Joseph Smith would have felt as he took that final road to Carthage. I know he bid farewell to his wife and children, kissing them tenderly, as he left them for the last time. I know he looked out over the city that he helped build. He said “I am going like a lamb to the slaughter; but I am calm as a summer’s morning; I have a conscience void of offense towards God, and towards all men. I shall die innocent, and it shall yet be said of me—he was murdered in cold blood.” 

This walk was meant to give me a small understanding of what that must have felt like. But how could I ever understand what it’s like to leave everything and calmly face death? How could I understand the fear of leaving my family to face an unknown and dangerous future? How could a walk ever compare to the solemn final ride of a prophet of God?

Rachel Clayton #NauvooHistorian exploring the trail to Carthage Jail.

There is no answer to those questions. I could never understand Joseph Smith’s feelings that summer day. But I do know that he was a prophet. I know that he died with God’s name on his lips. He was a hero, and remains a hero working at the hand of God.

Perhaps I didn’t quite understand the meaning of the walk that day, but upon reflection, it’s an experience I will never forget.


Rachel Clayton #NauvooHistorian

Learn More

This experience was part of the Nauvoo Discovery Program. Learn more about the program here.

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