The Pioneer Trip Across The Plains

During the winter of 1846-1847 preparations were under way to

send an organization of pioneers across the plains and beyond the

Rocky Mountains, to select a new dwelling-place for the Saints.

The only "revelation" to Brigham Young found in the "Book of

Doctrine and Covenants" is a direction about the organization and

mission of this expedition. It was dated January 14, 1847, and it

directed the organization of the pioneers into companies, with

captains of hundreds, of fifties, and of tens, and a president

and two counsellors at their head, under charge of the Twelve.

Each company was to provide its own equipment, and to take seeds

and farming implements. "Let every man," it commanded, "use all

his influence and property to remove this people to the place

where the Lord shall locate a Stake of Zion." The power of the

head of the church was guarded by a threat that "if any man shall

seek to build up himself he shall have no power," and the

"revelation" ended, like a rustic's letter, with the words, "So

no more at present," "amen and amen" being added.

In accordance with this command, on April 14* a pioneer band of

volunteers set out to blaze a path, so to speak, across the

plains and mountains for the main body which was to follow.

* Date given in the General Epistle of December 23, 1847. Others

say April 7.

It is difficult to-day, when this "Far West" is in possession of

the agriculturist, the merchant, and the miner, dotted with

cities and flourishing towns, and cut in all directions by

railroads, which have made pleasure routes for tourists of the

trail over which the pioneers of half a century ago toiled with

difficulty and danger, to realize how vague were the ideas of

even the best informed in the thirties and forties about the

physical characteristics of that country and its future

possibilities. The conception of the latter may be best

illustrated by quoting Washington Irving's idea, as expressed in

his "Astoria," written in 1836:--

"Such is the nature of this immense wilderness of the far West;

which apparently defies cultivation and the habitation of

civilized life. Some portion of it, along the rivers, may

partially be subdued by agriculture, others may form vast

pastoral tracts like those of the East; but it is to be feared

that a great part of it will form a lawless interval between the

abodes of civilized man, like the wastes of the ocean or the

deserts of Arabia, and, like them, be subject to the depredations

of the marauders. There may spring up new and mongrel races, like

new formations in zoology, the amalgamation of the 'debris' and

'abrasions' of former races, civilized and savage; the remains of

broken and extinguished tribes; the descendants of wandering

hunters and trappers; of fugitives from the Spanish-American

frontiers; of adventurers and desperadoes of every class and

country, yearly ejected from the bosom of society into the

wilderness . . . . Some may gradually become pastoral hordes,

like those rude and migratory people, half shepherd, half

warrior, who, with their flocks and herds, roam the plains of

upper Asia; but others, it is to be apprehended, will become

predatory bands, mounted on the fleet steeds of the prairies,

with the open plains for their marauding grounds, and the

mountains for their retreats and lurking places. There they may

resemble those great hordes of the North, 'Gog and Magog with

their bands,' that haunted the gloomy imaginations of the

prophets--'A great company and a mighty host, all riding upon

horses, and warring upon those nations which were at rest, and

dwelt peaceably, and had gotten cattle and goods."'

"What about the country between the Missouri River and the

Pacific," asked a father living near the Missouri, of his son on

his return from California across the plains in 1851--"Oh, it's

of no account," was the reply; "the soil is poor, sandy, and too

dry to produce anything but this little short grass afterward

learned to be so rich in nutriment, and, when it does rain, in

three hours afterward you could not tell that it had rained at


* Nebraska Historical Society papers.

But while this distant West was still so unknown to the settled

parts of the country, these Mormon pioneers were by no means the

first to traverse it, as the records of the journeyings of Lewis

and Clark, Ezekiel Williams, General W. H. Ashley, Wilson Price

Hunt, Major S. H. Long, Captain W. Sublette, Bonneville, Fremont,

and others show.

The pioneer band of the Mormons consisted of 143 men, three women

(wives of Brigham and Lorenzo Young and H. C. Kimball), and two

children. They took with them seventy-three wagons. Their chief

officers were Brigham Young, Lieutenant General; Stephen Markham,

Colonel; John Pack, First Major; Shadrack Roundy, Second Major,

two captains of hundreds, and fourteen captains of companies. The

order of march was intelligently arranged, with a view to the

probability of meeting Indians who, if not dangerous to life, had

little regard for personal property. The Indians of the Platte

region were notorious thieves, but had not the reputation as

warriors of their more northern neighbors. The regulations

required that each private should walk constantly beside his

wagon, leaving it only by his officer's command. In order to make

as compact a force as possible, two wagons were to move abreast

whenever this could be done. Every man was to keep his weapons

loaded, and special care was insisted upon that the caps, flints,

and locks should be in good condition. They had with them one

small cannon mounted on wheels.

The bugle for rising sounded at 5 A.M., and two hours were

allowed for breakfast and prayers. At night each man was to

retire into his wagon for prayer at 8.30 o'clock, and for the

night's rest at 9. The night camp was formed by drawing up the

wagons in a semicircle, with the river in the rear, if they

camped near its bank, or otherwise with the wagons in a circle, a

forewheel of one touching the hind wheel of the next. In this way

an effective corral for the animals was provided within.

At the head of Grand Island, on April 30, they had their first

sight of buffaloes. A hunting party was organized at once, and a

herd of sixty-five of the animals was pursued for several miles

in full view of the camp (when game and hunters were not hidden

by the dust), and so successfully that eleven buffaloes were


The first alarm of Indians occurred on May 4, when scouts

reported a band of about four hundred a few miles ahead. The

wagons were at once formed five abreast, the cannon was fired as

a means of alarm, and the company advanced in close formation.

The Indians did not attack them, but they set fire to the

prairie, and this caused a halt. A change of wind the next

morning and an early shower checked the flames, and the column

moved on again at daybreak. During the next few days the

buffaloes were seen in herds of hundreds of thousands on both

sides of the Platte. So numerous were they that the company had

to stop at times and let gangs of the animals pass on either

side, and several calves were captured alive.* With or near the

buffaloes were seen antelopes and wolves.

* "The vast herds of buffalo were often in our way, and we were

under the necessity of sending out advance guards to clear the

track so that our teams might pass." Erastus SNOW, " Address to

the Pioneers," in Mo.

At Grand Island the question of their further route was carefully

debated. There was a well-known trail to Fort Laramie on the

south side of the river, used by those who set out from

Independence, Missouri, for Oregon. Good pasture was assured on

that side, but it was argued that, if this party made a new trail

along the north side of the river, the Mormons would have what

might be considered a route of their own, separated from other

westward emigrants. This view prevailed, and the course then

selected became known in after years as the Mormon Trail

(sometimes called the "Old Mormon Road"); the line of the Union

Pacific Railroad follows it for many miles.

Their decision caused them a good deal of anxiety about forage

for their animals before they reached Fort Laramie. It had not

rained at the latter point for two years, and the drought,

together with the vast herds of buffaloes and the Indian fires,

made it for days impossible to find any pasture except in small

patches. When the fort was reached, they had fed their animals

not only a large part of their grain, but some of their crackers

and other breadstuff, and the beasts were so weak that they could

scarcely drag the wagons.

During the previous winter the church officers had procured for

their use from England two sextants and other instruments needed

for taking solar observations, two barometers, thermometers,

etc., and these were used by Orson Pratt daily to note their

progress.* Two of the party also constructed a sort of pedometer,

and, after leaving Fort Laramie, a mile-post was set up every ten

miles, for the guidance of those who were to follow.

* His diary of the trip will be found in the Millennial Star for

1849-1850, full of interesting details, but evidently edited for

English readers.

In the camp made on May 10 the first of the Mormon post-offices

on the plains was established. Into a board six inches wide and

eighteen long, a cut was made with a saw, and in this cut a

letter was placed. After nailing on cleats to retain the letter,

and addressing the board to the officers of the next company, the

board was nailed to a fifteen-foot pole, which was set firmly in

the ground near the trail, and left to its fate. How successful

this attempt at communication proved is not stated, but similar

means of communication were in use during the whole period of

Mormon migration. Sometimes a copy of the camp journal was left

conspicuously in the crotch of a tree, for the edification of the

next camp, and scores of the buffaloes' skulls that dotted the

plains were marked with messages and set up along the trail.

The weakness of the draught animals made progress slow at this

time, and marches of from 4 to 7 miles a day were recorded. The

men fared better, game being abundant. Signs of Indians were seen

from time to time, and precautions were constantly taken to

prevent a stampede of the animals; but no open attack was made. A

few Indians visited the camp on May 21, and gave assurances of

their friendliness; and on the 24th they had a visit from a party

of thirty-five Dakotas (or Sioux who tendered a written letter of

recommendation in French from one of the agents of the American

Fur Company. The Mormons had to grant their request for

permission to camp with them over night, which meant also giving

them supper and breakfast--no small demand on their hospitality

when the capacity of the Indian stomach is understood).

Little occurred during May to vary the monotony of the journey.

On the afternoon of June 1 they arrived nearly opposite Fort

Laramie and the ruins of old Fort Platte, a point 522 miles from

Winter Quarters, and 509 from Great Salt Lake. The so-called

forts were in fact trading posts, established by the fur

companies, both as points of supply for their trappers and

trading places with the Indians for peltries. On the evening of

their arrival at this point they had a visit from members of a

party of Mormons gathered principally from Mississippi and

southern Illinois, who had passed the winter in Pueblo, and were

waiting to join the emigrants from Winter Quarters.

The Platte, usually a shallow stream, was at that place 108 yards

wide, and too deep for wading. Brigham Young and some others

crossed over the next morning in a sole-leather skiff which

formed a part of their equipment, and were kindly welcomed by the

commandant. There they learned that it would be impracticable--or

at least very difficult--to continue along the north bank of the

Platte, and they accordingly hired a flatboat to ferry the

company and their wagons across. The crossing began on June 3,

and on an average four wagons were ferried over in an hour.

Advantage was taken of this delay to set up, a bellows and forge,

and make needed repairs to the wagons. At the Fort the Mormons

learned that their old object of hatred in Missouri, ex-Governor

Boggs, had recently passed by with a company of emigrants bound

for the Pacific coast. Young's company came across other

Missourians on the plains; but no hostilities ensued, the

Missourians having no object now to interfere with the Saints,

and the latter contenting themselves by noting in their diaries

the profanity and quarrelsomeness of their old neighbors.

The journey was resumed at noon on June 4, along the Oregon

trail. A small party of the Mormons was sent on in advance to the

spot where the Oregon trail crossed the Platte, 124 miles west of

Fort Laramie. This crossing was generally made by fording, but

the river was too high for this, and the soleleather boat, which

would carry from 1500 to 1800 pounds, was accordingly employed.

The men with this boat reached the crossing in advance of the

first party of Oregon emigrants whom they had encountered, and

were employed by the latter to ferry their goods across while the

empty wagons were floated. This proved a happy enterprise for the

Mormons. The drain on their stock of grain and provisions had by

this time so reduced their supply that they looked forward with

no little anxiety to the long march. The Oregon party offered

liberal pay in flour, sugar, bacon, and coffee for the use of the

boat, and the terms were gladly accepted, although most of the

persons served were Missourians. When the main body of pioneers

started on from that point, they left ten men with the boat to

maintain the ferry until the next company from Winter Quarters

should come up.*

* "The Missourians paid them $1.50 for each wagon and load, and

paid it in flour at $2.50; yet flour was worth $10 per

hundredweight, at least at that point. They divided their

earnings among the camp equally."--Tullidge, "Life of Brigham

Young," p. 165.

The Mormons themselves were delayed at this crossing until June

19, making a boat on which a wagon could cross without unloading.

During the first few days after leaving the North Platte grass

and water were scarce. On June 21 they reached the Sweet Water,

and, fording it, encamped within sight of Independence Rock, near

the upper end of Devil's Gate.

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