February 1963 | Volume 14, Issue 2
When Brigham Young’s party abandoned Illinois to seek a final refuge for the Latter-day Saints, none knew where they would come to rest. But as they entered Salt Lake Valley, they were sure that the long quest was over
After Joseph and Hyrum Smith were murdered by an anti-Mormon mob at Carthage, Illinois, on June 27, 1844, great contention arose among the Latter-day Saints as to who would succeed Joseph as head of the Church. At a vast meeting beside the unfinished temple on August 8, Sidney Rigdon urged that he be made Church guardian, claiming that he had received a revelation from on high that this should be his office. A little later a sturdy figure rose from the audience and spoke for himself. Not as tall as Joseph Smith, Brigham Young was nevertheless of commanding presence. He proclaimed himself a dedicated follower of the Prophet, and he spoke with a sincerity and practicality which made Rigdon seem both small and pretentious. He was overwhelmingly sustained as president of the Twelve Apostles, on whom the power of the Church now rested.
Brigham Young had been born four years earlier than Joseph Smith, and in the same state of Vermont. His family had moved to western New York when he was two. As he grew older Brigham devoted his energies to becoming a carpenter and joiner. There are fine houses still standing in New York State (including the home of Lincoln’s Secretary of State, William Henry Seward, at Auburn) that are testimonials to the thoroughness and quality of his craftsmanship.
The young builder was converted to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints by Mormon neighbors. He did not meet the founder of the faith until 1832, after Joseph had moved to Kirtland, Ohio. At that time Brigham made a pilgrimage for the express purpose of declaring his loyalty and found Joseph in the forest, back of the house where he was living, “chopping and hauling wood.” Thus the originator of the Mormon Church and the man who was to do more than any other member in perpetuating it, both Yankee-born, became known to each other.
The new head of the Latter-day Saints was to prove himself not only an effective administrator but one of the greatest leaders of men in all American history. He spoke the vernacular of his time with exactness of meaning, yet with a touch of poetry. He had an intuitive knowledge of his fellows. He had common sense. He had a kind of down-to-earth spirituality. And he bristled with authority.
Though President Young was aware of the gathering tempest of hatred which was soon to result in the Mormons being driven out of Nauvoo by armed mobs, he insisted that the magnificent temple of which Joseph Smith had dreamed be completed. Before it was finished, however, the decision had been made that the whole body of the Xauvoo Saints would move westward. The first wagons left Nauvoo in February, 1846.
By autumn twelve to fifteen thousand of the Saints had reached the west bank of the Missouri, where they built a temporary city called Winter Quarters. While they waited at this place (the site of Florence, Nebraska, now a residential section of Omaha), they received word that the few remaining Mormons left at Nauvoo had in September been attacked by mobs and after a gallant defense had been driven from the city. A month later, on October 9, vandals burned the temple to the ground (left). As the winter of 1846 set in, President Young and his advisers planned an exploratory expedition which would set out to find a home for the Mormons somewhere in the Far West.
All through the early clays of April, 1847. Brigham Young busied himself at Winter Quarters with getting under way an expedition to find a land in the West where all members of the Church might live safely and in peace.
His first plan had been to enlist twelve groups of twelve men each, but the number fluctuated as the time for departure neared. At the Church conference on April 6 he was upheld as president of the Church, and a do/en of the most important Saints were continued as members of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles —among them both Willard Richards and John Taylor, who had been eyewitnesses of the lynching of Prophet Joseph Smith and his brother Hyrum in 18.14. There were a few delays as the wagons gathered and the members of the pioneer group reported. By Saturday, April 10, sixty-four wagons were rolling toward the banks of the little Elkhorn River thirty-four miles from Winter Quarters. They crossed Papillion Creek, and as one of the Pioneers, Norton Jacobs, recorded their journey, “Towards evening we hove into sight of the Elk Horn River and the valley of the great Platte, affording a full view of the river as it stretched away for many miles to the west.”
The series of paintings on this and the following pages is taken from a canvas scroll done by the Mormon arlisl Carl Christian Anton Christensen, between 1869 and iStjo. A young missionary for the Latter-day Saints before emigrating from his native Denmark in 1857, Christensen continued to show his zeal by producing a pictorial sequence of important episodes in the history of his church, taking the canvas scroll from town to town in Utah as the basis for a historical lecture.
On Sunday morning all wagons were ferried across the Elkhorn and were counted as sixty-nine. Still there were delays caused by necessary rides back to Winter Quarters for conferences, for more good-bys to families, for brothers who were hurrying from eastern places.
At eight o’clock on the morning of Friday the sixteenth President Young had the camp called together at his wagon and ordered a count of those going on the journey. There were 143 men, three women, and two children. The three women were Clarissa Decker Young, a wife of Brigham Young; Harriet Page Wheeler Young, a wife of Brigham’s brother Loren/o; and Ellen Sanders Kimball, a wife of Heber C. Kimball, one of the Council of the Twelve. The two children were Isaac Perry Decker, son of Loren/o’s wife by a former marriage, and Zobriski Young, son of the same woman by Lorenzo. Three of the men were listed as “colored” —Oscar Crosby, Green Flake, and Hark Lay. Inventory of property made at this time showed seventy-two wagons and carriages of many types—some small, some large and covered—(besides a wagon on which a large leather boat served as the wagon box) and a cannon brought along as protection against Indians (who were notoriously afraid of the sound of artillery). Ninety-three horses, fifty-two mules, sixty-six oxen, nineteen cows, and assorted doffs, cats, and chickens went along.
To avoid contact with non-Mormon parties going west, President Young chose to travel on the north side of the Platte instead of on the Oregon Trail along the south bank, which was more distinct and more heavily used. Their road led through Pawnee Indian country.
On Sunday, April 18, the weather was still cold and spring not far advanced. At five o’clock that day the officers met with President Young, who gave them the daily routine. A bugle would sound at five in the morning. Each Pioneer would arise and attend to his prayers before leaving his wagon. Cooking, eating, and feeding the stock would fill the time till seven, when the camp would move. Each teamster was to stay beside his team with loaded gun in hand. The order of encampment was to be a circle, with the mouth of each wagon to the outside and the horses and cattle tied inside. At 8:30 P.M. the bugle would sound again. At this time all were to have prayers in their wagons and go to bed by nine.
The next day was warm, and the Pioneers followed the President’s orders implicitly. William Clayton, suffering from a toothache, walked beside his wagon and thought of “fixing up a set of wooden cog-wheels to the hub of a wagon wheel in such order as to tell the exact number of miles we travel each day.” The next day the tooth still ached, and Clayton asked Luke Johnson to pull it. “He only got half of the original tooth, the balance being left in the jaw. After this my head and face pained me more than before.”
A week went by—a week of hard pulling in soft and sandy loam—day after day of monotonous plodding on a trackless prairie not yet awakened by spring. The brethren nooned one day on the bank of Loup Fork opposite a Pawnee village, and the Indians ran into the water to cross and ask for presents. Young ordered powder, lead, salt, and flour given to them, but they continued to beg. Hastily he ordered the wagons to move. At six o’clock they encamped where Looking Glass Creek flows into Loup Fork. More days followed on the same pattern, and then came a day of rest, Sunday, April 25, with services at four o’clock. “This Earth Was Once a Garden Place” sang the newly formed choir lustily. Then on. The wagons took their own way west across the prairie wasteland. Suddenly April was over. On the last evening of the month the brothers camped beside marshy ground. They were cold and bored and disconsolate. Brother Brigham urged them to dance to warm up, and they did so.
On May 1 the Pioneers caught their first glimpse of buffalo. At once the wagons halted, and those brothers appointed as buffalo hunters raced their horses toward a herd of over seventy. Wilford Woodruff wrote of the chase: “I then saw that Orrin P. (Porter) Rockwell had three bulls at bay on the prairie … Brother Kimball came up at the same time. We surrounded them and commenced firing upon them…” “The meat is very sweet and as tender as veal,” wrote William Clayton. After that the brothers were so often at the kill that President Young forbade them to continue, although both sides of the Platte River were black with buffalo for miles, and as Wilford Woodruff wrote, “It looked as though the whole face of the earth was alive and moving like the waves of the sea.” There were days when Porter Rockwell or Luke Johnson would capture buffalo calves and bring them into the canin for the two little bov Pioneers to romp with.
On some mornings when the bugle blared, the brethren would wake to see flames on the horizon and to feel smoke stinging their eyes. The earth would be black over measureless acres, and ashes blown by prairie winds would make their faces as dark as those of their fellow travelers, Green Flake and Hark Lay.
On May 12 the monotony of their day-after-day marching was lessened by Clayton, who, with the aid of mechanic Appleton Harmon, had put into practice the idea evolved when he had a toothache. He had invented what he called a “roadometer” and attached it to the axle of the carriage in which he rode. Now its wooden cogs ticked oft the miles relentlessly, and at the end of every day he could report how much nearer the brethren were to the Rocky Mountains.
Spring finally came to the wagon train in the last week of May. On Monday the twenty-fourth the brethren saw across the river a band of about thirty-five Indians, also riding west. After the Mormons had made camp, some of the savages rode across the river toward them, one of those in the lead carrying a United States flag. They were well-dressed and impressive people, handsomely adorned. President Young fed them and entertained the chief and his wife overnight. The chief was fascinated by the camp telescope. Through it he looked long at the moon. He may well have been puzzled by a wild dance in which the brethren indulged themselves later.
Now the wagons were rolling into the land of western wonder. For three whole days the high thin tower of Chimney Rock was constantly in sight, and beyond it rose Scotts Bluff like the tumbled walls of a ruined temple. They were almost at the present-day Nebraska-Wyoming line.
Life in the camp had become lax in the springtime. The Pioneers played cards and checkers and dominoes in their wagons. Some of them played musical instruments, and their hearers cavorted to fiddle tunes, the men dancing with each other and cutting pigeonwings and other figures in the joy of the warming spring season. On the cold, rainy morning of May 29 after the bugle sounded at ten, President Young summoned the camp to gather about the boat-wagon and there spoke his mind. His speech was emphatic and earnest, and it ended in burning words of rebuke:
Joking, nonsense, profane language, trifling conversation and loud laughter do not belong to us. Suppose the angels were witnessing the hoe-down the other evening, and listening to the haw haws the other evening, would not they be ashamed of it? I am ashamed of it.… Now let every man repent of his weakness, of his follies, of his meanness, and every kind of wickedness, and stop your swearing and profane language, for it is in this camp and I know it, and have known it. I have said nothing about it, but I now tell you, if you don’t stop it you shall be cursed by the Almighty and shall dwindle away and be damned…
Here are the Elders of Israel, who have the priesthood, who have got to preach the Gospel, who have to gather the nations of the earth, who have to build up the kingdom so that the nations can come to it, they will stop to dance as niggers. I don’t mean this as debasing the negroes by any means. They will hoe down all, turn summersets, dance on their knees, and haw, haw, out loud; they will play cards, they will play checkers and dominoes, they will use profane language, they will swear! … If we don’t repent and quit our wickedness we will have more hindrances than we have had, and worse storms to encounter. I want the brethren to be ready, for meeting to-morrow at the time appointed, instead of rambling off, and hiding in their waggons at play cards, etc. I think it will be good for us to have a fast meeting to-morrow and a prayer meeting to humble ourselves and turn to the Lord and He will forgive us.
The Sunday morning of May 30 on the Platte River bottoms was still, but high above the circle of Mormon wagons clouds were scattering in a windy sky. Wakened by the early bugle, the travelers could still see Chimney Rock, forty miles behind them, lifting an admonitory finger. The Black Hills northwest of the encampment had turned a deep blue, laying grotesque and portentous patterns on the horizon.
At eight o’clock the whole camp gathered near their leader’s wagon and raised their voices in Brother William Phelps’ hymn. “The Spirit of God like a fire is burning,” they sang. “The latter-day glory begins to come forth.”
Brother Brigham’s rebuke had accomplished its purpose. Wilford Woodruff later wrote of this day: “In the morning I shaved, cleansed my body, put on clean clothing, read a chapter in the Book of Mormon, humbled myself before the Lord…”
Soon Woodruff and other chosen leaders followed President Young into a little valley where they “clothed themselves after the manner of the Priesthood.” That afternoon they trudged in picturesque procession across the plain for more than two miles to climb a high, sandy point. From this they could see to the west a long aisle of bluffs towering on both sides of the river. As they knelt in prayer upon the highest ground they had yet stood upon, Thomas Bullock, who had expected to join them, made note in his journal that he had not been asked to do so. Feeling rejected and sick at heart, he wrote: “I have been deprived of my greatest and most sacred privileges. O my God look down upon my tears and suffering and have mercy on me; wherein I have offended thee, make it manifest to me, that 1 may repent, whatever it may be.”
When the robed priests again entered the circle of their wagons, campfires were spotting the dusk. Somewhere out on the plains a drift of cloud loosed a shower, and light from the moon, quick-risen on the eastern rim of the valley, penetrated the falling drops to arch a rainbow above the westward road they would travel on the morrow. Many who had that day promised themselves a holier life saw the gleaming, many-colored gateway as a sign of welcome to the country they were seeking.
For all its promise, however, the brethren found the last day of May none the easier. Wagon wheels sank almost to their hubs in sand. Horses and mules strained against the hames. Men bruised their shoulders against the ungiving spokes. Nine miles before nooning—seven and a half more before sunset—and then there was Brother Brigham barking them into a circle beside the straggling cottonwoods and willows of Rawhide Creek.
The morning horn of June 1 wakened Brigham Young to his forty-sixth birthday. Though his body had thickened and the lines of his face had deepened in the years since Joseph Smith’s death, he did not yet resemble in appearance the image which in his later years all of America came to know. He moved with authority, and his duties had kept him so much in the saddle through storm and sunshine that none of his companions on the long anil wearisome journey resented his leadership.
In the early afternoon came a shout from the lead wagons—“Laramie!” Repeated again and again down the long line, the cry brought a quicker rhythm and the happiness of achievement. By six o’clock the train had covered twelve miles and, rounding a wooded point, trotted into night camp along the River Platte, here more than a hundred yards wide. On the low bottoms, ash and cottonwood trees lined the water. On the high bluffs beyond, twisted cedars reached into the sky.
“The scene is romantic,” wrote Lorenzo Young, sitting in his tent beside the pair of sleeping small boys in his charge. Nearly all of the Mormon travelers who Ue]Jt journals noted that in the center of the camp, tied between two of the highest limbs of a towering ash, hung the tiny dead body of an Indian baby, wrapped snugly in animal skins. The bark of the tree had been peeled off to prevent wild animals from climbing up to eat the high-buried child. Truly they were in the land of the Lamanites with their strange uii-Christian and decadent customs.
On the next day Erastus Snow wrote into his journal: “Today a coal pit is on fire within our circle, and three portable blacksmith shops are in operation; smiths are shoeing horses, repairing wagons, etc.”
About ten in the morning Brother Brigham led a delegation across the river to visit Fort Laramie. There they found a small, gay settlement mostly of French husbands and Indian wives, all under the paternal direction of the agent of the American Fur Company, Mr. Bordeaux. He received them in an upstairs room which Appleton Harmon (who now had begun to look upon himself as the inventor of the roadometer as well as its maker) described as “much like a bar room of an eastern hotel … ornamented with several drawings, Portraits, etc., a long desk, a settee and some chairs.” There was much bargaining at the company store, where the French, knowing well that their customers could buy nowhere else in the area, profited well. Superintendent Bordeaux liked the solemn Mormons, who, after the dressing-down given them by their leader in the previous week, were well-behaved and co-operative, not at all like the wild lot he governed or the roistering wayfarers who had passed the fort in previous months.
Bordeaux told them their passage on the north side of the Platte would be blocked by the Black Hills, which slanted steeply down to the water, and urged them to cross the river at once to take the Oregon Trail. The Mormons accepted his advice and for fifteen dollars rented his flatboat to ferry their wagons over the stream.
The crossing began the next morning but was interrupted by a thunderstorm accompanied by hail. Since Bordeaux had told them there had been no rain in the area for two years before their arrival, the travelers regarded this as a further evidence of God’s favor. All wagons had crossed before the next noon, and at once the expedition set out on the Oregon Trail, which was to lead them up the Sweetwater River and across the Great Divide.
Before he left, Brother Clayton, true inventor of the roadometer, consulted the records he had taken with its aid and proudly set up a guideboard on the north side of the Platte; “543¼ miles from Winter Quarters,” it read, “227½ miles from the junction of the Platte” (north and south branches), “142½ miles from Ash Hollow, 70¼ miles from Chimney Rock, 50½ miles from Scott’s Bluffs.”
The rainy spell continued as the wagon train in the next few days rolled through a narrow ravine, strained up a steep slope, and came out on a rolling prairie gay In the June colors of red, blue, and yellow Artemisia (sagebrush of the aster family and known throughout the West by many names—absinthe, wormwood, wild sage, greasewood, mugwort, Southernwood). An eagle sailed above the caravan as a light shower from the west caught a moment of sun to set up answering colors in the sky—twin rainbows arching below snow-covered Laramie Peak.
On the rain-washed Sunday morning that followed, the bugle called the brethren to assemble at nine o’clock. While thunder rolled along the horizon, they raised their voices in the hymn, “With All the Power of Heart and Tongue.” Loudly they proclaimed, “Angels shall hear the notes I’ll raise” and “To God I cried when troubles rose, He heard me and subdued my foes.” Wilford Woodruff’s journal reads, “The spirit of the Lord was with us.”
In the week that followed, the Mormons rolled out of the colored prairie into country so wild and grotesque that they were ama/ecl. Between Horse Shoe Creek and the stream called La Bonté they came upon earth so red that William Clayton wrote, “Jt affected my eyes much from its brightness.” Here the travelers saw a toad with a tail and with horns on its head, “ft did not jump like a toad but crawled like a mouse.” Big black crickets lay so thick on the red soil that it was almost impossible to keep from stepping on them.
Within two weeks after the brethren had left Fort Laramie they had covered 125 miles and reached a second crossing of the winding Platte. Here with Yankee common sense Brigham Young himself worked prodigiously at constructing two raft ferries, and he ordered eight men and a blacksmith left behind to float the many “gentile” trains behind them across the river at charges sufficient to make a “reasonable profit.”
On they went in a routine saved from monotony by the grotesquerie of a landscape growing ever more barren—a horn in the morning and a breakfast made over fires built of sagebrush and dried buffalo dung (“buffalo chips”); then a glimpse of members of the Twelve standing on a high place and sometimes clad in the robes of priesthood, their President kneeling in prayer and the others dropping to their knees beside him, their faces turned upward to the sky; the cries of the scouts and outriders leading off; the lonely carriage of Brother Brigham leading the train; the squeal of wagon wheels that grease from slain wolves failed to silence; the divisions falling into the procession in the order of accustomed place; the galloping of the teams, when the road was wide enough, to bring the wagons five abreast and lessen the danger of Indian attack.
On June 21 Wilford Woodruff wrote:
I arose early this morning and took breakfast and in company with Brother John we rode clear around Independence Rock. I should judge the distance to be about three-quarters of a mile. We examined the many names and lists of names of the trappers, traders, travellers and emigrants which are painted upon these rocks. Nearly all the names were put on with red, black and yellow paint; some had washed out and were defaced. The greatest number were put on within a few years. Some of the names were quite plain after about 30 years. Nearly all the companies that pass by put some of their names on the rock.∗ With their usual acumen the Mormons soon stationed two of their members at the rock to chisel the initials of “gentile” travelers into its surface, and charge them for it. After going around and examining it we staked our horses and mounted the rock. I went forward and gained the highest point at the south end of the rock which contained the names. After examining it I then went to the north end which is the highest part of the rock. Here is an opening or cavern which could contain thirty or forty persons, and a rock stands on the highest peak of about three tons weight. We got upon this rock and offered up our prayers according to the order of the Priesthood; we prayed earnestly for the blessings of God to rest upon President Young, his brethren, the Twelve, and all of the Pioneer camp and the whole camp of Israel and house of Israel; our wives and children and relatives; that the Lord would hasten the time of fulfillment of his promises to Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Lehi, Nephi, Alma and Moroni, and all the sayings of the Lord concerning the building up of Zion in die last days and avenging the blood of the Prophets and while offering up our prayers the spirit of the Lord descended upon us, and we truly felt to rejoice. … I was the first Latter Day Saint that ever went onto that rock or offered up prayers according to the Priesthood.
Five miles beyond Independence Rock the Mormons stopped again to see Devil’s Gate and hear the roar of the water dashing through perpendicular stone cliffs four hundred feet high. A mile beyond, they camped beside the wild current of the Sweetwater. The Pioneers could see then, almost obscured by the twilight mists, the distant, snowy peaks of the Wind River Mountains, and they knew that their long journey would soon be at an end. They had traveled, according to the guide-board they erected there, 175¼ miles from Fort Laramie.
June 24 began with exasperation for Brigham Young. His team ran away with a wagon but was caught (“by the bit”) at the very edge of the river. His best horse, the finest in the expedition, died when a herdsman named Holman nudged the animal forward with his rifle and the trigger caught in his clothing, causing the weapon to fire. Known as the leader’s “John” horse, it was the third killed during the trek and caused strong recommendations that the brothers no longer carry loaded guns “with caps upon their tubes.” As the day ended, Thomas Bullock wrote, “The Sweetwater Mountains are disappearing and the Rocky Mountains are coming into plainer view.” Devout Norton Jacobs bethought himself of the words of “Old Nephi” as reported in the Book of Mormon: “When upon the cross the Savior died for man’s sin and wickedness, darkness covered the earth. She trembled and her bosom heaved mightily. … here upborn from their lowermost foundations these mighty piles of granite … —despite the efforts of summer’s suns—have held aloft the ensign of peace.”
In that last week of June, cold winds from the ice-white slopes of the Rocky Mountains froze milk and water in their pails. Little Isaac Decker and Zobriski Young snowballed each other, their missiles gathered from the ten-foot drifts along the way. Dandelions, strawberries, and wild onions bloomed in the sharp, dry air of the Sweetwater Valley. On luxuriant grass Wilford Woodruff saw carnelian stones “from the size of a goose egg to a pound”—more in one hour than he had ever seen “in the rude state or polished and set in breastpins.” Red willows stood deep in snow that fringed the river. And on Sunday, June 27, all the Mormons remembered that this day was the fourth anniversary of the murder of the founder of their faith, Joseph Smith, and of his brother, Hyrum. Fittingly on this morning, the expedition crossed the Great Divide through the South Pass, and all knew that another of the mystic leader’s prophecies, that the true Zion would be settled in the Rockies, would soon be fulfilled.
As June gentled into July the weather was warmer, and the brethren were visited on the trail by strangers who spoke the dialect of the mountain men and raised it to an intensity that held them spellbound. Brother Brigham and the members of the Twelve felt the historic importance of these meetings with interpreters of the land they were about to enter, and so in turn did the mountain men.
One of these was old Moses Harris, trader and trapper in the Rocky Mountains for a quarter of a century. “He spoke unfavorable of the Salt Lake country for a settlement,” wrote Wilford Woodruff, and William Clayton was depressed by his saying there was “little chance to hope for even a moderate good country anywhere in those regions.” The whole countryside was sandy, barren, and treeless, the old man said. The Salt Lake Valley was a wasteland of the wild sage.
Heavy of heart, the Mormon Pioneers pushed on until Brother Brigham at their head heard the jingle of spurs, the hoofbeats of approaching horses. Suddenly out of a hollow appeared three eastbound riders. The leader was forty-two-year-old Jim Bridger, most famous of all mountain men, and he had hardly dismounted before he began to talk, asking that he might be heard not only by their official leader but by his principal advisers. By the Little Sandy, where they nooned, he told all these about their promised land.
Beside the swift Green River, he said, the mountains stand so close that horsemen cannot pass. On the far side lie level plains that end in hard black rock. It shines in the sun, and its edges are so sharp they will cut a horse’s feet to pieces. From Bridger’s Fort, his home, to Great Salt Lake is about a hundred miles. Along the trail stand sugar trees and cottonwoods. The outlet of Utah Lake runs into Salt Lake. It runs muddy and it runs low but its banks are red and white with clover. There is timber all around the Utah Lake and plenty of blue grass. Great Salt Lake is so big it takes a man in a canoe three months to go all the way round.
Jim Bridger went on to speak of mines of gold, of copper and of lead. He knew of lodes of silver and of iron, of sulphur and saltpeter. He said at the end of Great Salt Lake a bubbling spring spurted hot and cold fresh water, hot and cold salt water, and at the same time manufactured scads of verdigris which the Indians used for green paint with which to daub their bodies. And, speaking of Indians, they raised in this area as good corn, wheat, and pumpkins as were ever raised in old Kentucky. Wild flax grew in all the valleys. So did grapes and cherries, berries and persimmons. Bridger described mountains with snow melting on their peaks and streams striping all the slopes, and, on the level, frequent saleratus deserts and lakes surrounded by white salt flats. Nevertheless, said Jim Bridger simply and with a bit of pathos, “This country is my paradise and if this people settles in it I want to settle with them.” But when some of the brethren said they would plant corn there, and potatoes, and wheat, Jim laughed and said the winter cold would freeze all such plants.
“I’ll give you a thousand dollars for the first bushel of corn you grow in the Great Salt Basin,” he said, and Brother Brigham said quietly, “Wait and we will show you.” Obviously, he had made his decision as to the journey’s end.
That night while Bridger was dining with President Young in private, Wilford Woodruff set down in his daily journal his estimate of the famous mountain man and his report: “We found him to have been a great traveler and possessed a great knowledge … if what he told us was true.”
As he wrote, a plague was attacking the camp. “Mountain fever,” characterized by headaches, high temperatures, and resultant delirium, had disabled several of the Pioneers, and in the following weeks it affected many of the men and Clarissa Decker Young (wife of Lorenzo), one of the three women, as well. Fortunately its victims recovered in a few days, but they remained weak and listless for varying lengths of time. Some of the brothers attributed the disease to “mineral saleratus” picked up on the shores of small lakes they passed.
On the last day of June Samuel Brannan, commander of a group of Mormons who had taken ship for San Francisco by way of the Horn, appeared in camp with news of the brethren he had led and of the Mormon Battalion (500 volunteers who had fought with the Army in Mexico), many of whom were at Pueblo de Los Angeles. He urged President Young to lead the party to the west coast and described with lyric fervor the climate and fertility of California. Barley there had no hull on it. There was no necessity to cultivate oats, for they grew wild. Clover reached as high as a horse’s belly. Wild horses were scattered over the plains. Salmon caught in the San Joaquin River weighed ten or twelve pounds. To all this talk the brethren turned deaf ears. They already mistrusted the shifty Brannan (who was eventually excommunicated), and they were still enchanted by the spell Jim Bridger had cast upon them.
Now that they were within striking distance of their goal, the Mormons were in fine fettle and even inclined to regard with humor the hardships they were enduring. On July 3 Thomas Bullock wrote: “We passed a mosquito manufactory, immense swarms of them,” and WiIford Woodruff wrote, “The mosquitoes have filled my carriage like a cloud.”
Shortly after noon on Sunday, July 4, a detachment of twelve soldiers under command of Sergeant Thomas Williams crossed the Green River (where the expedition had stopped for the night) and rode into camp in strict formation. Williams said with dry humor that they were in pursuit of horse thieves, as indeed they were, but they were immediately recognized as members of the Mormon Battalion. While they were still in line President Young spoke a few words. Cheer after cheer rose from the brethren. Then, according to Thomas Bullock’s account, the President proposed “Glory to God for their safe return,” and all who heard him responded, crying out: “Hosanna! Hosanna! Hosanna! Give Glory to God and the Lamb!”
More soberly Norton Jacobs wrote: “This is Uncle Sam’s day of Independence. Well, we are independent of all the powers of the Gentiles; that is enough for us.”
The next day was hot, the road was dusty. The Pioneers saw a hard shower descending near the mountains and felt a little wind from it. “In this country,” wrote Brother Woodruff, “it rains about the mountains but not much in the valleys and plains.” The units of the train stayed farther apart to avoid the dust. They traveled twenty miles to Black’s Ford, twenty miles of a trail lined by the blossoms of prickly pears, some red, some yellow, and found at the end nine wickiups in a beautiful vale, and horses grazing peacefully beside them. Now each day the country grew richer. Cedars flourished in the woods, pines were tall on the mountains, cottonwood roots dug deep into the shallows of the rivers. That night they halted beside a wide-mouthed cave lined with soft sandstone (Redding Cave) and many of the Pioneers, boylike, cut their names into its walls. The next day they forded Bear River, nooned at Needle Cliff, and as they made their camp at sunsetting, came a few drops of rain “sufficient [wrote Brother George A. Smith] to cause a full-arched rainbow.” The brothers were happy.
But in the wagon of Wilford Woodruff there was worry, even fear. President Young had been stricken by mountain fever. His temperature was so high that those who tended him were concerned for his life. Stops became more frequent. On July 13, after consultation among the leaders, it was decided that Orson Pratt should take twenty-three wagons and forty-two of the most able-bodied men as an advance party to explore and make ready the road through the mountains for the rest of the Pioneers to follow. Among the advance party were many men famous in the history of the church—and also the three Negroes of the lot—Oscar Crosby, Hark Lay, and Green Flake. Three days later the main camp had inched slowly down a steep gulch and stopped for the noon rest, when the long-haired scout Porter Rockwell arrived from the advance band to assure them that their party was nearing the canyons that would lead into the Great Basin.
On either side of the lurching wagons that afternoon the red rock walls towered hundreds of feet. “There is a very singular echo in this ravine,” wrote William Clayton. “The rattling of wagons resembles carpenters hammering at boards inside the highest rocks. The report of a rifle resembles a sharp crack of thunder and echoes from rock to rock for some time. The lowing of cattle and braying of mules seem to be answered behind the mountains.” The playing of band instruments by some of his companions, he added, bounced back from the gulch’s walls in exact duplication. (Today the ravine is called Echo Canyon.)
On the seventeenth President Young’s illness was much worse, and the party moved only three miles. From their campsite at Weber River they could see a group of small towers, “Witches Rocks,” resembling “old factory or furnace chimneys.”
The sun had passed above the amazingly deep defile in which the wagons waited, when a band of the camp elders led by Heber C. Kimball, Willard Richards, and Ezra T. Benson∗ Benson’s great grandson and namesake, the Secretary of Agriculture under President Eisenhower, is a member of the present Council of Twelve of the Mormon Church. presented themselves in their priestly garments “before the Lord.” To Him they offered up their united prayers for their stricken President to be healed, the camp to be prospered, the Saints to be blessed. On their precarious way back to the camp “the brethren amused themselves by rolling big rocks down the hill,” wrote Thomas Bullock, and William Clayton wrote his own description of this curious scene.
The bugle sounded at ten in the morning and the brethren met at a cool bower made in a little grove near the wagon of Willard Richards. Heber C. Kimball then spoke very earnestly. He recommended that the whole camp, except President Young and enough men to care for him, set out on the following day to find fertile ground in which to plant potatoes, buckwheat, turnips, and other crops. The project was unanimously adopted, and on July 20 the major division of the camp was moving in the wake of the advance party, though Heber Kimball, Wilford Woodruff, and Ezra Benson stayed with President Young, who now was improving rapidly.
Erastus Snow left the main camp in the morning and by strenuous riding overtook Orson Pratt’s advance group during the day. He bore messages, one of which was a letter to Pratt from Willard Richards and George A. Smith detailing President Young’s advice. The general happiness of the expedition was apparent in a humorous passage dictated by Brother Brigham:”… prosecute the route as you have hitherto done until you arrive at some point in the Basin where you could hear the potatoes grow, if they had only happened to be there.”
On July 22 historic events came with a rush. The main camp rattled down the roughest section of the long road it had covered, with clownish black-and-white magpies tumbling about before them on stumps the travelers had cut to facilitate the advance. Sandhill cranes gazed solemnly at them from the banks of steaming hot springs. A hawk sailed above them. The ground “seemed literally alive with very large black crickets crawling around up grass and bushes.” Thomas Bullock, camp historian, wrote in his journal,
We succeeded in getting through the narrow part of the canyon about 4 o’clock p.m. when we turned around the hill to the right and came in full view of the Salt Lake in the distance; its islands with their lofty hills towering up in bold relief behind the silvery lake … I could not help shouting hurrah, hurrah, hurrah, here is my home at last!
That night the camp bivouacked beside a little stream almost hidden by tall grasses. Several of the advance party joined them for excited talks. So happy were they all that when hot springs were reported only a few miles away, the brethren suggested that one would do for a barber shop and that the largest, pouring out of a large rock having a big stone in the middle, “would make a first rate … steam house.”
On the morning of the twenty-third the Pioneers set up a campground on the banks of the stream today called City Creek, and exactly at noon Seth Taft turned the first furrow. The plow broke! It was soon repaired, and there were other plows.
At two o’clock the brethren began work on building a dam and cutting trenches to carry water into the land. Word came, welcome word indeed, that Brigham Young was much better and would enter the Great Basin on the morrow.
On that morrow the President, still weak but gaining strength, asked Wilford Woodruff, in whose carriage he was riding, to turn the vehicle so that he might look out over the valley. From his seat, then, the tired commander surveyed the long sea of grass over which only one cedar lifted crooked limbs. Below him, but out of his sight, he knew that those whom he had brought to this Canaan were already enthusiastically at work making the flat acres bordering the wide blue lake a garden spot. “This is the right place,” he said to Wilford Woodruff. “Drive on.”
“This is the first Sunday that the Latter-day Saints ever spent in the Great Salt Lake Valley,” wrote Woodruff on July 25. “We washed, shaved and cleaned up and met in the circle of the encampment. … George A. Smith preached an interesting discourse, standing upon the cannon.” Other speakers followed, and at noon the program was interrupted until the afternoon. At two it began again. At its close President Young, though feeble, spoke. Brother Woodruff entered his memories of the President’s speech in his journal later on in the day. The brethren must not work on Sunday, said Brigham Young, and if they did they would lose five times as much as they would gain by it, and they must not hunt or fish on that day,”… and there should not one man dwell among us who would not obey these rules; they might go and dwell where they pleased but should not dwell with us.”
After a few remarks on the distribution of land, the speaker “warned the Saints against keeping anything that did not belong to them, that if they followed such a course it would leak out and they would stink in the nostrils of Jehovah, the Angels, and the Saints, and though they might live with the Saints and die with them, they would be damned at last and go to hell, for they were thieves and nothing but burning through hell would cleanse them.”
Brother Brigham was obviously and audibly himself again.