Chimney Rock: Life on the
Distance: 718 miles from Nauvoo
The Latter-day Saints, like hundreds of thousands of
other Americans and immigrants in the mid- to late 1800s,
crossed the Great American Plains and the Rocky Mountains in
their quest for a better life in the West. But surely this
was the most unusual group to make the journey: organized in
companies, with captains, committees, and choirs, they sang,
danced, and worshiped their way across half a continent,
building bridges, planting crops, and erecting shelters in
an orchestrated effort to ensure a better passage for those
who would inevitably follow.
Perhaps the most significant landmark on the overland
trail, Chimney Rock is a finger of Brule clay jutting nearly
500 feet into the western Nebraska sky. Emigrants were
constantly amazed that it appeared so close, while the
distance from first sighting to actual arrival seemed to
take so long. Not only did emigrants write about it in their
journals, but many painted or sketched it, and often they
would carve their names and dates of passage in its soft
flanks. A lightning strike in August of 1992 blasted five
feet from the top of the famous landmark.
In January of 1847 Brigham Young announced that those
crossing the plains were to be organized into companies of
hundreds, fifties, and tens, with their respective captains.
Individuals without families (women without husbands and
children without fathers) were adopted into a family for the
"Special committees were designated for hunting, trail marking,
and road improvement. Everyone had an assignment, everyone felt
personally essential to the company's higher purpose. Taking everything
into account, the Pioneer Company was probably the best-supplied,
best-armed, and most trail-experienced group to go west up till
then. Even so, being led by a determined man armed with a dream
probably made all the difference" (Arthur King Peters, Seven
Trails West , 124125).
They Did Dance!
"One of Father's [Brigham Young] most outstanding qualities as
a leader was the manner in which he looked after the temporal and
social welfare of his people along with guiding them in their spiritual
needs. On the great trek across the plains when everyone but the
most feeble walked the greater part of the way, the Saints would
be gathered around the campfire for evening entertainment, if the
weather was at all favorable. There songs would be sung, music played
by the fiddlers, and the men and women would forget the weariness
of walking fifteen miles or so over a trackless desert while they
joined in dancing the quadrille. It was his way of keeping up 'morale'
before such a word was ever coined" (Clarissa Young Spencer, One
Who Was Valiant , 162).
Communities on Wheels
Quite unlike the majority of people migrating west in the mid-1800smost
of them men, seasoned in farming or in the tradesthe Latter-day
Saints were a polyglot lot that mostly defied definition. Entire
families, even extended families; single adults; orphaned (but soon-to-be-adopted)
children; lawyers, doctors, piano builders, seamstresses, architects,
masons, mathematicians; rich and poor; American, Scandinavian, Welsh,
and British made the journey. "These tens of thousands," wrote J.
Reuben Clark in 1947, "were the warp and the woof of Brother Brigham's
great commonwealth . . . all gathered from the four corners of the
earth . . . all to the glory of God and the up-building of his kingdom"
(In Conference Report, Oct. 1947, 159). On the Trail, they moved
with a social cohesion unknown to others. "As communities on the
march," wrote historian Wallace Stegner, "they proved extraordinarily
adaptable. When driven out of Nauvoo, they converted their fixed
property, insofar as they could, into the instruments of mobility
. . . and became for the time herders and shepherds, teamsters and
frontiersmen, instead of artisans and townsmen and farmers. When
their villages on wheels reached the valley of their destination,
the Saints were able to revert at once" to their former interests
and occupations (The Gathering of Zion: The Story of the Mormon
Trail , 6).
For roughly 70,000 Latter-day Saint pioneers, it was not a common
background that brought them together, but the vision of a common
The "Down and Back" Wagon Trains
Perhaps no other effort better demonstrated trail efficiency and
pioneer cooperation than the organization of the "down and back"
wagon trains of 18611868. These six-month round-trip trains
departed Utah in the spring, traveling "down" to the Missouri River,
loaded with flour to be sold in the East. The trains were reloaded
with newly arrived European converts, and brought them "back" to
the Salt Lake Valley in the fall. Virtually every Utah settlement
contributed to the cause with supplies (wagons, teams, and food)
or men (captains, teamsters, commissary chiefs, clerks, and guards).
Escaping arduous summer farm work for the adventure of living on
the plains was hardly a sacrifice for the young men sent on the
"down and back" trains. Neither was the good fortune of being among
the first to meet new young single emigrant women.
15 July 1848
opposite Chimney Rock. . . . Here the scenery is remarkable, interesting
and romantic. It produces an impression as if we were bordering
on a large and antiquated city" (Journal of Richard Ballantyne,
1847-1848, 2 vols., 15 July 1848, Family and Church History Department
Archives, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints [microfilm],
17 July 1848
camps moved off at nine o'clock, President Kimball's company taking
the lead. Stopt at noon to water & feed six miles west of Chimney
Rock. As we come forward President Brigham Young's camp moved off
& part of Brother Snow's company commenced crossing the river
at this point. President H.C. Kimball's company commenced a little
past 5 and crost one hundred & eighty wagons to dark; all safe,
except one wagon of Brother Howard Egan tipt partially over on the
side; nothing injured; a few things wet. This ford was considered
one mile across. We generally had to put on the strength of three
wagons as the fellows of each wagon generaly burried themselves
in gravel & sand. We found our corells on the south bank of
the main Platt & set out our guards as usual. No wood; poor
grass; plenty of muddy water" (Journal of William Thompson, 17 July
1848, as reprinted in the Journal History of The Church of Jesus
Christ of Latter-day Saints, 24 Sep. 1848, 70:3334).
soon as we had struck our wagon in the corral, unyoke the cattle,
gather wood, or buffalo chips for cooking, and usually to save fuel,
dig a hole in the ground about 3 feet long, one wide, and 6 inches
deep. This prevented the wind from blowing the heat away. . . The
next thing was to get the cows (they were drove all together clean
behind all the company) and milk, then drive stakes to tie the cattle
to an about this time the drove would come in and then get the cattle
and tie them.
"These were regular and sometimes as many more, according
to camping ground, sometimes have to go a mile and a half
for water and sometimes had to dig wells. Each ten herded
their cattle and every man and boy able to do it took their
regular turn according to the number of the ten. In the ten
I was in there was an increase until the number of wagons
amounted to 24 and 25 persons to herd, and it came each ones
turn once in 5 days taking 5 to each days company.
"The guarding of the camp fell on each man proportionally
once in 7 and sometimes 6 nights, and then half the night,
only. The herding and guarding together with my daily tasks
kept me beat down and wore out all the time. The women were
as well drove beat down as the men.
"Sundays were scarcely a day of rest nor could it be if we travelled
Monday" (As quoted in Wallace Stegner, The Gathering of Zion:
The Story of the Mormon Trail , 203).
"Our costumes would look fine at one of our
so-called 'Hard Times Balls.' Our hats . . . assumed the
most grotesque shapes. . . . Ladies' skirts and the men's
trousers hung in irregular trimmings. . . . The ladies [were
not] particular about whether their skirts could hide their
poor footwear, if indeed they were well enough off to own a
pair of shoes. . . .
"A very old man, who had completely lost his sense of smell, came
into camp one day, after the rest of us had things somewhat in order,
with a skunk which he counted on cooking for soup. This almost made
the rest of us leave. He had killed it with his cane and knew nothing
about its peculiar means of defense" ("By Handcart to Utah: The
Account of C.C.A. Christensen," Richard L. Jensen, trans., Nebraska
History, Winter 1985, 342).
William Henry Jackson
10 August 1866
Mormon corral presents a lively, interesting scene. Three hundred
men, women and children grouped within the space occupied by the
encircled wagons very naturally making it so. A few of the families
have small tents that are put up both inside and outside the corral;
the rest sleeping either in their wagons or under them. The whole
outfit is divided into messes of convenient size, and, as soon as
camp is located, the first thing to do is to start the fires; those
whose duty it is to provide fuel foraging around in every direction
for 'chips,' sage brush, or any other material available, and soon
forty of fifty bright little fires are twinkling inside and outside
the corral, with coffee pots, frying pans, and bake ovens filling
the air with appetizing incense. From a little distance one of these
encampments, at night, resembles an illuminated city in miniature,
and as one approaches nearer there is usually the sound of revelry.
In every Mormon train there are usually some musicians, for they
seem to be very fond of song and dance, and as soon as the camp
work is done the younger element gather in groups and 'trip the
light fantastic toe' with as much vim as if they had not had a twenty
mile march that day" (The Diaries of William Henry Jackson: Frontier
Photographer, ed. LeRoy R. Hafen and Ann W. Hafen , 6465).
courtesy of Infobases, Inc.