It was apparent to Brigham Young and the other leaders of the Church that it would be unwise to attempt to reach the Rocky Mountains in the year 1846, since the expedition now had been seriously weakened by the loss of the young men who had marched with the Mormon Battalion. Accordingly, a temporary settlement was established along the Missouri River.
The site, adjoining the present city of Omaha, soon had more of the appearance of a town than a camp. Many of the people got along with dugouts and other crude shelters. However, a thousand sturdy log houses were erected before January 1847.
During all of that winter, feverish activity went on. Anvils rang with the making and repairing of wagons. Available maps and reports were carefully studied, and every preparation possible was undertaken to ensure the success of the move scheduled for the following spring.
The community was not without its pleasures, although comforts were few. Dances were frequently held under the sponsorship of the various quorums of the priesthood. Religious worship was carried on as though the people were permanently settled. Schools for the children were successfully conducted, for the education of the young has always been of prime importance in the Church’s philosophy.
But often a pupil—sometimes several—did not appear when the school bell rang. A type of scurvy, called black can-ker, took a sorrowful toll. Lack of proper nourishment, insufficient shelter, extremes of temperature in the lowlands along the river—these made the people easy victims of disease.
In recent years the Church has erected a monument in the old cemetery of Winter Quarters. In heroic size it depicts a mother and father laying a child in a grave they know they never again will visit. Surrounding the monument are the graves of some six hundred of those who died at this temporary encampment on the prairie.
In the early spring of 1847, plans were completed for the sending of a pioneer company to the Rocky Mountains. Their responsibility was to chart a route and find a place for the thousands who would follow.
On January 14, President Young delivered to the Saints what he declared to be a revelation from the Lord. This became the constitution governing their westward movement. It is an interesting document, reading in part as follows:
“The Word and Will of the Lord concerning the Camp of Israel in their journeyings to the West:
“Let all the people of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and those who journey with them, be organized into companies, with a covenant and promise to keep all the commandments and statutes of the Lord our God.
“Let the companies be organized with captains of hundreds, captains of fifties, and captains of tens, with a president and his two counselors at their head, under the direction of the Twelve Apostles.
“And this shall be our covenant—that we will walk in all the ordinances of the Lord. …
“And if any man shall seek to build up himself, and seeketh not my counsel, he shall have no power, and his folly shall be made manifest.
“Seek ye; and keep all your pledges one with another; and covet not that which is thy brother’s.
“Keep yourselves from evil to take the name of the Lord in vain. …
“Cease to contend one with another; cease to speak evil one of another.
“Cease drunkenness; and let your words tend to edifying one another.
“If thou borrowest of thy neighbor, thou shalt restore that which thou hast borrowed; and if thou canst not repay then go straightway and tell thy neighbor, lest he condemn thee.
“If thou shalt find that which thy neighbor has lost, thou shalt make diligent search till thou shalt deliver it to him again.
“Thou shalt be diligent in preserving what thou hast, that thou mayest be a wise steward; for it is the free gift of the Lord thy God, and thou art his steward.
“If thou art merry, praise the Lord with singing, with music, with dancing, and with a prayer of praise and thanksgiving.
“If thou art sorrowful, call on the Lord thy God with supplication, that your souls may be joyful.
“Fear not thine enemies, for they are in mine hands and I will do my pleasure with them.” 1
To these general standards of conduct were added other specific rules. Every man was to carry a loaded gun or have one in his wagon where, in case of attack, he could get it at a moment’s notice. At night the wagons were to be drawn into a circle to form a corral for the teams. There was to be no travel or work on the Sabbath; both teams and men should rest on that day. Prayer, night and morning, should be a regular practice in the camp.
On April 5 the pioneer company started west. It consisted of 143 men, 3 women, and 2 children, with Brigham Young leading the group. Fortunately, when they had gone only a short distance, Apostles Parley P. Pratt and John Taylor arrived at Winter Quarters from England. They brought with them barometers, sextants, telescopes, and other instruments. In the hands of Orson Pratt, an accomplished scientist, these made it possible for the pioneers to determine the latitude, longitude, temperature, and elevation above sea level of their position each day. Such information was invaluable in the preparation of a guide for those who were to come later.
One of the famous trails of history already existed along the south side of the Platte River. It was to become more heavily traveled in years to come by thousands of emigrants bound for Oregon and California. However, Brigham Young decided against using the Oregon road, and determined to break a new trail on the north side of the river. In so doing, he said, the Mormon pioneers would avoid conflict with other westward-bound people and would also have more feed for the cattle of the companies to follow. It is interesting to note that when the Union Pacific Railroad was built some years later, it followed this Mormon road for a considerable distance.
In 1847 great herds of buffalo roamed the plains. It was customary practice among westward-bound emigrants to shoot them simply for sport. But Brigham Young took a different attitude. He advised his people to kill no more than were needed for meat.
A Log of the Journey
For a number of reasons, not the least of which was to prepare a guide for those to come later, the pioneers were interested in knowing the number of miles they covered each day. The first device employed to determine this was a red cloth tied to a wagon wheel. By counting the revolutions of the wheel and multiplying this number by the circumference of the rim, it was possible to determine the distance traveled. But watching the revolutions of a wheel, day in and day out, soon became tedious. There was need for a better way.
Consulting with Orson Pratt, Appleton Harmon solved the problem. Carving a set of wooden gears, he constructed what was called a roadometer. It was a novel device, the forerunner of the modern odometer. Although constructed of wood, it was amazingly accurate.
For the guidance of those who should follow, the pioneer company left letters describing mileage and conditions of the trail. These were tucked in an improvised mailbox or were painted on a sun-bleached buffalo skull.
Journals were carefully kept, noting details of the journey. Two excerpts from Orson Pratt’s journal serve as illustrations:
“May 22nd.—At a quarter past five this morning, the barometer stood at 26.623, attached thermometer 51.5 degrees, detached thermometer 48.5 degrees. A light breeze from the south—the sky partially overspread with thin clouds. … Five and a half miles from our morning encampment we crossed a stream, which we named Crab Creek; one and three-quarters mile further we halted for noon. A meridian observation of the sun placed us in latitude 41 deg. 30 min. 3 sec. I intended to have taken a lunar distance for the longitude, but clouds prevented. With our glasses, Chimney Rock can now be seen at a distance of 42 miles up the river. At this distance it appears like a short tower placed upon an elevated mound or hill. Four and a quarter miles further brought us to another place where the river strikes the bluffs; as usual we were obliged to pass over them, and in about two and a quar-ter miles we again came to the prairie bottoms, and driving a short distance we encamped, having made fifteen and a half miles during the day. For a number of miles past, the formation, more particularly that of the bluffs, has been gradually changing from sand to marl and soft earthy limestone, the nature of which is beginning to change the face of the country, presenting scenes of remarkable picturesque beauty. …
“May 23rd.—Sunday. To-day, as usual, we let ourselves and teams rest. The mercury in the barometer is, this morning, much more depressed than what can be accounted for by our gradual ascent; at five o’clock it stood at 26.191, attached thermometer 54.5 deg., detached thermometer 52 deg. A depression of the mercury is said to indicate high winds. To-day several of us again visited the tops of some of these bluffs, and by a barometrical measurement I ascertained the height of one [of] them to be 235 feet above the river, and 3590 feet above the level of the sea. … Rattlesnakes are very plentiful here. … Soon after dinner we attended public worship, when the people were interestingly and intelligently addressed by President B. Young and others.” 2
The route of the pioneers lay up the valley of the Platte to the confluence of the North Platte and South Platte Rivers. It then followed the North Platte through what is now Nebraska and Wyoming to a point where the Sweetwater River flows into the North Platte. The route then lay along this stream to its headwaters near South Pass, Wyoming.
By June 1 the company had reached old Fort Laramie, where they were surprised to find a group of Church members from Mississippi who had come from the south by way of Pueblo, Colorado, with the purpose of joining the pioneer company and following them to their destination.
On June 27 they moved over South Pass, that place where the Rockies gently slope to the prairie, and over which moved most of the westward-bound emigrants. At South Pass the pioneers met Major Moses Harris, a famous trapper and scout. From him they received a description of the basin of the Salt Lake. His report of the country was unfavorable. Of this interview Orson Pratt wrote:
“We obtained much information from him in relation to the great interior basin of the Salt Lake, the country of our destination. His report, like that of Captain Fremont’s, is rather unfavourable to the formation of a colony in this basin, principally on account of the scarcity of timber. He said that he had travelled the whole circumference of the lake, and that there was no outlet to it.” 3
On June 28 they met that wiry veteran of the West, Jim Bridger. Anxious to learn all they could of the country toward which they were traveling, the pioneers accepted his suggestion that they make camp and spend the night with him. He indicated that some good country could be found both to the north and to the south of the basin of the Salt Lake, but he discouraged any plan for establishing a large colony in the basin itself.
On June 30 Samuel Brannan rode into view. He was a member of the Church who, on February 4, 1846, the date of the first exodus from Nauvoo, had sailed from New York with more than two hundred Mormons bound for California by way of Cape Horn. Landing at Yerba Buena, now San Francisco, he had established the first English-language newspaper published there. He left California in April, riding east over the mountains to meet Brigham Young. En route he had passed the scene of the Donner Party tragedy of the preceding winter. When he met President Young, he described that ill-fated camp in which more than a score of people starved to death in the snows of the Sierras. Brannan also enthusiastically described the beauties of California. It was, he indicated, a rich and productive land of great beauty and equable climate, a land where the Mormons could prosper. But President Young could not be dissuaded from the purpose to which he had set himself—God had a place for his people, and there they would go to work out their destiny.
“This Is the Right Place”
As the pioneer company approached the mountains, travel became more difficult. Their teams were jaded, and their wagons were worn. Moreover, the steep mountain canyons, with their swift streams, huge boulders, and heavy tree growth, presented problems very different from those experienced on the plains.
On July 21 Orson Pratt and Erastus Snow, two advance scouts, entered the Salt Lake Valley. Three days later Brigham Young, who had moved more slowly because of illness, rode out of the canyon and looked across the valley. He paused, and then announced, “This is the right place.”
This was the promised land! This valley with its salty lake gleaming in the July sun. This treeless prairie in the moun-tains. This tract of dry land broken only by a few bubbling streams running from the canyons to the lake. This was the object of vision and of prophecy, the land of which thousands yet at Winter Quarters dreamed. This was their land of refuge, the place where the Saints would “become a mighty people in the midst of the Rocky Mountains.” 4
2. Millennial Star 12 (15 Mar. 1850): 82–83.
3. Millennial Star 12 (15 May 1850): 146.
4. HC 5:85.