“Humor on the Plains” Stories Show New Side of Pioneers

Contributed By Sarah Harris, Church News staff writer

  • 6 July 2017

Zebulon Jacobs was one of a team of men who fell victim to a prank involving tar and wagon grease. Photo courtesy of FamilySearch.org.

“Sometimes while gathering these chips one must be very carful in examening the under part or they might find them not so hard as he would wish.” —John Clark Dowdle, teamster helping pioneers in 1866

Mormon pioneer diaries tell of the many trials and hardships pioneers faced on their journey west, but they also relate some happy and comical experiences that occurred during their travels.

The Church History website’s Mormon Pioneer Overland Travel database contains a collection titled “Humor on the Plains,” which recounts humorous stories found in pioneer writings.

Club first and ask questions later

For example, the collection contains an 1861 story from pioneer Henry William Nichols (some original spelling has been preserved from the following accounts). One night while Nichols was on guard duty, he saw something dodging around the wagons. He said he was going to shoot at it, but not wanting to alarm the camp, he picked up a club instead.

Nichols said he chased the creature “a considerable distance from the camp” and killed it, only to find out the animal was a skunk.

“It was too late. The mischief was done,” Nichols wrote. “The fact of the matter [was] I was completely smothered. I had to change all of my clothes. My shoes—I had to through [throw] them away, for I kicked it in dispatching it.”

The next morning, he was sent away to eat breakfast by himself, and he said it was a few days before the clothes he wore during the encounter were back to normal.

“I had to take several baths before I was properly sterilized,” Nichols recounted.

Lessons that stick with you

The “Humor on the Plains” collection also includes an account from John Clark Dowdle, who, after immigrating to the Salt Lake Valley in 1852, helped other pioneers to cross the plains as a teamster for an out-and-back company in 1866.

Dowdle wrote of a time that year when his party was forced to burn buffalo chips for fuel, since they had traveled hundreds of miles without seeing a tree or stick to use as firewood.

John Clark Dowdle advised that when gathering buffalo chips, “one must be very carful in examening the underpart.” Photo courtesy of FamilySearch.org.

“Sometimes while gathering these chips one must be very carful in examening the under part or they might find them not so hard as he would wish,” Dowdle recalled.

He then recounted an experience in which a young woman in his group was gathering chips one evening for her family and turned over a “very nice large one” only to find something soft and disagreeable on the other side.

“She gave her hand a turible [terrible] shake making some of the teamsters think that she was bitten by a rattle snake,” Dowdle wrote. “She had pressed the chip rather hard and the [effect] being not very plesant, so the reader can well imagen the effect of the joke.”

A complimentary facial

The collection also contains an August 1861 entry from out-and-back teamster Zebulon Jacobs, who wrote of a morning when his team woke up and began laughing at each other, discovering their faces had been smeared with tar and wagon grease overnight.

“Some of the boys from the other camp had paid us a visit and left their compliments upon our faces,” Jacobs wrote.

These stories from Nichols, Dowdle, and Jacobs are the only three currently in the “Humor on the Plains” collection, but Church History Library director Keith Erekson said there are plans to add more in the future.

Henry William Nichols recorded an encounter with a skunk with an unfortunate ending for both parties involved. Photo courtesy of FamilySearch.org.

• This is the first in a series of articles observing 170 years since the arrival of the first company of Mormon Pioneers in the Salt Lake Valley in 1847.