On the Trail in April and May


The following representation of events that took place in April and May 1847 is provided as part of the sesquicentennial celebration of the arrival of the Latter-day Saint pioneers to the Salt Lake Valley in July 1847.

On the Trail in April and May

In April and May 1847, the main groups of the Latter-day Saints and their leaders were in either Winter Quarters, Nebraska, and the nearby surrounding areas or on the trail west with President Brigham Young and the first wagon train, or advance, exploratory company, known as the Camp of Israel.

In Winter Quarters, Nebraska

Elder Parley P. Pratt Returns to Winter Quarters from His Mission in England

“I crossed over the ferry at noon of a fine April day, and came suddenly upon my friends and family. This was April 8, 1847. I found my family all alive, and dwelling in a log cabin. They had, however, suffered much from cold, hunger and sickness. … One of the family was then lying very sick with the scurvy. … I found, on inquiry, that the winter had been very severe, the snow deep, and, consequently, that all my horses (four in number) were lost, and I afterwards ascertained that out of twelve cows I had but seven left, and out of some twelve or fourteen oxen only four or five were spared. …

“… I had an interview with [President Brigham Young and others]. I then gave a relation of our European mission, and delivered to them an account of four hundred and sixty-nine sovereigns in gold, collected in England as tithing, which had crossed the sea in my charge. … This small sum proved a very acceptable and timely relief in aiding the Presidency to relieve some of the distress, and to fit out as pioneers for the mountains.” 1

Winter Quarters Mail

Letters flowed to and from the Winter Quarters area. From her tent in Winter Quarters, Mary Richards, age 23, wrote the following letter to her missionary husband, Samuel, who was serving in England. She started writing on 15 April, but because the mail did not leave Winter Quarters, daily or even weekly, she had time to add to it, which she did until 27 April. Among the matters she discussed with Samuel was the hat-making business she and her in-laws were venturing into:

“[15 April:] Mother is getting much better [and] is now sitting on the bed so as to give us more room in the tent. She has finished sewing 2 hats … and is now to work on the 3rd, one of which I have braided since my return home. So you see we are not idle. I expect I shall have to work this summer in order that I may eat, so I have chosen the straw business as my occupation.

“[17 April:] Mother has sold 5 hats this spring and gotten good pay for them, but Henry [Samuel’s 15-year-old brother] doesn’t love to braid.

“[27 April:] Mother is quite smart. She has all the straw work she can do. People flock in … to get hats made, bonnets cleaned, etc.” 2

With the Camp of Israel

Elder Orson Pratt—Man of Science

Before leaving Winter Quarters, the Saints had ordered the following scientific instruments from England: two sextants, one circle of reflection, two artificial horizons, two barometers, several thermometers, and a telescope. The instruments arrived 13 April 1847. 3 A man of great intellect and scientific ability, Elder Orson Pratt of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles cared for and used these instruments along the trail as he recorded the latitude and longitude and made other important measurements.

William Clayton was only one of several who wrote of Elder Orson Pratt’s scientific work. On 24 April, William Clayton wrote:

“Evening I walked over to Orson Pratt’s wagon, and through his telescope saw Jupiter’s four moons very distinctly never having seen them before. I went over to my wagon and looked through my glass and could see them with it, but not so distinct as with Orson’s.” 4

Fuel, Water, and Food

Once on the treeless Nebraska prairies, the Camp of Israel needed a new source of fuel, and they found a plentiful supply in buffalo chips. Howard Egan, a Camp of Israel diarist, explained in his 30 April entry:

“Stopped about 5 P.M. and encamped about two miles from the river near a bluff, with neither wood nor water. We picked up some dry buffalo dung, which made a very good fire, and we dug a well and found plenty of water.” 5

The skills of hunting and fishing were basic to the survival of the Camp of Israel. Journal and diary entries for April and May 1847 tell of plentiful game, such as fish, snapping turtles, ducks, antelope, deer, hares, wild geese, and rattlesnakes (used for their oil). However, it was the great herds of buffalo that provided the largest source of food for travelers across the plains of Nebraska. Both William Clayton and Elder Wilford Woodruff described these herds in their journals on 8 May. “The prairie on both sides of the river is literally black with buffalo,” wrote William Clayton. “I should imagine that at moderate calculation, we have seen over fifty thousand. They are more tame than they have been, and will stand till the wagons come within two hundred yards of them. Porter [Rockwell] has shot one about two years old, the meat looks nice. There is no difficulty in getting meat enough.” 6

Elder Woodruff wrote, “It looked as though the face of the earth was alive and moving like the waves of the sea.” 7

Chimney Rock, the Halfway Mark

Chimney Rock, with its distinctive pinnacle, stood about 260 feet above the prairie and was therefore visible for 40 miles to overland travelers. It became a landmark for the Saints of the halfway point of their journey. The Camp of Israel arrived at Chimney Rock on 26 May. While there, Elder Orson Pratt calculated its height. After the group moved on to Scotts Bluff, Elder Woodruff wrote: “In company with Brigham Young and the Twelve we visited the top of two of the highest bluffs … , which were truly a curiosity. Orson Pratt took a berometrical observation on the only tree which was red cedar on the top of the ruins or bluff which we visited. We [still] had a fair view of Chimney Rock from where we were. I carried a bleached buffalo bull’s head on to the top and wrote upon it with a pencil our names and distances from several places, for the benefit of the next camp.” 8

[illustration] Buffalo provided food and fuel for part of the trek (Scotts Bluff, by Frederick Piercy; courtesy of Museum of Church History and Art)

[photo] Elder Orson Pratt of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles

[illustration] Detail from Handcart Pioneers, by C. C. A. Christensen; courtesy of Museum of Church History and Art

William G. Hartley, an associate professor of history and research professor at BYU’s Joseph Fielding Smith Institute, teaches Sunday School in the Riverside Third Ward, Murray Utah North Stake.

Show References

    Notes

  1.   1.

    Autobiography of Parley P. Pratt, ed. Parley P. Pratt Jr. (1985), 326, 329.

  2.   2.

    Mary Haskin Parker Richards, Winter Quarters: The 1846–1848 Life Writings of Mary Haskin Parker Richards, ed. Maurine Carr Ward (1996), 132–39. Spelling, grammar, and punctuation corrected.

  3.   3.

    See B. H. Roberts, History of the Mormon Church, 3:584.

  4.   4.

    William Clayton’s Journal (1921), 102.

  5.   5.

    Journal History, 30 Apr. 1847.

  6.   6.

    William Clayton’s Journal, 136.

  7.   7.

    Wilford Woodruff Journals, 8 May 1847, LDS Church Archives.

  8.   8.

    Excerpt from Wilford Woodruff Journals, in Journal History, 29 May 1847.