“If men could learn from history, what lessons it might teach us!” wrote Samuel Taylor Coleridge in 1831.1 While it may sound surprising, a look at Church history can teach us about preparedness for our day.
For more than 60,000 Saints who journeyed to Utah during the wagon train period (1846–69), outdoor trail realities tested their preparation and showed what worked and what didn’t.
Lesson 1: When we ignore preparedness counsel, we can expect unhappy consequences.
Before leaving Nauvoo, members had Church-published lists of what to take with them. But when the first companies left in February 1846, several hundred members panicked and crossed the Mississippi River without proper clothes, food, or shelter. As a result, they brought suffering upon themselves, slowed down others, and drained resources from those properly prepared.
Lesson 2: Protect against nature.
Trail death tolls reveal that the highest numbers of deaths were among infants and the elderly. Some pioneers became cold and wet because wagon covers and tents were not waterproof. Others suffered sunburns when they lost their hats. Their lips chapped from the dry air, wind, and sun. Many suffered diarrhea and lacked medicine to stop it. Some travelers, while dressed properly for summer heat, lacked coats and gloves for the cold mountain temperatures experienced before reaching the Salt Lake Valley. In addition, pioneers had to guard against wildlife, particularly snakes and wolves. In many campsites they suffered from swarms of mosquitoes that badly hurt children and angered horses and cattle.
Lesson 3: Be accident cautious.
Accidents injured or killed many on the trail. Pioneers lamented their carelessness when they lost hats, binoculars, knives, axes, guns, watches, pans, shovels, and even horses and cattle. A few became so busy and distracted that even their children wandered away and became lost. When emergencies occur, we must be extra careful not to hurt ourselves by falls, burns, knife and axe cuts, or similar accidents. We need to be strict about putting things away.
Lesson 4: We should protect ourselves from uncaring or dishonest individuals.
Pioneers learned to guard against potential theft, assault, and even kidnapping. Some were put in charge of enforcing basic rules of conduct and expelling those who would not cooperate. And, as happens in groups during major crises, pioneers had to tune out complainers, whiners, and even rabble-rousers and doomsayers.
Lesson 5: Protect against discouragement.
Our best protection against discouragement during a crisis is to maintain our health by not becoming overly exhausted, which can lead to sickness and bad judgment. Some unwise pioneers were afraid to ask for help when they needed it, thereby bringing suffering upon themselves and those they cared for. Most wagon train travelers, in order to keep up their spirits, made friends with fellow travelers, held dances, sang together, and helped those whose wagons broke down or who became ill.
Lesson 6: Be creative and adaptive in difficult times.
Pioneer women took advantage of the bumpiness of the wagons and filled tubs with soap, water, and dirty clothes. By day’s end the clothes had been agitated clean. Some women also put cream into containers hung underneath the wagon and let the jostling churn the cream into butter.
In 1846–47, the majority of the Mormon Battalion, an infantry unit of nearly 500 men in the U.S. Army of the West during the Mexican War, marched about 2,000 miles from Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, to San Diego, California.2 We learn several lessons from their experiences.
Lesson 1: During a crisis we may need to leave our family to meet community needs.
On 3 July 1846, President Brigham Young, Elder Heber C. Kimball, and Elder Willard Richards began recruiting men for the Mormon Battalion. Recruiting continued until 20 July. At noon on Tuesday, 21 July, the battalion began its historic march. All this took place in the midst of the members’ migration across Iowa and left hundreds of women and children to cross the plains without these men to help them.
Lesson 2: Water-purifying pills or filters are essential.
Thirsty people will drink contaminated water, if necessary. Crossing a dry stretch in Kansas, the battalion suffered severely from heat and lack of water. So thirsty were they that they drove a herd of buffalo from an insect-infested pond and gladly drank the discolored and disgusting water. “No luxury was ever more thankfully received,” Sergeant Daniel Tyler wrote. Afterwards, “many were attacked with summer complaint.”3
Lesson 3: Writing materials and a camera are helpful resources.
About 20 soldiers kept diaries during the trek, using a strange assortment of notebooks and papers—whatever they could find to write on. In order to “show” what he was experiencing, one man drew sketches in his diary.
Lesson 4: Bread or other grain products are important.
In January 1847 at Warner’s Ranch in southern California, previously famished battalion men received four pounds of beef a day as their ration. Beef, however, did not satisfy their hunger. The men craved bread, which was unavailable.
Lessons from the Saluda Disaster
On Good Friday morning, 9 April 1852, the Missouri river-boat Saluda blew up near Lexington, Missouri, killing nearly two dozen Latter-day Saints traveling from St. Louis to Council Bluffs on their way west to Utah. Important lessons are learned from this tragedy.
Lesson 1: When the Spirit cautions us against something, we need to obey.
One passenger, William C. Dunbar, later admitted he had ignored warnings from the Holy Spirit to stay off the vessel. When Latter-day Saint agents chartered the old, slow Saluda to move Saints from St. Louis upriver to the wagon train camps, Brother Dunbar and his friend Duncan Campbell looked it over. Both felt strongly impressed that “something awful was going to happen,” such that each saw tears coursing down the other’s cheek. This was a warning that went unheeded. By contrast, Abraham O. Smoot was similarly prompted and refused to board the boat, even when offered free passage.
Despite his bad feelings about the Saluda, Brother Dunbar determined that he and his wife, Helen, and their two small children would go. But on departure morning the Dunbar family missed the boat because supplies they purchased did not show up on time. Brother Dunbar later reflected that “some friendly unseen power was at work in my behalf, trying to prevent me from going on board with my family.” Two days later they boarded another riverboat, but Brother Dunbar insisted that its captain put him aboard the slower Saluda if they caught up with it so they could rejoin the Latter-day Saint company. Before long they caught up with the Saluda, but river ice prevented the Dunbars from transferring. Upriver the passengers on the Dunbars’ boat disembarked, but Brother Dunbar made the captain drift their boat back to a dock where the Saluda was waiting for the ice to clear. There the Dunbars boarded the Saluda the night before it blew up. They joined about 175 passengers, 90 of them Latter-day Saints.
The Dunbars slept that night behind a canvas wall on the deck—directly over the boat’s boilers. Friday morning Brother Dunbar stepped briefly to another part of the deck to watch the crew working. Stokers fired up the boilers so the Saluda could start upriver. When pumps shot cold water into the red-hot boilers, they exploded. The blast was “heard and felt” throughout nearby Lexington. Two-thirds of the Saluda’s superstructure disintegrated in a cloud of smoke, flame, and dust. Passengers were blown ashore and into the river.
Brother Dunbar wrote, “I witnessed just two revolutions of the paddle wheels, when I remember nothing more till I found myself lying on the bank of the river within three yards of the water’s edge, with my clothes drenching wet, and my head all covered with blood.” When conscious, he found the lifeless body of his one-year-old boy. Then, in a temporary hospital, he saw his wife, Helen, breathe her last. Searching among the dead, he found the body of his five-year-old daughter. He lost his entire family. For the rest of his life he regretted that he ignored several voices of warning.4
Lesson 2: Up-to-date rosters of people are important, and parents need wills that specify who should have their children.
To this day, no one knows for certain how many members were aboard the Saluda, how many were lost, or how many reached Utah. Lexington townspeople, with charitable instincts but who also wanted to save children from Mormonism, took a number of Latter-day Saint orphans into their homes and raised them. Leaders had no list to check off to see how many children they needed to locate and claim.
Members in Utah suffered through a harsh famine in early 1856 caused by a drought, grasshopper plague, and severe winter. From April to October 1855 no rains fell. Grasshoppers cleaned county after county of grain and fruit. Dry forests burned that fall. Deep winter snows and cold killed thousands of cattle. By January 1856 the pioneers faced starvation. Their efforts to survive suggest lessons about food storage, food shortages, and food rationing.
Lesson 1: In times of dire food shortages, we should be willing to share our personal food storage with others.
By mid-March 1856, wards were taking inventories to determine how much food was left in the community. It became clear that everyone would need to share what they had. Presidents Brigham Young and Heber C. Kimball of the First Presidency, as well as many others who had supplies, reduced rations in their own families and helped those who were suffering. “I sell none for money,” President Kimball wrote, “but let it go where people are truly destitute. Dollars and cents do not count now.”5
One sister recalled that during the famine she gave away flour. As her supply dwindled, she gave away a loaf of bread. Finally, with little flour left, she gave away slices of bread. People picked up crumbs when she cut the slices. “Women would offer me their jewelry, fine clothing, anything they had for bread,” she remembered.7 Some people paid speculators $24 per hundred pounds of flour, when the normal price was $6. Bishop Aaron Johnson of Springville, Utah, sold flour at the going price of $6 and refused to raise his rates, even though people would pay four times that price.8
Lesson 2: During times of famine we might choose to fast more often to provide for the needy.
In 1856 fasting made more food available for others. In April, President Brigham Young said that his family saved a considerable amount “by frequent fastings,” which they gave to the poor. One bishop whose ward was “very poor” said he “had nothing to begin with, but he immediately called a fast and the brethren have done pretty liberally.”9
Lesson 3: When the course of our normal life is disrupted, it helps to fill free time with constructive activities.
A history about circumstances in Spanish Fork, Utah, in 1856 includes this description: “Having no crops to gather, the settlers built bridges, made fences, opened a road up the canyon for the purpose of getting out wood poles and all the men turned out for weeks on these public works, donating their labor.”10
The U.S. earthquake against which all earthquakes are still measured is the San Francisco earthquake of 18 April 1906. The great quake caused terrible damage to buildings, roads, water systems, law enforcement, communications, and transportation. Fires broke out and caused more damage than the quake. Separations were common. Food, water, and sanitation became terrible problems.
Some 120 Church members—branch members, missionaries, and city visitors—were in the city at the time. Some wrote about how they survived the quake.11 Their accounts identify several problems we could face if caught in a major earthquake or other catastrophes, such as hurricanes, cyclones, tornadoes, or fires, and they provide several preparedness ideas.
Lesson 1: Have sturdy shoes and durable clothing nearby in case of a sudden nighttime emergency, whether at home or away from home.
The 1906 quake struck before morning while people were sleeping. Frightened people ran into the streets in nightclothes and barefoot. Mission president Joseph Robinson hiked all over San Francisco trying to locate and help Church members. Broken bricks and glass quickly shredded his shoes.
Lesson 2: Have fire extinguishers in our homes.
Less than four blocks away from the Church’s mission home, a woman cooking breakfast accidentally started a fire. Firemen were too busy to respond to this “ham and eggs” fire. By the early afternoon, in order to keep the fire from spreading, firemen had to dynamite the area where the mission home stood.
Lesson 3: Have emergency water on hand in sturdy, non-glass containers.
Faucets went dry when the water mains broke. Thirsty people broke into stores and bars to find liquid. Thirsty members, who flocked to the mission home, were glad to be offered bottled fruit (fortunately the bottles had not broken).
Lesson 4: Have minimal cleaning items, such as moist towelettes, toothpaste, deodorant, face towels, and even small bags of detergent.
“It was a real trial,” said missionary Elder Leo Gardner, bound for the Pacific islands, “to endure our thirst and to go without washing our faces and hands which were getting blacker with the dust and smoke.”12
Lesson 5: Have emergency food as we have been taught.
San Franciscans rushed to local markets to buy up bread, creating panic buying. By noon, as fires spread through the city, martial law was declared, and anyone trying to enter stores, even store owners, were shot on sight as looters. Within a day or two the city provided bread for people who stood in breadlines that were four people wide and blocks long.
Lesson 6: It is important to have two or three meeting places where family members can find each other in case disaster strikes and the family is scattered.
President Robinson’s toughest task for about a week was reuniting families separated during the disaster. Evacuations had become necessary. With homes damaged and the Church’s mission home dynamited to create a firebreak, members scattered. President Robinson tried to let members know where other members were camped out by posting in the mission home ashes a sign indicating where the main Latter-day Saint camp was located.
Lesson 7: Be prepared to leave cherished belongings.
Fleeing the fires, many families grabbed belongings and tried to haul them on foot. One trunk “weighed a ton,” as Harold Jenson described it in his diary.13 One family member pushed a wheeled sewing machine. Harold strapped family belongings to his bicycle. Too burdened, the family eventually left some of their belongings on the roadside.
Lesson 8: Ignore wild rumors that spread in panics and don’t pass them on.
The earthquake severed the city’s communications with the outside world, so rumors spread that Los Angeles was destroyed, New York was no more, and that the Great Salt Lake had inundated Salt Lake City!
Along with all of the practical lessons history teaches, one more lesson comes through: maintain good attitudes during troubled times. A sense of humor is like salve on a wound.
On 6 April 1846 about 2,000 Saints with about 400 covered wagons were bogging down in Iowa rains and mud, trying to reach campsites beside Locust Creek. “I was in the rain all day,” President Young noted in his diary, “arranging the wagons, pitching tents, chopping wood until all were comfortable.” That dreary day most members had good excuses to feel miserable. However, Patty Sessions noted in her diary that “[Brother] Brigham came up with his company driving his team in the rain and mud up to his kne[e]s as happy as a king.”14
We would do well to follow Brother Brigham’s example, as well as that set by other Latter-day Saints who have had to deal with disasters and crises. By learning from the lessons of the past, we better prepare ourselves for the future.
“The responsibility for each person’s social, emotional, spiritual, physical, or economic well-being rests first upon himself, second upon his family, and third upon the Church if he is a faithful member thereof. No true Latter-day Saint, while physically or emotionally able, will voluntarily shift the burden of his own or his family’s well-being to someone else.”
President Spencer W. Kimball (1895–1985), Ensign, Nov. 1977, 77.
“While it is sincerely hoped that members do not get caught up in any hysteria or obsessive preparations for disasters, the Church continues its long-standing practice of encouraging members to be self-reliant and reasonably prepared.”
Bishop H. David Burton, Presiding Bishop, “Conversation,” Ensign, Sept. 1999, 78.