Children Pioneers


(Based on the journal of the author’s great-grandfather, Albert Dickson)
Pioneer children were quick to obey, Walking along by the wagons all day, Then in the firelight, kneeling to pray (Children’s Songbook, page 215).

Children Pioneers

The air was charged with excitement as the families with their wagons, oxen, sheep, and other livestock gathered at the Missouri River to start the long trek westward early in the spring of 1852.

As twelve-year-old Albert Dickson wandered among the wagons, he saw many children. He even discovered several boys his own age. It was good to know that he would have friends on the long trip ahead.

Albert was just one of thousands of children pioneers who crossed the continent in the migration to the western states in the late 1840s and early 1850s. There were four other children in the Dickson family at that time, including his fourteen-year-old sister, Samantha; his nine-year-old brother, Judson; Alvina, who was six; and two-year-old William.

In Albert’s journal he wrote, “We crossed the Missouri on a large flatboat. Two wagons went on each trip, with three men to the oar and one at the rear to steer. They would land down the river about one mile from the starting point, then pull the boat back with oxen.” Like any twelve year old, he found adventure in each new phase of the trip.

When the entire party had gathered on the other side of the river, there were sixty wagons, which were divided into groups of ten, and each group had a captain. At least half the company were children. The older ones usually walked beside the wagons; some herded the sheep. Even the small children walked part of the day but were allowed to ride as they tired.

Usually from ten to fifteen miles were covered each day while crossing the prairies, and about half as many when the Rocky Mountains were reached. A lot depended on the weather and the terrain being traveled.

The group followed the Mormon Trail, which had been cleared in 1847 as a route for the migration of Church members to the Salt Lake Valley. It followed the north side of the Platte River to the fork of the North Platte and South Platte, then ran along the North Platte to Fort Laramie, where the pioneers crossed the river and followed the Oregon Trail to Fort Bridger. From there they traveled down Weber Canyon and Emigration Canyon into the Salt Lake Valley. The entire trip was about 1100 miles.

Disease was one of the first challenges faced by both children and adults. Albert wrote: “At the first camp on the Platte River, cholera broke out and two of our number succumbed to the dread disease, which did not leave our company until we reached Loup Fork.” By then ten more had died.

As the company moved forward a few miles each day, the monotony was broken by unusual events. The first herds of buffalo (bison) seen, for instance, created considerable interest. Some men in the company wounded one, and the Dickson family dog took up the chase. As a result of the chase, the old dog died, leaving a family of children to mourn his loss.

A couple of days later, the first buffalo was killed and the fresh meat was distributed among the people. After that, there were thousands of the animals; the travelers would stop the wagon train and watch the vast herds pass.

Then, of course, there were lots of buffalo bones, and the travelers began to learn about the advance companies from messages written on buffalo skulls and left by the trail. Albert’s company would sometimes leave their own messages on buffalo skulls for those yet to come.

The trail was well marked and well traveled. Albert’s company was the fourteenth to leave for the west that spring.

Contrary to many stories, Indians did not present much of a problem on the journey. They often visited the camps and were generally given gifts such as beads and fishhooks. Because of the friendly attitude of the Mormon pioneers toward them, the Indians did not attack the wagon trains.

Each day started early. At five in the morning the camp was awakened. Families held morning prayer, cooked breakfast, fed and harnessed the horses and oxen, and were ready to move by seven o’clock. At night, the wagons were drawn into a circle and the horses and cattle were tethered inside it. After supper, evening prayers were held in each wagon at eight thirty; everyone was expected to be in bed by nine o’clock. The children didn’t need much coaxing—everyone was tired from the long day and ready for a good night’s rest.

The pioneers usually traveled six days but always camped and observed the Sabbath. It was a welcome treat for everyone, but especially for the children. There was time to attend Sunday School with their friends, sing, listen to stories, visit with the other children, and explore the nearby countryside.

Sometimes the wagon train camped for a day or two to rest the animals, repair wagons, and do laundry.

Billa Dickson, Albert’s father, was a blacksmith, and his services were often needed to repair wagon wheels and axles. Albert worked with his father, learning the trade. They also hunted together to help secure fresh meat for the company. All the older boys were expected to work with the men and to help do the camp chores.

By midsummer the company had reached the halfway point, Fort Laramie. They wouldn’t reach the Salt Lake Valley until the first of October.

Pioneers are generally thought of as adults, but the majority of the western pioneers were actually children like young Albert Dickson, who trekked the westward trails and settled in the valleys of the mountain west. As they grew older, they became the leaders of many thriving communities that were literally carved out of a barren and hostile land.

Albert Dickson eventually moved to Morgan county and became the first bishop of the Richville Ward. He served in that position for thirty-seven years. His strength and leadership qualities, along with those of other early Church leaders, were undoubtedly developed by his experiences on the journey west.

[illustrations] Illustrated by Mark Robison

[photo] Most of the western pioneers were children. (Photo courtesy LDS Archives.)

[illustration] Messages were often left on buffalo or cattle skulls

[illustration] Vast herds of buffalo were seen by the pioneers

[illustration] Wagons were always in need of repairs

[photo] Many Indians were friendly to the pioneers. (Photo by Charles W. Carter courtesy Visual Resource Library.)