Mormon Grove Trail beset with travails

Filled with the "spirit of gathering," a company of 37 Saints from Port Sullivan, Milam County, Texas, pulled up near Mormon Grove by Atchison, Kan., on Saturday evening, June 2, 1855.

The Texas Saints, including Edward and Willmirth East, had just spent two-and-a-half fatiguing months on the road, but had encountered no major obstacles. Even the rivers that normally ran high in springtime accommodated the travelers by offering little resistance. Half of their trek was already behind them; they thought it would be downhill from here. Little did they realize what connotation "downhill" was going to take.Here in Mormon Grove, they would hook up with other Latter-day Saints who had traveled up the Missouri River, then head northwest until they reached the larger Mormon Trail near Fort Kearney, Neb.

Edward Wallace East, who served as branch clerk, recorded that after his baptism in the Brazos River during July 1853, he "had not rec'd the spirit of gathering" up to the time the missionaries who baptized him returned to Salt Lake with a company the following spring. So he had stayed "and commenced merchandizing."

Several other sets of missionaries came to Texas during the next year. The branch grew, and members began to sacrifice their time, talents, and wealth to the Church. Elder East wrote: "We, by this time had the spirit of gathering, and all seemed anxious to prepare for the long and arduous journey to Salt Lake."

Edward East's past had well prepared him for such a journey. He was born in 1814 in Henry County, Va., the last of 12 children. The family moved to Tennessee, and in 1824 Edward's father purchased 454 acres of land near Pulaski. He did not desire to "make money or amass property" and instead, possessed of "a spirit of rambling or roving," he began traveling from this home base looking for a niche. Edward enrolled as often as he could in educational institutions that would help him broaden his knowledge of the world. He taught school and kept books for dry goods stores. He even served honorably as a Texas Ranger. But always he came back home, "becoming dissatisfied." Life seemed to lack purpose for him.

In 1839, becoming restless at home once more, Edward set out again for Texas. Twice during this trip, thieves stole some of his most valuable property, including his rifle and several expensive blankets. He said this caused him to reflect much upon the true condition of the world he lived in. But by the end of that year, his losses faded into insignificance as his thoughts turned to love. In October he married Willmirth Greer, a daughter of a Texas Congress member from Washington County. She was the second child of this large family that had moved from Georgia to Alabama before settling in Texas. Edward and Willmirth lived on her father's land where Edward farmed, ranched, taught more school, and did whatever he could during the next 15 years to keep his young, growing family afloat. By 1855 they had six living children. A daughter had died at age 2 in 1847.

One summer's night in 1853, Edward gave in to his natural curiosity, and went to hear Elders John Ostler (accompanied by Sister Ostler) and Washington Jolley preach "Mormonism" at the local school. Afterward, he invited them to his home where they "conversed freely . . . until the light broke upon me by degrees." Though he had previously agonized over religious questions and eventually had been baptized a Campbellite in 1842, now "I came to the conclusion that I must either be dishonest & reject the truth as it then began to illuminate my understanding or renounce my former religion's views & embrace what I then fully believed to be the Gospel of Salvation as was taught by Jesus & his personal followers eighteen centuries ago."

Finally Edward East had purpose. Willmirth and his two children of age followed him into the waters of baptism. The Greer family also joined the Church.

When the East family arrived at Mormon Grove, Edward recorded that for 12 days the Texas company rested two miles from Atchison. Wood and water were in plentiful supply, and the cattle had excellent feeding grounds. The wagons were resupplied by an advance party that had gone to St. Louis for that purpose. However, the weather was "very disagreeable" with frequent cold rains. And clerk East also noted, "Some of our company occasionally visited Mormon Grove and learned that the Cholera was in the different camps & that several died each day."

The site for Mormon Grove had been chosen mainly because of its elevation out of the damp, cholera-infested air of the river bottoms. Scores of immigrants had died from this plague, and now the travelers were overjoyed to have been directed by Church leadership to this haven. The camp swelled to about 2,100 souls and 337 wagons before the first of eight companies hit the final leg of their journey in early June. The trip to the Salt Lake Valley from Mormon Grove would cover 1,000 miles and last three months.

Under the direction of President Erastus Snow, Company 3rd was organized with Port Sullivan's branch president, Seth Millington Blair, as captain. This group numbered more than 100 people, and had 46 wagons. Returning missionaries were part of this company and "assisted as teamsters for their passage." On June 14th, Company 3rd set out.

On June 18th, cholera broke out in the camp near Delaware Creek, Brown County, some 18 miles northwest of Mormon Grove.

" . . .bro M. R. Jones' daughter was taken [sickT in the night & bro. Jones in the morning. My children William over 12 years old & Mary nearly 5, were taken [sickT the same day [June 19T. Bro Jones died first, sometime in the forenoon, Our little Mary, who was a promising & lovely child, died about Sundown, She sank away calmly & peacefully as tho, she was going into a sweet sleep, and was buried on the South side of the road before daylight. a rude board with the initials of her name was set at the head of her grave. Brother Jerry Langford & wife both died during the night [June 20T . . . ."

On the 21st, seven people died at the same place, and on the following day nine more. Captain Blair reported: "In the first 36 hours so many died of Cholera, that we buried one person every three hours. The cries of the dying and the shrieks of the living presented horrors unimaginable. Grave diggers were busy night and day."

No deaths were reported on the 23rd, and the reprieve allowed the company to escape this scene of death into Nemaha County. But on the 24th, Willmirth East lost her father, Nathaniel Hunt Greer, the Texas Congress member; and a brother, John, to the cholera. Brother East recorded, more meticulously when it was family members, that these two were buried "half mile East of the big Nimeha (up on the hill)." That same day, in response to an ailing Capt. Blair's urgent plea for relief from Mormon Grove, Edward Stevenson arrived and assumed command. Capt. Blair remained behind.

As if in a race to put even more space between the company and the cholera, the group covered 30 miles on July 25th to camp on the west side of the Big Blue. Three more victims were buried there that day. It was at this camp on the 27th that 12-year old William East died after having "been hauled along for 8 or nine days, Speechless the greatest portion of the time. He was buried in a rude box, on the Hill, on the West side of the big Blue 3/4 of a mile from the place called Maryville."

Another pioneer woman died on July 1st, and on July 4th a third East child expired. "Our daughter Nancy who had been spechless [sicT for several days died . . . at the second camp on the little Blue or Sweetwater [probably in Thayer County., Neb., three days short of Fort KearneyT & was buried in 2 hours after, being about seven years old." Nancy's cholera death was the last reported in the company, outside of "George Woods who had the Cholera" but who wandered away from the wagons and was never found. Twenty-nine people - nearly a third of the company - in all had perished from cholera. One young boy had died from cancer.

The company finally reached Fort Kearney on July 8th, crossed over the Platte to the north side where it linked up with the Mormon Trail. Despite deep heartsickness, the company stayed intact and independent as it moved along to the West. The normal tensions of this overland journey were heightened when dissensions, accusations, and blame for the terrible losses along Mormon Grove Trail began to be hurled between families. Church government was put into practice and resolved these disputes.

Even after strenuous weeks of travel, Company 3rd regularly held fasts, paid tithing, prayed and worshipped together as a group. Though the company sought to avoid any travel on the Sabbath due of the nature of their errand, they saw to the repair of wagons on Sundays in all due reverence. Stampedes of cattle, the birth of a baby, Indians, members who went off bear-hunting in disobedience to a direct order not to, all characterized Company 3rd.

The company was pleasantly surprised when Erastus Snow visited their group and reported the progress of the many companies. And Seth Blair rejoined the company just before it reached Ft. Bridger in Wyoming. Much to everyone's delight, he brought with him fresh vegetables. In the Wasatch Mountains before arriving in Salt Lake City, the Easts crossed paths with Elder John Ostler, who had introduced them to the gospel. He was returning to Texas on another mission. Company 3rd arrived in their promised land on Sept. 11, 1855.

The Easts suffered one last sacrifice for their trip: "Julia one of the twins was very weak & took the measles just before we arrived at S.L. City. She continued to dwindle & pine away until the 3rd of Nov. when She died & I buried her in the City Burying Ground."

Edward East, in his diary of the trip, explained that during the cholera outbreak he did not write because he and his wife had to attend their sick children day and night, and excused himself because he, too, had been sick.

But one must wonder what all this meant to Willmirth - steady, reliable Willmirth. On the trek west, she lost four children, her father, and a brother. Only two of her children survived. Willmirth is conspicuously quiet on the subject. No written record has been located which recounts her direct feelings on the loss.

However, the Easts' lives after the family devastation reveal their deep and abiding testimonies. Edward and Willmirth East went on to have four more children, with only three sons and oldest daughter Sarah living to adulthood (Sarah married Capt. Seth Millington Blair). Edward became the Probate and County Clerk for Salt Lake County for 14 years. He helped to lay the foundation of the Salt Lake Temple with the anticipation that his sons would continue to help build upon that. He then served a mission to the Southern States beginning in November 1869 with Henry G. Boyle as a companion.

In November 1875, he returned to Texas on a second mission, this time with Willmirth as his companion. Upon their return they left their beloved Salt Lake 14th Ward and moved to Snowflake, Apache County, Ariz. In 1883, they made their final journey, to Pima in Arizona's Gila Valley. Before morning family prayer on May 29, 1884, Edward East at age 69 died suddenly in his chair while reading the daily paper. Though he had handled thousands of dollars in his lifetime as a county clerk, he had once said to his sons that to die a poor and honest man was worth more than riches. Late in life he said his only regret was that he did not get to serve another mission; rambling and roving was still in his blood.

Willmirth Greer East was befriended by Eliza R. Snow and others of the Relief Society leadership. Sister East, even before leaving Texas, had the gift and experience of speaking in tongues. She wrote poetry, taught school, and visited in many of the homes of the General Authorities. She publicly voiced her support of women's right to vote. She became the first Relief Society president in Apache County, where she served from about 1878 to 1883. Upon arriving in Pima in 1883, she also became the first Relief Society president of the Thatcher Stake, and served in that position until 1898 when her health began to fail. While in Pima, she also served on the school district board of education. On March 31, 1902, Willmirth died at age 77.

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