The first wagons roll westward

This is another in a weekly series of day-by-day summaries of what transpired 150 years ago during the Saints' 1846-47 trek from Nauvoo, Ill., to the Salt Lake Valley. The compilers are Bruce A. Van Orden, professor, and Alexander L. Baugh, assistant professor, in the Department of Church History and Doctrine at BYU. Brother Van Orden is on the Church Pioneer Sesquicentennial Committee.

Sunday, April 4, 1847:This was the final Sabbath day in Winter Quarters before the pioneer company embarked on its epic journey. For the third consecutive week, general meetings of the Saints were held in the morning and afternoon at the public square. Elders Orson Pratt and Ezra T. Benson preached in the morning services, while President Brigham Young, his brother Lorenzo, and Amasa Lyman spoke in the afternoon meeting.

For the previous four weeks President Young had worked closely with the apostles at the Camp of Israel in preparing to leave for the West. He had actually hoped to be ready to leave before this time. Wet weather and the necessity to gather supplies were some reasons for the delay. Furthermore the men selected for the journey needed to prepare their families for their absence. The final plan was to take 144 men (12 groups of 12 men, representing the 12 tribes of Israel) in 73 wagons so the company would not be too cumbersome. Included among the 144 men were builders, mechanics and masons who could help in making roads, constructing bridges, mountaineering and erecting temporary quarters at the eventual destination. Leaders had been poring over a map of the West they had received a week earlier. On this day Thomas Bullock made a sketch of U.S. government explorer John C. Fremont's topographical map for use by the pioneers. The pioneer company's mission was to forge a new trail for others with small families to follow that summer, to find a refuge in the Rocky Mountains away from the predators of the recent past, and to establish a stake of Zion in the West.

Monday, April 5:

Elder Heber C. Kimball moved out with six wagons and drove the four miles to Cutler's Park. This marks the beginning of the 111-day trek of the pioneer company to the Valley of the Great Salt Lake that culminated on July 24, 1847. Cutler's Park had been the first settlement for the Camp of Israel on the west side of the Missouri River in Indian Territory (present-day Nebraska). Because it was too near the Omaha Indian Tribe feeding ground and for other logistic reasons, Cutler's Park was replaced in September 1846 by Winter Quarters as the main settlement. Due to the decision to relocate the main settlement site, only a few families wintered at Cutler's Park.

Brigham Young had stayed behind to conduct the annual general conference scheduled for the next day.

Tuesday, April 6:

In Winter Quarters, President Brigham Young presided at and conducted the general conference. Only one session was held in the forenoon so all the companies could prepare to leave in the next day or two. The sun shone brightly, and, according to Wilford Woodruff, "the heavens smiled upon us."

The assembled Saints unanimously sustained 11 members of the Quorum of the Twelve: Brigham Young, Heber C. Kimball, Orson Hyde, Parley P. Pratt, Orson Pratt, Willard Richards, John Taylor, Wilford Woodruff, George A. Smith, Amasa M. Lyman, and Ezra T. Benson. Lyman Wight, who had gone off on his own in 1845 to Texas against the will of the quorum, was not accepted unanimously, and his case as an apostle was held over. A vote was also called to sustain the presidents of the Seventy, the bishops, and the high council. Three of the apostles - Orson Hyde, Parley P. Pratt, and John Taylor - were soon expected back at the Missouri River from their short-term mission presidency in Britain.

Wednesday, April 7:

On this blustery day, about 25 wagons under the leadership of Brigham Young, Orson Pratt and Wilford Woodruff left Winter Quarters. Wilford Woodruff wrote: "I took leave of my family & friends. Started with my company of Pioneer waggons [,] 8 in all [,] & left Winter Quarters for the journey. When we were on the top of the ridge west of the city I took a view of the Place & looked at my wife & children through my glass."

Elder Woodruff's party reached Cutler's Park first and went on with Heber C. Kimball's group another four miles on the Ponca Road. There they found excellent shelter for their horses in a valley near a small stream, the west branch of the Little Papillion. Orson Pratt's and Brigham Young's respective parties arrived in the late afternoon. A keen north wind blew in the two camps during the night.

Thursday, April 8:

Several more wagons joined the main encampment on the Little Papillion. Around noon, Elder Amasa Lyman caught up with President Young to inform him that Parley P. Pratt had just arrived in Winter Quarters. Elder Pratt indicated that John Taylor would shortly arrive with $500 worth of astronomical and other instruments needed for the pioneer journey.

With news of Elder Pratt's arrival, President Young and a few other leaders went back to Winter Quarters. That evening, the Twelve met in council and heard Elder Pratt report his mission.

Friday, April 9:

Brigham Young and his party arrived back at the Little Papillion Camp in the afternoon, then traveled another 10 miles toward the Elkhorn River. The new encampment provided a prairie valley with grass and water. That night there were 64 wagons and carriages in the camp.

Saturday, April 10:

On this day the pioneer companies were somewhat divided trying to make their way to the Elkhorn River. Wilford Woodruff's company proved to be most successful. "We started early in the morning & drove to the [Elk]horn & crossed it with all our teams on rafts before sunset," he wrote. "It is about 12 rods across . . . [and] in sight of the Plat[te]." His group went 25 miles, eight of which were along the river to a suitable crossing. This crossing was 35 miles from Winter Quarters. Brigham Young's company camped several miles behind Elder Woodruff's.

Sources: Comprehensive History of the Church 3:160-61; "Day by Day with the Utah Pioneers in 1847," Ensign to the Nations, pp. 99-100; The Diary of Hosea Stout, p. 246; Journals of John D. Lee, pp. 143-148; Manuscript History of Brigham Young, pp. 545-47; Wilford Woodruff's Journal 3:145-47.

Subscribe for free and get daily or weekly updates straight to your inbox
The three things you need to know everyday
Highlights from the last week to keep you informed