Prairie fires blacken landscape

Sunday, May 2, 1847:

This being the Sabbath, the pioneer camp under President Brigham Young was determined to rest and pray. But by afternoon, all the grass had been eaten off by the stock and it was decided to move west two miles to a grassy location near a lake.The pioneers spent most of the day resting themselves and their teams. A herd of buffalo came within two miles of the new camp to drink at the river. Some men were desirous of going after them, but President Young instructed them not to go hunting on the Sabbath.

Wilford Woodruff noted in his journal that the Saints experienced a new problem. "The [Pawne] Indians set fire to the Prairie before us which burnt [rapidly] over a large region of country," he wrote. The fires were not necessarily directed against the Mormons. The Plains Indian tribes had learned that by setting fire to the dry grass left over from the previous year, it gave the spring grass better growth and an earlier start, thereby bringing the buffalo herds to the new pastures. However, this practice hampered the Mormons since the grassy plain provided much of the feed for the animals. In the evening, President Young, Heber C. Kimball, and a number of others rode several miles ahead to examine the fire and assess their situation.

Monday, May 3:

The pioneer company refrained from traveling so as to allow the blacksmiths time to repair wagons and shod horses, and the hunters to kill game. Orders were given in the morning for the hunters to go hunting and another company to explore the trail ahead in search of a suitable camping place where there was enough unburned grass for their horses and cattle. Within a short time, the search party reported seeing a war party of Indians and immediately made their way back to the main camp where President Young ordered a number of men to go out and find the hunters and bring them back to safety. All hunters returned along with four antelope and three buffalo calves.

As a precautionary measure, the cannon was unlimbered and prepared for action. It was decided thenceforth to haul the cannon in the rear of the company in case it were needed at a moment's notice. At 9 p.m. a round was fired to let any nearby Indians know that the pioneers were armed and ready to defend themselves.

Tuesday, May 4:

At 7:30 a.m. the brethren were called together. President Young counseled them to follow the camp's rules even more closely than before, thereby promoting harmony and safety.

Throughout the day the wagons rode five abreast to further ensure their security.

Church leaders deliberated in the afternoon as to the wisdom of crossing the Platte to travel on the south side, where the grass had not been burned. After due consideration of both sides of the argument, Brigham Young moved that the pioneers remain on the north side of the Platte. Elder Wilford Woodruff explained the reason for the decision. "We thought it best to keep on the north side of the river & brave the difficulties of burning prairies & make a road that should stand as a parmanant rout for the saints indipendant of the old emigration rout & let the river separate the emigrating companies that they need not quarrel for wood grass or water."

Wednesday, May 5:

Many brethren in the pioneer camp awoke with intestinal problems, having not yet made the adjustment from salted meat to fresh meat.

The company broke camp at 7:30 a.m. and traveled on the north side of the Platte. Their trail now went in a northwesterly direction toward present-day North Platte, Neb. Just before noon the company was able to find a small spot of grass for the animals to feed upon. Brigham Young and Heber C. Kimball went ahead of the main company on horseback to determine their route and the best place to camp for the evening.

Thursday, May 6:

Rain fell in the camp about 4 a.m. that dampened the grass, laid the dust and ashes, and extinguished the prairie fire. With an early start, they went two-three miles and got beyond the range of the fire, then stopped for breakfast and to let the animals feed. By far the biggest challenge at this point in the journey was lack of grass for the animals. Erastus Snow recorded in his journal for this day: "Many of our animals are nearly famished for want of food, for every green thing is cut off by the buffalo."

The company traveled the entire day among a number of buffalo herds that were not alarmed by their approach. Wilford Woodruff wrote, "Our Herd of cows started to run among the buffalo & President Young on his horse [rode] to seperate them & had great difficulty in doing it. He lost a spy glass in the chase worth $40. The Brethren hunted for it a long time but could not find it." Fortunately, the next day, Orrin Porter Rockwell and two other men recovered the spyglass.

Friday, May 7:

This was a cold day. The group did not leave camp until 11 a.m. so as to give their jaded animals more time to rest. "Many of the teams were weak for the want of food, the grass having been eat[en] off by the buffalo," Orson Pratt wrote. The pioneers traveled only six miles on this date. They also continued to see thousands of buffalo.

Saturday, May 8:

The pioneer camp continued in its northwesterly direction along the Platte River. Ten miles into the journey William Clayton placed a small cedar post in the ground and wrote the words: "From Winter Quarters 295 miles, May 8, 1847. Camp all well. W. Clayton." The pioneers camped in the evening near Brady's Island which marked the beginning of the so-called "sand hills" that prevail in the western part of Nebraska, and are almost destitute of vegetation.

The camp continued to be challenged by the presence of a sea of buffaloes. William Clayton recorded, "The prairie on both sides of] the river are literally black with buffalo, and to try to say as to what number we have seen this morning would be folly. I should imagine that at a moderate calculation, we have seen over fifty thousand. . . . Truly the `Lord's Cattle' upon the thousand hills are numerous."

Sources: Comprehensive History of the Church 3:173-75; An Intimate Chronicle: The Journals of William Clayton, pp. 310-13; Ensign to the Nations, pp. 110-13; Manuscript History of Brigham Young, p. 553; Andrew Jenson, "The Pioneers of 1847," Historical Record 9 (January 1890): pp. 17-20; Life Writings of Mary Haskin Parker Richards, pp. 121-22; Pioneering the West, 1846 to 1878, pp. 32-35; Wilford Woodruff's Journals 3:165-72.

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