Pioneers ferry across North Platte

Sunday, June 13, 1847:

During the morning hours the pioneer company rested and worshiped at the "Last Crossing" encampment on the North Platte (near present-day Casper, Wyo.). The brethren gathered at 9 a.m. for their prayers and sermons. Elder Heber C. Kimball was the first to speak and discussed the imagery of the potter molding clay as he often did in his life. He urged the men to be as clay in the hands of God and let their lives be molded toward eternal glory. The brethren should be watchful and humble and avoid anything that would lead to division among the ranks, he counseled.President Brigham Young spoke of the "liberty of the gospel," the freedom that comes to mankind by keeping God's commandments. He pointed to the differences of behavior between the pioneers and the Missouri immigrant groups sharing the same trail. In an afternoon meeting, the camp council concluded to send some men that day to the nearby mountains to get poles to lash the wagons together in preparation to begin the crossing. In the evening, the flour, meat and bacon that had been received from the Missourians the previous day for ferrying them over the river were distributed equally among the wagons. Wilford Woodruff remarked, "It looked as much a miracle to see our flour and meal bags replenished . . . as it did to have the children of Israel fed with manna in the wilderness."

Back in eastern Nebraska, some 300 wagons were gathering at the Elkhorn River to leave during the week for the west. Their general director was Elder Parley P. Pratt of the Twelve, but there would be separate captains of hundreds. Eliza R. Snow wrote that day: "My feelings were very peculiar thro' the day - it verily seem'd that the glory of God rested down on the wagons and overspread the prairie."

Monday, June 14:

Fording the North Platte proved to be a more daunting task than the pioneers at first had imagined. The brethren first unloaded all the wagons and began shipping the supplies across the river on their leather-skinned boat known as the "revenue cutter." Next, they proceeded to float two wagons across the river while lashed together with ropes and poles. However, when the wagons struck sand on the other side, the strong current rolled them over. On the next attempt, four wagons were lashed together, but this system did not work well. On the third attempt, one wagon was sent by itself, but as soon as it got into the main current, it rolled over and was damaged. Finally, it was decided to float one wagon at a time on a make-shift raft. This proved to be safe, but excruciatingly slow.

By day's end, the Mormon company had succeeded in transporting only 23 or 24 wagons to the other side.

Tuesday, June 15:

This day's rafting of wagons proved even harder than the first day, mostly due to harsh weather conditions. Heavy winds caused the river's currents to be even faster. Sadly, one horse died when his legs became entangled in a lariat. Only 20 wagons were ferried over during the day. The 43 total were just barely over half for the entire company.

Wednesday, June 16:

While rafting Stephen H. Goddard's wagon across the Platte River, James Craig got his pole got stuck in the mud, throwing him overboard. Due to the swift current, William Woodsworth, who was also on the raft, was unable to gain control of the craft and was carried downstream for nearly two miles before being rescued.

To expedite the process of ferrying across the river, a decision was made to build two first-rate ferries that would be more stable than the raft. Orson Pratt noted how they were put together: "We made two large cotton wood canoes [like pontoons], and placing them parallel to each other, a few feet asunder, firmly pinned on cross pieces and flat slabs running lengthwise of the canoes, and having attached a rudder and oars, with a little iron work, we had a boat of sufficient strength to carry over the loaded wagons." By evening the two crafts, which were nearly 25 feet long, were ready to be assembled. A decision was also made to leave several men behind to operate the ferry. Besides assisting the Mormon companies that would cross there that year, they also anticipated a steady stream of "gentile" customers.

Thursday, June 17:

In the morning the pioneers went to work to finish the onerous business of crossing the cold and deep North Platte. One group swam the remaining horses across. The other men joined efforts to ferry the remaining wagons. By nightfall, the last wagon was brought over which was the cause of great rejoicing in the camp. Wilford Woodruff noted, "This is the 6th day since our arival to this place which is the longest henderance I ever saw at a ferry or crossing a river."

The Mormon pioneers remained one more day at the crossing. On this day, two Missouri companies arrived at the crossing and negotiated with the Mormons to have their wagons ferried over at $1.50 per load.

Some of these immigrants reported that another 1,000 wagons were traveling westward between Fort Laramie and the ferry and would soon arrive.

Friday, June 18:

A number of Mormon men worked through the entire night ferrying the Missouri companies across the North Platte, so the brethren decided to wait another day before departing on their westward journey. This allowed them to make assignments to the men who would stay behind, and to gather the provisions being paid the company by those Missourians who were ferried across the river. The camp clerks kept an account of all the provisions received and estimated the value at $400 and enough to feed the pioneer camp for about 23 days.

The men also constructed four wharves or landing places at different points besides crossing teams.

In an afternoon council, it was resolved to leave nine men to tend and operate the ferry. They would be expected to assist the Mormon companies that would arrive at the crossing later in the season, and contract with "gentile" emigrants to take them across. Brigham Young designated Thomas Grover as captain of the group.

Saturday, June 19:

The men awoke to a beautiful day on the North Platte. The river had been their companion for 350 miles, but this was to be no more. This delay at "Last Crossing" was the longest of any of the pioneer trek.

Around 8 a.m. the company, now numbering 151 souls, resumed their journey and headed overland to pick up the Sweetwater River. Their teams were in excellent condition, having been fed on rich grass.

Before leaving, Brigham Young had the men who were staying behind sign a letter of instructions to come with the company of Saints that were following. In the meantime, they were to take precaution to protect themselves, their horses, and substance from Indian aggressions.

The pioneer company traveled first in a westerly direction, then southwest, over many bluffs of considerable height. At 7:40 p.m. they made their camp at a river they had read about near some high bluffs. They had made 21.5 miles, the longest distance they had traveled in a day since leaving Winter Quarters.

The campground proved to be the worst they had occupied on their journey. Nothing grew but wild sage and a small prickly shrub. In one of the streams there was brackish water that tasted terrible.

Neither man nor beast could stand it. Wilford Woodruff wrote, "the water tasted as though it [had] run through a bed of salt . . . saltpeter, [and] sulpher." It was naucious [and] horrible."

William Clayton reported, "it is one of the most horrid, swampy, stinking places I ever saw." Brigham Young decided the appropriate name for the place would be "Hell Gate."

Sources: An Intimate Chronicle: The Journals of William Clayton, 341-43; Comprehensive History of the Church 3:196-98; William Clayton's Journal, 236-45; Ensign to the Nations, 131-33; Manuscript History of Brigham Young, 559-60; Orson Pratt, "Journal," Millennial Star 12 (1 May 1850): 129-30; Pioneering the West, 1846 to 1878, 73-79; Personal Writings of Eliza Roxcy Snow, 178; Wilford Woodruff's Journals 3:202-208.

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