Traveling through Sweetwater country

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 Brigham Young University.

Sunday, June 20, 1847:

The circumstances and conditions were so unpleasant for the pioneers at "Poison Springs," the name they were now giving the horrible camping spot, that they decided to move on, even though it was Sunday and normally a day of rest.

Another incident persuaded the leaders to make the decision to travel on the Sabbath. The night before, while scouting for watering holes, Elders Heber C. Kimball and Ezra T. Benson came across six men who sprang out of the grass with the appearance of being Indians in an attempt to frighten off the Mormons. But the apostles soon noticed that they were actually Missourians who were trying an old trick to scare the pioneers away from the better streams and camping sites.

The pioneers traveled approximately 20 miles through the desolate country between the North Platte and the Sweetwater. William Clayton noted, "The whole country around is entirely destitute of timber, not a tree to be seen, nor a shrub larger than the wild sage which abounds in all this region of the country and will answer for cooking when nothing else is found."

While scouting ahead of the pioneer camp, Wilford Woodruff and John Brown engaged some Missouri scouts in conversation and were subsequently invited to stay overnight in their camp near Independence Rock.

Monday, June 21:

"We can see a huge pile of rocks to the southwest a few miles. We have supposed this to be the rock of Independence," wrote William Clayton on this morning. Wilford Woodruff and John Brown, who were ahead of the main company, were the first Saints to arrive at the famous landmark. Elder Woodruff wrote, "We got upon this rock & offered up our prayers according to the order of the priesthood. We prayed earnestly for the blessings of God to r[est] upon President Young & his brethren the Twelve & all the Pioneer Camp, & the whole Camp of Israel & House of Israel, our wives & children, & relatives[,] the Mormon Battalion, all the Churches abroad. . . .

"While offering up our prayers the spirit of the Lord desended upon us and we truly felt to rejoice." The pioneer company reached the Sweetwater River about noon and rejoiced after their 49-mile overland march from the Platte.

During the lunch break, Sister Harriet Young made some bread, using the "saleratus," a leavening salt similar to baking soda that the pioneers had found in saline lakes. When the mixture worked well, many other pioneers loaded up with white powder.

Following their midday halt, the company moved until their arrival at Independence Rock around 3 p.m. A few men, including Brigham Young, Willard Richards, and George A. Smith, climbed the huge granite mound. William Clayton left a guide board at the site with the following inscription: "To Fort John [Laramie] 1751/4 miles. Pioneers, June 21, 1847. W.R." The initials "W.R." stood for Willard Richards.

Four and one-half miles from Independence Rock they encountered another romantic-looking granite outcropping, Devil's Gate. This stone chasm is 370 feet deep, with the Sweetwater River running between the cliffs for about 200 hundred yards. That evening, the pioneers camped a mile east of Devil's Gate, having traveled 151/4 miles for the day. Many pioneers went back to get a better view of the natural wonder.

Their encampment was actually just a short distance from Martin's Cove. In November 1856, after being caught in the snow of an early winter, tragedy would strike the Edward Martin handcart company at this site while they were seeking shelter and waiting for relief parties from Salt Lake City. The LDS Church recently acquired the property rites to the site that was part of the Sun Ranch. (See Church News, May 10, 1997).

Tuesday, June 22:

At 7:20 a.m. the pioneers continued their journey. They crossed numerous streams feeding into the Sweetwater. Ahead they could see picturesque mountain country. They traveled into the evening and made 203/4 miles over mostly sandy soil.

In the morning, Lorenzo Dow Young, trying to ford a stream, became stranded with his wagon when an axle broke. He was already a mile behind the wagon train because of troubles with his animals. No wood seemed available for repairs, but finally a piece was found. Fortunately, Brother and Sister Young received help from a Missouri group who came along and assisted them in their repairs. Elder John Taylor departed from the Elk Horn River in Nebraska this day. During the first few weeks in June, 1,553 souls left from Winter Quarters. They would follow the route chosen by the pioneer company all the way to the Rocky Mountains.

Wednesday, June 23:

This day the pioneer company encountered a grave of a 16-year-old girl who had died along the trail the year before in July 1846. William Clayton wrote, "On reflecting afterward . . . I felt a renewed anxiety that the Lord will kindly preserve the lives of all my family, that they may be permitted to gather to the future home of the Saints, enjoy the society of the people of God for many years to come, and when their days are numbered that their remains may be deposited at the feet of the servants of God, rather than be left far away in a wild country."

Despite the ruggedness of the trail, the pioneers traveled 17 miles before camping on the Sweetwater. Except for the river banks, the countryside was devoid of grass. Two Missouri companies were within a mile to the west. Burr Frost, the blacksmith, set up his forge and set some wagon tires and repaired some wheels for one of the Missourians.

Thursday, June 24:

Early in the morning the pioneers ascended a high bluff on top of which they could travel on a level road for several miles. Along the route they encountered a sulphur-water springs boiling out of the ground. When the men dug around it, they found something even more curious, an ice spring. The 4-inch-thick ice was broken with axes and shovels and passed to members of the company. They enjoyed eating it like a frozen treat.

When the pioneers camped at night, they had made 173/4 miles. The teams were exhausted from fatigue and thirst, for the day had been hot and they had not been able to find suitable water until they reached their campsite on the river. After camping, Brigham Young's favorite horse, "John," was accidently killed by John Holman. After being untied, the horse began to run, and to prevent the animal from getting away, Brother Holman jammed his gun at him, at the same time catching the gun-lock in his clothes and discharging the weapon. President Young did not attach any blame to Brother Holman.

Friday, June 25:

During the day the company traveled along the Sweetwater's river banks and canyons the entire day for 201/4 miles. Wilford Woodruff called one ridge the longest and highest hill to date on the pioneer journey.

On the top of one of the nearby ridges was a heavy bank of snow that some men visited and amused themselves by snowballing each other.

Erastus Snow wrote in his journal: "It was quite warm in the morning, but as we began to mount and meet the cold blasts of snow and ice, we began to gather our vests, then our coats, and finally, before night, our overcoats and were cold that night."

Saturday, June 26:

During the morning hours, the Mormon pioneers forded the Sweetwater for the last time and began their ascent toward the famous "South Pass" that led through the Continental Divide where rivers begin to flow to the west instead of the east. South Pass was undulating prairie several miles wide.

The pioneers wanted to pinpoint the exact place of the divide and sent Orson Pratt and George A. Smith and a few others ahead with a barometer. By day's end, Orson had determined that they were still two miles short of the dividing ridge.

Sources: B.H. Roberts, The Life of John Taylor, 187-88; An Intimate Chronicle: The Journals of William Clayton, 343-46; William Clayton's Journal, 245-69; Ensign to the Nations, 132-34; Manuscript History of Brigham Young, 560; Orson Pratt, "Journal," Millennial Star 12 (1 May 1850): 130-31, (15 May 1850): 145; Pioneering the West, 1846 to 1878, 79-86; Erastus Snow, Journal; Wilford Woodruff's Journals 3:209-18.

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