Vanguard pioneers reach Zion, send `ensign to nations'

"We are now in Cal[i]fornia," Wilford Woodruff wrote in his journal entry July 1, 1847, the day he crossed the Green River in western Wyoming.1 The valley of the Great Salt Lake at which members of the vanguard pioneer group would arrive three weeks later was then part of the region known as Upper or New California.2

Before leaving Nauvoo, John Taylor had penned a song proclaiming, "The Upper California, O that's the land for me, It lies between the mountains, and the great Pacific Sea, . . . . Then join with me my brethren and let us hasten there, And lift our glorious standard, and raise our house of pray'r."3Once the Saints arrived in the Salt Lake Valley, they would indeed lift an ensign and raise a temple. But before reaching their new home, the vanguard company would have to pass over the most treacherous part of the trail from Winter Quarters to the Salt Lake Valley.

Crossing the swollen Green River proved a challenge itself. "This river is about 16 or 18 rods wide and altogether to[o] deep to be forded," William Clayton observed.4 After building rafts, the pioneers spent from July 1 to 3 ferrying their wagons over the river, most of their cattle having to swim over. The vanguard company's stay at the Green River would prove memorable for other reasons too.

One was the arrival of Samuel Brannan, who with Saints from the eastern United States had sailed aboard the ship Brooklyn from New York around Cape Horn to Yerba Buena (San Francisco), begun to establish a colony on a tributary of the San Joaquin River, and then traveled overland in search of Brigham Young and his party. Elder Brannan tried to persuade the vanguard company to press on to the San Francisco Bay area, "but our destination is the Great Basin, or Salt Lake for the present," Brigham Young concluded.5

At the Green River, the vanguard company experienced several cases of a disease that would strike various of their members at times during the remainder of the journey. Known popularly as "mountain fever," the sickness was likely what modern medical scholars call Colorado tick fever. "About 15 persons have been taken sick within A few days with fever Ague &c," Wilford Woodruff recorded on July 1.6

Mosquitoes also vexed the group. On July 2, Thomas Bullock observed "Mosquitoes in great numbers, very plaguing." The next day as they moved away from the ferry, he noted that they "Passed a Mosquito manufactory, immense swarms of them." 7

William Clayton wrote that they camped that evening "in the midst of an army of mosquitoes. These insects are more numerous here than I ever saw them any where, every thing was covered with them, making the teams restive."8

They even hindered Wilford Woodruff, a faithful journal keeper, as he tried to make his nightly entry on July 4. "I must stop writing," he recorded, because "the Musketoes have filled my carriage like A Cloud And have fallen upon me as though they intende to devour me."9

Yet these plagues did not hamper the company from its pioneering objectives. The vanguard company, despite the addition of a few more women and children at Fort Laramie, was still made up largely of adult men. The company had the mission of preparing the way for the much larger number of Saints who would follow them to Salt Lake later that season and in succeeding years.

While at the Green River, Willard Richards and Thomas Bullock planted three patches of early yellow and white corn. The members of the Quorum of the Twelve in the company met and decided to send messengers back along the trail to meet Elders Amasa Lyman and Charles C. Rich, deliver a report of the vanguard company's travels, and pilot the trailing Saints. On July 4, Brigham Young and others started back along the trail to help ferry the returning messengers across the Green River. When they arrived at the ferry, they were surprised to meet 13 members of the Mormon Battalion group that had wintered at Pueblo with the Mississippi Saints. The 13 men had been sent ahead to recover some stolen horses. When they met Brigham Young and the others, one of the soldiers elected to go east with the messengers, and the remaining 12 returned with Brigham Young to the camp of the vanguard company, where their arrival was greeted with cheers and expressions of gratitude and glory to God for the joyous reunion.10

Traveling onward, the company on July 7 arrived at Fort Bridger, the last settlement they would encounter before reaching the Salt Lake Valley.

The company went about a half mile past the fort before setting up camp. They remained camped near Fort Bridger from July 7 to 9. During their stay, the pioneers made wagon repairs and went to the fort to trade but found prices rather high. Several also tried fishing in the nearby streams. Orson Pratt in his entry for July 6 had observed that "salmon trout" ranging from one to 10 pounds had "been caught with the hook" in streams west of South Pass.11 An avid fisherman who had learned fly fishing in England, Wilford Woodruff had taken careful note of the catches.

With some free time on his hands while the company paused near the fort, Elder Woodruff decided to go fishing.

Recounting his experiences of July 8, he recorded in his journal, "As soon As I got my breakfast I riged up my trout rod that I had brought with me from Liverpool, fixed my reel, line, & Artificial fly . . . it being the first time that I ever tried the Artificial fly in America, or ever saw it tried, . . . I caught twelve in all . . . which was proof positive to me that the Artificial fly is far the best thing now known to fish trout with."12

On July 10, they traveled over what William Clayton termed "the most mountainous country we have yet seen."13 Their lengthy journey that day took them over lofty ridges, the highest being described by camp scientist Orson Pratt as "the summit of the dividing ridge between the waters of the Gulf of California and those of the Great Salt Lake" and measured by him as "7700 feet [above sea level], being 615 feet higher than the South Pass at the head of the Sweet Water."14 Near this summit, some of the group saw three grizzly bears, a sow and two cubs, which bounded over an even higher ridge to the south. The evening brought another surprise. "Just before our encampment," Orson Pratt wrote, "as I was wandering alone upon one of the hills exam [in]ing the various geological formations, I discovered a smoke some two miles from our encampment which I expected arose from some small Indian encampment. I informed some of our men and they immediately went to discover who they were; they found them to be a small party from the bay of St. Francisca on their way home to the States They were accompani[e]d by Mr. Miles Goodyear, a mountaineer as far as this point."15

Goodyear had established a fort and garden on the Weber River where the city of Ogden, Utah, would later arise. After earlier mountaineers had cast doubt on raising crops in the Salt Lake Valley because of the short growing season, the pioneers found Goodyear's report of conditions to be encouraging. Resting on the Sabbath as usual, the camp continued forward on Monday, July 12, stopping around noon near the conglomerate rock formations later travelers would call the Needles. The evening before, President Young had begun to manifest symptoms of mountain fever, and after his condition grew worse during the morning's travel, he and several others remained encamped near the Needles overnight. The rest of the company moved forward across the future Utah-Wyoming border and through beautiful valleys to camp near what today is called Cache Cave.16

With the President incapacitated, the other members of the Quorum of the Twelve held a council and decided to send many of the men and wagons ahead under the direction of Orson Pratt to scout and improve the trail. The vanguard pioneer company thus divided into three groups: an advance company, a main company, and a sick detachment.

The following day, July 14, Wilford Woodruff, who had been with the main company, rode back to the sick detachment to see President Young. Describing his day, he recounted that the evening before, a group "went out together & Prayd before the Lord for the Recovery of Br Young & we felt a testimony that He would begin to recover from that hour. And when I Arived whare he was I found him much better in health & quite Cheerful."17 Meanwhile, the advance company had proceeded down Echo Canyon to the Weber River.

On July 15, Wilford Woodruff took his carriage back to the sick detachment so Brigham Young and another sick man could ride more comfortably. Soon the rear wagons had caught up with the main company, and the group proceeded into Echo Canyon. By the evening of July 16, however, the travel over rough trails had wearied President Young, who suffered a relapse. Norton Jacob recorded that by the time the main company had reached the Weber River on Saturday, July 17, "the President was so sick he could not travel."18 Deeply concerned about their leader, nine of the brethren ascended a high mountain and had a special prayer service for Brigham Young and others who were sick and for their families left behind.19

Sunday, July 18, the main company held two Sabbath meetings in a bowery built for that purpose. In their morning meeting, they united in prayer in behalf of President Young and the other sick pioneers. According to William Clayton, Elder Kimball "proposed to the brethren that all the camp, except Prest Young's and 8 or 10 other wagons with brethren enough to take care of him . . . proceed on tomorrow and go through, find a good place, begin to plant potatoes, &c, as we have little time to spare. The proposition was acceeded to by unanimous vote."

Erastus Snow observed, "In the afternoon The President who had been nigh unto death; was very sensibly Better and the effects of the Prayers of the Brethren were visable throughout the camp."20

Onward the three basic groups went, communicating by means of messengers, up Main Canyon, through Dixie Hollow, along East Canyon, up and down Big and Little Mountains, and down Emigration Canyon, meeting and overcoming obstacles and improving the trail for those that followed. William Clayton called the "rough mountain road" from the Weber River to the Salt Lake Valley "decidedly the worst piece of road on the whole journey."21

On July 20, Willard Richards and George A. Smith of the Quorum of the Twelve, who were both in the main company, found a letter left by Orson Pratt, leader of the advance company.

After reading the letter, Elders Richards and Smith gave an assignment to Erastus Snow, a man in his late 20s who would be ordained an apostle in 1849. Brother Snow wrote that the two apostles "determined on Sending me in the morning with a letter to overtake Elder Pratt & accompany him to the valley & assist in exploreing & searching out a suitable place for putting in our seeds."22

The next day, July 21, Orson Pratt and Erastus Snow emerged from Emigration Canyon to become the first members of the pioneer company to enter the Salt Lake Valley. After exploring the valley for several miles, they returned to the canyon to join the others. The following day, July 22, the members of the advance and main companies entered the valley and camped a few miles away from the mouth of Emigration Canyon.

In the evening, a council was held at Elder Richards's wagon, where it was decided to move the next day to a choice spot located by the explorers. Elder Richards dictated a lengthy report to President Young. On Friday, July 23, the pioneers moved to the general area that would develop into the heart of Salt Lake City. There, in behalf of the whole group, Elder Pratt offered a prayer of thanks and dedication, after which the pioneers went to work plowing, building a dam for irrigation, and otherwise preparing to plant their crops. According to Norton Jacob, during the dedicatory session that day, Elder Pratt stated "that we had been two years striving to get to this place which was had in contemplation before we left the Temple at Nauvoo as the place of our location Somewhere in this great valley."23

Finally, on Saturday, July 24, 1847, Brigham Young and those who were part of the rear detachment emerged from Emigration Canyon. By means of messengers shuttling between the companies, he had provided direction to those ahead and been kept abreast of their progress.

Wilford Woodruff, who was serving as driver for President Young, wrote, "Thoughts of Pleasing meditations ran in rapid Succession through our minds while we contemplated that [in] not many years . . . the House of GOD would Stand upon the top of the Mountains . . . & the Standard be unfurled for the nations to gather there to [.] President Young expressed his full Satisfaction in the Appearance of the valley as A resting place for the Saints."24

Years later, Elder Woodruff described President Young's reaction in more detail. "While gazing upon the scene before us, he was enwrapped in vision for several minutes. He had seen the valley before in vision, and upon this occasion he saw the future glory of Zion and of Israel, as they would be, planted in the valleys of these mountains. When the vision had passed, he said, `It is enough. This is the right place. Drive on.' So I drove to the encampment already formed by those who had come along in advance of us."25

The following day was the Sabbath, and on Monday, President Young went on an exploring circuit with several others, during which, according to William Clayton, he signified "a wish to ascend a high peak, to the north of us."26 Still weak from the effects of his illness, President Young labored to the top of what would be called Ensign Peak, for, according to Elder Woodruff, they considered it "A good place to raise An Ensign." After having seen the valley from this peak, Brigham Young designated the spot on which the Salt Lake Temple would rise. Thus did the vanguard pioneer company begin to fulfill ancient and modern prophecies of the establishment of an ensign to the nations and a house of the Lord in the top of the mountains as they sought to advance the cause of Zion.27

Yet their legacy did not end there. When Wilford Woodruff entered the Salt Lake Valley with Brigham Young, he specifically described it as a promised land "upon which A portion of the Zion of GOD will be built."28 As the gospel has spread from that valley to the ends of the earth, pioneering members of the Church in many lands have purified their hearts to establish other portions of Zion and to worship in houses of the Lord around the world.29


1 Wilford Woodruff, Journal, 1 July 1847, Historical Department, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Salt Lake City, Utah (hereafter designated as Historical Department).

2 See, e.g., A New Map of Texas, Oregon and California (Philadelphia: S. Augustus Mitchell, 1846). On the Saints' use of this map, see Carl I. Wheat, Mapping the Transmississippi West, 1540-1861, vol. 3, From the Mexican War to the Boundary Surveys, 1846-1854 (San Francisco: Institute of Historical Cartography, 1959), 31.

3 From undated broadside titled Upper California, Historical Department. The song was published as hymn no. 290 in Sacred Hymns and Spiritual Songs, for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, in Europe, 9th ed. (Liverpool: F. D. Richards, 1851). On John Taylor's composition of the hymn, see William Clayton, Journal, 17 April 1845, as quoted in Brigham Young University Studies 20 (spring 1980): 271.

4 William Clayton, Journal, 30 June 1847, Historical Department.

5 Brigham Young to Amasa Lyman, Charles C. Rich, and the Saints in Camp, en route, for California, 3 July 1847, Brigham Young Collection, Historical Department.

6 Woodruff, Journal, 1 July 1847.

7 Thomas Bullock, Journal, 2-3 july 1847, Historical Department.

8 Clayton, Journal, 3 July 1847.

9 Woodruff, Journal, 4 July 1847.

10 Bullock, Journal, 4 July 1847; Clayton, Journal, 4 July 1847; Woodruff, Journal, 4 July 1847.

11 Orson Pratt, Journal, 6 July 1847, Historical Department.

12 Woodruff, Journal, 8 July 1847.

13 Clayton, Journal, 10 July 1847.

14 Pratt, Journal, 10 July 1847.

15 Pratt, Journal, 10 July 1847.

16 Bullock, Journal, 12 July 1847; Clayton, Journal, 12 July 1847; Pratt, Journal, 12 July 1847; Woodruff, Journal, 12 July 1847.

17 Woodruff, Journal, 14 July 1847.

18 Jacob, Journal, 17 July 1847.

19 Bullock, Journal, 17 July 1847; Clayton, Journal, 17 July 1847; Egan, Pioneering the West, 97, entry of 17 July 1847; Jacob, Journal, 17 July 1847; Woodruff, Journal, 17 July 1847.

20 Snow, Journal, 18 July 1847.

21 Clayton, Journal, 22 July 1847.

22 Snow, Journal, 20 July 1847.

23 Jacob, Journal, 23 July 1847.

24 Woodruff, Journal, 24 July 1847.

25 "Pioneers' Day," Deseret Evening News, 26 July 1880, p. 2.

26 Clayton, Journal, 26 July 1847.

27 Isaiah 2:2-3, 5:26, 11:12; Micah 4:1-2; 2 Nephi 12:2-3, 15:26, 21:12; D&C 64:41-42.

28 Woodruff, Journal, 24 July 1847.

29 D&C 97:21.

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