During May 1847, the Mormon pioneers experienced a number of ordeals typical of many overland travelers crossing the Great Plains of the American West in the mid-19th Century - buffalo hunts, cooking with buffalo chips, wolves, insect bites, broken wagons, accidents, prairie fires, snakes, Indians, river crossings, quicksand, and inclement weather - to name a few.
During the month, under President Brigham Young's leadership, the pioneers traversed much of the central and western plains of Nebraska, and a small portion of the extreme southeastern part of Wyoming.The vanguard company also made good mileage. Between May 1-31, they traveled from a position five miles east of present-day Kearney, Neb., to present-day Lingle, Wyo., a distance of approximately 312 miles. Actual travel time was 26 days, averaging 12 miles per day.1
The month began with the first sighting of buffalo, resulting in a "May Day" buffalo hunt. On May 1, William Clayton wrote: "This being the first day buffalo has been seen on our journey and in fact the first ever seen by any except about five or six of the brethren, it excited considerable interest and pleasure . . . in the brethren."2
Earlier in the week, the Twelve and a few other camp leaders had met to organize a group of company hunters for just such an occasion.
That evening, the company feasted on a hearty meal of fresh, savory, and tender meat. President Young later counseled the company "not to kill any buffalo or other game until the meat was needed."3
Between May 1-17, the sighting of buffalo was a common occurrence. On May 8, the largest number was seen. Wilford Woodruff wrote: "I rode forward to day with the Twelve & others & of all the sights of buffalo that our eyes beheld
thisT was enough to asstonish man. Thousands upon thousands would croud to gether as they came from the bluffs to the bottom land to go to the river & slues to drink untill the river & land upon both sides of it was one dark spectacle of moving objects. It looked as though the face of the earth was alive & moving like waves of the sea."4
William Clayton estimated seeing as many as 50,000 buffalo.5
The presence of buffalo also created problems. The migrating bison frequently mixed in with the Mormon cattle and it was very difficult separating the two. On one occasion, the cattle began running with the buffalo. Sensing a possible crisis, Brigham Young and a number of other men rode into the melee hoping to secure the Mormon animals. The stock remained intact, but President Young lost a $40 spy glass in the process. Fortunately, the glass was recovered the following day.6
A second and more serious problem was the lack of forage and feed needed by the Mormon stock. The shortage was principally caused by prairie fires that literally blackened the entire region. These fires were set by the Pawnee Indians, but were not 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.
Compounding the problems was the fact that what grass remained was consumed by the buffalo herds. On May 6, Erastus Snow wrote: "Many of our animals are nearly famished for the want of food, for every green thing is cut off by the buffalo."7
On this same day William Clayton recorded that the company traveled very slowly on account of some of the horses and cattle having given out entirely due to the lack of feed to sustain them.8 The situation became so critical that at one point a council was held to discuss whether or not the company should cross to the south side of the Platte where the grass had not been burned and follow the course of the Oregon Trail.
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."9
The fires continued for about a week, hampering their progress, or forcing them to take a slightly different route. On May 5, William Clayton wrote that the entire prairie was in a blaze, forcing the company to go back a half mile where they forded their animals over to an island in the middle of the Platte River to provide safety from the fire.
During this time black clouds on the horizon and a good downpour were considered a blessing since the rain helped to extinguished the fires.
A significant instrument used on the journey was also invented while traversing the Nebraska plains. William Clayton, the company's general clerk, was specifically assigned to keep a daily log of the expedition, including geographic features, climate and milage. During the first few weeks, Clayton merely estimated each days' travel. Later, he measured Heber C. Kimball's rear wagon wheel, finding it to be 14 feet, 8 inches in circumference. Further calculations indicated that 360 rotations equaled precisely one mile. For the next several days, Clayton walked beside the wheel, counting each rotation.
However, he soon found the procedure "somewhat tedious" and made a recommendation to President Young that an instrument be fashioned - one that could be attached to the wheel which would automatically count each full turn.
Orson Pratt, the company's scientific member, was given the assignment to come up with the design, and Appleton Harmon, a skilled carpenter and mechanic, was put to work constructing it. On May 12, the odometer was essentially complete, and mounted. The odometer proved to be a valuable implement in determining accurate mileage and aided in the preparation of Clayton's Latter-day Saints' Emigrants' Guide, published in 1848 as a handbook for emigrating pioneers.10
Indians were a continual concern. While the Mormons feared a possible attack from nearby tribes, they had learned from their experience at Winter Quarters that the Indians were generally more intent on stealing their animals, particularly their horses. Guards were posted each night and an alarm was sounded if anything suspicious was seen.
However, the only major encounter during the month proved to be a favorable one. On May 24, just after making camp for the evening, a band of 35 Sioux Indians approached the Mormon train. A small contingent rode out to meet them, and after learning that they were desirous of obtaining food, a few of their number, including their chief, were invited into camp and served a hearty dinner. Provisions were also sent to the remainder who remained a short distance away. These Indians proved to be surprisingly friendly. "They were all well dressed and behaved themselves better than any Indians I have ever seen before," wrote Howard Egan.11
Stephen Markham and Albert P. Rockwood entertained the party by showing them around the camp and demonstrating some of their firearms, including the cannon. The chief, Owastote-cha, amused himself for nearly 20 minutes while looking at the moon through a telescope. He enjoyed himself so much that he asked if he could have the privilege of spending the night. 12
During May, the pioneer company passed three major Nebraska landmarks. On May 10, the company left the Platte River, passing the junction of the North and South Platte Rivers near present-day North Platte, Neb.
For the next month, they followed the general course of the North Platte until crossing it at present-day Casper, Wyo., beginning June 14.
A second famous landmark, Chimney Rock, situated on the south side of the North Platte River, was reached on Wednesday, May 26. The company had seen the formation in the distance for several days and had marveled at its uniqueness and beauty. This famous rock formation marked the "psychological" half-way point from Winter Quarters to the Salt Lake Valley.
At the time, William Clayton calculated it to be approximately 452.5 miles from Winter Quarters, and later determined it to be 578.5 miles from the Salt Lake Valley.13 Using his instruments, Orson Pratt noted that the summit of the outcropping was 260 feet high from base to summit and that they were now 3,790 feet above sea level.14
The following day the pioneers traveled 20 miles and camped opposite Scotts Bluff, an unusual cliff formation that Orson Pratt described as resembling "towers and castles of various forms and heights . . . thrown partially into disorder and confusion by some great convulsion of nature."15
The month of May ended on a somber, solemn, and sacred note. On Friday evening, May 28, Brigham Young confided to Wilford Woodruff that he had observed that a number of company members were forgetting their mission and were engaged in a spirit of folly and wickedness that included quarreling, playing cards, gambling, using profane language, boisterous laughing, and dancing until the later hours of the night when they should have retired. Furthermore, he told Elder Woodruff that a reproof was in order.16 The next morning before breaking camp, the Mormon leader addressed the entire group and denounced their conduct.
"Nobody has told me what has been going on in the camp," he said, "but I have known it all the while. I have been watching its movements, its influence, its effects, and I know the result if it is not put a stop to. . . . Unless there is a change and different course of conduct, a different spirit to what is not in this camp, I go no further."
President Young spoke at some length, then concluded by asking each respective priesthood quorum, beginning with the Twelve down to the elders, to put their hand to the square and covenant that they would "turn to the Lord with all their hearts, to repent of their follies, to cease from their evils and serve God according to His laws."
All manifest in the affirmative.17 The effect was immediate. That afternoon as the camp proceeded, "no loud laughter was heard, no swearing, no quarreling, no profane language, no hard speeches to man or beast," wrote William Clayton. "It truly seemed as though the cloud had burst and we had emerged into a new element."18 The spirit of repentance carried over to the next day, May 30. Being the Sabbath, a morning prayer meeting was held, and for the first time on the overland journey, the sacrament was administered.
Following this, the members of the Twelve (eight in number), and nine other men ascended a bluff above the encampment and offered sacred prayers unto God.19
On May 31, the pioneers camped a few miles over the Nebraska-Wyoming line, thus taking approximately seven weeks to cross the entire state, and near the half-way point of the overland journey to the Great Salt Lake Valley. Crossing the Nebraska plains was not the most difficult part of the journey, but their experiences during the month of May better prepared them for what lay ahead. June would bring additional hardships and slower travel as they wound their way through the rocky ridges and more mountainous terrain of the Wyoming wilderness.
- Alexander Baugh is a BYU assistant professor of Church history and doctine and bishop of the BYU 61st Ward, BYU University 2nd Stake
1The company did not travel on May 2-3, 16, 23 and 29. As a rule, there was no traveling on Sunday. However, on May 9, they were compelled to travel four miles in search of feed for their animals.
2William Clayton, William Clayton's Journal: A Daily Record of the Journey of the Original Company of "Mormon" Pioneers from Nauvoo, Illinois, to the Valley of the Great Salt Lake (Salt Lake City: The Deseret News, 1921), p. 116.
3Elden J. Watson, Manuscript History of Brigham Young, 1846-1847 (Salt Lake City: Elden J. Watson, 1971), 553.
4Wilford Woodruff's Journal, 1833-1898, 3:171.
5William Clayton's Journal, 136.
6Wilford Woodruff's Journal 3:170; and William Clayton's Journal, 134-35.
7Erastus Snow, "Journal," 6 May 1847, cited in B. H. Roberts, A
Comprehensive History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Provo: Brigham Young University Press, 1965), 3:174, note #40.
8William Clayton's Journal, 134.
9Wilford Woodruff's Journal 3:168.
10See Ibid., 136, 152-53; and Orson Pratt, "Journal," in Millennial Star 12 (15 February 1850): 49-50; (1 March 1850): 65. For a detailed analysis of the odometer, see Norman E. Wright, "I Have a Question,"
Ensign 11 (August 1981): 30-31.
11Howard Egan, Pioneering the West, 1846 to 1878: Major Howard Egan's Diary (Salt Lake City: Skelton Publishing Company, 1917), 47.
12William Clayton's Journal, 182.
13William Clayton, The Latter-day Saints' Emigrants' Guide (St. Louis: Chambers & Knapp, 1848), 11.
14Pratt, "Journal," Millennial Star 12 (1 April 1850): 97.
16Wilford Woodruff's Journal 3:186.
17William Clayton's Journal, 198-99; see also Watson, Manuscript History of Brigham Young, 555-56.
18William Clayton's Journal, 201.
19Ibid., 203; see also Wilford Woodruff's Journal 3:190-91.