On Friday, Sept. 24, 1847, exactly two months after President Brigham Young declared, "This is the right place" at the mouth of Emigration Canyon, the Abraham O. Smoot Company began dragging into the Salt Lake Valley after nearly three months of heat, dust, and fatigue on the Mormon Trail.
One of their number, diarist Patty Sessions, exclaimed in her journal: "Got into the valley. It is a beautiful place. My heart flows with gratitude to God that we have got home all safe. Lost nothing. Have been blessed with life and health. I rejoice all the time."1The Smoot Company, consisting of 139 souls, was only one of 10 similar companies that left Winter Quarters on the Missouri River in early June under the general administration of two apostles, Parley P. Pratt and John Taylor.
Together these companies, which stayed relatively close to each other the entire trip, consisted of about 1,550 people who were primarily in families, entirely unlike the "pioneer company" that was mostly made up of men who were to blaze the trail and found the new Latter-day Saint refuge. These 10 companies together have often been referred to as the "Big Company."
The Big Company relied on God and on the inspiration of their leaders, the apostles, most of whom had gone on ahead of them by about two months. Their action bespoke a "sublime evidence of their faith," according to historian B. H. Roberts. He explained, "They barely had provision enough to last them 18 months and then if their first crop failed them in the new mountain home selected, starvation must follow for they would be from 800 to 900 miles from the nearest point where food could be obtained, and no swifter means of transportation than horse or ox teams."
Elder Roberts added, "They must succeed or perish in the wilderness to which they had come; and with a faith that has never been surpassed, they placed themselves under the guidance and protection of God."2
Prior to leaving for the Rocky Mountains in April 1847, President Brigham Young had directed Parley P. Pratt and John Taylor to oversee the general mobilization of new companies for departure later in the season. Elders Pratt and Taylor had just arrived back from their mission to Britain (see Church News, "British converts important to Saints preparing for winter," Nov. 2, 1996, 6, 12) and were thus unable to join the rest of the Quorum of the Twelve on their epic pioneer journey.
The plan was to divide the people ready to go into companies of 100 wagons, subdivided into companies of 50 wagons, and further subdivided into companies of 10 wagons. (See D&C 136:3-5.) Captains were appointed over each company.
Three hundred pounds of breadstuff were required for each person because food would be needed over the first winter and through the next spring and summer in the valley. Each company of 50 needed a blacksmith with tools for repairing wagons and shoeing animals. Every man had to have a gun with 100 rounds of ammunition. Each family was expected to take along its proportion of seed grain and agricultural implements.
One of the men assigned to the Abraham O. Smoot Company was George Washington Hill who remembered these days: "I bade adieu to home and friends by the ties of nature, and launched forth into the wide world with a large family to see to and very little means to see to them with, but placing my trust in God. Like Abraham of old, I started forth to a strange land. I knew not where, but determined to find the Church of Christ and identify myself with, to cast my lot with theirs, come weal or woe."3
Eventually and miraculously, nearly everyone who wished to go was ready. Elder Parley P. Pratt wrote in his autobiography: "Early in June I loaded my goods and family into my wagons, and, obtaining a few more cattle, started for the Rocky Mountains; or rather for the Elk Horn River, where we expected to form a rendezvous, and establish a ferry, and wait the arrival of others, and the organization of companies for the purpose of mutual safety in traveling."4
Unfortunately late arrivals of all the wagons, the necessary reshuffling of companies, and the difficulty ferrying across the Elkhorn River delayed the departure of the Big Company until the third week of June.
This did not bode well, since everyone knew that they would have difficult mountain terrain at the end of the trail. They had hoped to arrive while it was still summer, but now prospects were not good for arrival before October.
The confusion caused frustration and anger to boil to the surface. Elder Pratt noted, "There were some difficulties and jealousies during the first few days, on account of some misunderstanding and insubordination in the order of travel. This at length became so far developed that it was found necessary to call a general halt on the Platte River, and hold a council of the principal officers, in which things were amicably adjusted and the camp moved on."5
Generally speaking Elder Parley P. Pratt rode in the first company and Elder John Taylor in the third. Between them was a company of artillery, commanded by Charles C. Rich, who had previously been appointed to head the militia.
General Rich's company carried many arms, some ammunition, and two cannons in case of attack by Indians. Brother Rich's wife Sarah wrote, "We had to place out strong guards at night, so you can judge the feeling of women and children traveling through Indian country, not knowing what moment we might be attacked." Sarah added, "There were more women and children than men in our camp. So we realized that we must be humble and prayerful and put our trust in the Lord. And it was through his mercy and kind care that saved the people on this dangerous journey, for we prayed to the Lord in faith, and he answered our prayers."6
As these companies plodded along the flat Platte River Valley in the July heat, they often traveled four to six wagons abreast. This was good for maintaining community friendship as well as for safety.
Public prayer was offered up daily in the camps. The Sabbath was observed as a day of rest. Each company held religious services. Each night the stillness of the evening was broken by the Saints singing the songs of Zion.
Like the pioneers before them, the 1,530 who left in June 1847 ran into thousands of buffalo who traveled in herds on the Nebraska prairies. These companies also had hunters who continued to supply the camp with fresh meat.
Historian Carol Cornwall Madsen has noted: "Midwives such as Patty Sessions also filled a central place at the center of camp life, entering into a family circle at its most vulnerable times and linking families in their common needs."7
These 10 companies were immensely blessed by the pioneer company that preceded them. William Clayton had regularly left informative markers. Willard Richards had dictated several letters to be sent back to companies that followed. Brigham Young had left behind a few men to help with ferrying the North Platte River at the Last Crossing (present-day Casper, Wyo.). And finally President Young had also sent some brethren back early to give even more information and encouragement to the hundreds of approaching Saints. Members of the Big Company came to realize that they were never left alone in their undertaking.
The greatest joy along the trail was when the pioneers met up with men returning to Winter Quarters. On Aug. 2, Brigham Young sent apostle Ezra T. Benson and three companions to go eastward on horseback to meet the oncoming immigrant trains. These men were to obtain the names of every individual in all the migrating Camps of Israel and make a list of the number of wagons, horses, oxen, and other animals and equipment. They were to ascertain all the needs of the Saints and return to give a report.
They took with them a letter dictated by the presiding brethren that described conditions in the Latter-day Saints' new home. Elder Benson's subsequent report stated that 1,553 people were en route in 10 companies. This was more than Brigham Young had expected, and he and other leaders were gravely concerned about having so many people in the valley for the first year. They knew that sufficient food was likely to be a problem.
On Aug. 17, 1847, Brigham Young sent a group of men, including chronicler of places and distances William Clayton, to meet the companies coming west. The first encounter of these men with an approaching company took place on Aug. 30 near South Pass in Wyoming.
Brother Clayton was thrilled to speak with two brothers of his wife, Diantha, and to find that all was well. In addition, "from [William's] sister Olivia, I received some articles sent by my family which were very acceptable indeed and made me feel grateful." William also noted, "This company all appear well and cheerful and are not much troubled on account of lack of teams."8
William repeatedly shared his information about the valley and about the trail that he had by now started to chart. His knowledge was always welcome and appreciated.
On Aug. 26 President Young led a group of 107 men, including six apostles, from Great Salt Lake City back up into the mountains. They headed back to the Missouri River to retrieve their families and to superintend further immigration during the coming 1848 season.
On Sept. 4, Brigham Young's returning company met the first of the oncoming Saints on the Big Sandy River a few miles west of South Pass. Later the apostles' company met and greeted all the other migrating groups. This always brought excitement to the various camps.
President Young's company met Elder John Taylor's oncoming company during an early season snow storm. This certainly pointed out the need to get future immigrants through the mountains by September if possible.
After a morning council meeting, Elder Taylor took his guests to a sumptuous feast of roast beef, pies, cakes and biscuits that had been lovingly prepared by the women of his company.
During these council meetings, President Young also confirmed who would be the Saints' leaders in the valley during the first year there. The apostles' decision on this matter had been made in August 1847 in the valley.
John Smith, uncle to the Prophet Joseph Smith, was designated as stake president with Charles C. Rich and John Young as counselors. Each member of the high council and the bishop were also designated by name. John Van Cott, who was the marshal of the Big Company, was also called to the marshal for the Great Salt Lake City as well.
The first of the Big Company to arrive in the valley arrived on Sept. 19 and the last on Oct. 10 when the last of Jedediah M. Grant's company trudged in. The last few miles up and down the mountain passes were exceptionally difficult for the men, women, and children who were already exhausted.
Eliza R. Snow recounted one experience near Big Mountain on Oct. 1: "Today we traveled through brush and timber, but what was still worse, through black dust, with which we were all so densely covered that our identities might be questioned. When up the mountain we met Bro. John Taylor, who, having reached the Valley was returning to meet that portion of his company now in the rear. Riding on horseback, through the interminable dust, his face was covered with a black mask, and in his happy, jocular way, lest I should compliment him, he hastened to ask me if I had lately seen my own face! Our appearance was truly ludicrous. It mattered little to us as we went slash, mash, down the mount, over stumps, trees, ruts, etc., where no one dared ride who could walk."9
The Big Company Saints arrived in the valley piecemeal with a combination of joy, relief, and utter exhaustion. But they didn't have much time to rest. They had to get right to work on helping build the fort where present-day Pioneer Park is located in Salt Lake City.
1 Donna Toland Smart, ed. Mormon Midwife: The 1846-1888 Diaries of Patty Bartless Sessions (Logan, UT: Utah Stake University Press, 1997), 99. For this and all other diary entries cited in this article, the spelling and punctuation have been standardized.
2 B. H. Roberts, A Comprehensive History of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 6 vols. (Salt Lake City: Deseret News Publishing Company, 1930), 3:302.
3 As cited in Carol Cornwall Madsen, Journey to Zion: Voices from the Mormon Trail (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1997), 355-56.
4 Autobiography of Parley P. Pratt (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book
Company, 1964), 358.
5 Ibid., 358-59.
6 Madsen, Journey to Zion, 376.
7 Madsen, Journey to Zion, 325.
8 William Clayton's Journal (Salt Lake City: The Deseret News, 1921), 355-56.
9 As cited in Deseret News 1997-98 Church Almanac, 120. See also Beecher, The Personal Writings of Eliza Roxcy Snow, 204.