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Brigham returns to Winter Quarters

July 1997 marked the sesquicentennial of the arrival of the Mormon pioneers in the Salt Lake Valley. Continuing through December 1997, the Church News will publish articles commemorating the sesquicentennial. This is the 24th article in the series.The month of October 1847 was an eventful one for the pioneers in the Salt Lake Valley, those along the Mormon Trail, and those who remained at Winter Quarters. More significantly, the trail came to an end, at least for the year 1847, not only for the pioneers who successfully made their way to the valley, but also for the companies that returned to Missouri River settlements.

On Oct. 10, 1847, the last of the 1847 pioneers arrived in the valley. Approximately 2,095 made the entire trek west. Of these, some 1,690 wintered in the valley.1Immediately upon the arrival of the pioneer company in late July, preparations were made in anticipation of those who would follow - the city was surveyed, temporary shelters were built, and the pioneer fort was constructed (which was later enlarged). The most important undertaking was the planting of crops. Although the first plantings were done late in the season, during the month of October a fair crop was brought in. Lorenzo Dow Young noted that on Oct. 21, the first acre of wheat was harvested.2

A conference of the Church was held in "Great Salt Lake City" on Oct. 3. During the Sunday session, John Smith, uncle to the Prophet Joseph Smith, was sustained as president of the Salt Lake Stake. Charles C. Rich and John Young were called as counselors. Henry G. Sherwood, Thomas Grover, Levi Jackson, John Murdock, Daniel Spencer, Lewis Abbott, Ira Eldredge, Edison Whipple, Shadrach Roundy, John Vance, Willard Snow, and Abraham O. Smoot were chosen as high councilors. Although a few civil officers were also appointed, the Salt Lake Stake presidency and high council acted as the first governing body until the provisional State of Deseret was established in 1849.3

Before leaving Winter Quarters in April 1847, President Brigham Young and the Twelve fully intended to return after finding and establishing the main place of settlement in the Rocky Mountains. Significantly, as early as Aug. 11, Ezra T. Benson and a small group of horsemen left the valley and headed back east over the trail to bring word to those still on the trail that the main settlement site had been reached.4

Five days later a company departed under the leadership of Shadrach Roundy and Tunis Rappelye. This group consisted of 24 pioneers and 46 members of the Mormon Battalion and was known as the "ox train" or "ox team" company.5 President Brigham Young and six other apostles left on Aug. 26, after spending only 33 days in the Salt Lake Valley. This company was comprised of 107 men (no women were in the group), 71 horses, and 49 mules, and 36 wagons.6 From the onset, it was anticipated that Brigham's party would rendezvous with the ox train, but this never occurred. Thus, the return trip to Winter Quarters was done in two separate groups.

Retracing their trail, the returning pioneers traveled east at a much quicker pace than when coming west. Both the ox train and the horse companies made good time and distance. By Oct. 1, each had traversed through all of present-day Wyoming and were in the western Nebraska region. Roundy and Rappelye's ox team company consistently remained several days ahead of Brigham's group.

William Clayton's journal reveals that by Oct. 1, six weeks following their mid-August departure, the ox train had arrived at a point a few miles west of present-day Sutherland, Neb., a distance of nearly 700 miles from Salt Lake City.7 On this same date, President Young's horse company was about 100 miles behind, near Chimney Rock.8

The trek east through Nebraska was largely conducted without any serious incidents or setbacks. Since they had traveled much of the same road only a few months earlier, they were familiar with the territory and geography. Frequently, they would camp at the same sites where they camped when they were en route west. The weather was generally fair, but cold, making travel easier. Large herds of buffalo were encountered nearly every day, providing a regular supply of fresh meat for both camps.

But there were some serious problems. Feed for the animals was scarce at times. Due to lack of grain, the horses and mules suffered the most, causing them to wear out almost every day. Sickness among camp members was a constant occurrence. Indians posed the most concern and were occasionally successful in stealing animals, provisions, and weapons.

On Oct. 21, the first members of the ox team company arrived at Winter Quarters. William Clayton was among this number and felt cause to rejoice upon seeing his family, although his wife and one son were not well but were in good spirits.

"The health of my family has encouraged me for all that is past," he wrote. "My secret gratitude shall ascend to Heaven for the unbounded kindness and mercies which the Almighty has continually poured upon them in my absence."9

On Sunday Oct. 31, Brigham Young's horse company reached the outskirts of the Winter Quarters. One mile from the settlement, President Young stopped the camp and addressed the men. "Brethren," he said, "I wish you to receive my thanks for kindness and willingness to obey my orders; I am satisfied with you; you boys have done well. We have accomplished more than we expected. Out of 143 men who started

the trip from Winter Quarters to the Salt Lake ValleyT, . . . all of them are well; not a man has died; we have not lost a horse, mule, or ox but through carelessness; the blessings of the Lord have been with us. . . . I feel to bless you all in the name of the Lord God of Israel. You are dismissed to go to your own homes."10

About an hour before sunset the company made a triumphal entry.

"The streets were crowded with people to shake hands as we passed through the lines," President Young's history states. "We . . . truly rejoiced to once more behold our wives, children, and friends after an absence of over six months, having traveled over 2,000 miles, sought out a location for the saints to dwell in peace, and accomplished the most interesting mission in this last dispensation. Not a soul of our camp died, and no serious accident happened to any, for which we praise the Lord."11

The overland journey from Winter Quarters to the Salt Lake Valley had taken 111 days (April 14-July 24), while the return trip (for both the ox team company and Brigham's party) was accomplished in slightly more than half that time - 67 days.

To historians, the return of President Brigham Young to the Missouri River marked a milestone in the expansion of Western America and in the Church. Under his leadership, not only had the Latter-day Saints paved a new western trail thereby opening the West for even greater expansion, but also he and his followers successfully established a permanent settlement in an isolated region of the Intermountain West. In the spring of 1848, Brigham Young would once again travel west over the trail he had traversed twice before. However, upon returning to the valley of the Great Salt Lake, there he would remain to build and establish the kingdom of God in the tops of the mountains.

  • Alexander L. Baugh is an assistant professor of Church history and doctrine at BYU and bishop of the BYU 61st Ward.

1 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), 3:301.

2 Lorenzo Dow Young, "Diary of Lorenzo Dow Young," Utah Historical Quarterly 14 (1946): 164.

3 Roberts, Comprehensive History of the Church, 3:302-303; also John L. Hart, "Life of John Smith is a Thread Woven Through Church History," Church News 67 (Oct. 4, 1997): 5, 10.

4 Leonard J. Arrington, Brigham Young, American Moses (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1985), 147.

5 Will Bagley, ed., The Pioneer Camp of the Saints: The 1846 and 1847 Mormon Trail Journals of Thomas Bullock (Spokane: The Arthur H. Clark Company, 1997), 258-59; and William Clayton, William Clayton's Journal (Salt Lake City: the Deseret News, 1921), 346-50.

6 Ibid., 276-77. Apostle Ezra T. Benson joined up with the company on Aug. 29 after returning from Independence Rock where he met the advancing pioneer companies.

7 Clayton, William Clayton's Journal, 368. The distance from Salt Lake City is based upon Clayton's mileage calculations given in William Clayton, The Latter-day Saints Emigrants' Guide (St. Louis: Chambers & Knapp, 1848), 10.

8 Thomas Bullock, the journalist in President Young's company, noted that on Sept. 29, the party camped five miles west of Chimney Rock. They would have passed the landmark on Sept. 30. (See Bagley, The Pioneer Camp of the Saints, 299-300.)

9 See Clayton, William Clayton's Journal, 376.

10 William S. Harwell, ed., Manuscript History of Brigham Young, 1847-1850 (Salt Lake City: Collier's Publishing Co. 1997), 75.

11Ibid., 75-76.

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