First Emigrants of the West

The Mormon Migration

Pioneers in Covered Wagons, by Thomas Fogarty

Pioneers in Covered Wagons, by Thomas Fogarty

Close upon the heels of these earlier emigrants came the great Mormon migration of 1847. Words can scarcely picture this movement of thousands, in all conditions of life — men, women, and children, — bearing with them all their worldly possessions, and for months traveling across the wide Plains, seeking that home which they finally discovered amid the deserts of Utah. Driven from Illinois by enraged citizens, leaving behind a deserted city, this body of religious enthusiasts, under the leadership of Brigham Young, struggled through Iowa, suffering torments from the bitter cold of winter, and the floods of spring, until their second winter’s camp was established on the banks of the Elkhorn in Nebraska.

But, this halt was only temporary. April 9, 1847, the advance guard departed westward, and all others were expected to follow as soon as possible. The party was furnished with a wagon, two oxen, two milk cows, and a tent, for every ten persons. Each wagon was supplied with a thousand pounds of flour, fifty pounds of rice, sugar, and bacon; thirty of beans, twenty of dried apples or peaches, twenty-five of salt, five of tea, a gallon of vinegar, and ten bars of soap. Every able-bodied man was compelled to carry some kind of firearm, and do his share of guard duty. The wagons were beds, kitchens, and occasionally boats. The average day’s journey was thirteen miles. This advance company were three months in reaching the valley of Great Salt Lake, which was chosen by their leader as the situation for their new home.

Wagon Train in Utah

Wagon Train in Utah

Behind them, in great trains, reaching in almost solid procession from the distant banks of the Missouri, toiled the faithful followers of the prophet. This passing of the disciples of the Church of Latter Day Saints across the wilderness was one of the most wonderful sights witnessed upon the Great Plains, equaled, it is true, and possibly surpassed, in mere point of numbers a few years later by the rush of gold-seekers to California; yet, when one considers the difference in organization and purpose, this vast exodus remains almost without parallel in history. Nor did this strange migration cease with the passing of these pioneers.

Earnest missionaries of the faith toiled with unremitting fervor in the Eastern States and Europe, their numerous converts, usually poor in all but religious enthusiasm, pressing westward in continuous stream across the prairies up to the time of the coming of the railroads.

There was no total cessation of the tide. Thousands crossed the Great Plains dragging handcarts containing their baggage, although the Church authorities provided wagons for the women, children, and sick. These hand-carts were primitive but strong, the shafts five feet long, of hickory or oak, with cross pieces. Under the bed of the cart was a wooden axle-tree, the wheels being also made of wood, with a light iron band. The entire weight averaged about sixty pounds.

To each hundred persons the Church furnished twenty of these handcarts, five tents, three or four milk cows, and a wagon to be drawn by three yoke of oxen. The quantity of clothing and bedding taken was limited to seventeen pounds per capita, and the freight of each hand-cart was expected to be about one hundred pounds.

Route of the Mormons

Mormon Trail Map

The large majority of this Church army traveled westward from Council Bluffs, Iowa, up the valley of the Platte River, following a trail now cut deep into the soil of the prairie. Yet there were side streams from points farther south, the one most used leading from Independence, Missouri, northwest across the Plains until it united with the main current of travel at Grand Island, Nebraska. This, a little later, became an important route for emigrant trains bound for California and Oregon, and still later was raced over by overland coaches and the Pony Express. Others of the Mormons, although usually traveling in much smaller parties, advanced up the valley of the Arkansas River, and skirted the eastern base of the Rockies on their long journey to the “Promised Land.” Such a company brought the first American families within the present limits of Colorado, residing on the site of Pueblo throughout the Winter of 1846-47.

Houses were erected by them, a number of children were born, numerous deaths occurred, and there is a record of one wedding. Sufferings on the Journey During the course of this passage across the wilderness much suffering and hardship occurred, but there is no record of Indian<style=”margin-top: 0; margin-bottom: 0″> attack. Exposure and death left many along the trails<style=”margin-top: 0; margin-bottom: 0″><style=”margin-top: 0; margin-bottom: 0″>. One large company, having yet a thousand miles to travel, decided to press on as late as the last of November, thus braving a winter on the Plains and in the mountains. At first they traveled fifteen miles a day, but were soon delayed by breaking axles, and other accidents. At Wood River their cattle stampeded, and thirty head were lost. The beef cattle, milch cows, and heifers were yoked up, but did little service, and the allowance of food was reduced to one meal a day.

On reaching Laramie, where they hoped to procure provisions, they found none. Again the ration was reduced, men able to work each receiving twelve ounces of flour daily; women and old men, nine ounces; children, four to eight. The weather grew severe, and they suffered greatly from cold. Before them loomed the grim mountains already white with snow. The old and infirm began to die, and each camp was a burying-ground. Then the able-bodied commenced falling out, some dying in the shafts of their carts. While yet sixteen miles from the nearest possible camp on the Sweetwater, it began to snow, and their last ration of flour was issued. At this moment of despair messengers reached them, saying a train of supplies was only two or three days ahead. Encouraged by this news, the survivors managed to drag forward, but during the night five died of cold and exhaustion.

The next morning the snow was a foot deep, and they had left only two barrels of biscuits, a few pounds of sugar and dried apples, with a quarter of a sack of rice. They determined to remain in camp, sending forward the captain and one of the elders in search of the supply train. During those three days of waiting the sufferings of the party were intense. Many sickened and died. One writer says:

“Some expired in the arms of those who were themselves almost at the point of death. Mothers wrapped with their dying hands the remnant of their tattered clothing around the wan forms of their perishing infants. The most pitiful sight of all was to see strong men begging for the morsel of food that had been set aside for the sick and helpless.”

Late in the night of the third day the help so long waited for reached them. Yet it came almost too late to save. In Inman’s words:

“Some were already beyond all human aid, some had lost their reason, and around others the blackness of despair had settled, all efforts to arouse them from their stupor being unavailing. Each day the weather grew colder, and many were frost-bitten, losing fingers, toes, or ears, one sick man, who held on to the wagon bars to avoid jolting, having all his fingers frozen. At a camping ground at Willow Creek, fifteen people were buried, thirteen of them frozen to death.”

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