Mormon Pioneer
Historic Resource Study
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In early January 1847, the pioneer company began in earnest to prepare to leave for the Rocky Mountains that spring. The traditional time, the "window," to head west from the Missouri River was sometime between April 15th and May 30th. This vanguard differed from other westering Americans in that they were not interested in just getting themselves west, but in improving the trail for the benefit of the many thousands of their co-religionists, who would soon be following them to their new Zion. (For short accounts of those who followed the pioneers of 1847 west, see Chapter 6.) Among the improvements the pioneers made were cutting down the banks of deep stream beds so that wagons could cross them easier, bridging small creeks, marking the trail with signs, locating good fords, and establishing ferries. [1]

Some idea of the staggering logistics of preparation for such a venture can be gained from the following inventory, detailed to the last half-cent, of what Heber C. Kimball assembled and transported in his six wagons:

Teams belonging to H.C. Kimball: Horses 5, mules 7, oxen 6, cows 2, dogs 2, wagons 6. List of provisions: Flour 1,228 lbs., meat 865 lbs., sea biscuits 125 lbs., beans 296 lbs., bacon 241 lbs., corn for teams 2,869 lbs., buckwheat 300 lbs., dried beef 25 lbs., groceries 290-3/4 lbs., sole leather 15 lbs., oats 10 bus., rap 40 lbs., seeds 71 lbs., cross-cut saw 1, axes 6, scythe 1, hoes 3, log chains 5, spade 1, crowbar 1, tent 1, keg of powder 25 lbs., lead 20 lbs., codfish 40 lbs., garden seeds 50 lbs., plows 2, bran 3-1/2 bus., 1 side of harness leather, whip saw 1, iron 16 lbs., nails 16 lbs., 1 sack of salt 200 lbs., saddles 2, 1 tool chest, 6 pairs of double harness. Total $1,592.87-1/2. [2]


Apparently the original idea, by design or accident (but in any case consonant with the tendency of Mormons to pattern themselves after the ancient House of Israel), was to hand-pick and outfit 144 men (including three Black slaves or "servants" of southern members and two non-Mormons selected for their special skills)—twelve for each of the Twelve Tribes of Israel, in seventy-two wagons. The pioneer band was hand-picked by Young and other top church leaders. Men were interviewed and selected with a view to making roads, building bridges, erecting temporary quarters, and other pioneering skills. Collectively those chosen had a variety of talents and skills. There were mechanics, teamsters, hunters, frontiersmen, carpenters, sailors, soldiers, accountants, bricklayers, blacksmiths, wagonmakers, lumbermen, joiners, dairymen, stockmen, millers, and engineers—varying in ability, temperament, and saintliness; they represented a cross section of humanity. [3]

The numerical symmetry was not essential. Even before the group left Winter Quarters, three women and two children were added and a few days later one sick man returned to Winter Quarters. En route, nineteen men left the pioneers on other assignments and thirty persons were added. So the original 144 was augmented by 35 and decreased by 20, leaving a net gain of 15. A final group of 159 members entered the Valley of the Great Salt Lake in July 1847. (See Appendix B, Document 3 for a roster of the Pioneer Company.)

The unanticipated inclusion of three women and two children in an otherwise all-male venture was occasioned by the insistence of Young's younger brother, Lorenzo, that he be allowed to take his asthmatic wife, Harriet, and her two children. This, of course, necessitated including at least one or two other females to keep Harriet company. Fortuitously, Brigham had married Harriet's daughter, Clara Decker, so he took her. Kimball took Ellen Sanders, one of his sixteen wives. Her child, born February 13, 1848, was one of the first to be born in what is now Utah. Rank had its privileges.

The pioneers of 1847 were much better disciplined than was Zion's Camp of 1834, or the crossing of Iowa in 1846. This was in part the result of a revelation given to Brigham Young on January 14, 1847, at Winter Quarters—the only revelation Young ever published. It began, 'The Word and Will of the Lord concerning the Camp of Israel in their journey to the west," and is known today as Section 136 of the Doctrine and Covenants. Basically the revelation gave details on camp organization. (See Appendix B, Document 4 for the full text of this revelation.) Equally important was the fact that the Mormons had learned valuable lessons while crossing Iowa, especially the value of discipline.

For a variety of reasons, including expense, the Mormons never hired professional guides or outfitters, although they consulted with them whenever possible. They preferred to "trust in the Lord" and pick up trail savvy as they moved along. Men were appointed to scout the trail and others to ride along the front, flanks, and rear—guarding and enclosing the moving camp in a box-like formation. Neither persons nor animals could be allowed to roam. Disreputable whites and Indians had to be kept at a safe distance, and wolves had to be restrained from picking off stray or weakened animals. [4]

The scouting assignment was vital. Not that there was much chance of getting lost on the established trails the Mormons used, but water, feed, fuel, grades, crossings, and whatever might prove dangerous to man or beast had to be anticipated, found, and reported. Eight men were appointed to hunt on horseback and eleven to hunt on foot.

Contrary to myth and popular belief, this 1847 trek of approximately 1,032 miles and 111 days was not one long and unending trail of tears or a trial by fire. It was actually a great adventure. Over the decades, Mormons have emphasized the tragedies of the trail, and tragedies there were, but generally after 1847. Between 1847 and the building of the railroad in 1869, at least 6,000 died along the trail from exhaustion, exposure, disease, and lack of food. Few were killed by Indians. [5] To the vast majority, however, the experience was positive—a difficult and rewarding struggle. [6] Nobody knows how many Mormons migrated west during those years, but 70,000 people in 10,000 vehicles is a close estimate. (See Appendix B, Document 5.) To the 143 men, 3 women, and 2 children who left Winter Quarters, the 111-day pioneer trek of 1847 was mostly a great adventure, with a dramatic ending. One hundred and eleven days later Brigham Young entered the valley and declared, "This is the place, drive on."

The feelings of the female pioneers, the three who left Winter Quarters and the six who joined at Fort Laramie, were, naturally, somewhat different. At least two of them saw only a wilderness, a reptile's paradise. "I have come 1,200 miles to reach this valley and walked much of the way," Clara Decker, Young's wife, said, "but I am willing to walk 1,000 miles farther rather than remain here." Her mother, Harriet, echoingly said, "We have traveled fifteen hundred miles over prairies, deseret, and mountains, but, feeble as I am, I would rather go a thousand miles farther than stay in such a place as this." [7] Nevertheless, they stayed.


The 1847 pioneer trek from "civilization to sundown" took a few days to get properly under way, as did the trip in 1846, when the Camp of Israel left Nauvoo. Kimball moved three wagons out 4 miles on April 5th (see Historic Site 21), but returned to Winter Quarters to meet with John Taylor (see Appendix D, Illustration 8 and Appendix C, Biographical Sketch 7) who had just arrived from England with some specially ordered scientific instruments for Orson Pratt (see Appendix D, Illustration 16 and Appendix C, Biographical Sketch 10). The elite, fast-moving, well-equipped, exploring band of pioneers were not just taking themselves to the valley, they were charting a road that the Saints and others would use for more than twenty years. For this they needed sextants, a circle of reflection, artificial horizons, barometers, thermometers, and telescopes. [8] The Mormons became a part of what is now known as the "Great Reconnaissance" of the Far West. [9]

Orson Pratt, a Mormon with some astronomy and engineering skills, served informally as the pioneers' "scientific member." He had made a few sightings along the trail from Nauvoo, but they are of little value today. Beyond the Missouri his latitudinal determinations were made, according to his journal, alternately by "meridian observation of Sirius," by "altitude of the Pole Star," by "meridian observations of the sun," and by the "meridian altitude of the moon." With the aid of the new instruments just received from England, his latitudinal determinations were quite accurate. [10]

Lacking a suitable chronometer, however, his few longitudinal sightings made by the "angular distance of the sun and moon taken by sextant and circle" cannot be trusted. Even Fremont, who often spent hours making multiple sightings of the occultations of the planets and stars by the moon and the Jupiterian satellites, had difficulty determining proper longitude. Along the Platte River a miscalculation of only one minute causes an error of 6,000 feet in latitude and 4,500 feet in longitude.


On April 5, 1847, the first wagons started west and after a few days the main body of pioneers were at their staging ground on the Platte River, 47 miles west, near what is now Fremont, Nebraska. This site was later dubbed the Liberty Pole staging ground because later Mormon emigrants erected a forty-foot-tall cottonwood pole, flying a white flag, here. [11] (See Historic Site 23.) This staging ground on the Platte, similar to the earlier staging ground at Sugar Creek in 1846 in Iowa, was necessary since leaders like Young and Kimball had to go back and forth between Winter Quarters and the Platte in order to get

the "drag tails" under way, and the whole migration organized and ready to go. [12] On April 14th, Young and Kimball left Winter Quarters and joined the main camp at the Liberty Pole Camp.

At the Platte River camp the group consisted of 148 people, 72 wagons, 93 horses, 66 oxen, 52 mules, 19 cows, 17 dogs, and some chickens. There they organized paramilitary fashion into two large divisions, each of which was split into units of 50s and 10s, each with its respective leaders. Young led the first division, Kimball the second; Stephen Markham and Albert P. Rockwood were appointed captains of the hundred, with Addison Everett, Tarlton Lewis, James Case, John Pack, and Addison Roundy captains of the 50s. [13]


The real beginning of the trek of 1847 and the whole trans-Missouri Mormon migration that followed was at 7:30 on the morning of Monday, April 19th. The company moved out from their staging area and the grand adventure began. (For maps of the trail from Winter Quarters to Utah see Appendix A, Maps 7-9.)

As previously noted, the Mormons had prepared themselves for this pioneering venture by studying as much trail literature and as many travel guides as they could, including works by Irving, Fremont, Hastings, Parker, and Long, and had acquired maps by Long, Wilkes, Bonneville, Fremont, and Mitchell. They referred to the maps and accounts en route, to check their location.

The Platte River, rising in Colorado and one of the largest branches of the Missouri, is very broad and shallow, a meandering, braided river that old timers used to say "flowed upside down" — a reference to the many visible sandbars. One disgruntled pioneer remarked that it would make a pretty good stream if it were turned on its side. Travelers seemed to enjoy thinking up insults for the Platte. The consensus regarding this river was that it was a mile wide, six inches deep, too thick to drink, too thin to plow, hard to cross because of quicksand, impossible to navigate, too yellow to wash in, and too pale to paint with. For hundreds of miles the pioneers hauled themselves across its flat, monotonous plain in what is now Nebraska.

There is some evidence that the pioneers knew in advance that they were going into the Great Basin somewhere near its eastern rim, along the western slope of the Wasatch Mountains. As early as 1842, as previously noted, some claimed Smith said that the Saints would go there, and church leaders had studied Fremont's account and maps of the area. But into which of the several unclaimed valleys? En route, the pioneers consulted with everyone they could about the region, including some famous mountain men—Moses Harris, Jim Bridger, and Miles Goodyear. [14] It appears that as they moved toward and into the Great Basin, they gradually decided to settle in the Valley of the Great Salt Lake.

The camp moved deliberately, casually, about 2 miles an hour (the pace of oxen pulling heavy wagons), and under little pressure. Their best distance for one day was 23-3/4-miles, but they averaged only 10 miles a day. There was no need to get to the mountains before winter snows had melted.


West of Winter Quarters the Mormons followed generally what is sometimes called the Great Platte River Road or the north branch of the Oregon Trail, which had always been regarded as the most advantageous approach to the easiest crossing of the Rocky Mountains. The original Oregon Trail, from 1812, was north of the Platte and after Independence Missouri became the eastern terminus around 1827, it shifted to the south side. The Mormons of 1847 simply followed the older Oregon Trail to Fort Laramie, where they crossed the North Platte River and picked up the then main route of the Oregon Trail. (In trail days whatever side of the Platte a party started out on is the side it remained on; no emigrants crossed that river unless absolutely necessary. Had the Mormons started out south of the Platte, they probably would have remained on that side.) Among those who preceded the Mormons west along the north bank of the Platte were Indians, trappers, traders, Robert Stuart, James Clyman, Major Stephen H. Long, Samuel Parker, the Marcus-Whitman party of 1836, and the Townsend-Murphey group of 1844. And many non-Mormons followed the pioneers of 1847, for the Council Bluffs area was a very important and popular jumping off place throughout the westering period in American history.

The simplest way of following the pioneers (and most subsequent Mormon emigrants) from "civilization to sundown" is to divide the trail into four sections and relate them to the Oregon Trail, the "main street to the west."

  • The Oregon Trail proper of the 1840s started at Independence, Missouri, and crossed Kansas, Nebraska, Wyoming, and Idaho. The first section of the Mormon Trail from Winter Quarters was generally along the north bank of the Platte River, some 185 miles to near what is now Kearney, Nebraska. Up to this point the Mormon Trail and the Oregon Trail of the late 1840s were entirely separate.

  • The second portion of the Mormon Trail was from Kearney to Fort Laramie, Wyoming. Along this approximately 320-mile-long section, the two trails followed the Platte, the Mormons on the north bank and the Oregonians on the south. Since in the 1840s, the favored route to Oregon and California was along the south bank of the Platte, it might appear that the Mormons pioneered the north bank trail, but actually during the 1820s and 1830s the north bank had been the preferred way, used by fur trappers and missionaries. [15] As late as 1846, the famous historian Francis Parkman took the northern route to South Pass.

  • The third section of the trail was from Fort Laramie to Fort Bridger. Here the Mormons followed the Oregon Trail proper for some 397 miles.

  • The fourth and final section of about 116 miles started at Fort Bridger, where the Oregon Trail turned north and where the Mormons left the Oregon Trail and picked up the year-old Reed-Donner track through the Rockies into the Salt Lake Valley.

West of Winter Quarters the Mormons passed along river valleys, across grasslands, plains, steppes, deserts, and mountains, and through western forests, experiencing dramatic changes in flora and fauna. Topographically the trail led across the Central Lowlands of eastern Nebraska, covered with the tall prairie grass of blue stem and needle; across the High Plains of central Nebraska and the Upland Trough of western Nebraska and eastern Wyoming, blanketed with short, stubby plains grasses such a grama and buffalo; through the Wyoming Basin with its desert shrub of sagebrush, creosote bush, and greasewood; through the forests of Douglas fir and scrub oak of the middle Rocky Mountains, and into the sagebrush desert of the Great Basin.

From Winter Quarters they followed the broad, flat valley of the Platte for some 600 miles and the beneficent little Sweetwater for about 93 more, all the while enjoying an increasingly rugged and beautiful land, and finally zigzagging through a series of defiles and canyons.

They traversed the empire of the bison, wolf, antelope, bear, coyote, goat, elk, fox, raccoon, rabbit, hare, gray swan, great blue heron, and quail; the bee, grasshopper, and firefly; the rattlesnake, copperhead, lizard, and turtle; the grayling, catfish, and trout. Seasonally the area was a piebald garden of sunflowers, daisies, gayfeather, and butterfly milkweed. The modern traveler can still find some parts of the old trail (see Historic Sites, Chapter 7). Much of the plains, deserts, mountains, steppes, and forests remain, but the tall grass prairie is almost all gone, a victim of the white man's plow. (See previous section on Mormons and the Environment.)

Part I, Winter Quarters to Kearney, Nebraska

From their staging ground the Mormon Pioneers followed the Platte to near what is now Columbus, where they decided to follow the Loup Fork of the Platte. (See Appendix D, Illustration 17.) Near here the pioneers (and later Mormons) had their first meeting with a group of Plains Indians—a band of Pawnee, [16] the largest indigenous tribe in Nebraska, numbering as many as 10,000 people. The nation was centered on the Loup River and habitually demanded gifts from white travelers near Shell Creek. Later the pioneers, who would meet other groups of Plains Indians such as the Sioux and the Crow, were entering the Great Plains at a time of great disorder and intertribal warfare. The inexorable push of the white man west had driven a jumble of eastern Indians onto the Great Plains, where they were considered invaders by the natives.

On April 24th, the pioneers crossed the Loup near what is now Fullerton (see Historic Site 25) and went due south about 16 miles, where they again picked up the Platte. On May 1st, just west of what is today Kearney, Nebraska, the pioneers sighted a herd (or, to pedantically use the proper noun of assembly, an obstinacy) of bison. [17] Originally the animal had ranged from the Appalachians. Some were even known to live along the east coast from Virginia to Florida, to the Rockies, but by 1820 had been killed off east of the Missouri River. In 1847 the Mormons found them 200 miles farther west, along the Platte and Sweetwater rivers. A hunt was quickly organized. Four wagon loads of meat were secured and the camp feasted.

Part II, Kearney to Fort Laramie

A few days later, on May 5th, the pioneers experienced another of the great natural phenomena of the plains—a prairie fire. Usually caused by dry lightning or Indians, it became a scourging wall of flame that, wind-driven, could reach a height of twenty feet, could scorch and blind buffalo, overtake a horse, and easily engulf a slow-moving ox train. Nebraska country was a great sea of grass, which summer sun and winter frost regularly dried or killed, leaving it tinder to great fires every fall and spring. There are only two ways of fighting such a fire: with firebreaks or backfires. The pioneers had time for neither, they simply drove their wagons to a convenient island in the Platte and let the fire pass harmlessly by.

On May 10th, west of the confluence of the North and South Platte rivers, several pioneers gave some thought to making an instrument to attach to a wagon wheel that would measure miles traveled. Prior to this William Clayton had kept track of distance by tying a red cloth to a wagon wheel and counting its revolutions (360 to the mile). The device was an endless screw fashioned out of wood. It was because of this measuring device and his detailed journal that Clayton was later, in 1848, to publish his famous The Latter-day-Saints' Emigrants' Guide. (See Appendix D, Illustration 18.)

West of Ash Hollow, a famous camping site on the Oregon Trail, the Mormons entered the broken lands of the Upper Missouri Basin and the terrain became increasingly more interesting and varied. For 80 miles to Scotts Bluff, the pioneers traveled through what might loosely be called a monument valley. Along this stretch on both sides of the river are some of the most famous and dramatic topographical features of the Mormon and Oregon-California Trails. Courthouse Rock, Chimney Rock, and Scotts Bluff guarded the Oregon Trail, while Indian Lookout Point and Ancient Ruins Bluff sentineled the Mormon Trail. In mid-May they crossed a short section of Nebraska's Sand Hills, where ruts can still be found. (REC, see Historic Site 27 and Appendix D, Illustration 19.)

On May 22nd the pioneers made camp near the most impressive topographic site along the entire Mormon Trail, a place the Mormons called Ancient Ruins Bluff, which consists of three separate and magnificently eroded formations. (See Historic Site 30 and Appendix D, Illustration 20.) On Sunday, May 24th, Brigham Young and others climbed the main bluff. While there, they wrote their names on a buffalo skull and left it on the southwest corner. [18] (Years later this author tried to find this skull but, of course, it was no longer there.)

In this general area the pioneers engaged is some mock trials and elections. James Davenport, for example, was accused of "blocking the highway and turning ladies out of the way," and "Father" Chamberlain was voted the most even-tempered man in camp—always cross and quarrelsome. [19]

On May 24th, at their camp opposite Courthouse Rock, at one time thought to have been named from its fancied resemblance to the St. Louis courthouse, the pioneers were visited by a party of Sioux, certainly the largest of the Great Plains tribes and the most dominant. The visit was pleasant and the pioneers were favorably impressed with the Indians. [20]

On May 26th, they passed Chimney Rock—a principal milestone, which, though only 452 miles from Winter Quarters, came to be considered sort of a halfway mark. This most familiar sight on the Oregon Trail was an eroded tusk of Brule clay jutting some 500 feet above the Platte. No one is known to have successfully climbed it, but there is one legend that an Indian suitor, in order to win a bride, reached the top, only to plunge to his death.

On Friday, May 28th, they were opposite the massive formations of clay and sandstone called Scotts Bluff and passed the future site of the famous Rebecca Winter's grave. (REC, see Historic Site 31, and Appendix D, Illustration 21.) The grave is famous, because it is one of the very few authenticated Mormon emigrant graves known.

The following day was Sunday and, just east of what today is the Wyoming state line near Henry, Young convened a special meeting. They went out on the bluffs (see Historic Site 32), clothed themselves in their temple robes and held a prayer circle to pray for guidance.

That same day they spotted the pyramidal bulk of Laramie Peak looming regally above the "Black Hills," today's Laramie Mountains, the first western mountains seen by westering Americans. (See Appendix D, Illustration 22.) A day later they passed out of what is now Nebraska and came upon a wagon track that led them to Fort Laramie, 30 miles farther west.

Fort Laramie (NR, see Historic Site 33) has had at least three names. It was founded in 1834 as Fort William, later called Fort John, by which name the pioneers knew it, and then in 1849 it became Fort Laramie, after a French trapper, Jacques LaRamie. [21] Thus far the pioneers had suffered no deaths, little illness, and the loss of only four horses, two to the Indians and two accidentally killed—one was shot (loaded firearms kept in jolting wagons or held by people on horseback claimed many a life needlessly on the frontier), the other fell into a ravine while tethered, and broke its neck.

In 1847 while at Fort Laramie, the pioneers rested their animals and themselves and prepared to pick up the Oregon Trail, the longest wagon road in history. Called the main street of the old west, the Oregon Trail stretched over 2,000 miles from Independence, Missouri, to the Columbia River. It had been blazed between 1811 and 1839 and thereafter tens of thousands used the trail annually on their way to Oregon and California. Estimates range from 350,000 to 500,000 people used the Oregon Trail up until the coming of the railroad in 1869. [22] Those going to California left the Oregon Trail at Soda Springs and Fort Hall in what is now Idaho.

While at Fort Laramie, the pioneers were joined by seventeen advance members of the "Mississippi Saints" from Monroe County, Mississippi, who had been waiting for them for two weeks. Among this advance group were six females: Elizabeth Crow and her five daughters. The Mississippi Saints told the pioneers that most of their group and some soldiers of the Mormon Battalion, too sick to pursue the march any farther (commonly called the Sick Detachment), were at Fort Pueblo in what was to become Colorado. [23] To help this group join the pioneers in the Valley, Young dispatched four men to Fort Pueblo. This meant a net gain of thirteen individuals, bringing the number of the pioneer group to 161 people with 77 wagons.

Part III, Fort Laramie to Fort Bridger

On Saturday, June 5th, the pioneers were ready to leave for the continental divide at South Pass and Fort Bridger, 397 miles west. For a little over one month the pioneers would be on the Oregon Trail with several other Gentile (non-Mormon) companies, with whom they would vie for the best campgrounds, feed, and priority in fording rivers.

On their first day out from Fort Laramie they came to what is now called Mexican Hill (REC, see Historic Site 34 and Appendix D, Illustration 23). They may have been familiar with the frontier hyperbole regarding this steep cut down the bluffs to the river. While descending, so the story went, if a tin cup fell out of a wagon it would land in front of the oxen. Two miles west of Mexican Hill is Register Cliff (NR, see Historic Site 35) and 1-1/2; miles beyond that are some of the most dramatic trail ruts in the world—four feet deep in solid rock—near what is now Guernsey, Wyoming, in Guernsey State Park. (NR, see Historic Site 36, and Appendix D, Illustration 24.) Near here is Warm Springs Canyon, the Emigrants' Wash Tub (see Historic Site 37), where the water is always a warm 70 degrees.

Two days later, near Horseshoe Creek, Heber C. Kimball discovered a large spring (see Historic Site 38), which was named after him. On Sunday, June 13th, while at their fording site on the Platte, frequently referred to as "Last Crossing," the pioneers established a ferry for the Saints who would follow. It was also established to be a money-making venture. Ten men were left behind to operate and maintain what soon became known as Mormon Ferry. (NR, see Historic Site 40.)

When the pioneers left Last Crossing on June 19th, they quit the Platte for good. From the Elk Horn River to Last Crossing they had followed its generally gentle valley for more than 600 miles. The easy part of the trek was over, as the next 50 miles would prove. The stretch from Last Crossing through Emigrant Gap, by Avenue of Rocks, Willow Springs and up Prospect Hill (see Historic Sites 41-44) to the Sweetwater River near Independence Rock (see Historic Site 45) was the worst section of the whole trail between Nauvoo and the Salt Lake Valley. It was a "Hell's Reach" of few and bad campsites, bad water, little grass, one steep hill, swamps, and stretches of alkali flats. [24]

But the pioneers endured and lived to enjoy refreshing draughts of the Sweetwater River, which probably acquired its name either from American trappers because of its contrast with the other brackish streams in the vicinity, or from French voyagers, who called it the Eau Sucree because a pack mule loaded with sugar was lost in its water. This small, gentle, beneficent river, which all Oregonians and Mormons followed for 93 miles to South Pass (NR, see Historic Site 52), made it possible for travelers to reach their destination in one season, avoiding a winter in such desolate country.

Like all travelers before and after them, the pioneers stopped to climb the huge turtle-shaped Independence Rock and some carved or painted their initials or names into or on it. Four and a half miles west was the equally famous Devil's Gate (REC, see Historic Site 46 and Appendix D, illustration 25), another popular resting place on the trail. Its name derives from the notion that the formation bears the profiles of twin petrified genies. It is a 1,500-foot-long, 370-foot-deep gap in a rocky spur, through which flows the Sweetwater. Signatures can still be found in this gap.

West of Devil's Gate came Martin's Cove (NR, see Historic Site 47, and Appendix D, Illustration 26), the Split Rock ruts (REC, see Historic Site 48 and Appendix D, Illustration 27), Three Crossings (see Historic Site 49), the Ice Springs (Historic Site 50), the Willie's Handcart grave (REC, see Historic Site 51, and Appendix D, Illustration 28), and South Pass.

On June 27th they crossed the flat, almost imperceptible 7,750-foot-high continental divide at South Pass, the "Cumberland Gap" of the Far West. Oregonians and Californians tried to reach this pass by July 4th in order to get to their destinations before winter. (The Mormons, with a shorter distance to go, did not have to be so careful.) At Pacific Springs (see Historic Site 53), immediately west of South Pass, the pioneers refreshed themselves and their animals. These famous springs, so named because their waters flowed to the Pacific Ocean, were the recognized beginning of the sprawling and ill-defined Oregon Territory.

A few miles farther, on the aptly named Dry Sandy, they met Moses Harris, the first of the mountain men with whom they consulted about their destination. Harris, who had roamed the west for twenty-five years, did not think much of the country around the Great Salt Lake; he said it was barren, sandy, and destitute of timber and vegetation except wild sage. On the next day, still on the Dry Sandy, the pioneers met the famous Jim Bridger, who was on his way to Fort Laramie, and spent some time with him discussing the Valley of the Great Salt Lake. This camp was the setting of Bridger's well-known challenge that he would give a thousand dollars for a bushel of corn raised in the Great Basin. [25] For his help, Young gave Bridger a pass for the Mormon Ferry on the Platte.

At this time, Bridger, who was quite "likkered up," entertained them with some of his tall tales, like the one about the glass mountain strewn about with the corpses of animals and birds that had killed themselves running and flying into it; or the one about petrified birds singing in a petrified forest; perhaps the one about a stream that ran so fast it cooked the trout in it; or about the rock he threw across the Sweetwater River, which just kept on growing until it became Independence Rock; and maybe the story of the time some Indians chased him up a narrow canyon closed at the head by a 200-foot waterfall. "And how did you escape, Jim?" the Mormons may have asked. "I didn't," he'd have answered, "they scalped me." [26]

June 29th was a banner day: the Mormons, passing the famous Parting of the Ways (NR, see Historic Site 54) made the best distance of the whole crossing—23-3/4-miles, against an overall average of 10 miles per day. Such a distance was covered only because there was no water between the Dry Sandy and the Sandy. By July 3rd they were at the Green River where they established another ferry. (See Historic Site 56.) From there they passed Church Butte (see Historic Site 57, and Appendix D, Illustration 29) and, finally, on the afternoon of July 7th, they arrived at Fort Bridger (NR, see Historic Site 58 and Appendix D, Illustration 30), a poorly built ramshackle adobe establishment on Black's Fork of the Green River, put up in 1842 to service emigrants on the Oregon Trail.

Part IV, Fort Bridger to the Valley of the Great Salt Lake

The pioneers tarried at this rather shabby fort just long enough to do some trading and repair their wagons, especially the running gear and wheels. At 8:00 A.M. on Friday, July 9th, the pioneers quit the Oregon Trail, which there turned north, and began the last leg of their journey. The Mormons followed Hastings Cutoff, a barely visible track through the Rockies made by the Reed-Donner party of 1846, many of whom later perished in the Sierra Nevada snows. Even with the trailblazing done by the Reed-Donner group, it took the pioneers sixteen days and ten camps to traverse the 116 miles between Fort Bridger and the Salt Lake Valley.

Their second day out of Fort Bridger, the pioneers met a third mountain man, Miles Goodyear, who owned a trading post at the mouth of the Weber River, near what is now Ogden, Utah, about 38 miles north of where Young was to locate that summer. They also passed a pure-water spring, a sulfur spring, and an oil spring (see Historic Site 59). Then they entered the beginning of a 90-mile-long natural highway, a chain of defiles, which meandered through the forbidding Wasatch Range of the Rockies into the valley, as if an ancient Titan had dragged a stick through the area. The first part of the final stretch came to be called Echo Canyon. (See Appendix D, Illustrations 32 and 33.)

By noon on July 12th, they had made midday camp along Coyote Creek, about 1 mile east of a prominent and strange formation of conglomerate rocks called the Needles, or Pudding Rocks (see Historic Site 60), and about 1-1/2 miles east of what is now the Wyoming-Utah border. Here Young was suddenly stricken with tick fever. He remained ill for nearly two weeks, during which time Kimball took over the direction of the camp. In the hope that Young would be well enough to travel the next day, Kimball and a few others remained at the Coyote Creek camp and sent Orson Pratt and the main company on. On July 13th, it was obvious that Young was worse, not better, so Kimball rode 6-3/4 miles ahead to the main camp near the well-known rendezvous site called Cache Cave (REC, see Historic Site 61 and Appendix D, Illustration 31) and suggested that Pratt drive on to "hunt out and improve a road." [27]

For the rest of the journey, the pioneers split into three groups—Pratt's vanguard, the main portion following, and a rear guard, which stayed with Young and Kimball. Pratt's company sighted the Valley on July 19th and scouted it on the 21st. On the 22nd at about 5:30 P.M., the main company arrived in the valley via what came to be called Emigration Canyon. Early the next morning the group moved about 2 miles northwest and made camp on the south fork of what became known as City Creek. There they dammed up the water and began plowing, planting potatoes, and irrigating.

Meanwhile, back on Coyote Creek, Kimball and a few others went to the top of the Needles and offered up prayers for the sick, and on July 15th, Young was well enough to travel in Wilford Woodruff's carriage. (See Appendix C, Biographical Sketch 11 and Appendix D, Illustration 34.) Shortly thereafter they crossed the Hogsback (see Historic Site 63) at the summit of Main Canyon (west of present Henefer) and caught the traveler's traditional first view of the continent's backbone, the Wasatch Range of the Rocky Mountain cordillera—disheartening assurance that the worst of the mountain passes still lay ahead. On the morning of July 23rd, the Young-Kimball detachment left Mormon Flat (NR, see Historic Site 64) on East Canyon Creek and began the final section of the trail—up Little Emigration Canyon to Big Mountain Pass (see Historic Site 65).

As the pioneers crossed the 7,400 foot-high Big Mountain pass, they entered their new homeland, the Great Basin—a vast and forbidding area of over 200,000 square miles lying generally between the crests of the Sierra Nevada and the Wasatch Mountains, including parts of Utah, Nevada, California, Oregon, and Idaho, and inhabited by various tribes of Great Basin Indians. (It is a natural basin. What streams and rivers there are, such as the Humboldt, Jordan, Provo, and Weber, have no access to the sea. They flow into the Great Salt Lake, into sinks, or disappear by evaporation and percolation. The area is spotted with unattractive places now named Salt Marsh Lake, Little Salt Lake, Fossil Lake, and the Humboldt Sink.)

Until the Mormons arrived, this region had only been slightly explored and settled by Europeans. Imperial Spain, which had claimed it by right of discovery, had done little with it for centuries except try to find a trail between Santa Fe, New Mexico and Monterey, California. To this end, they sent out the eighteenth century expeditions of the Fathers Escalante and Dominguez and eventually the Old Spanish Trail was worked out. [28]

England and France had never even fought for it. The Mexicans, who took it from Spain in 1821, generally considered it a worthless waste separating more desirable lands. Prior to the advent of the Mormons some Anglos had visited and explored the area. They included mountain men, California-bound emigrants, Captain John C. Fremont of the United States Topographical Corps, and Miles Goodyear, who in 1846, established a trading post on the Weber River near what is now Ogden, Utah. [29]

For perhaps four billion years the Great Basin had bent all to its inexorable will—adjust or perish. In 1847 the Mormons, however, decided to make the Great Basin their home, and they did it on ancient principles worked out in Mesopotamia and among some Native Americans in South America and in the American southwest—centralized organization, division of labor, and a chain of command, all on an agricultural basis with controlled irrigation at its heart.

This author believes that Young made his famous statement "This is the place, drive on." on the Big Mountain summit rather than over the mountains near what is now Salt Lake City, where the 'This is the Place Monument" has been placed. This minority view is based on Young's pioneer journal of July 23, 1847, where it is recorded, "I ascended and crossed over the Big Mountain, when on its summit I directed Elder Woodruff, who had kindly tendered me the use of his carriage, to turn the same half way round so that I could have a view of a portion of Salt Lake Valley. The spirit of light rested upon me and hovered over the valley, and I felt that there the Saints would find protection and safety." [30] Then the Young-Kimball party rough-locked their rear wheels with chains and attached drag shoes (wagon brakes were not then in general use), slid down Big Mountain, and a few hours later ascended Little Mountain (see Historic Sites 65 and 66). At 5:00 that afternoon, suffering much from heat and dust, they were in Emigration Canyon, at Last Camp. [31]

The next day was July 24th—the day acclaimed as the official entrance of Young into the valley. July 24, 1847, is the traditional pivot in Mormon history—everything is related to and from this date. Brigham Young had finally accomplished what in January 1845, he had set out to do.

In 1880, during Mormondom's fifty-year jubilee, Woodruff enhanced the events of July 24, 1847, with the following afterthought, probably an embellishment of the passage quoted from Young's journal: "President Young was enwrapped in a 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." [32] Such was the origin of the most famous single statement in Mormon history.

The event is commemorated today by the large granite "This is the Place" monument at the mouth of Emigration Canyon (see Historic Site 67) that honors the pioneers and pre-Mormon explorers and trappers. Atop a huge shaft thrusting up from the center of the base, stand larger-than-life figures of Brigham Young, Heber C. Kimball, and Wilford Woodruff, serenely and eternally contemplating their work.


Place of revelation or not, the valley was the first site suitable for Kingdom Building that the pioneer leaders had seen since Nauvoo. It was vast and isolated and they set about earnestly and immediately to tame it. As quickly as possible the pioneers laid out a city, planted crops, built homes, a fort, a bowery for worship services, and fences to prepare for the approaching winter; the people were organized into wards (congregations). Thirty-five days after he arrived, Young was ready to return to Winter Quarters. More than 150 pioneers, including all the women and children, remained in the valley when Young and 105 others started their eastward return on August 27th. [33]

En route, the returning pioneers met 1,553 Saints of the Second Division from Winter Quarters heading for the valley. On the evening of October 31st Young and the pioneers with him were back in Winter Quarters, where they spent the winter preparing to move more than 2,400 emigrants west in 1848.

The exodus was successful. By 1860 there were about 30,000 people in Utah; by the coming of the railroad in 1869, there were more than 80,000 in more than 100 settlements. By the time Young died in 1877 he had established some 300 settlements in Utah, Idaho, Wyoming, Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, and California. [34]

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Last Updated: 08-Oct-2003