PIONEERS OF 1847
THOMAS P. CLOWARD
BENJAMIN F. STEWART
THE PIONEERS OF 1847
Travel in frontier America in the 1830-40's was difficult at best. But
movement of the Latter-day Saints from New York to Ohio, from Ohio to
Missouri, and Missouri to Illinois was compounded by the hostility of their
adversaries. After being expelled from Missouri in 1838, the exiles gathered
at a swampy riverbank site in northern Illinois. Here they built a city that
they named Nauvoo, that was no sooner well underway than they were forced to
leave again. Their leaving began the epic movement that settled much of the
Mountain West area.
The first wagons crossed the Mississippi River on Feb. 4, 1846, in bitterly
cold weather, and set up a camp in Sugar Creek, Iowa. This group, called the
Camp of Israel and led by Brigham Young, comprised about 3,000 members, many
of whom were ill-prepared for the winter journey. The Camp of Israel moved
laboriously across the rolling lowlands of Iowa in freezing cold and snows,
and in incessant rain through deep mud.
In the spring, another 7,000 Saints, comprising the main body, left Nauvoo.
Traveling over dry roads, they soon caught up with the Camp of Israel. The
exiles built permanent way stations at Garden Grove and Mt. Pisgah, Iowa,
where they planted grain and built fences and cabins. The exiles eventually
reached the Missouri River, which they crossed and built a log city they
called Winter Quarters, now part of Omaha, Neb. Winter Quarters became the
staging area for the trek west that began the following spring.
In Mt. Pisgah on June 26, 1846, U.S. Army Capt. James Allen caught up with
the refugees. He carried orders asking for 500 volunteers from the exiles to
take part in the Mexican War. The volunteers were to form a battalion that
would march across the Southwest and secure California for the United States.
Brigham Young complied with the order and the Mormon Battalion was created.
The money these volunteers earned was lifesaving, as it was distributed to
their families and the poor. The Battalion marched from Council Bluffs, Iowa,
south to Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, where it was outfitted. From Fort
Leavenworth, the estimated 520 men, 35 women, and 42 children of the Battalion
marched to Santa Fe, New Mexico.
During the march, Battalion members learned of a company of some 80
Mississippi Saints wintering in Pueblo, Colorado. Officers of the Battalion
sent three detachments of the older or sick soldiers to Pueblo. Many of the
women and children were also sent to Pueblo. The remaining soldiers marched
toward California. In Tucson, Arizona, they took command of a previously
Mexican post. They continued across the desert to California, arriving on
Jan. 29, 1847. Most were discharged in Los Angeles, California on July 16,
Meanwhile, those left in Nauvoo were the poor and ill, who were largely
unable to travel. As the thousands crossed Iowa, and as the Mormon Battalion
trekked across the Southwest, time ran out for the remaining few in Nauvoo.
Some 600 to 1,000 foes of the Church, calling themselves the "Regulators",
attacked the city on Sept. 10, 1846. After a four-day defense, the remaining
Saints fled to the river banks while the Regulators plundered the city. The
last exiles crossed the river, and on the far banks set up so-called "Misery
NOTE: Our ancestor, Philo Johnson, was still in
Nauvoo at the time of this battle, and describes it in an account written
many years later.
The following spring in 1847, a vanguard company of pioneers under Brigham
Young blazed the Mormon Pioneer Trail leading to the Great Salt Lake Valley.
This company was followed by five other companies from Winter Quarters.
The First Company
-- After the exodus from Nauvoo early in 1846, Church members stayed at
Winter Quarters until the spring of 1847. At that time Church leaders
selected a body of men to travel by wagon to the Rocky Mountains and pioneer
the way for following thousands. This group consisted of 143 men, 3 women
and 2 children. They traveled with 72 wagons, 93 horses, 52 mules, 66 oxen,
19 cows, 17 dogs and some chickens. Others later joined this group, while
some returned East as guides.
The first westward wagons, led by Heber C. Kimball, left Winter Quarters
April 5, 1847, and traveled to a camp at the Elkhorn River, some 20 miles
from Winter Quarters.
NOTE: Our ancestor, Philo Johnson, was in this
first group -- he was the driver of one of the wagons belonging to
Heber C. Kimball. The driver had the responsibility of hitching up the
teams of horses or oxen each morning, and unhitching them at night so that
they could graze. He also had to keep the wagon in good repair -- axles
greased, wheel spokes tightened, iron rims firmly in place on the wheels, etc.
Over the next few days, other wagons joined this group.
Wagons led by Wilford Woodruff, Orson Pratt and Brigham Young joined the
group at the Elkhorn River on April 7, after pausing for conference in Winter
Quarters on the morning of April 6. On April 15, the rest of the Quorum of
the Twelve arrived from Winter Quarters. On April 16, the entire company was
organized with captains of hundreds, fifties and tens. The company crossed
the Elkhorn River (a tributary of the Platte River), by ferrying each wagon
on a raft of logs. Many westward companies were traveling to Oregon,
including those from areas where the Mormons had suffered persecution, and
the Mormons preferred to keep the Platte River between themselves and the
Oregon-bound travelers. Thus, through Nebraska, the Mormon Pioneer Trail
is on the north side of the Platte and the Oregon Trail is on the south side.
As the entire Mormon Trail was in Indian country, night guards were
appointed and all in the company were instructed to have their weapons ready
at all times. A piece of leather was kept over each weapon's firing mechanism
to keep it dry. Wagons traveled in double file for safety. At night, the
wagons formed a "circular fortification". The forward wheel of one wagon was
locked into the hind wheel of the next. Animals were tethered within.
A typical day began with a bugle at 5 a.m., when each man was expected to
arise and pray, prepare breakfast and lunch, care for his team, and be ready
to pull out at 7 a.m. The company generally "nooned" for two hours at midday,
then continued until evening. The night bugle sounded at 8:30 p.m. for
prayers; fires were to be out by 9 p.m. As the company traveled, hunters most
commonly bagged buffalo and antelope.
The first days of the early spring journey in April 1847 were bitterly cold,
with chilling prairie winds and sometimes snow. However, the weather
gradually turned mild and rains replaced snows; cold nights, especially at
high altitudes, accompanied the pioneers during most of the trip.
On April 19, William Clayton suggested to Orson Pratt that a set of wooden
cogs, a pioneer odometer, be created and attached to the wheels of a wagon to
measure the exact number of miles traveled in a day. Elder Pratt designed a
set of cogs that Appleton Milo Harmon, a carpenter, built. Today, the town of
North Platte, marks where pioneers began using their "roadometer".
NOTE: William Clayton wrote that the roadometer was mounted on the wheel of
one of Heber C. Kimball's wagons, "being the one I sleep in, in charge of
Howard Egan, the captain of the 9th Ten, also mentions the fact that the
device was mounted on the wagon that Brother Johnson drove.
Crossing the Loup Fork of the Platte River, the company encountered
quicksand so strong they said it "rattled the wagons". Indians often
approached the wagon train for food and gifts. As the wagons rumbled on,
dryness replaced the rain, and clouds of dust hung over the wagon train.
Indians were said to often follow a wagon train for hundreds of miles
awaiting a chance to make off with livestock. This wagon train occasionally
lost animals despite the careful watching of guards.
One night the cannon carried by the party was fired twice to discourage
Indians from attacking. On May 4, the near presence of a large Indian war
party was so threatening that the wagons traveled five abreast. Despite such
troubles on the north side of the Platte, they remained on that side of the
river to make a route for those following. A group of 10-12 men worked daily
to make a road for those following. Sometimes they burned old grass so
companies behind would have new grass.
The first buffalo were killed for food May 1. Although the pioneers
rejoiced to be in buffalo country, the huge beasts by their very numbers
became a mixed blessing. While the beasts provided a ready source of fresh
meat, their massive herds consumed the prairie grass and brought a constant
threat of stampede. Finding grass for the stock became a constant problem.
Early in May, the pioneers' path was filled with buffalo. It appeared as
if "the face of the earth was alive and moving like the waves of the sea",
wrote Wilford Woodruff. The prairie was "literally black with buffalo",
wrote William Clayton.
However, the men were forbidden to kill the massive bison except to provide
meat for the camp. Rotting carcasses shot by other travelers created a stench
in some places.
Wagons forded creeks and rivers, crossed sand dunes and jolted down bluffs.
Spirits remained high, but occasionally cross words were spoken or behavior was
deemed inappropriate. President Young occasionally lectured the group for
such things as over-hunting and wasting meat, rowdiness, loudness, not keeping
to their duties, rising late, or idleness. His lectures evidently had the
desired effect, because the group eventually became reformed and unified.
The pioneers reached Chimney Rock, Neb., the psychological if not actual
halfway point on May 26. From then on the relentless monotony of the plains
began to give way to bluffs and rock formations. On May 31 the pioneers
entered what is now Wyoming, where the prairie became "naked" and some learned
to enjoy eating prickly pears, a small cactus. Here they began to mount the
eastern incline of the Rocky Mountain range, and the large buffalo herds
disappeared behind them. The way was mostly up stream-carved canyons where
they often crossed and re-crossed the same stream several times. After seven
weeks on the trail, the company arrived at Fort Laramie, Wyo., where they were
met by a group of 14 families, some of whom were not Mormons, who anticipated
the westward trek by a year and wintered with the Mississippi Saints in
Pueblo. In Pueblo, the Mississippi Saints were joined by some of the sick
detachments of the Mormon Battalion. President Young sent Amasa Lyman and
others to bring the group west as soon as possible. The size of the original
group grew to 161 people and 15 tens.
The way became more mountainous, and wagons were rafted over streams, double
teamed to pull up steep inclines, and wheel-locked to slide down sharp hills.
Camp meat changed from buffalo to blacktail deer. Geological anomalies were
occasionally encountered, such as a petroleum spring, from which they greased
their wagons, hot springs where they washed clothing, and pure ice from a
Pioneers forded the north fork of the Platte River, and here joined the
Oregon Trail and began to travel near Oregon pioneers. Among these companies
were Missourians, some previously persecutors of the Church, with whom the
Mormon pioneers had an uneaasy but peaceful relationship. At Fort Laramie,
Mormon pioneers learned that Lilburn Boggs, former governor of Missouri who
had issued the infamous "Extermination Order", had been on the trail earlier.
The Mormons fixed a wagon spring of the Missourians, ferried them acros the
Platte River for a profit, and even rescued one who was drowning. The
Missourians occasionally assisted and fed members of the pioneer company.
Thereafter relations improved a bit.
In the mountains, the foresight of the pioneers was often rewarded. A
boat, dubbed the "Revenue Cutter" was used as a wagon box on the plains.
At streams, it was used as a ferry that carried up to 1,500 to 1,800 pounds.
It was loaded with goods from wagon boxes so wagons crossed more easily.
In addition, the boat was used to ferry Oregon immigrant companies, earning
needed food and some cash. Small streams often were banked with ample grass
for the livestock, although animals and humans were plagued by swarms of
On June 26, the pioneers crossed the fabled South Pass, the slope that
divided the East Coast drainage from the western drainage. Two days later,
frontiersman Jim Bridger met the company and spent the night with them.
Hoping for details, the pioneers were disappointed at the rambling account
he offered. Another unexpected visitor met the company July 2 -- Sam Brannan,
captain of the ship Brooklyn, which had taken a company of Saints around the
horn of South America and landed in Yerba Buena, now San Francisco. He had
come from California, and tried to persuade the pioneers to alter their plans
and go to California instead of Salt Lake. But Brigham Young was unswayed
and Brannan continued east. On July 4, soldiers from the Mormon Battalion
sick detachment, traveling ahead of Amasa Lyman's Mississippi Saints,
overtook the company. Three rousing cheers from the pioneer company welcomed
They reached Fort Bridger on July 7. During this time, "Mountain Fever"
affected many in the camp. A number suffered from fever, delirium, flashes
and muscle pain. When Brigham Young suffered the illness, it eventually
slowed the entire company. The last leg of the journey was the most
difficult. Leaving the Oregon Trail at Fort Bridger, they followed the
Hastings Cutoff, a direct route to the Great Salt Lake. Traveling this route
meant following the tracks of the Donner Party wagons from the previous
season, tracks barely discernible in the tall summer grass. Steep ridges
and narrow openings in the mountains, compounded by large rocks and fallen
trees, made the final part of the journey the most laborious.
The company halted for three days when Brigham Young suffered from mountain
fever in mid-July. On July 13, feeling an urgency to continue, Heber C.
Kimball organized an advance guard (43 men in 23 wagons) to blaze a trail to
Salt Lake Valley and begin planting as soon as they arrived in the valley.
A rear guard accompanied the Church president.
The advance company searched out the route down Echo Canyon in northeast
Utah and spent time filling in ravines, removing tree stumps, and making a
road. Still the ride down the narrow canyon was hard on wagons that
occasionally broke under the strain. The pioneers hacked out willows and
criss-crossed mountain streams. They hauled over high ridges with
disheartening views of seemingly endless ranges of mountains in all
directions. They hacked their way through a tangle of willow, poplar and
birch trees 20 feet high. But climbing what is now known as Big Mountain
on July 21, some 12 miles above Salt Lake Valley, the landscape opened to a
brief view of the valley below. To Orson Pratt, who climbed a hill to get
a better look, the view was overwhelming.
"We could not refrain from a shout of joy which almost involuntarily
escaped our lips," he wrote.
The pioneers' animals were near exhaustion that day as they labored upward
of 10 hours without eating. Encouraged by the view, pioneers continued over
Little Mountain, the last climb before the Salt Lake Valley.
They wisely cut a trail at the mouth of what is now Emigration Canyon to
avoid climbing a steep mountain as the Donner Party had done a year earlier,
costing it precious days.
All but the rear guard entered the valley by July 22, 1847. On July 23,
the pioneers held a prayer of gratitude and began to plow, plant potatoes,
corn, buckwheat and beans. They flooded the parched land with creek water.
It was Wilford Woodruff who recalled the immortal moment of Brigham Young's
entry on July 24. Elder Woodruff pulled his wagon to a halt to give the
leader, who was still weak from mountain fever, a full view.
The ailing leader peered out over the broad valley that stretched out below.
"It is enough," said Brigham Young. "This is the right place. Drive on."
The Daniel Spencer Company -- The First Hundred Families
This was made up of 151 wagons, with about 360 men, women, and children.
Among the group were 63 men and boys with arms and ammunition. Of this 100
families, Peregrine Sessions was captain of the first Fifty, Ira Eldredge
and Parley P. Pratt were captains of the second Fifty. They left the Elkhorn
River on June 17 and 18, 1847. Some reached Salt Lake Valley on September 19,
most of the rest on September 22, 1847.
The Edward Hunter Company -- The Second Hundred Families
The company started from the Elkhorn River on June 17, 1847, and was
comprised of 353 people in 131 wagons. Among them was Apostle John Taylor.
The company moved in fifties, under captains Joseph Horn and Jacob Foutz.
Those who could travel fastest moved out in front, and had first choice of
feed for the cattle.
The Jedediah M. Grant Company -- The Third Hundred Families
Joseph B. Noble was captain of the 1st Fifty, and Willard Snow was captain
of the 2nd Fifty. The company was comprised of 331 people in 100 wagons.
Starting with great enthusiasm, this company passed the Second Hundred, but
Elder Parley P. Pratt, one of the captains in the First Hundred, reproved
two captains for going out of line. The two asked for forgiveness, and
"all was made right".
The Abraham Smoot Company -- The Fourth Hundred Families
This company consisted of 318 people, 500 animals, and a hundred wagons.
It was divided into fifties under George B. Wallace and Samuel Russell.
They arrived in Salt Lake City on Sept. 25, 1847.
The Charles C. Rich Company -- This company brought up
the rear guard, and was the smallest of the companies of 1847. It included
just three Tens, a total of 126 people in about 25 wagons. This company
brought with them a cannon (later picking up the cannon left behind by the
Hunter company as well), artillery and ammunition, 25 kegs of black powder,
the Nauvoo Temple bell, and a boat. They reached Salt Lake City on
October 2, 1847.
Many of Brigham Young's First company returned to Winter Quarters
that fall, to oversee the exodus of the thousands of Saints who were
waiting to move west.
Over 2,000 people came to the Salt Lake Valley in the summer and fall of
1847. About 1,500 traveled in the five companies which came from Winter
Quarters (Elkhorn River).
In addition, there was a group of Saints from Mississippi who had spent the
winter of 1846-47 in Pueblo, Colorado. They had joined with some of the
people from the sick detachments of the Battalion, and had come into the
Valley just a few days behind the First Company.
Also, there were the discharged veterans of the Mormon Battalion who had made
the march all the way to California, and other Saints who came to Salt Lake
from the west coast after having sailed around the Horn by ship.
All of these people would have to be fed through the winter months, either
from what they had brought with them, or from the crops which were being
carefully tended. There was a desperate need for more land to be plowed
and planted as soon as possible. No one was sure whether or not the crops
would mature before frost -- they had not even been planted until late July
-- but the young seedlings had to be irrigated in the hope that they would
grow big enough to be harvested in time to help feed the additional
Shelters also had to be built in preparation for the cold winter months,
and a fort for defense against possible Indian attack.
Philo Johnson, our ancestor, was one of the men
who stayed behind in the Salt Lake Valley when most of his travelling
companions temporarily went back east to get their families. He was an
experienced mason, and was involved in building some of the earliest adobe
structures in the Salt Lake Valley.
by Sandra Shuler Bray