Editor’s Note: To commemorate the 150th anniversary of the Mormon Trail, The Salt Lake Tribune is offering this day-by-day account of the Mormon Pioneers’ original trek from Winter Quarters, Nebraska, to the Great Salt Lake Valley. Tribune history writer Harold Schindler, using diaries, letters, journals and reminiscences that have come to light this century, has fleshed out the following narrative.
June 20, 1847Such was the stench at the alkali swamp around which the pioneers had camped the day before, that Brigham Young ordered the company to move on even though today was the Sabbath. They would not stay at “Poison Springs” another hour. “Mosquitoes are very bad,” William Clayton said, “Two more oxen have been found almost buried in the mud. All hands appear wishful to leave this place and at a quarter past five this morning we moved out.”
The first mile was rough and rugged with a number of steep pitches in the road making it dangerous for axletrees. Some men went on ahead with picks and spades to improve what they could of the trail. A halt for breakfast came after three and three-quarter miles near a small clear stream of spring water about a foot wide. The grass along the banks was good, but there was no wood to be seen. Heber C. Kimball said when he and Ezra Benson rode on ahead last evening to scout the trail, they came within a quarter-mile of this place but not near enough to discover the water. And as they were slowly riding along, Kimball related, six Indians suddenly sprang from the grass in the distance. Clad in blankets, the six mounted horses and rode quickly away in a direction paralleling the road.
Without speeding up, the two Mormons followed. After a while, one of the riders turned and trotted toward Kimball and Benson and waved them back. However, they ignored the gesture and continued riding. When he saw the two still coming, the lone rider wheeled around and joined the others; then all six put spurs to their horses and were soon out of sight behind a higher ridge. Kimball and Benson galloped to the ridge. They discovered a company of Missouri emigrants about a mile in the distance, and saw the six riders turning into the camp. “We were satisfied these six were Missourians masquerading as Indians to keep us from this good campground,” Kimball said. It was an old Missouri trick and an insult to the Camp of Israel. “If they try to play ‘Indian’ again, they’ll likely will meet with Indian treatment,” Kimball muttered.
The Missouri camp pulled out a little before the Mormons arrived and it was now Brigham Young’s intention to press on a little faster and crowd them up a bit. “We learned from one of the emigrants a few miles in the rear that Andrew Gibbons may have camped with them last night,” Clayton said. Gibbons had gone hunting and was under the impression the pioneers would stay at an earlier camp for at least this weekend. It was thought that when he found the campsite abandoned, he might have joined up for the night with another overland company.
In the afternoon, the pioneers ascended a high knoll (Prospect Hill) which was a mile from the foot to the top and steep; the summit, Clayton said, was “nicely rounded” and offered a vista from which the land, for thirty miles around, could be seen. In the distance to the southwest, the pioneers saw a small body of water they believed was part of the Sweetwater River. So breathtaking was the view, that Brigham Young remarked it would be a splendid place for a summer mansion. The company pushed and during a brief halt to allow the teams to graze, it was suggested that Young lead off in an effort to make better time.
Wilford Woodruff and John Brown had gone ahead this morning to search out campsites, but they have not returned. The two, the pioneers would learn, had encountered a Missouri company on the trail and accepted an invitation to dinner. “We turned our horses in good feed, got supper, which was bacon, buffalo, corn bread, coffee and milk…we slept on the ground under a tent…[Meanwhile, the pioneers] blowed their bugle and watched for me until midnight, and finally fired their cannon while I was camped ten miles from them not thinking I was giving them trouble,” said Woodruff.
Back at the Mormon ferry at the upper crossing of the North Platte River, B.F. Stewart and William Empey took four horses and a wagon back to Deer Creek for a load of coal, primarily for James Davenport’s forge. While there, they posted this sign:
To the ferry 28 miles. Ferry good and safe. Manned by experienced men, blacksmithing, horse and ox shoeing done. Also a wheelwright. [Signed] Thomas Grover
And with the second Mormon emigration, the body of Jacob Weatherby, who suffered a mortal gunshot wound at the hands of an Indian, was wrapped in a buffalo robe and buried a little after sundown twenty steps east of the flagpole at the Elkhorn River camp. His was the first death recorded among the Mormon emigrant companies.