Harold Schindler, Mormon Trail Series
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.
May 8, 1847
"It looked as though the face of the Earth was alive and moving like the waves of the sea." That was Wilford Woodruff's description of the wonderment of seeing a prairie literally covered with buffalo from horizon to horizon on a Saturday morning. It was pleasant, not so cold and windy as yesterday, he said. "We did not start until ten o'clock as our teams wanted rest; they could not get much as the buffalo had eaten all the grass up." Woodruff rode forward with some hunters and had the experience of a lifetime. He would write in his journal, "Of all the sights of buffalo that our eyes beheld, this was enough to astonish man. Thousands upon thousands crowded together as they came from the bluffs to the bottom land to go to the [Platte] river and sloughs to drink until the river and land upon both sides of it was one dark spectacle of moving objects."
Heber C. Kimball remarked that he had heard many buffalo tales told, but never expected to behold what his eyes now saw. Estimates of the number of animals varied widely. Orson Pratt thought a figure of 100,000 "since morning" was entirely reasonable, while the conservative, wagon-bound William Clayton put the total at nearer 50,000. But Clayton was too busy calculating distances to concentrate on the buffalo population at that moment. "I have counted the revolutions of a wagon wheel to tell the exact distance we have traveled," he confided to his journal. It seems there is a disparity between his estimates and others who are making diary notes. "They all think I underrate it," he says.
"I determined to take pains to know for a certainty how far we travel today. Accordingly, I measured the circumference of the nigh hind wheel of one of Heber C. Kimball's wagons, being the one I sleep in. I found the wheel fourteen feet eight inches in circumference, not varying one-eighth of an inch. I then calculated how many revolutions it would require for one mile and found it precisely 360, not varying one fraction which somewhat astonished me. I have counted whole revolutions during the day's travel and I find it to be a little over 11 miles--twenty revolutions over. The overplus I shall add to the next day's travel. According to my previous calculations we were 285 miles from Winter Quarters this morning before we started." That the process was tedious has not escaped Clayton. "I have repeatedly suggested a plan of fixing machinery to a wagon wheel to tell the exact distance we travel in a day."
Buffalo continued to sidle right up to the wagons and cause confusion among the loose Mormon livestock. It took a deal of perseverance to keep them from mingling. They're so close they could easily be shot; in fact, Porter Rockwell did just that. He had a fat two-year-old heifer practically nudge him from the saddle. It was camp meat on the hoof; Rockwell shot it through the neck.
Meanwhile, Woodruff and Pratt were showing an interest in a particular weed, the top of which resembles a pineapple with a root that can grow as much as two feet in length and two inches in diameter. Woodruff pounded some of it and found "it would fill a dish with suds like soap."
"It's called Spanish Soap Weed," offered the erudite Pratt, who explained that when crushed the roots made "very good suds." It is used in Mexico for washing clothes and so forth, he added.
Amasa Lyman noticed the multitude of buffalo trails "running across our track from the bluffs to the river." In passing and wallowing, the whole bottom has the appearance of a fed-out pasture, he remarked. Only the dung is almost as thick as it usually is about a barnyard. The grass is closely grazed and weeds are quite thick, he said. Last night, Ezra T. Benson said he saw an Indian coming across the slough. Norton Jacob, who was on guard, thought it was more likely some wild animal.
Wednesday was a big day for the Mormon Trail Wagon Train. On April 17, ten wagons left from Council Bluffs, Iowa, and followed the Oxbow Trail along a southern route through eastern Nebraska, retracing the steps of many Western travelers in the 19th Century. A second and much larger wagon train left Florence, Nebraska, on April 21 and followed a northern route favored by the Mormon pioneers. (This is the group The Salt Lake Tribune has been chronicling.)
At 2:00 p.m. under the warm sun, hundreds watched while the remaining seven wagons and a single walker from the south joined the twenty-five northern wagons, ten handcarts, two-dozen walkers, and 125 elementary and middle school pioneers-for-a-day. "It went off smoothly," said Leon Wilkinson, wagon leader for the northern trail. Others, however, had some complaints.
"It was a tough day for us," said Joseph Johnstun of Salt Lake City, one of the walkers. Every day the community where the train will camp provides lunches for the participants and they usually are left at the front of the train. That means the walkers have to walk another mile or so to get their lunches and water. "We have complained before but they keep doing it," Johnstun said. He also missed the train merge because he had to help some lost children whose parents were more than a mile ahead.
The northern train left at 10:00 a.m., much later than the usual 7:00 a.m. "People seemed pleased to get to sleep in a little bit," Wilkinson said. The group moved about sixteen miles to Kearney, Nebraska, where both groups camped. But that is a couple of miles more than the walkers anticipated, Johnstun said. "Our mileage is continually off what we are told in the morning," he said. The two groups--now one--will proceed together for the remaining trip to Utah.