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 3, 1847
As expected, the Camp of Israel will remain here at the head of Grand Island one more day to concentrate on replenishing the company's meat supply, completing blacksmith repairs on damaged wagon wheels, and shoeing some of the horses, mules and oxen. It was cold and again there was ice in the water pails. Twenty hunters and three wagons have been sent to search for buffalo and, at the same time, a party of fifteen has been given the mission of reconnoitering the country. It is believed that Indians are close by because the prairie has been burning ahead of the company for three days, and last night the fires came within three miles of camp.
Ezra T. Benson is captain of the exploring party and Norton Jacob, one of the group, said they discovered a large camp of some fifty or so wickiups in willows a mile above the pioneer encampment. James Case, who worked at the Pawnee Mission for eight years, was of the opinion that these are the Grand Pawnees who live below and on the other shore of the Platte River. Their purpose, he said, is to destroy the grass by burning it and driving off the buffalo so that the pioneer company and its teams cannot subsist on the land. "We proceeded about ten miles and found the prairie burnt and burning as far as we could see," Jacob reported.
William Empey spotted some antelope and with his fleet pony tried to flank them, hoping to maneuver the antelope into range of the main party of hunters. He almost succeeded when he suddenly came upon a large group of Indians hiding with their ponies in a low place near a bank of the river. Empey sank the spurs to his horse and shouted the alarm as the Indians began to mount and ride in the direction of Benson's party. Outnumbered twenty to one, the Mormons "retired at a pretty smart trot," according to Jacob. "The reason we chose to avoid them is that they are the band that robbed some emigrants last spring. It's evident that their design is to watch until they could get the advantage, frighten our horses and take a spoil. But we are ready for them. We have our cannon loaded with cannister shot."
By the time the first of Benson's exploring party had reached camp with word of the Indian raiding party, some hunters already had returned with a report of having seen but one buffalo all day. They did, however, bring in two antelope. Riders went out with red flags to alert the remaining hunters of the roving Indian bands.
Two blacksmiths, Thomas Tanner and James Davenport, have been all day at the forges, anvils and bellows repairing wagons, setting tires and shoeing animals. One topic of conversation concerned the prairie dogs. There are thousands upon thousands of acres of land honeycombed with prairie dog burrows. A number of the rodents have been killed by the pioneers and are esteemed to be good meat, similar to squirrel. Some other returning hunters have brought in three calves. The day passed--without accident or further incident. Wind was from the south. The cannon was fired at 9:00 p.m., more to let the Indians know the camp is alert, than anything else.
The weather in Nebraska is supposed to clear any day now, and for the soggy members of the sesquicentennial Mormon Trail Wagon Train, sunny skies cannot come soon enough. Thursday night was so wet and gusty that the wagons shook and rain seeped through the Whitaker family's wagon cover. The Whitakers tied their horses in the relative shelter of a grove of trees. Linda Whitaker took refuge during the night in the family's pickup truck. "I had to go find a laundromat to dry our bedding out," she said. After the sodden night, the procession rolled eighteen miles Friday through a steady rain. The Whitakers borrowed an extra horse from another wagon team to replace Louie, their horse that became sick Thursday.
The wagon train rolled along dirt roads Friday through flat, sparsely populated central Nebraska farmland. Camp Friday night was a muddy field near Chapman, Nebraska, about fifteen miles northeast of Grand Island. The dreary, cold weather has taken its toll on the members of the group who are walking. "I feel so bad for the walkers," Linda Whitaker said. "There's so few of them now."
The Whitakers drove into Grand Island on Friday afternoon to repair the clutch on their truck and enjoy a rare dinner out to celebrate son Brent's 15th birthday. Leon Wilkinson, wagon-train leader, cheated a little Friday, taking care of wagon-train business, staying "the heck out of the mess." Wilkinson described Friday's drizzly weather as a lot like California dew, "but at least it's warm enough that we haven't had Aspen dew [snow]."
Wilkinson made sure everyone was safely in camp, with support vehicles parked along the trail. "I'm a quarter of a mile away, looking down the road at the mess here." The weather report for today was clearing and warmer. Wilkinson said that's all well and good, but first travelers had to get through the high wind and rain Friday night. And the spirit forecast? "Undaunted," Wilkinson said.