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.
June 28, 1847
Much of the time before breakfast this morning was spent by pioneers trading with Moses "Black" Harris for pants, jackets, shirts and so forth, made of buckskin. They also traded for the skins themselves. According to William Clayton, Harris was a shrewd businessman. "He sells them high; the skins at $1.50 and $2, a pair of pants, $3. He will take powder, lead, caps, calico and domestic shirts in exchange, but puts his own price on both sides...it is difficult to obtain even a fair trade."
Before the Camp of Israel moved out on its westward journey, Harris will have traded for two rifles and some tobacco. Norton Jacob said, "He paid us in deer and elk skins." And as the celebrated mountaineer packed up, he told Wilford Woodruff he would--meet them again on Bear River. Then, as the pioneers headed down the western slope of the Continental Divide, Harris waited for the Oregon-bound Missouri emigrants to come up; perhaps they would need a guide.
After six miles, the Mormon wagon train came to a fork in the trail. One branch struck off directly west, the other angled to the south and west. It was this left-hand road leading to California that the pioneers took. It was at this junction that Willard Richards posted a guide board: "297 to Fort Laramie" The company continued to travel over desert terrain, "yielding nothing but wild sage and occasionally a grass root." They halted for noon on the banks of the Little Sandy, having come thirteen and one-half miles without a sign of wood, water or feed for the teams.
A little after 4:00 p.m., the pioneers began moving wagons across the fifty-foot breadth of the Little Sandy, two and one-half feet deep at that point, muddy and swift. They were across within the hour and expected to wheel another eight miles before camping for the night. But in a mile G.A. Smith, who had been riding out ahead of the company, met them. With him was the legendary mountain man, Jim Bridger and two of Bridger's men. Having been told that the pioneers had planned to stop at Bridger's trading post and seek his trail advice, Bridger suggested that "if you camp here, I'll stay until morning."
James Bridger, "Old Gabe," was truly one of the remarkable figures in the history of the West. An Ashley trapper, he contended with Taos trapper Etienne Provost for the honor of being the first white man to see the Great Salt Lake. Provost perhaps saw it in the autumn of 1824, Bridger certainly about the same time. Now for several hours, he sat around a campfire with Brigham Young and members of the Council of Twelve Apostles, and told them of the trails he had blazed, the sights he had seen and the adventures he had encountered. But most of all, he told them of the Great Salt Lake Valley and its immediate environs.
For the Mormons he painted a more favorable image of the valley than did Black Harris. But, he said, it is not prudent to bring a large population into the Great Basin until it is proven that grain can survive the cold. So skeptical was he, that he told Young, "I would give $1,000 for a bushel of corn raised in the basin." He also criticized John Fremont's maps, for Fremont "knows nothing of this country, only the plains that he traveled. "I could correct all the maps put out about the West," he asserted.
Woodruff said Bridger had an immense knowledge "of nearly all Oregon, California, the mountains, lakes, valleys, rivers, brooks, creeks, mines and springs. He told us of gold, silver, copper, lead, coal, iron, sulphur, and saltpetre deposits." But, Woodruff added, what "Bridger wanted us to know was that frost could be our enemy. He did not know how frost would affect corn. And he said there was a spring at the end of the Salt Lake that produced hot and cold fresh water." One other thing, Bridger told them, there was a man who had begun a farm in Bear River Valley where the soil is good. (Miles Goodyear's place.)
Thomas Bullock dutifully recorded all that was said at this campfire, and also mentioned that earlier in the day Robert Crow's bull had gored an ox in the bowels. "His bulls are savage creatures, having gored many of the oxen." On this day, Amasa Lyman wrote a letter to Brigham Young from Thomas Grover's Mormon Ferry near the upper crossing of the North Platte River, explaining that Captain James Brown's command of the Mormon Battalion, except for a small detachment accompanying the Mississippi Saints from Fort Pueblo, was at the ferry; the rest are expected tomorrow.