“‘Down and Back’ Wagon Trains: Bringing the Saints to Utah in 1861,” Ensign, Sept. 1985, 26
Abraham Lincoln’s election as president of the United States in November 1860 initiated a chain of events that would change for years to come the pattern of LDS emigration to Utah. As a result of Lincoln’s election, the southern states seceded—and the Civil War began.
During this time, the migrating Saints faced many questions. Would the Civil War block ships from Europe? Would the armies commandeer all the available transportation? A large segment of the emigrating Saints were too poor to buy their own wagons and teams, and the Church lacked the funds to buy them even if they had been available. Earlier emigrants had used inexpensive handcarts, but these had afforded too little protection from the elements and no room for extra food. Thus, the leaders of the Church needed to devise a new, inexpensive wagon system for the 1861 emigrants.
The story of the 1861 LDS emigration in “down and back” wagon trains is a drama that spans Europe, the Atlantic, and America, in which members of the Church from many lands played parts in gathering the Saints to Utah.
As Baptist-born Wilhelmina Bitter and her husband, Traugott, listened to Elder Bernhard Schettler preach in Williamsburg (Brooklyn), New York, they wondered why Mormons, or anyone else, would want to move to the Utah wilderness. But their friends, the Blumells, had fasted and prayed about the Church and had received a testimony of it when the rooms in which they were praying “became lit up.” Brother and Sister Bitter soon received their own testimonies and were baptized with the Blumells. By spring, 1861, Elder Schettler’s branch of New York German converts included not only the Bitters and Blumells, but also several other families who were to head for Utah wilderness.1
Elders Erastus Snow and Orson Pratt of the Council of the Twelve found that, unlike Elder Schettler’s enthusiastic converts, most of the resident Saints in the eastern states were less than enthusiastic about emigrating. In late 1860, the Apostles tried to fire up the Eastern Saints to “gather them to Zion.” Meanwhile, in Philadelphia, Elder John D. T. McAllister succeeded in warming up several hundred Pennsylvania Saints to go west.2
Hesitant Saints became less hesitant after hearing about the capture of Fort Sumter in South Carolina on April 14. Elder Snow called the shots fired at Fort Sumter a “loud sermon” telling the Eastern Saints to flee to Utah for safety.3
Elder Lucius Scovil, who was laboring in New York and New Jersey when war broke out, immediately mailed copies of Joseph Smith’s 1832 Civil War prophecy (see D&C 87) to several of his non-LDS relatives. His diary records that President Lincoln’s urgent call for troops upset many Easterners. “War! War and blood! is the cry,” he wrote. Elder Scovil advised Eastern Saints “to wind up their business and leave Babylon” that spring.4
By April 26, an anonymous letter with anti-Mormon threats prompted Elder Pratt and Elder Snow to cancel public LDS meetings in the New York City area. Pro-South mobs tore up railroad tracks in Baltimore, and the Apostles began to worry that war might prevent the Saints from emigrating.
On 23 April 1861, the day after news arrived of Fort Sumter’s fall, two hundred wagons and seventeen hundred oxen left the Salt Lake Valley for Florence, in Nebraska Territory, to provide transportation for hundreds of needy emigrant Saints.
Earlier, in February, Brigham Young had asked Utah wards for loans of wagons and teams for the six-month round trip, in exchange for tithing credits. Seventy-five wards—nearly every ward in Utah—donated a fully outfitted wagon and yoke of oxen, and most sent two or more outfits. These “down and back” wagons made up four Church trains, whose captains were Mormon Trail veterans Joseph W. Young, John R. Murdock, Joseph Horne, and Ira Eldredge.
Young men agreed to drive the wagons. Brigham Young himself “donated” several teamsters, including nineteen-year-old Zebulon Jacobs, whose diary describes the struggles and triumphs of the journey. At four trail stations along the way, the four trains deposited tons of flour—also donated by Utah wards—to feed the Saints during the return trip.
Meanwhile, early in 1861, Scandinavian Mission President John Van Cott had called for hopeful emigrants to come to Copenhagen’s docks by late April. That month news of the war in America arrived.
President Van Cott booked the Baltic Sea steamer Valdemar and ushered more than 550 Saints aboard on May 9, bound for Kiel, on Germany’s north shore. By another steamer he reached Kiel before the Saints did and chartered a train for them. The company then traveled to Hamburg, where they boarded two North Sea ships, the Eugenie and the Brittannia, to sail to Hull and Grimsby on England’s east coast, where they would join the other European Saints in crossing the Atlantic.
In late 1860 in England, Norwich District President William Jeffries felt the “emigration spirit.”5 He received a release from his position and married his sweetheart, Mary. They packed and reached Liverpool on 11 April 1861. In Birmingham, about the same time, F. W. Blake and one hundred other Saints boarded a Liverpool-bound train “amidst cheering shouts of hurrahs, waving of hats and handkerchiefs.”6
To channel the swelling LDS emigrant stream towards America, European Mission President George Q. Cannon chartered three ships at Liverpool, filled them with supplies, appointed LDS officers for each ship, and supervised the emigrants’ boarding and departures.
On April 16, Jeffries and 378 other Saints set sail aboard the Manchester. F. W. Blake and 623 other Saints followed on the Underwriter on April 23. Three weeks later, after a bumpy train ride across England from Hull, President Van Cott’s Scandinavian company arrived in Liverpool. On May 16 they joined the largest LDS company yet to sail—955 Saints—on the Monarch of the Sea. All in all, about two thousand European Saints made the five- to seven-week voyage to New York on the three ships.
After arriving in New York, the three groups of European Saints soon joined with a fourth group of Saints from the eastern states. In New York City, LDS emigration agents funneled the four companies—three thousand Saints total—onto harbor barges that landed each of them at the Jersey City depot. From there, they traveled by train northwest to Dunkirk, New York, west along Lake Erie and to Chicago, and southwest to the Mississippi River at Quincy, Illinois, fifty miles south of deserted Nauvoo.
The Saints traveled by riverboats twenty miles downriver to Hannibal, Missouri, where they again traveled by train—this time across Missouri to St. Joseph. There they boarded Missouri riverboats for a two- or three-day upriver push to Florence. The ten day trip from New York required a half-dozen train changes and two transfers to and from riverboats—a tiring, dirty, and uncomfortable crossing of America to its frontier.
The Manchester and Underwriter groups reached and departed from New York in May. The Eastern Saints’ Company, which included teenager Thomas Griggs (who later composed the hymn, “Gently Raise the Sacred Strain”) and sixty Saints from Boston as well as members from Elder Schettler’s German branch, left on June 11. A day later, President McAllister and three hundred Saints from Pennsylvania joined the Eastern Company’s train. Finally, on June 20, the last bloc—the Monarch passengers—began their train trip from New York, barely in time to meet the “down and back” wagons.
During the trip from Jersey City to Florence, the Saints saw clear evidence of America’s Civil War. At the Jersey City train depot on June 11, Boston Saints met “a regiment of New York soldiers on their way to war” who harassed them.7 Because of “the call of government for means of transporting the troops,”8 the Saints had a hard time getting enough railroad cars. In Elmira, New York, George Ottinger, one of the Pennsylvania Saints who later became a famous Utah artist, “had a row with a soldier” who was bothering two LDS women.9 Near Chicago the train passed “a gallows furnished with a noose and an inscription that read ‘Death to traitors.’”10
When the emigrants reached Missouri they saw troops guarding a cannon they had captured from secessionists and learned that a rebel officer was imprisoned in the train depot. Nearly every town and bridge they passed was under guard, and rumor had it that rebels had fired into previous passenger trains. Thomas Griggs wrote that Chillicothe, Missouri, “presented the appearance of a captured city, all business being entirely suspended and the streets patrolled by armed men of every conceivable character of drunkenness.”11 Griggs added that “the spirit of secession was prevalent,” and that American and rebel flags were alternately run up and down the town’s flagpole.12
War curtailed Missouri River traffic, forcing the emigrants to overload the available steamboats. George Ottinger wrote that on his riverboat “the people piled in endways, sideways, crossings and every way all as thick as hops.”13
By mid-July, when Lucius Scovil and Orson Pratt were hurrying to Florence to join the last LDS wagons, no trains were running in Missouri. Secessionists had burned railroad bridges and torn up tracks, and the two elders had to ride to Florence by stagecoach. Had the LDS groups who had traveled by train arrived in Missouri a month behind schedule, the war would have kept them from Florence.
Throughout May, June, and July of 1861, about four thousand Saints from the East, and two hundred “down and back” wagons from the West converged on Florence, where a bustling outfitting camp had been set up—complete with provisions store, warehouse, campsites, corrals, weighing machines, bowery, and LDS agents directing the outfitting.
Jacob Gates, agent in charge, had set up the camp. Acting on orders from Brigham Young, he had arrived in New York City from England in February. There he had made preliminary railroad bookings for the May and June European emigrants, taking time to visit an old boyhood friend on Wall Street to show him a copy of Joseph Smith’s Civil War prophecy. In Chicago, Elder Gates bought 111 unassembled wagons from the Peter Schuttler wagon company for $7300, to be delivered at Florence in June.
After Elder Gates reached Florence in early April, he heard distressing news of the fall of Fort Sumter. On April 24 he saw soldiers from Ft. Kearney, Nebraska, heading east. “The war spirit is up,” he wrote, “and fear seems to creep over the nation and a dread of something to come.”14
On May 5 he learned how many “down and back” teams were coming from Salt Lake City. Without knowing how many emigrants to expect because of possible delays, he opened a warehouse and stockpiled provisions and trail equipment.
The first group of emigrants—the Saints who had traveled on the Manchester—arrived in Florence on May 24. Elder Gates helped them obtain wagons, form an independent train, and start west on May 29. The second emigrant company—the Underwriter passengers—reached Florence on June 3, followed by the Saints from the eastern states on June 20. Meanwhile, the wagons from Utah rolled into Florence between June 16 and June 30, on schedule. The last group of emigrants—-the Monarch company—arrived on July 2.
Elder Gates, Elder Pratt, Elder Snow, and Captain Young were surprised by the large number of emigrants. Elder Snow had estimated that three hundred wagons would be needed; he had, in fact, misjudged by three hundred wagons. By July 2 the Florence outfitting camp contained more than 2500 Saints—including Germans, Swiss, Italians, Danes, Swedes, Norwegians, Scots, Welsh, English, Irish, and Canadians.
Saints who could not buy their own wagons and teams signed up to travel in the “down and back” companies. Captain Joseph W. Young supervised the “ticket sales” and loading of the four Church trains, freeing Elder Gates to oversee the outfitting of the independent trains.
While waiting for wagon assignments, emigrants assembled Schuttler wagons, built a public bowery, and sewed together wagon covers and tents. To feed the Saints and stock the wagon trains, Elder Gates’s agents procured bulk supplies from stores in the area, including 13,000 pounds of sugar, 3,000 pounds of apples, 3,300 pounds of ham, and 15,000 pounds of bacon.
During late June and early July, six independent trains and the four “down and back” trains fitted out. On Perpetual Emigration Fund Company ledgers, Church agents issued loans and credits for food, supplies, and wagon fares to passengers in need—including more than six hundred heads of households. People in Church trains received wagon assignments, with six to twelve people per wagon. Fares were fourteen dollars for adults and seven dollars for children under age eight. Each passenger was allowed fifty free pounds of baggage, and was charged twenty cents for each pound over fifty.
One sister wrote that in her wagon, items not used daily “were stacked up in the middle of a wagon, as high as the bows,” cutting the wagon into two apartments.15 Camp kettles were tied beneath the wagons. The groups camped outside Florence until departure day, practicing campfire cooking and learning to handle ox teams.
The “down and back” trains moved out during the first two weeks in July. Jacob Gates closed down the Florence camp and left it on July 17—four days before the first major battle of the Civil War. By then, 12 wagon trains with 624 wagons had left Florence, carrying 3,900 emigrants—1000 from the eastern states, 1900 from Europe, and 1000 “independents” who had reached Florence on their own. About 1,700 emigrants traveled to Utah in the four “down and back” wagon companies.
The 1,000-mile trail the emigrants followed paralleled the Platte River’s north shore across Nebraska and part of Wyoming, then followed the Sweetwater River halfway across Wyoming to South Pass before cutting southwest to Fort Bridger and over rugged 7,700-foot high mountains into Utah. In mid-journey the trains passed US army units that had once been stationed in Utah—with their troops and baggage wagons heading east to join in the fighting.
The emigrants traveled safely, for the most part. Although they experienced some problems, the majority of the emigrants arrived in Salt Lake City healthy and in good spirits. James H. Linford, an emigrant from England, wrote “there was a sameness in every day’s travel,” and “all in all it was a nice trip for the healthy and strong.” He noticed that “All of the able-bodied emigrants walked from Florence to Utah.”16
The Utah teamsters, called “Utah boys,” were considered rough-mannered by some of the European Saints. But the “Utah boys” helped to make the journey more interesting. Zeb Jacobs wrote in his diary of a man who had joined with the young teamsters in a “snipe hunt” one night: “We stopped him and found that he belonged to Heber P. Kimball’s train which was a short distance ahead of us. The boys had induced him to catch rabbits in Yankee fashion, by building a small fire and lying down by it with an open sack for the rabbits to run into, and then hit them on the head with a club, now and then giving a low whistle; other boys going out to drive the rabbits in, when all of a sudden the boys gave a yell. The man thought the Indians were upon him, and off he started at full run. He had run about a mile when we stopped him. The fellow was scared out of his wits.”17
During August, September, and October, the wagon trains reached Salt Lake City. Church leaders welcomed the newcomers, and the “Utah boys” resumed their less exciting work. The “down and back” trains were disbanded, and the borrowed wagons and teams were returned to their Utah owners, who received a total of more than two hundred thousand dollars in tithing credits as pay.
Emigrants quickly found lodging and work. Hundreds stayed in Salt Lake City; others settled in areas such as St. George, Tooele, and Lehi. Brigham Young felt pleased that 3,900 emigrants had reached Utah safely—1,700 of them in “down and back” wagons with Utah oxen, saving the Church thousands of dollars that would otherwise have been spent to buy cattle and wagons. “The sending down of wagons from Utah to Florence is a grand scheme,” wrote Elder McAllister.18
From 1862 to 1868 (railroads reached Utah in 1869), 24,000 more emigrants came to Utah. One-third to one-half of those, needing Church help, came in “down and back” wagon trains sent from Utah.
The carefully orchestrated emigrations during the 1860s pay tribute to the inspiration and organizing genius of Brigham Young and the emigration officers who oversaw the migration. Although some other companies did endure severe hardships, the carefully planned and supplied “down and back” wagon trains and the independent trains that traveled with them typify our LDS emigration legacy.
This paper draws in part from the author’s Kindred Saints (Salt Lake City: Eden Hill, 1982), pp. 124–52, and his “The Great Florence Fit-out of 1861,” forthcoming in BYU Studies. For an analysis of the Church Trains during the rest of the 1860s see Leonard J. Arrington, Great Basin Kingdom (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1958), pp. 205–11.