“On the Trail in September,” Ensign, Sept. 1997, 40–41
By early September 1847, President Brigham Young and about half of his advance, exploratory company were eastbound, returning from the Great Salt Lake Valley to Winter Quarters, Nebraska, to rejoin their families and to bring them west the next year. In western Wyoming, President Young’s company met the big company of 1,500 settlers and 600 wagons, led by Elders Parley P. Pratt and John Taylor of the Quorum of the Twelve. By then, President Young’s company had little food, so they enjoyed the rich feast the westbound companies spread out on tables for them on 7 September. Horace K. Whitney wrote of the event: “It was a rare sight, indeed, to see a table so well spread with the ‘good things of this life,’ in the wilderness, so remote from a civilized country. The remains of the feast were distributed among the [released Mormon Battalion] soldiers and pioneers, and the ceremonies of the afternoon concluded this evening with a dance, which came off to the satisfaction of all parties.”1
Captain Daniel Spencer, of the first company of 100 families, wrote this account of his arrival in the Great Salt Lake Valley on 23 September 1847: “We found the vegetables, such as potatoes, turnips, buckwheat, and corn all destroyed with [few] exceptions. … The valley is beautiful and the soil extremely rich.”2
Ten-year-old Diana Eldredge helped her family enter the valley. She recalled what happened on 21 September 1847 at sunset on the summit of Big Mountain: “It was necessary for us to descend the foot of the mountain before dark, in order for the rest of the train to reach the top to make camp. My father asked me if he hitched ‘Billy,’ a riding pony which I had ridden a good deal during the journey, in front of his team, if I thought I could lead them down the side of the mountain. I thought I could all right, so the pony was saddled and I mounted. Father instructed me to hold the reins close to the bit to prevent the pony from falling if he stumbled on the rough bushy trail. And thus I led the team of three yoke of oxen down the mountain and into the valley. Before we reached the bottom, I was so excited and nervous, the tears were streaming down my face, but Father kept cheering and encouraging as he followed beside his team. When we reached the bottom, however, he confessed that he had never felt so sorry for a child in his life, and said it was very clever work for a ten-year-old girl. We camped at the foot of the mountain that night.”3
A contingent of more than 200 Mormon Battalion soldiers, who had been released from service in July 1847, had headed north through California in order to cross the Sierra Nevada and go eastward, back to their families. While camped within two miles of Sutter’s Fort (in present-day Sacramento, California), they learned that John Sutter and James Marshall wanted to build a gristmill and sawmill and needed skilled workmen to do it. Many of the soldiers who were carpenters, blacksmiths, wheelwrights, millwrights, farmers, and common laborers decided to stay there to work and earn supplies or money to take to their families. Sutter eventually hired about 100 battalion men.
James S. Brown recalled: “Between August 29 and September 5, from forty to sixty of us called on Captain Sutter. Some were employed to work on the gristmill; others took contracts on the mill race [a conduit that carried water away from the mill]. The race was seven or eight miles long, and was also intended for irrigation.
“Between the 8th and the 11th of September, [we] started for the site that had been selected by Mr. Marshall for the sawmill [on the south fork of the American River, 40 miles east of Sutter’s Fort]; we were the first Mormons to arrive at the place. … Upon our arrival at the mill site, work was begun in earnest. The cabin was finished, a second room being put on in true frontier style. While some worked on the cabin, others were getting out timbers and preparing for the erection of the sawmill.”4
Brown said that four other battalion members joined them at the end of September to help build the mill. Henry W. Bigler recorded: “The country around the mill site looked wild and lonesome. Surrounded by high mountains on the south side of the river … , the country was infested with wolves, grizzly bears, and Indians.”5
During that winter, the Latter-day Saint workmen and others would build the sawmill and the mill race. On 24 January 1848, James Marshall would find gold in the mill race. The diaries of Henry Bigler and Azariah Smith of the Mormon Battalion are the only firsthand records that document the famous discovery of gold there, which launched the epic California Gold Rush in 1848 and 1849.
Having departed on 31 May 1847, 15 men from the Mormon Battalion escorted General Stephen W. Kearny, commander of the U.S. Army of the West, from Monterey, California, to Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. The detachment included 64 men. After passing through Sutter’s Fort on 15 June, they found and buried some of the victims of the Donner Party disaster in the Sierras. A month later, they passed the westbound big company of Saints and on 23 August reached Fort Leavenworth. The battalion men, who then numbered 13, were discharged the next day. They set out on foot to reach Winter Quarters, Nebraska, where they arrived in early September 1847, thereby completing what for them was a 4,000-mile round-trip. They had been gone for 14 months. They brought the earliest firsthand accounts of the battalion’s experiences to families still waiting to go west.
Private Matthew Caldwell described their hike from Fort Leavenworth to Winter Quarters: “This [last] two hundred miles on foot, being used to riding all summer, was very hard on us. But as usual, we took it as we had done through the whole of the battalion journey—as best we could. … Webb and Spencer had the raggediest pants that I had ever seen. My antelope breeches had been wet and dry so much that they drew up to my knees. Our shirts were gone except the collars and a few strips down the back. I was entirely barefooted.”6