Crossing the Plains

“Crossing the Plains,” Friend, Nov. 1993, 43


Crossing the Plains

Let all the people of the Church … be organized into companies, with a covenant and promise to keep all the commandments and statutes of the Lord our God (D&C 136:2).

The winter of 1846–47 was a busy one for the Saints at Winter Quarters. Plans were made for the next leg of their journey west. Supplies were gathered, old wagons repaired, and new ones built. It was decided that one company of men would leave in the spring to choose the best trail for those who would follow. By traveling without the elderly, the sick, or many children, they could travel faster. President Young picked the 144 men who would make the journey—twelve for each of the twelve tribes of Israel. One man, however, got sick shortly after leaving and returned to Winter Quarters, so the Pioneer Company consisted of 143 men (8 of them members of the Quorum of the Twelve), 3 women, and 2 children.

Buffalo skull

The men in this first company were skilled workers who could build and repair wagons, take care of the animals, hunt for food, keep accurate records, repair tools, build ferries, and lay out a new community and plant crops. They took with them a leather boat called the Revenue Cutter, 70 wagons and carriages, 93 horses, 52 mules, 66 oxen, 19 cows, 17 dogs, some chickens, and a cannon on wheels, which usually traveled at the end of the wagon train.

William Clayton was the official camp historian. To help direct those who would follow, he and others kept careful records of the camp’s travel. In order to calculate the distance traveled each day, he tied a piece of red flannel to a wagon’s wheel spoke and walked beside the wagon, counting the times the wheel turned. This was a tiresome task, and he proposed the idea for a mile counter. Orson Pratt designed the machine, and Appleton Harmon constructed it. This device, called an odometer, tallied ten miles, then started over. This made William’s job much easier.

It took the Pioneer Company 111 days to make the journey to the Salt Lake Valley. At first they traveled on the north side of the Platte River, through what is now Nebraska. The Oregon Trail was already established on the south side of the river, but the pioneers did not want to encounter old enemies who might be traveling west, and they hoped to find better grazing for their animals by staying on the less-traveled side.

Early in the journey, the pioneers established strict rules for their camp. When a bugle sounded each morning at 5:00 A.M., everyone was to arise and pray in his own wagon. The camp members then had two hours to cook breakfast, eat, feed their teams, and do other chores. At seven o’clock the bugle again sounded, and the company moved out. Each teamster was to stay near his team of oxen or horses. The other men in the camp were each to stay beside the wagon he was assigned to. All the men were to have a loaded gun in hand or within easy reach. No one was to leave his post without the permission of those over him.

The wagons traveled in double file. In case of an Indian attack, they were to form a circle, the mouth of each wagon facing out, with the horses and cattle tied inside the circle. At eight-thirty each evening the bugle sounded again to signal everyone to pray and prepare for bed. This discipline helped the pioneers deal with many of the problems they encountered.

Frequently there was a lack of grass for their animals to eat. It was the custom of the Plains Indians to set fire each spring to the old, dry grass from the previous year. Doing so helped a new growth of grass get a better and earlier start. But the pioneers were traveling before the new grass was up, and the buffalo herds had eaten most of whatever grass was left, so the camp members struggled each day to find a place where their animals could graze.

To help the companies that would follow them, records were kept of where good water, grass, and wood could be found. The men worked hard to level the road to make later travel easier. But on the Sabbath they rested from their labors to partake of the sacrament and to worship God.

As they traveled, the pioneers left signs for those who would follow. One sign on a cedar post read, “From Winter Quarters, 295 Miles, May 8th, ’47. Camp, all well. W. Clayton.”* Another message left on a bleached animal skull read, “Pioneers camped here June 23rd, 1847 making 15 miles today All well Brigham Young.” Letters to loved ones were also sent with trappers or other travelers who were headed east.

Several times during the trip, the pioneers talked with mountain men. Jim Bridger discouraged them from settling all the Saints in the Salt Lake Valley until they knew if grain could be grown there. He didn’t think it could, and he offered a thousand dollars for the first bushel of corn grown. But God was leading the Saints. President Young told Bridger, “Wait a little, and we will show you.”

While camped on the Bear River, Brigham Young contracted mountain fever and became so ill that he could not continue to travel. It was decided that eight wagons and several men would stay behind with him and the rest would go on. But as the main group moved on, others were stricken with the fever. It was decided to let the sick rest while an advance company with twenty-three wagons and forty-two men led by Orson Pratt scouted out the best route through the mountains.

The advance party found the Donner Trail, made the year before, and began to follow it. The trail was very rough, so the men spent much of their time clearing trees and leveling the ground for those behind them.

On July 21, 1847, Orson Pratt and Erastus Snow went down Emigration Canyon ahead of the others to scout out the area. Having only one horse, they took turns walking and riding. A few miles from the mouth of the canyon, Erastus realized that his coat had fallen off the horse’s saddle. He took the horse and turned back to find it. Orson walked on alone and became the first of the pioneers to set foot in the Salt Lake Valley. He and Erastus returned to camp, and the next day the advance company entered the Salt Lake Valley and headed north.

On July 23 they traveled to an area near where the Salt Lake Temple now stands. Orson Pratt called everyone together and led them in a prayer of thanksgiving and of dedicating themselves and the land to the Lord. After the prayer, the men immediately went to work unpacking the wagons, establishing a settlement, and plowing the dry, hard land so that it could be planted. On that same day, Brigham Young and his group crossed Big Mountain. From its summit, President Young looked out of the carriage he was riding in and declared, “This is the right place. Drive on.” The next day, July 24, the last of the company arrived in the valley.

July 25, 1847, was the Sabbath. The Saints worshipped and gave thanks for their safe journey. It had been a long trip, and for many years Saints would continue to sacrifice to cross the plains—but at last a place had been found where The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints could prosper.

Artwork courtesy of Visual Resource Library