“Keep Up Good Courage,” chapter 7 of Saints: The Story of the Church of Jesus Christ in the Latter Days, Volume 2, No Unhallowed Hand, 1846–1893 (2020)
Chapter 7: “Keep Up Good Courage”
The spring of 1848 brought warmer days and a few hard rains to the Salt Lake Valley. Roofs leaked and the ground turned soft and muddy. Snakes slithered through cabins, catching adults off guard and terrifying children. Tiny mice, with teeth as sharp as needles, scampered across cabin floors and chewed their way into food sacks, trunks, and coat sleeves. Sometimes at night, Saints would awake with a start as rodents scurried across them.1
One of the oldest men in the valley was sixty-six-year-old John Smith. He was the uncle of the prophet Joseph Smith and the father of apostle George A. Smith. After being baptized in 1832, John had served on the Kirtland high council and presided over stakes in Missouri and Illinois. He now served as president of the Salt Lake Stake, making him responsible for the well-being of the settlement.2
Suffering from poor health, John shouldered his new duties with the help of his younger counselors, Charles Rich and John Young, and a newly formed high council.3 As stake president, John oversaw city planning, land distribution, and public building projects.4 Illness sometimes kept him out of council meetings, yet he was mindful of everything happening in the valley and responded quickly to problems.5
In letters to Brigham, John wrote hopefully about the Saints in Salt Lake City. “Considering all the circumstances, great union and harmony prevail in our midst,” he noted. Throughout the settlement, people were farming or making tables, chairs, beds, washtubs, butter churns, and other household items. Many families now had cabins in or around the fort. In fields along creeks and irrigation ditches, winter wheat had come up and acres of new crops had been planted for the summer.6
Yet John also wrote openly about the challenges in the city. Several Saints had already become discontented with life in the valley and left for California. That winter a group of Indians who had long hunted for food in Utah Valley drove off and killed some of the Saints’ cattle. Violence nearly broke out, but the Saints and the Indians negotiated peace.7
Of greatest concern, however, was the lack of food. In November, John had authorized a company of men to travel to the California coast to purchase livestock, grain, and other supplies. But the company had not returned yet, and food supplies were running out. There were nearly seventeen hundred Saints to feed, and thousands more were on the way. A failed harvest could carry the settlement to the brink of starvation.8
John had faith in the Lord’s plan for the valley, trusting that He would ultimately provide for His people.9 But life in Salt Lake City remained fragile. If something happened to upend its tenuous peace and stability, the Saints could be in serious trouble.
“Gold!” shouted Sam Brannan as he ran through the streets of San Francisco. “Gold from the American River!” He waved his hat wildly in the air and held up a small bottle, its sandy contents glinting in the sun. “Gold!” he cried. “Gold!”10
For weeks, Sam and the California Saints had heard rumors that gold had been found at a place called Sutter’s Mill along the American River, about 140 miles northeast of San Francisco. But he did not know if the rumors were true until he spoke with a group of Mormon Battalion veterans who had been present when the gold was discovered. He soon visited the place himself and found men squatting in the shallow water, dipping baskets and pans into the silty riverbed. In a matter of five minutes, he watched someone pull eight dollars’ worth of gold out of the river.11
San Francisco went into a frenzy over the gold dust in Sam’s bottle. Men quit their jobs, sold their land, and hurried to the river. Sam, meanwhile, plotted how to make a fortune of his own. California had gold for the taking, but he did not need to take up the hard and often fruitless work of gold digging to get rich. All he needed to do was sell shovels, pans, and other supplies to gold seekers. The demand for these materials would always be high as long as there was a gold rush.12
Like many other California Saints, Addison Pratt prospected for gold at a place called Mormon Island while he waited for snow to melt from the trail over the Sierra Nevada mountains. To make more money, Sam had convinced the veterans to give him 30 percent of all the gold discovered in the area, supposedly to purchase cattle for the Saints in the Salt Lake Valley.
Addison doubted any money from Mormon Island would ever go toward helping the Church. In the months he had lived in San Francisco, Addison had observed that Sam, for all his professions of faith and devotion, was becoming more and more interested in self-promotion and getting rich than in the kingdom of God.
Fortunately, Addison did not have to wait long—four days later he learned that the mountain passes were clear. He secured a wagon and a team to pull it and soon started off for the valley in company with around fifty Saints from the Brooklyn and the Mormon Battalion.13
When Harriet Young had arrived in the Salt Lake Valley with the advance company, she had looked over the new gathering place with dismay. It appeared parched and barren and lonely. “Weak and weary as I am,” she had said, “I would rather go a thousand miles farther than remain in such a forsaken place as this.”14 Her husband, Lorenzo, felt the same. “My feelings were such as I cannot describe,” he noted in his journal. “Everything looked gloomy, and I felt heartsick.”15
Harriet and Lorenzo built a home near the temple block during the mild winter and moved out of the cramped fort. As soon as March arrived, they planted spring wheat, oats, corn, potatoes, beans, and peas to feed their family. A few weeks later, a severe frost struck the valley, damaging crops and threatening the success of the harvest. The frost lingered well into May, but by working together, the Youngs managed to salvage most of their crop.16
“We still keep up good courage, hoping for the best,” Lorenzo wrote in his journal. As was the case with everyone else in the valley, their provisions were running low and they needed a successful harvest to replenish their food supply.17
On May 27, 1848, however, swarms of wingless crickets descended on the valley from the mountains and swept across the Youngs’ yard at an alarming speed. The crickets were large and black, with armor-like shells and long antennae. They consumed the Youngs’ bean patch and peas in a matter of minutes. Harriet and Lorenzo tried to beat the crickets back with handfuls of brush, but there were too many.18
The insects soon spread far and wide, feeding ravenously on the Saints’ crops, leaving dry stalks where corn or wheat used to be. The Saints did everything they could think of to stop the crickets. They smashed them. They burned them. They tried hitting pots and pans together, hoping the noise would drive them away. They dug deep trenches and tried to drown them or block their paths. They prayed for help. Nothing seemed to work.19
As the destruction continued, President John Smith assessed the damage. The frost and crickets had wiped out whole fields of crops, and now more Saints were thinking seriously about leaving the valley. One of his counselors urged him to write to Brigham immediately. “Tell him not to bring the people here,” the counselor said, “for if he does, they will all starve to death.”
John was silent for a few moments, deep in thought. “The Lord led us here,” he said at last, “and He has not led us here to starve.”20
Meanwhile, in Winter Quarters, Louisa Pratt did not think she could afford to make the journey to the Salt Lake Valley that spring, but Brigham Young told her that she had to go. The women in Winter Quarters had promised her that the Lord would reunite her with her husband in the valley. And the previous fall, Addison had written to her and Brigham about his plan to leave for Salt Lake City in the spring. He would be disappointed if his family was not there.21
“I hope I shall see my dear family,” Addison had written. “This has been a long and grievous separation to me, but the Lord has thus far brought me through it, and I still live in hope of seeing them.”22
Brigham asked Louisa to provide all she could to support her family, and he promised to help her with the rest. She began selling items she no longer needed, praying all the while for strength and courage to make the journey. After five years apart, Louisa was anxious to see Addison again. Five years was an unusually long time for a mission in the Church. Most elders left for no more than a year or two at a time. She wondered if he would recognize his family. Ellen, Frances, Lois, and Ann had grown so much in his absence. Only Ellen, the oldest, had strong memories of her father. Ann, the youngest, could not remember him at all.
Surely the girls would not know him from any other man on the street. And would Louisa herself recognize him?23
Louisa succeeded in selling her belongings at a fair price. Mindful of her poverty and aware of the great sacrifices she and Addison had made, Brigham had her wagon outfitted and supplied with one thousand pounds of flour and another yoke of oxen. He also hired a man to drive her team and gave her fifty dollars’ worth of goods from the store, including new clothes for her and her daughters.24
Brigham was ready to lead the company west in the first week of June. Most of his wives and children were emigrating with him. At the same time, Heber Kimball was leaving Winter Quarters with a company of around seven hundred people, including his family. Willard Richards would follow a month later with a company of almost six hundred.25
Though well supplied for her journey, Louisa still dreaded the long road ahead. She put on a cheerful face, however, gave her cabin to a neighbor, and set out for the West. Her company traveled three wagons abreast in a line stretching almost as far as the eye could see. At first, Louisa found little joy in traveling. But soon she took pleasure in seeing the green prairie grass, the colorful wildflowers, and the dappled patches of ground along the riverbanks.
“The gloom on my mind wore gradually away,” she recorded, “and there was not a more mirthful woman in the whole company.”26
In early June, crickets were still devouring crops in the Salt Lake Valley. Many Saints fasted and prayed for deliverance, but others were beginning to wonder if they should quit their work, load up their wagons, and abandon the settlement. “I have stopped building my mill,” one man informed John Smith. “There will be no grain to grind.”
“We are not going to be broken up,” John said firmly. “Go ahead with your mill, and if you do so, you shall be blessed, and it shall be an endless source of joy and profit to you.”27
Yet Saints continued to talk about moving to California. San Francisco Bay took two months to reach by wagon, and for some, setting out on another long journey sounded better than slowly starving to death.28
John’s counselor Charles Rich sympathized with those who wanted to leave. If the crickets continued to feed on their crops, the Saints would have little left to eat. As it was, some Saints were barely surviving on roots, thistle stalks, and soups made from boiling old oxhides.
One Sabbath day, Charles called the Saints together for a meeting. The skies overhead were clear and blue, yet a solemn mood hung over the crowd. In nearby fields, the crickets clung tenaciously to stalks of wheat and corn, eating away the crops. Charles climbed atop an open wagon and raised his voice. “We do not want you to part with your wagons and teams,” he said, “for we might need them.”
As Charles spoke, the crowd heard a shrill noise coming from the sky. Looking up, they saw a small flock of seagulls from the Great Salt Lake flying over the valley. A few minutes later, a larger flock swooped down and lighted on the Saints’ fields and gardens. At first, the birds appeared to be consuming the rest of the crops, finishing the devastation begun by the frost and crickets. But as the Saints looked more closely, they saw that the gulls were feasting on the crickets, disgorging what they could not digest, and then returning to eat some more.29
“The seagulls have come in large flocks from the lake and sweep the crickets as they go,” John Smith reported to Brigham on June 9. “It seems the hand of the Lord is in our favor.”30 There were more crickets than the seagulls could eat, but the birds kept the insects under control. The Saints saw the seagulls as angels sent from God, and they thanked the Lord for answering their prayers in time to save their damaged fields and replant their crops.31
“The crickets are still quite numerous and busy eating,” John observed two weeks later, “but between the gulls, our efforts, and the growth of our crops, we shall raise much grain in spite of them.” The harvest would not be as large as they had hoped, but no one in the valley would starve. And the company John had sent to California in November had returned with almost two hundred head of cattle, various fruits, and some seed grains.
“We are gaining a fund of knowledge,” John was pleased to report, “and, as a large majority, feel encouraged and well satisfied.”32
Two months into their journey, Louisa and her daughters stopped at Independence Rock, a hulking granite monolith that stood like a massive turtle shell beside the Sweetwater River. Climbing with effort to the top of the rock, they saw the names of travelers etched and painted on the stone. Along the trail, with none but themselves for company, Louisa had often thought of the Saints as being alone in the great wilderness. But the names, so many and so unfamiliar, reminded her that they were not the first people to pass this way—nor likely the last.
She felt less like an outcast then, even though her family had been driven from Nauvoo. Blessings had come in their exile. If the Saints had not fled into the wilderness, she realized, they would not have seen how much beauty there was in nature.
From where she stood, Louisa could see the surrounding country clearly. Brigham’s company was camped along the base of the rock, wagons circled in the usual fashion. Beyond them, the Sweetwater River wound like a serpent across the plains, its surface a silvery blue as it disappeared behind Devil’s Gate, an imposing pair of cliffs five miles to the west.
God, she remembered, had made a beautiful world for His children to enjoy. “All things which come of the earth,” one of the revelations read, “are made for the benefit and the use of man, both to please the eye and to gladden the heart.”
Louisa and other members of her company carved their names into Independence Rock, then followed a crevice through a narrow passage that brought them to a natural spring of fresh, cold water. They drank and drank, grateful it was not the murky river water they had relied on since leaving Winter Quarters. Satisfied, they left the spring and found their way back to camp.
In the coming weeks, Louisa and her daughters traveled through high canyons, deep mud, and willow brush. Her daughters were keeping pace, and each day they grew more independent, burdening no one. One morning, thirteen-year-old Frances woke up and made a fire before anyone else in camp. People soon came to their campsite to compliment her and borrow a flame to start their own fire.
“Slowly we move along, gaining a little every day,” Louisa wrote in her journal. “I feel now as if I could go another thousand miles.”33