Crossing the Plains
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“Crossing the Plains,” Liahona, Nov. 1997, 2


Crossing the Plains

The winter of 1846–47 was a busy one for the Saints at Winter Quarters. They made plans for continuing their journey west, gathered supplies, repaired old wagons, and built new ones. Church leaders 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—12 for each of the 12 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.

The men in this first company were skilled workers who could build and repair wagons, take care of animals, hunt for food, keep accurate records, repair tools, build ferries, lay out a new community, and plant crops. They took with them a leather boat called the Revenue Cutter, 73 wagons and carriages, 93 horses, 52 mules, 66 oxen, 19 cows, 17 dogs, some chickens, and a cannon on wheels.

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-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 suggested a design for the machine, and William Clayton and Appleton Harmon constructed it. This device, called an odometer, counted 10 miles, then started over. This made William’s job much easier.

Early in the journey, the pioneers established strict rules for their camp. When a bugle sounded each morning at 5:00 A.M., the pioneers got up and prayed in their own wagons. The camp members then had two hours to cook breakfast, eat, feed their teams, and do other chores. At 7:00 A.M. the bugle sounded again, and the company moved out.

Wagon train

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 8:30 P.M. 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.

Each day the camp members struggled to find a place where their animals could graze. To help the companies that would follow them, they kept records of where good water, grass, and wood could be found. The men worked hard to level the road to make later travel easier. On the Sabbath they rested from their labors, partook of the sacrament, and worshiped 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.” They also sent letters to loved ones 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 moving all the Saints to the Salt Lake Valley until they knew if grain could be grown there. He was so convinced that grain could not be grown that he offered (US) $1,000 for their first bushel of corn. 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. The pioneers decided to let the sick rest while an advance company with 23 wagons and 42 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 21 July 1847, Orson Pratt and Erastus Snow went down Emigration Canyon ahead of the others to scout out the area. They had only one horse, so they took turns walking and riding. A few miles from the mouth of the canyon, Erastus realized that he had lost his coat. He took the horse and turned back to find it. Orson walked on alone and was 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 23 July 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 pioneers 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, 24 July, the last of the company arrived in the valley. It had taken the pioneers 111 days to make the journey to the Salt Lake Valley.

Sunday, 25 July 1847, the Saints worshiped 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.


  • As quoted by Wilford Woodruff, in The Utah Pioneers (1880), 23. All other quotes and information are from B. H. Roberts, A Comprehensive History of the Church, 3:163–78, 201–07, 223–24.