Thomas G. Alexander
Utah, The Right Place
In spite of the fears of some governmental officials that Mormons might plant themselves on the Missouri indefinitely, in December 1846, the Saints began to plan in earnest for their exodus to the Great Basin. Agreeing to send a small pioneer company to establish a settlement, they prepared for the evacuation of the flood of refugees waiting in cabins at Winter Quarters.
On April 14, 1847, the pioneer company of 148 people left Winter Quarters. The bulk of the advance party consisted of leaders such as Brigham Young, Heber C. Kimball, Orson Pratt, George Smith, Wilford Woodruff, Erastus Snow, and such farmers and craftsmen as William Clayton, Appleton Harmon and Howard Egan. The company included three women—Clarissa Decker Young, Harriet Page Wheeler Young, and Ellen Sanders Kimball–two children of Harriet Young, and three African Americans—Hark Lay, Green Flake, and Oscar Crosby.
Traveling to the Elkhorn River, about twenty-five miles west of Winter Quarters, Brigham Young divided the party into two parallel organizations. He organized the pioneers into hundreds, fifties, and tens on the ancient Israelite pattern, with Stephen Markham and Albert P. Rockwood as captains of hundreds. He also set up a quasi-military organization with himself as lieutenant general, Stephen Markham as colonel, and John Pack and Frederick Roundy as majors.
Like a modern Moses, Young issued instructions for the new Israelites. In Indian country, he cautioned each pioneer to carry a loaded gun. He ordered the wagons to travel two abreast, and drivers to walk beside their wagons and not leave them unless sent on an errand. Members of the party were directed to arise at 5:00 am, which allowed them to leave by 8:00 am, and to travel during the daylight hours, retiring at 9:00 pm.
Since the pioneers constituted the vanguard of a people on a mission for the Lord, Young added religious instructions to the temporal. He admonished all to observe strict personal decorum, attend to prayers, observe the Sabbath, and refrain from frivolous activities such as card playing. He told the hunters not to kill more animals than the party could eat, since animals had souls, and the killers must account to the Lord for their use and protection.
After they reached central Nebraska, they generally found sufficient food for themselves and their cattle: abundant grass and buffalo herds on the plains, and antelope, deer, and fish in Wyoming and Utah. In general, their greatest trials resulted not from geographic hazards, starvation, or Indians, but from disease. Diarrhea from unfamiliar food, canker, nosebleeds, and toothaches caused considerable distress. In general, fever plagued the travelers most. Probably induced by the tick-borne rickettsia that caused Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, the disease they called Mountain Fever struck Brigham Young and several others.
These pioneers did not blaze the trails they followed. Instead, they retraced the well-traveled banks of the Platte River where the flood of immigrants to Oregon had preceded them, and which Fremont and other explorers had described. West of Fort Bridger, they followed the Hastings Cutoff route pioneered by companies in 1846. They found substantial settlements at Fort Laramie on the North Platte and Fort Bridger on Black’s Fork of the Green River. Although they traveled on the north bank of the Platte River while the Oregon Trail generally followed the south bank, they encountered other travelers returning from the West and sent letters with them to friends and loved ones at Winter Quarters.
West of South Pass, they met a number of people with ready advice on potential places for settlement in the Great Basin. Near Council Bluffs, they had already spoken with Father Pierre Jean De Smet, the pioneering Catholic missionary, who offered advice. On the way west, they met Moses “Black” Harris and Thomas “Peg Leg” Smith, who suggested settlement in Cache Valley, and Jim Bridger, who thought the Great Salt Lake Valley or Utah Valley offered the greatest promise. Miles Goodyear, who had established Fort Buenaventura near present-day Ogden, told them that his vegetable garden had flourished, and he urged them to settle in the Salt Lake Valley.
At the Green River crossing, they met Samuel Brannan. Brannan had left from New York Harbor bound for California with a party of eastern Mormons on February 4, 1846, the same day the first party crossed to Iowa from Nauvoo. Brannan’s ship, the Brooklyn, had circled Cape Horn and landed in Hawaii. Leaving the Pacific paradise, the ship sailed on to San Francisco (then Yerba Buena). Brannan’s party founded a settlement in northern California called New Hope, expecting their colony might become the nucleus for Mormon settlement in the West.
Fearing the possibility of renewed violence and conflict if the Saints founded town and farms close to old settlers again, Brigham Young rejected Brannan’s suggestion that they colonize in northern California. Disappointed at Young’s decision, Brannan accompanied the pioneer party into the Salt Lake Valley but he returned to California later on assignment. He then decided to remain in the Golden State, refusing to return to Utah.
Accounts by Fremont and the Mountain Men had led the Mormon leaders to conclude that the eastern edge of the Great Basin probably offered the best place for settlement. Discussions with travelers and contemplation of their options led Young and the Mormon leaders to clearly fix on the Salt Lake Valley for their initial community sometime before they reached Fort Bridger.
After they left Fort Bridger, the increasingly difficult trail and the plague of mountain fever made the pioneers’ journey torturous. Having gathered as much information as they could, they recognized that they would have to cross the mountain road taken by the ill-fated Donner-Reed party the year before.
At Cache Cave near the head of Echo Canyon, abutting the present Wyoming-Utah border, the party split into two parts, and at the crossing of the Weber River, close to the foot of Echo Canyon, they split again. Stricken with mountain fever, Young sent a party headed by Orson Pratt and Erastus Snow from Cache Cave to clear trees and stumps and improve the Donner-Reed trail into the valley. After working on the trail, the Pratt-Snow party and the second contingent headed by Willard Richards and George A. Smith reached the valley on July 22. Exploring for the remainder of July 22, they began plowing and planting the next day. Brigham Young, Heber Kimball, Wilford Woodruff, Ezra Taft Benson, and Howard Egan came in on July 24, with Young riding in the back of Woodruff’s carriage.
At the mouth of Emigration Canyon, whether or not Brigham Young actually said, “This is the right place, drive on,” means very little since the sentiment expressed in the oft-quoted phrase sums up the feelings of many in the pioneer company. Wilford Woodruff, who kept a careful diary of the journey, saw a rich and fertile valley “clothed with the Heaviest garb of green vegetation.” This new paradise contrasted with the sagebrush-covered High Plains and the rugged Rocky Mountains through which they had just passed. To him, the Salt Lake Valley seemed “the grandest & most sublime seenery Probably that could be obtained on the globe.”
Some of the pioneers, especially the women, disagreed with Woodruff’s assessment. They saw a lonely, godforsaken desert. Harriett Young said, “Weak and weary as I am, I would rather go a thousand miles further than to remain in such a forsaken place as this.” For her and for several of the other women and some of the men, it was a place of “desolation and loneliness.”