by Rebecca Bartholomew
America and the Great Plains
For immigrants there were two main gateways to the United States: New Orleans and New York City. Mormon arrivals in the 1840s usually went through New Orleans.
This southern route was described in the delightful diaries of Mariah Davies’s bridegroom and Jean Rio Baker. John Davies wrote:
We had a great deal of amusement on the sea and when we got through the Gulf of Mexico, the Captain said: “Ship about.” Then we traveled northwest until we got to that great river, Mississippi. Here a steamer came to meet us and towed us up that mighty river … When we came to Quarantine Station, we had to stop for the doctors to examine us. When the doctors came on board, we passed them two by two and they pronounced us all well. We started again and got to New Orleans on the 18th of March, 1854. We made the trip in six weeks from Liverpool to this place (Rachel Maria Davies).
According to Jean Baker, it was 170 miles from the Gulf of Mexico to New Orleans, a city which “No description I have read has ever done … justice.” The city stretched five miles along one bank of the river, and vessels sat “4 to 5 deep the whole length and as close as they can be stowed.” The levee was not level “like the Brunswick [p.162]wharf” but sloped upward toward the warehouses and was crowded with cotton bales and cargo.
Jean was impressed by the planters’ houses “built on the cottage style, with verandas on every side, surrounded with beautiful gardens.” Even the “negro huts”—”from 30 to 50 on each plantation”—with their front verandas, white paint and large gardens she found “certainly far superior to the cottages inhabited by the poor in England.” Remember that she wrote in 1852, eight years before the Civil War.
From ship Jean marvelled at the massive, human-planted orange groves and wild peach and plum trees as well as wildlife: storks, geese, fox, and raccoon. But she had criticisms as well: “The only thing which detracts from its beauty is the sight of hundreds of negros at work in the sun. Oh, slavery how I hate thee!” And she sardonically noted the Americans’ fondness for titles, “Colonel[s], majors, captains, judges and squires being as plentiful as black-berries.”
Jean had a letter of introduction from London to a friend’s sister in New Orleans who “actually burst into tears at meeting with a country woman.” Jean spent two days visiting with this British expatriate, who showed her a female slave market:
It is a large hall well lighted, with seats all around on which were girls of every shade and color, from 10 to 30 years of age, and to my utter astonishment they were singing as merrily as larks. I expressed my surprise to … my companion. “Ah!” she said, “though I as an English-woman, detest the very idea of slavery, yet I do believe that many of the slaves here have ten times the comfort of the laborers in our own country with not half the work. I have been 13 years in this country and although I have never owned a slave, or ever intend to do so, still I do not look upon slavery with the horror that I once did.”
Baker was unconvinced by this argument. “The system is a horrible one to English minds. Well might we say … ‘Oh slavery, disguise thyself as thou wilt, thou are a bitter drought.'”
The Baker family’s stay in New Orleans was only a few days while Mariah and John Davies remained two weeks. During this time their company made ready for the 1,250-mile riverboat trip [p.163to St. Louis. When finally a small steamboat pulled alongside their vessel and luggage and passengers were transferred, John and his young wife found themselves with more crowded accommodations than the Bakers had enjoyed. He complained for the first time since beginning the voyage, and unlike Jean Baker he and Mariah did not find the six-day trip up the Mississippi “delightful.”
But if riverboat accommodations were unimpressive, the river itself was awesome. Jean described it as “about as wide as the Thames at Blackwall.” Davies thought it “a wonderful stream” with the great forests of timber along its shores. By now many passengers were too ill to add their observations, but none called it “this foul stream” as did Charles Dickens during his 1842 tour of the eastern United States.1
A popular Mormon image of its pioneers is of genteel famies on perilous ocean voyages via ships similar to those of the Pilgrims, culminating in an Indian- and death-defying treks across the Great Plains. In fact, the most dangerous phase of emigration lay in the riverboat passage up the Mississippi and encampment on the Missouri River. The British had little resistance to cholera, nor did the colliers and factory hands from smoke-festering British cities have the conditioning or stamina to adapt immediately to America’s interior.
Dickens noted in 1842 and John Davies in 1855 that the dirty water of the Mississippi River was the only available water to drink, and natives (said Dickens) considered it wholesome. Davies said, “We dip it up to settle it, but it doesn’t get much better.” Apparently there were no warnings to boil the water. People were told to avoid drinking it only “if they got sick.”
Surprisingly, Jean Baker made mention of neither the water nor the sickness which rapidly fell upon the companies. But other travelers did. Sarah Jeremy and her family, steaming up the river in 1849, were among the sixty or more of their 249-member company to be stricken by cholera: “Men and women were lying on the deck, unable to help themselves and no one able to do anything for them. Their tongues and mouths were parched with thirst and [p.164]they felt as if they were being consumed with fire.” In one night three of the Jeremys’ small daughters died, and their nine-year-old son would have followed but for his stealing sips of broth out of a kettle of boiling oatmeal. The steamboat stopped long enough for the dead to be buried in rough coffins among the timbers on the riverbank. By the time the Jeremys reached Council Bluffs on the Missouri River the parents themselves could barely stagger down the gangplank.
Leah Dunford lost a daughter on the steamboat journey. Only a few weeks old when the family arrived at New Orleans in 1853, the child died before they reached St. Louis. The boat pulled to shore and she was buried in an unmarked grave.
The Northern Route
During the 1840s and early 1850s only a few Mormon ships avoided the cholera-plagued tropic route. But beginning in 1856 this would change. Disturbed over heavy casualties from disease, wanting to take advantage of the Northeast’s expanding railway network, and searching for a way to finance emigration for 20,000 poor British Saints who according to mission leaders “clamored” to come to Zion, Brigham Young and others conceived a new method for gathering in the Saints. In 1855 Young broached this idea to a son-in-law then in England:
If we can have our emegration come to the eastern citys and the northan rout, it will be much relieve [to] our Brethrern from sickness and deth which I am very ancious to due. There is a raleway from new Yourk City to Iowa City and will cost onley about 8 dollars for the pasedge. Then take hancarts and there little luggedge with a fue good milk cowes and com on till they are met with teams from this place, with provisions &c-2
From that time on most Mormon ships docked in New York City, Boston or, during the Civil War, safe ports such as Williamsburg and Quebec.
[p.165]Those among the British Saints who were too poor to emigrate during the first two decades avoided some of dangers faced by the earlier, more prosperous immigrants. Travel by the new route was not so much dangerous as uncomfortable.
Some routines were similar, such as being detained in the harbor for inspection. Felicia Astle’s family was held on ship for several days while the entire body of passengers was vaccinated because illness had broken out while at sea. All ships were met by customs officials who arrived on barges from the Battery3 along with doctors who might select a passenger here and there who would not be permitted to enter.
Yet New York was not New Orleans. Contrast Jean Rio Baker’s pleasant stay in the southern city to Fanny Stenhouse’s “miserable quarters” in Castle Garden: “Very cold, and dark, and dreary, were the first days which we spent in the New World.” According to Fanny, her husband received charge of their entire company by default, through the “irresponsibility” of the company captain who, she said, disappeared to find former friends. (She did not consider that the official had been separated from friends and family for three years.) While her husband helped others find work and housing, Fanny and the children could only remain
in that public place, sick and weary, and as destitute of bedding and covering as we had been on board ship. The weather was intensely cold, and, unaccustomed as we were to the severity of an American winter, we suffered not a little. How we lived through that journey I know not, but I am certain that, could I have foreseen what we should have to endure, I would never have left England, whatever my refusal might have cost me.
Fanny’s complaints were partly justified. Until 1891 U.S. immigration was directed by the individual states. With the Gold [p.166]Rush and the Irish famine, nearly three million immigrants would pass through New York Harbor in the 1850s.4 To process these large numbers, the state turned Castle Garden, formerly a concert and amusement hall, into immigration headquarters. While picturesque, the hall was damp and drafty, a good incentive to immigrants to find other quarters fast.
Still, compared to misery by Southern fever, immigrants who took the Northern route were fortunate. “The worst part,” wrote Jessie Pack, who was sixteen when she made the inland journey in 1861, were the days and nights en route to St. Joseph in what she called a “cattle car.” When the Perpeutual Emigration Fund financed a railroad fare, it did not buy first class. Church companies literally rented boxcars which were closed and locked. At night it was necessary to lie down “feet to feet, head to head,” in order for all to have room to sleep.
Members of independent companies fared a little better, as suggested by the indomitable Elizabeth Wilkins (Steadman) in her advice to her mother:
If you bring a teapot, you can have tea in the cars. There are stoves and water closets in them … . It is very dusty, and get something to kill or keep the vermin from you. We had them on our heads and bodies too. Their bites are dreadful. They are in the seats. I think some breed them in their flannels by wearing them too long close to their skin.
Elizabeth must have been a self-paying passenger if she rode in a coach with seats, even flea-bitten ones.
The ride by rail to the Missouri River took from six days to three weeks. St. Louis was the destination of most immigrants, although sometimes they went on to St. Joseph and later many went by rail all the way to Council Bluffs, Iowa. Only half (54 percent) went on to Great Salt Lake City the same year they arrived in the states. The other 46 percent settled for a period in Pittsburgh (especially the Welsh, who readily found jobs in the Pennsylvania coal mines), New York City (where some worked as domestics and [p.167]others as stone masons or at other skilled jobs in New York state), St. Louis, and the Mormon Missouri River settlements in Iowa and Nebraska.
Before that 1846 immigrants had travelled directly to Nauvoo. One of these, Jane Benbow, arrived just in time to be driven out of Illinois with the rest of the Saints and die from exposure in Winter Quarters, Nebraska.
Immigrants after 1847 who did continue directly to the Great Basin seemed to do so for one of three reasons. They possessed sufficient resources to immediately obtain an “outfit” (wagon, oxen and supplies). They had compelling ties to someone in Utah, relatives already settled in the territory or business associates. Or the husband was assigned by the church to lead a company from Liverpool through to Salt Lake City.
Other families were obliged to settle in the East for one to ten years while they obtained jobs and began the process of financing the rest of the journey. Some delayed the trek west because of poor health or to await the arrival of remaining family members from Britain. Isabella Wade’s father initially turned down a job offered by Jim Boyd, “a big railroad man,” and went ahead and bought an outfit. But at Grand Island, Nebraska, a few weeks into the trek, he changed his mind and agreed to work as foreman on the Plum Creek section of the railroad. For two years (1866-68) his family lived at the water and feed station, occasionally encountering trouble with Sioux and Pawnee Indians, before they had saved $3,000 to purchase a more comfortable outfit and continue the journey west.
Eliza Ashworth, husband, and family remained in St. Louis long enough for two more children to be born. After four years they still had not been able to go west, largely because of the expense of burying the two infants and a boy hunchbacked in an accident. When in 1854 they finally accumulated the needed equipment Eliza was seven months pregnant again and, in her husband’s opinion, in no condition to travel. She insisted, “No I will be all right. Maybe if we wait we will be unable to make the trip for many years. I don’t want to wait.” At Indian Hollow their [p.168]wagon company stayed over a day while she gave birth to Benjamin Erastus.
Felicia Astle and her husband were “counselled” to find factory work in Philadelphia. Two years later they went west in the Joseph Horne wagon company. Margaret Ballard’s father was advised by retiring British Mission president Franklin D. Richards not to go in the Martin handcart company, “for which we were afterwards very thankful because of the great suffering and privations and the cold weather which these people were subjected to. There were many of the company who froze that year on their journey.” Instead, the Ballards stayed at a place called Geneva, “150 miles away from civilization,” continuing their journey to Utah three years later.
Another family considered the handcart method of travel and decided against it. Margaret Powell Evans, grandmother of future LDS church president David O. McKay, left England with her husband and several children in 1856, arriving in Iowa City in early July. They helped build handcarts until 28 July, when the last companies moved out and recamped a mile away in Florence to make final preparations. According to her descendants,
Owing to the lateness of the season, the important question was debated whether the emigrants should attempt to cross the plains that season. Thomas Evans decide he would not take the chance of subjecting his wife and family to undue hardships by attempting the trip by handcart, but would remain in Iowa until he could outfit them so that they could travel with greater comfort.
Accordingly, the family lived and worked in Iowa three years until they had secured a wagon, ox team, and a milk cow.
Lizzie Brown’s father, the one disappointed at losing the job as ship’s cook, worked in New York City three and one-half years as a stone mason to pay his family’s fare. He must have reconsidered his misfortune, for by the time they went west in 1869 the transcontinental railroad had been completed and his family made the trip in relative ease. Said his daughter, “We got here after the worst hardships were over” (Lizzie Brown Weaver).
Poor Mary Nixon Bate’s troubles did not abate. Once in Amer-[p.169]ica conflict with her husband resumed. Their journey was a circuitous one from Boston by rail to Iowa City where they stayed in a boarding house, then back to St. Louis where they acquired an apartment, stove, and furniture. There a son was born. “It was very expensive eight of us stopping,” Mary wrote, even though Mr. Bate had obtained employment. Then disaster struck with his death in 1859: “He died Friday night. Saturday morning I sat down to nurse my baby and the other six all stood around me[.] I looked at them and felt my burden was heavier than I was able to bear. No friends, relations, alone with 7 children, we did not know anything about making a living” (Mary N. B. Buckley).
In the histories one hears occasionally of ministering angels—anonymous earthly benefactors who went about looking for kindnesses that needed doing. An older gentleman of Nauvoo (possibly an Englishman), during the first years of settlement when cholera plagued the young city, went from house to house giving money to those in desperate straits. One of these angels—a stranger although probably a member of the St. Louis branch who heard of her plight—”came in” and gave Mary Bate $20 for her husband’s funeral.
There was another sort of angel, too. At Mr. Bate’s death Mary had $500 remaining of their life’s savings. Wanting to use it wisely, she loaned it out at interest, most likely to a Mormon associate. When the loan came due, she only got $170 back, plus a total of $50 in small payments over the succeeding days and weeks, never seeing the remainder. She now had only $220, so she “went to work at anything I could.” For two years Mary and her children worked in St. Louis. It was still her dream to take her family to Utah even though they “couldn’t see what I was exposing them to so much trouble for. The prejudices their father had placed were still with them.” By 1861 she had acquired a half-sized wagon and a team of full-sized oxen. As the wagon company collected, its captain asked who would be driving her team. Herself, she answered. She couldn’t afford a teamster. “What do you Londoners know of driving a team?” he taunted. She said, “My faith is that I can do it” (Mary N. B. Buckley). And she did, by pluck as much as by faith, leading her animals by the reins all the way to the valley.
[p.170]Mattie Hughes Cannon, who would grow up to be a physician and the first female legislator in the United States, was four when her parents emigrated in 1858. They spent two years in New York “because of her father’s poor health.” A third child was born there. Caroline Corbett spent several years in Pittsburgh before she acquired five wagons with which to make the trek west in 1862. It was she whose mother threatened to disown her but instead sewed twenty pieces of gold in a skirt she had made for her.
Leah Dunford spent ten years in St. Louis. Her husband worked in a men’s clothing store and also served as president of the St. Louis Conference. Her boys, including two future dentists, attended St. Louis schools. The city was “a dirty looking place,” according to John Davies, but Dickens gave a more complete picture of St. Louis during this period. The French portion, he wrote in American Notes, had narrow, crooked streets and quaint, sometimes lop-sided shops and houses. The new parts of town, called the American Improvements, contained sturdy “wharfs, warehouses, and new buildings in all directions” with marble-fronted shops along broad streets. In 1842 four free schools were operating, this number no doubt having increased by the time the Dunfords arrived in 1854.
Rachel Price’s was another family which “stopped in St. Louis to obtain work and buy supplies.” Perhaps an additional reason for their two-year layover was Rachel’s frail condition. Her husband John and the oldest of their five children easily obtained jobs in road construction, but John was used to working underground in Wales. Now he was in the hot Missouri sun day after day. He resisted quitting, but when sunstroke finally overcame him it was so severe that he was unconscious several days and bedridden a year.
The family was then “in dire circumstances.” Every child old enough found a job–even eight-year-old Anne. At first she worked as maid in a boarding house, until a man named Dutch Henry who lodged there saw that “she was working too hard for her age.” He took Anne into his home two miles away where each week she was paid a small wage. On Sundays she visited her [p.171]parents, carrying her wages to help out the family and a small basket of food.
After a year her father recovered enough to think about working again. A friend who was going west offered to get him a job in a coal mine near St. Louis. John was not yet strong enough for heavy labor, but his son Richard accompanied him each day and did the work for him. While Richard was under age, it was common practice in the 1800s for a boy to help his father in the mines.
The King family intended a stopover in St. Louis to give Hannah a rest. She had gone from 168 to 127 pounds during the sea voyage. Accordingly, Thomas leased a house for two months, but within a week they were “ordered to pick up and go off to Keokuk. Accordingly, we set to.” Hannah felt loathe to move so soon but, she wrote resignedly, “orders, are peremptory in this church, and there is no dwelling.” She took along a bottle of champagne to assuage her reluctance.
One benefit of long stopovers was that eastern branches, many broken up at the 1846 exodus to the Great Basin, were reestablished. Another benefit was unofficial proselyting by Mormon families scattered in towns and cities across the country.
In the end all roads led to the Missouri River and, beyond that, the American prairie. In 1841 Mary Ann Weston, the childless young widow, left Herefordshire. She reached the Missouri in a roundabout way, first to Kirtland, Ohio, then to Nauvoo, Illinois, where she met and married Peter Maughan and his five small children and where most of her “fine English china” was broken, and finally to Winter Quarters (near present Omaha, Nebraska) with the body of the Saints in 1846. Henrietta Bullock, too, emigrated in the early 1840s, but late enough to go directly to Nauvoo with her young family. Willard Richards Bullock was born there on 11 February and died of exposure during the exodus.
In the 1850s and 1860s immigrants collected at Iowa City, St. Joseph, Nebraska City, Alexandria, Westport, or Florence (which Fanny Stenhouse called “the starting point of the Frontiers”)—all jumping-off places for the Great Plains. Many of them had seen a good deal of America’s heartland beforehand, some [p.172]travelling by way of Canada or the northern canals across the Great Lakes by team to river cities, then by steamboat down the Ohio or Mississippi.
Apparently, cholera had already done its sifting by then, for there are fewer reports of deaths during this leg of the journey. Missouri River trips may not have been as ruthless, but they presented their own difficulties. During this leg of the journey Jean Rio Baker’s company lost a fellow passenger who fell overboard and drowned in the eddies and tangles. Two of her newly-purchased oxen were injured through the brutality of boatmen. Yet she was too absorbed with her anticipation and anxieties about the long trek across the prairie to dwell on these misfortunes.
In the 1860s immigrants were able to take the rails not just to Iowa City but all the way to Florence on the Missouri. This mode offered its own unique adventures. Sarah Isom, seven years old at the time, said their mile-long train was driven at “surprising” speed by an evil-tongued engineer who swore he would “drive the Mormons to Hell.” He opened the throttle so wide, she remembered, that somehow a baggage car caught on fire and he had to back the train seven miles to a water station. There her parents discovered that nearly all their belongings lay in a “charred mass of wreckage,” including their seven-year supply of clothing. When the railroad company reimbursed them, it was in “greenbacks that had depreciated to 50 cents on the dollar.”
By the 1870s the collecting was done almost totally by rail, the steamboat journey avoided altogether. As early as 1868 Mary Ann Chapple Warner and her family took a freight car—”crowded to overflowing”—clear to Laramie, covering six weeks of wagon trail (or three-fifths of the plains journey) in a few days. When Martha Cumming Clark travelled to Utah in 1890, her emigration took only two weeks: ten days on the ocean and four days by train to Franklin, Idaho.
But in the early years, the Missouri River was the jumping-off spot even by rail. Here immigrants must have faced the prospective journey with some excitement. Dickens had heard so much about the “paroarer” (as he frequently heard it pronounced) that he had developed “a great desire to see a Prairie” [p.173]before turning east on his 1842 visit to America. He arose at 4:00 one morning for that purpose, leaving his wife behind as he expected the jaunt to be fatiguing. Jean Rio Baker wrote, “We expect a life of toil fatigue, and many privations on this overland journey to which we are unaccustomed. Still … I doubt not … I shall enjoy the same protection upon the land that I have had upon the water.”
The majority of those who made it this far probably continued. P. A. M. Taylor found little evidence of desertion, though Mormon sources could be “reticent on such a subject.” He notes an 1853 Millennial Star report of 100 Saints “who stayed in the eastern United States, some to apostatize and some to go on another summer,” and an 1856 Star estimate that from five to fifty in a company of 500 typically deserted at the prospect of the journey across the plains.5
Fanny Stenhouse claimed she would have liked to desert, but, as always at this stage of life, she followed a little behind her husband: “Had I been permitted to choose, I would have preferred to die rather than journey to Zion … . ever since my husband had been engaged with the secular papers, we had been getting along very comfortably, pleasant home, many comforts, and little luxuries.”
But George Q. Cannon had arrived in New York City to take Thomas Stenhouse’s place as Eastern States mission president, and so the Stenhouses were “expected to leave New York within two weeks with the emigrants who were then en route from England.” Fanny—not her husband—protested that she had a few-days-old baby besides five other children and was in too-delicate health to handle all the preparations herself (her husband being preoccupied with helping the company he would head). She was told to “arise and begin preparations.” So she did, though not without resentment: “In the Mormon Church the feelings or sufferings of women are seldom considered. If an order is given to any man to [p.174]take a journey … his wife or wives are not to be thought of.” She sacrificed their new furniture and belongings “in a reckless manner” and trudged grudgingly after her husband. Fanny was just not cut out to be a Mormon wife.
Priscilla Merriman Evans, on the other hand, was eminently fit for the job. At Iowa City her husband was offered “Ten Dollars a day to work at his trade of iron roller, but money was no inducement to us … ” By way of justifying this decision, she noted that “Many who stayed apostatized or died of cholera.”
At Florence, or whatever gathering place an immigrant was assigned, companies fell in behind their captains. A Mormon wagon train consisted of 60 to 100 wagons peopled by 300 to 500 Saints. There were often several weeks of delays before starting out. Last-minute payments had to be made. Susan Barker’s husband wrote on June 28, 1862: “All the money was collected from those going by Church trains.” Mary Jane Ewer apparently decided to supplement her share of expenses by doing housework “at Bishop Musser’s in exchange for the trip to Salt Lake City.” Elizabeth Wilkins Steadman wished she had done so, as she wrote to her mother in England: “I regret that I had not asked if I could [have them] send the money back that I had left when at Florence and come with some independents, and worked my way here. But I had not much spirit for anything.” She urged her mother to “come next season”: “There was several in the ship I came in that had no money to take them to Florence. There was a gathering for them, and they got here. They were allowed just as much victuals when they got there as the rest, plenty too for a moderate person.”
Having paid their share of traveling expenses, some immigrants had to wait while church agents put together an outfit. Several survivors of the Martin and Willie handcart companies wrote that handcarts were still being assembled in late June. Elizabeth Horrocks Jackson, traveling with her husband Aaron, three children, and single sister Mary Horrocks, later recalled:
The machanics were very busy building handcarts on which to haul our provisions, small children, etc. The Handcarts, or many of them, were built on wooden axles, instead of iron axles, with leather boxes. We had expected to find these vehicles already prepared for us upon our arrival, here at Iowa City. Thus this work consummed between two and three weeks of the time of which we had planned on being on the road, to Utah.
Elizabeth Jackson’s father and stepmother, crossing in 1857, had paid for an ox and two “waggons” to be waiting for them on the Missouri for their family of nine, but “our outfit was not ready as promised” (Elizabeth H. J. Kingsford). Jessie Pack, assigned to an 1861 poor company, spent three weeks with her group in St. Joseph “waiting for ox teams to come from Utah” (Jessie B. S. Pack). Fanny Stenhouse wrote about inconveniences to her family due to “mismanagement on the part of Church Agents.”
Jean Rio Baker’s company was delayed a week so that their animals could recruit. “They are in far worse condition than when we left St. Louis thanks to the steamboat men.” One of her oxen died, forcing her to spend $36 for a replacement. Yet she did not mind being detained. She found her surroundings four miles outside of Alexandria, Missouri, reminiscent “of days we used to spend in Epping.”
Finally a company would pull out. In every decade the first phase of travel, whether across Iowa or from the Missouri overland to the Elkorn and Loup Rivers, was a training and hardening period. John Davies, whose wife Maria was now nine months pregnant, gives a vivid picture of this scene:
Now I will tell you about the circus that we had the first few days on the Plains. Our Captain told us to get up early in the morning to get ready to start in good time. After breakfast was over, we got the cattle together and tried to yoke them up. I can assure you that this was quite a task for us and after we got them hitched to the wagon, we started out. Now comes the circus, and it was a good one! The Captain was watching us and telling us what to do. He told us to take the whip and use it, and say whoa Duke, gee Brandy and so on! Now the fun commenced. Then we went after them pretty lively. When the cattle went gee too much we would run to the off side, yelling at them whoa! and bunting them with the stock of the whip. Then they would go haw too much and we were puffing and sweating … This was a great [p.176]experience and a tough one, but by the time we got half way across the Plains, we could drive an ox team as well as you can any day.
But then John got extra practice, for of the six men assigned to his wagon, “three of them left me at Ft. Kearney, two were sick, and one died on the road.” Since his wife had a baby the second night out, that left only John to drive the team.
Bathsheba Smith described the Welsh teamsters:
They did not know anything about driving oxen. It was very amusing to see them yoke their cattle; two would have an animal by the horns, one by the tail, one or two others would do their best to put on the yoke whilst the apparently astonished ox, not at all enlightened by the gutteral sound of the Welch tong seemed perfectly at a loss … to know what was wanted of him.6
Jean Baker’s company started out by traveling less than five miles a day, probably not only to give the cattle time to adjust but the people as well. She mentioned their initial clumsiness in the ways of the wild west: “I can just fancy how you would laugh could you see us taking our first lessons in ox driving and our cattle taking every direction except a straight forward one.” Yet Jean’s family probably learned more readily than most, her children having been trained in horsemanship.
Hannah King, traveling in a new carriage while her son drove one wagon and her husband another, quickly found she liked “this gypsy life.” While the pace was slow, she spent her time sewing, writing, and reading Byron and “Woodworth.” “I rejoice amid all my trials, and … that I am with these people. There is much in them that I like, and the principles I glory in!”
The Trek West
The roughly 200 miles from the Missouri along the north bank of the Platte River to new Fort Kearny did not offer the level ride of a modern freeway. Jean Baker wrote: “Do not expect me to [p.177]describe our road. It is a perfect succession of hills, valleys, bogs, mudholes, log bridges, quagmires, stumps of trees a foot above the surface of the mud … Oh, for the good roads of old England. I each day hope we shall have better traveling on the next but as yet it has only been from bad to worse.” Since on a good day the wagons could travel twenty miles or more, it took two weeks to reach the fort.
None of our women and few Mormon diarists recorded their observations of Fort Kearny, probably because few if any of them waded the Platte and the three to four marshy miles between the river and the outpost. The Mormon Trail deliberately followed the north bank of the river, avoiding the more crowded Oregon Trail which ran roughly along the south bank and directly to the fort. One or two representatives of a company were sufficient to post east- and west-bound mail and buy last-chance provisions at the shantytown several miles west of the post.
What Mormon immigrants did share with those heading for Oregon and the California gold mines was the Platte itself. They, like the gentiles, considered it “a humbug of a river” with its wide, sandy, shallow bed; its few scraggly cottonwoods that hugged the banks in places; and its many feeder streams whose furrows cut deeper into the Nebraska soil than the main river channel. The water was so silted that grit would settle an inch deep in the bottom of a drinking cup. When the wind blew, the river changed its course like the parting of the Red Sea.7
As to the prairie, the histories are likewise restrained. Rachel Maria Davies’s husband saw “buffalo by the tens of thousands.” Only a handful of visual details were offered by our diarists. Perhaps the landscape quickly became commonplace to people walking every goldurned mile of it.
Beyond Fort Kearny the landscape flattened and the trees became scarcer. Sometimes wood was unavailable, so “as evening drew near and the wagons were drawn into a circle” women and [p.178]children would fill their aprons with buffalo chips. Such a fire was smokey but hot.8
The most frequent comment about the journey was its tedium. It would become a grand adventure in retrospect, but the actual doing of it was dreary and monotonous. Margaret McNeil Ballard “walked every bit of the way to Salt Lake City barefoot, sometimes carrying my little brother on my back.” Fanny Stenhouse admitted that “the incidents which befell” her company were few, but that “every one of us felt weary and worn out.” Mary Williams Rees’s husband, when she spied a piece of iron on the roadside and stashed it in her apron, asked her why she was weighting herself down with trash. Months later, in their new settlement in Utah, she would carry the metal to a blacksmith who made its nose into a small plow—the first one in Ephraim.
Although Mary Ann Warner and her brothers and sisters “started out with light hearts, our enthusiasm wilted considerable before we arrived at our destination.” Sarah Hattersley Wells’s family had to share their wagon with her husband’s aunt and uncle, hence Sarah, age thirty-one, also walked all the way to Utah. Margaret Griffiths Morgan, blind since the birth of her fifth child, walked many of the miles with her son Owen assigned to attend her. Elizabeth Horrocks Jackson Kingsford said it was monotonous trying to pull handcarts through deep sands and over rocky roads, although tedium was the least of her family’s problems.
The young and those well enough equipped to ride much of the way had a happier perspective. Sarah Isom, who made the journey in childhood, found it “perpetual enjoyment” all the way. She gathered rocks and wildflowers, waded in shallow streams, gathered buffalo chips—and rode in a wagon hours each day. Jean Baker’s family had extra wagons as well and hauled her piano across the plains. Caroline Corbett came in 1862 with her husband and children in five wagons, an elaborate outfit. And Margaret Powell Evans, whose husband Thomas had [p.179]elected to hold over in Iowa for three years rather than take his family to the valley by handcart, made the journey “in greater comfort” in 1859.
For any family, traveling and living in close quarters told on the nerves. Hannah King’s pleasant relationship with son-in-law Claudius began to wear. She resented an agreement made by Mr. King that at the end of the journey one wagon and team were to go to Claudius—”I don’t understand this logic!” She began to feel that the younger man disapproved of her: “Claudius is so very odd and unkind to me.” Another annoyance was daughter Bertha who “took poorly” to hardship and who, Hannah concluded, was being punished by the Lord “for a complaining, disobedient spirit to which she has forever given way … every step of our voyage and journey.”
The manner in which Mormons traveled was unique on the Great Platte River Road. When Joseph Smith led the “Camp of Israel” (a company of 100-plus armed men) from Ohio to Missouri in 1838, he had divided them as he believed the Israelites were organized during their forty years in the wilderness. There were companies of 100 (whether 100 people, wagons, or tents, but usually people), and subdivisions of fifty and ten. In Brigham Young’s 1848 division captains of tens took turns standing guard, and on each hour throughout the night there sounded “the cheery call of the guard … Twelve o’clock and all is well. Then the next would take up the call until each one of the guards had given the hour.”9
Other than the occasional administrative snafu (and the unforgettable handcart disasters of 1856), one does not find in the accounts stories of abuse by church minions. Immigrants were sometimes permitted to choose their own company if not company leader, hence John D. Lee’s “hard work” raising his fifty: “The people do not like to go with him.”10 Of all the evils, real and purported, of the plains journey, the records testify that the most universal was still plain drudgery.
[p.180]A twentieth-century tourist can drive along I-80 from the Missouri River to Wyoming and almost enjoy the mile upon mile of hill, dale, grass, gully, and sagebrush punctuated by the clackety-clack of tires crossing the seams in cement paving. What did a nineteenth-century woman hear? Wood and iron wheels squeaking? The thudding of hooves on dust and clicking of hooves on stones? We are insulated by tires, steel, windows, even air conditioning, whereas they heard and saw everything, up to half of them walking all the way. They observed magpies, meadowlarks, cottontail, and jackrabbits scared from bushes. They heard the wind, cicadas, frogs, wolves, coyotes, prairie dogs, their own horses, oxen, cattle, and chickens, and no doubt children crying. Out in the sun and wind, they got lean and brown and their feet became calloused. At some camp sites mosquitoes made them miserable. The trek provided a common, unifying experience for old immigrant and new, longtime Mormon and neophyte. It also sturdified the British converts and prepared them for the frontier life they would face in Zion. Perhaps it was no coincidence that 92 percent of the British immigration was accomplished by the completion of the transcontinental railroad. The train eliminated the trek and its function as trainer and toughener.
Some trekkers must have become progressively anxious about where they were headed. Beginning in the bottomlands of the Missouri, travelling through the hilly farmland of eastern Nebraska and the flatter land of western Nebraska, they entered upon the sage plains of central Wyoming where buttes and stone formations appeared more and more frequently. In some diaries the Black Hills are mentioned, but these are so far north that only if you call the Sand Hills and Pine Ridge part of the same range could you say the pioneers saw mountains before they reached western Wyoming. A landmark such as Chimney Rock or Scott’s Bluffs could be seen several days away. They traveled at the excruciating pace of seventeen miles per day.
Elizabeth Jackson remembered that it was while crossing the “Black Hills” that the Martin handcart company’s “rough experience” began, causing carts to break down and “much delay … for [p.181]the needed repairs.” Near here her husband became ill with Mountain Fever and could no longer walk: “Though his appetite was good and he could eat more than his rations he was weak and ambition and strength had gone. All attempts to arouse him to energy or much exertion were futile.” Midday of the last crossing of the Platte he fell behind and two men had to retrace the trail hunting for him. “They found him sitting by the roadside … he was very weak and they assisted him into Camp” (Elizabeth H. J. Kingsford).
Once leaving the Platte River, the Mormon Trail more frequently shared the route of the Oregon Trail. At Independence Rock one still finds (though most have worn away) the signatures of Utah- and Oregon-bound pioneers, although none of our women mention the stone mountain or carving their names in it. Further on, a hill leading down to Martin’s Cove, just past Devil’s Gate in central Wyoming, still has the remains of wagon tracks 160 years old. Companies had to cross the river to get to the rocky shelter. A memorial installed by the state of Wyoming mentions the Oregon but not the Mormon Trail.
There are few notations by our women of contact with the Oregon-bound, but Hannah King tells of some “Californians” who came to her company’s assistance. One of the Californians killed a buffalo and gave the Kings “a large portion” of it which they fried for dinner.
The land became drier and the air more arid with each mile west. Wyoming’s vastness must have been impressive to people from closed-in factory towns. Everywhere they looked were a million acres of open land. For a thousand miles there were no hindrances, few political limits, just as few natural boundaries.
The pioneers had to follow water, not just for themselves for camping each evening but for their animals each noon. Thus water routes dictated the land route. Wherever there was water and grass there were cottontails—small, not pudgy, shy but playful as kittens. In the 1800s, while wolves and coyotes still abounded, rabbits must have been fewer than they can be seen today. Mormons did not participate in the annihilation of the plains bison. A few young bucks from the initial 1846 company rode helter-skelter [p.182]through a large herd shooting every beast in sight and leaving dozens of carcasses to rot uneaten. They received a tongue-lashing from Brigham Young. Though the buffalo did not survive, the buffalo grass has—finer, greyer, more drought-resistant than bluegrass.
Nearly a million strong, a generation of pioneer campers must have had an ecological impact on the plains beyond the devastation of wildlife. Wood was scarce along the Platte corridor by the 1860s. Much of the buffalo slaughter was accomplished even before the railroad came through in 1869. At least these tourists of 1847-69 were only passing through and stayed within a restricted passageway.
There is some evidence in the histories of resistance by the plains Indians to this invasion, although accounts of actual attacks on wagon companies are extremely rare in Oregon Trail lore. Early Hollywood’s stereotype of pioneer wagon trains under siege by Native Americans hurling blood-curdling cries is false, although some women did record encounters with plains tribes. Sarah Isom, six when she crossed the plains, remembered a visit from several braves who demanded payment for the feed her company’s animals had eaten. Company leaders obliged with tobacco, tea, and sugar. A member of Mariah Davies’s company had a cow killed by Indians. When this incident was reported to the captain of a nearby, unnamed fort, he sent men to confront the offenders. A dispute broke out during which soldiers fired, and in retaliation some soldiers were killed and a fort burned. John wrote, “We thought we would have to fight but they’d had their revenge.” For protection the Davies company camped a few nights with a Danish company, but no further incident occurred.
The Spenser-King company interchange in 1853 with an unidentified tribe proved to be diplomatic and Hannah’s description of the the Indians admiring. The older Brother Spencer, she wrote, met them “with a military salute or pass, and they responded very gracefully,” descending from their horses and squatting “in their not ungraceful Indian fashion.” Their leader, Chief Shell, presented Spenser with a letter of recommendation “to all white folks,” upon which the Mormon captain offered him whiskey and [p.183]water. The chief would not drink until the Mormon drank first. Before parting, each family contributed food items for the tribe, who then “drew on one side to allow the train to pass” (Hannah T. King).
Other encounters were less friendly. Eliza Dorsey Ashworth’s fifteen-year-old daughter Sarah had long blonde hair which she would sometimes let down. Several visiting Indians admired it and offered a band of horses for her. When the offer was refused, so goes the family story, the braves followed the wagon train for several days, once searching through the Ashworths’ wagon. “Up in front with the guards was a slender `youth’ carrying a gun”–a youth with blonde hair hidden under “his” hat. Sister Martha, age six at the time, referred to “many horrifying encounters with the Indians,” but apparently no more serious than the threatened abduction (Martha Elizabeth Ashworth Brian).
Hunger was more real than attack by indigenous tribes. One traveler reported that they “came near to starving,” not being able to exist on buffalo meat alone. Another developed chronic diarrhea. Equally threatening was the effect of a thousand-mile walk on pioneer feet. Elizabeth Steadman reported severe “gatherings on my feet.” Wagon accidents were another concern. Mariah Davies’s husband had a wagon wheel run over his foot. A boy in their company was killed when a wagon wheel ran over his head.
Hannah King was amazed that mothers in her company fared so well health-wise. When one sister was confined with a new son and went on with the train the same day, Hannah exclaimed to her journal, “These Mormon women! I think I should have been left in my grave in a similar case. But truly God fits the back to the burden.” Mariah Davies suffered a “gathered breast” while nursing her newborn. This was healed by a blessing from John. Elizabeth Steadman sustained an unusual injury—broken ribs caused by a night walker who stumbled over her as she lay asleep in her blanket near the wagon.
A common and more lethal affliction was mountain fever which attacked many company members—most often children. One also wonders how much health hazard was created by the water kept in barrels on the sides of wagons. At the least one girl [p.184]remembered it as “not very tasty.” Bertha and young Tom King nearly died from the fever, and their married sister Georgia contracted a case which would turn fatal at journey’s end. Another danger was stampeding by buffalo and livestock. One family gave up their wagon so a coffin could be made for a brother who was trampled in a stampede.
The Handcart Companies
All of these troubles paled compared to the experience of the 1856 handcart companies. Three groups made a successful handcart trek early in the year, including Daniel McArthur’s company which included obstetrician Janet Downing Hardie. Most handcart companies crossed the plains in less time and with fewer casualties than the typical wagon company. But two remaining 1856 companies—much larger in number and delayed at every point along the journey—met a harder fate. Fourteen women who participated in these companies headed by captains Martin and Willie left records, and Hannah Job, who traveled with the Hunt wagon company which lagged just behind, wrote that they “suffered nearly as much.” When the handcarts began to break down near the Dakotas, food supplies ran low and rationing was imposed, then half-rations. Then winter struck weeks earlier than normal. It seemed God had turned his face away.
Elizabeth Horrocks Jackson Kingsford, stepdaughter of my ancestor and a member of the Willie company, tells in her history of wallowing through snow in late October before and after “the last [icy] crossing of the Platte” River, then of three more days of snowstorms during which her husband’s condition continued to sink until he was unable to swallow. One midnight she awoke to discover his body stiff and cold, but she could only sleep beside it until morning since there were no able-bodied men left in the company to help her. That morning he was laid in a shallow grave with thirteen others who had died in their sleep. Elizabeth wrote simply: “I can’t describe my sufferings.”
During a period of several days when there was nothing for the company to eat or drink, Elizabeth’s sister Mary became “deranged in mind.” She remained so well after arriving in the Salt Lake Valley. Elizabeth herself “had become despondent” until her [p.185]husband appeared in a dream to tell her, “Cheer up, Elizabeth, deliverance is at hand.” The next afternoon “three men [the vanguard of a rescue effort mobilized by Brigham Young] galloped unexpectedly into camp amid tears, cheers, smiles and laughter of the emigrants.”
Eliza Chapman Gadd, a non-Mormon who had come with her husband in the Willie company, lost both husband and a son on the Platte River, then another son on the Sweetwater just before relief wagons arrived. Jane McKinnon Swarts, in the Martin company, pulled her family’s cart alone when her husband became too sick to do it. Sitting in the freight wagon one evening holding his head, she watched him die. More husbands died than wives. Participant after participant, both immigrant and rescuer, marvelled that the strong, middle-aged men first went into shock, weakened, and died while their women survived.
With the handcart disaster, pioneer Mormonism lost its innocence. This was trouble caused not by traitors and outsiders but by nature and their own blunders. More than one British convert who had started for Zion in faith, criticizing those who tarried in the east to make better preparations, discovered through the handcart experience that childlike obedience did not protect her from life’s consequences.
Patience Rosza wondered in later years if her parents regretted having listened to the elders who assured them the Lord would stay the weather for their sakes. Elizabeth Kingsford would recall two company leaders who “sadly” accepted the instruction of a supervising elder that the handcart people, unprepared for a year’s delay in the midwest, should be sent across the mountains before winter.11 In assimilating the tragedy, Kingsford expressed her abiding faith this way: “I believe The Recording Angel inscribed it in The Archives above. That my sufferings for the Gospel’s sake will be sanctified unto me for my good.”
Although reduced by about 45 percent from the 1856 emigration, 1857 handcart companies continued to ply the Mormon Trail. [p.186]In 1860 Hannah Settle Lapish came with a handcart group, traveling with her husband and two infants. Wagon companies of the 1860s continued to include some handcarts until the transcontinental railroad rendered both wagons and handcarts obsolete.
The Mormon emigration was thus marked by cooperation, tedium, hardship, and occasional tragedy. Later the dominant feeling as evidenced in the histories was a marked sense of romance. Sometimes literally, as with sixteen-year-old Alice Horrocks Wood, who was enthralled by a young frontiersman she met at Fort Supply. He made a striking figure in his fringed leather suit and Indian trappings. She liked him so much that a year after her parents settled in Ogden she ran away to marry him. Her family soon forgave them and they became a settled Mormon couple.
Romance and fun. One thinks of Priscilla Merriman Evans’s portrayal of her company of 300 Welsh. Her history begins so forlornly, and her voice is so deadpan throughout, that I was slow to recognize the delicious humor peeking between her words. But there it is, in an anecdote about a lady whose ship berth was across the compartment from Priscilla’s and who, during a terrible storm, nursed a husband through a woeful bout of seasickness. Worn out, the lady sat upon her trunk which had been lashed with others down the middle of the deck. The violent rocking of the waves tore it loose, and during one huge dip the trunk, with lady atop, slid across the compartment until she and Priscilla were nearly eyeball to eyeball. Then the ship dipped in the other direction, and the lady rode the trunk back to her own berth. She and Priscilla laughed, and the lady promised not to take any more rides that like that one.
Later, on the plains, Priscilla listed the members of her tent and wagon who were to guide each other through the wilderness: half did not speak the same language, the other half was comprised of her crippled husband, a man with one leg, a man with one arm, two blind people, and a widow with five children. Compare Priscilla’s quick humor to the dim-witted women of writer Theodore Winthrop’s immigrant train—blunt-faced foreigners—and one can only conclude that he had missed the point. An entire generation of observers missed the point.
1. American Notes (Gloucester, MA: Peter Smith, 1968), 198.
3. New York City’s twenty-two-acre Battery at the southern tip of Manhattan Island was initially a fort. It was then used as an amusement center and later as the immigrant station to which Fanny Stenhouse referred as Castle Garden. It is now called Battery Park, home of Castle Clinton National Monument, a harbor promendade, and the Liberty Island ferry.
5. Philip A. M. Taylor, “Why Did British Mormons Emigrate?” Utah Historical Quarterly 22 (1954): 268. Taylor cites the Millennial Star 15:586 and 18:637. He alludes to an 1844 report of thirty desertions in St. Louis but states there is “poor evidence” for this (268).
7. For pioneer descriptions of the Platte River, Fort Kearny, and other landmarks along the Oregon and Mormon Trails, see Merrill J. Mattes, The Great Platte River Road: The Covered Wagon Mainline Via Fort Kearny to Fort Laramie (Lincoln: Nebraska State Historical Society, 1969).