Camping at Mormon Grove
Charles Hogg remembered:
"We moved out on to camp ground May 14; about ten had to occupy one tent. The one we got was not finished. The first night came up a very heavy storm of wind, thunder, lightning, and rain. It blew many of the tents to the ground. The screams of women and children were painful to hear. We passed through three such nights in succession. We had never witnessed such awful storms as were so common in this country. We moved camp (after staying here a few days) to Mormon Grove, about eight miles west of Atchinson."There was an old Mormon campground near the levée, and they had bought 150 acres on the high prairie some five miles off. It was well watered and had a grove of hickory trees, and had been named Mormon Grove. There were high hopes for Mormon Grove – but unfortunately it had to be abandoned after 1855 because of the cholera.
The emigrants, arriving there with ox-drawn waggons from the levee, were surprised by the appearance of this vast tent city, set out in orderly rows. There they were to spend May and June 1855 planting crops and making preparations for the journey across the Plains.
But the cholera was in their midst and was cutting a swathe through them. Amongst the victims was Elder George Simpson, who had come from Yorkshire with the Faceby party. He died soon after arriving in Atchison, after only a few hours’ illness. His wife Mary Ann and daughter Selina returned to St Louis, where they settled.
Preparing for the journey
Meanwhile, the emigrants were being formed into companies for the journey west …
Eight companies of emigrants – more than 2,000 people – would leave Mormon Grove that season.
It was a hazardous journey. The main dangers were sickness, accidents and their own inexperience, but there were also troop movements and a good deal of nervousness on the Trail. A hot-headed young army lieutenant had led a disastrous and unnecessary assault on a camp of the Brulé Lakota (an incident known to the Army as the “Grattan Massacre”) and trouble was expected. The traders and Mormon agents, during this summer of 1855, were critical of the troops and generally favourable to the Indians, but it meant nevertheless that it was all the more important to drill the men in the use of arms. This was advisable anyway, to protect the waggon trains’ livestock from attack and theft.
Charles Hogg wrote:
“the companies were organised to cross the plains. We joined Capt Richard Ballantyne’s Company; Elder Wm Glover was captain of guard”[Glover had ordained Charles an Elder back in Faceby – the Etherington family travelled in a different company].
“Here we commenced to drill and go through the Manual of Arms that we might defend ourselves from an attack of the marauding bands of Indians of which there were many in those days crossing the plains.”Emigrant trains used small farm waggons for transport. These apparently simple carts were actually technologically advanced vehicles, ideal for the purpose.
The front wheels pivoted round a kingpin and were smaller than the back wheels, making it easier to turn sharp corners. The width of the wheels was carefully calculated for the best effect. Wider wheels were best for soft, sandy soil, while narrower wheels were ideal for hard ground and rocks.
The cotton covers – which had been made on board ship – were typically drawn shut at both ends to keep out the incessant sand and were treated with linseed oil to keep out the rain (though most leaked eventually).
The frame, known as the “waggon box”, was 4 feet by 10 feet. Most emigrants loaded it high with food, tools and furniture, often amounting to over a ton of cargo. It was very common for settlers to set off with far too much baggage, and to find themselves obliged to jettison goods within a few miles of starting – this would be picked up later by scavengers from the jumping-off towns.
The whole waggon was supported by massive axles. If an axle broke and could not be replaced, the waggon would either have to be turned into a two-wheeled cart or abandoned. The Mormon waggon trains therefore carried spare axle trees and wheel spokes.
The waggons were drawn by oxen. These were less expensive than horses and more adaptable as to feed, being able to live off prairie grasses and wild sage. They were certainly slow – 2 mph – and mules were quicker, but mules were far more cantankerous. Oxen were driven by a teamster who walked at the left side of the team, shouting and cracking a whip.
Every train also took a few riding horses, of which they took especial care.
The practice was to put together the waggons, fasten on the waggon covers, yoke up the oxen and make a trial run, moving out a few miles from Mormon Grove, to camp there and check that everything was working.
On camping, the waggon train would make a corral, by driving the waggons into a horseshoe with the waggon tongues facing inward. This made a camp for the people and a pen for the animals.
The Mormon Trail
The Mormon emigrants were part of a vast movement of people. In the 25 years between 1840 and 1865, more than half a million left the Eastern states to go west.
But the Faceby Saints would not be travelling together across the plains. The Etherington family were in the 2nd Company, while the Stangers, Hoggs and Thomas Wilson were in the 4th Company.
The trail would lead them west and north-west from Mormon Grove across the plains of the Kansas Territory to join the Oregon Trail:
“the long and dreary plains”said Charles Hogg.
“At this place you might look around in every direction, not a bush to interrupt the sight, but the wide open prairie, wet grass in some places up to your middle. We traveled through this wild extended country till we came to a stream called the “Big Blue”wrote James Faulkner of the 2nd Company.
On the other side of the Big Blue they joined the Oregon Trail, and still travelling west and north-west they would follow the Little Blue River, crossing with difficulty a great many ravines and hollows, and striking the Platte River two days east of Fort Kearney.
On the way the astonished travellers would encounter vast herds of buffalo, the ground shaking beneath their feet, and would have their first taste of buffalo.
Then the Trail followed the shallow, gentle valley of the Platte through Nebraska Territory and on into Wyoming for 600 miles.
The Platte could provide fish, fowl, turtles, protection from prairie fires, and above all water. A lazy, winding stream full of quicksands, frontier wisdom said it was
“a mile wide, six inches deep, too thick to drink, too thin to plow, and maybe a pretty good river if it hadn’t flowed upside down”.The waggons would struggle along the bank of the Platte, double hitching the teams to get through the heavy sand.
Four or five weeks after setting out, after the junction of the two forks of the Platte River, the companies would cross the South Platte River, so as not to go south to California. They would travel 25 miles towards the North Platte, and camp at Ash Hollow on the way.
The approach to the Hollow was down a very severe hill, so that sometimes waggons needed to be let down with ropes, or men found it necessary to hang on to the waggons to act as human handbrakes.
This beautiful spot, which was to be the site of a massacre of the Brulé Lakota in September 1855, was where the settlers were delighted to see their first trees for 100 miles. There was fresh, sweet-tasting water, flowers, and fragrant shrubs. In the summer of 1855 there were so many blackcurrants and cherries in Ash Hollow that the trees were “literally bent down with the weight of the fruit” and the settlers picked as much as they could.
The grazing that season was generally worryingly poor, but in places there was plenty. Three days from Ash Hollow, the 4th company
“slept for an hour and a half close to the river where the grass reach’d up to the oxen’s belly”.The companies would struggle along the sandy roads, and soon would find themselves gazing at the amazing landmarks of the journey – Court House and Jail House Rocks in Nebraska, the famous Chimney Rock and Scott’s Bluffs – and fifty miles from Scott’s Bluffs they would come at last to Fort Laramie, Wyoming, the gateway to the Rocky Mountains.
Here, after six or seven weeks on the trail, they would stop to rest. It was said that prices at the trader’s store were exorbitant, but it was the only reliable post office for 300 miles.
Now they would be travelling by day in very hot weather but the nights would be chilly. The trail led on north-west through the Laramie Mountain Range, following the North Platte River and crossing many small, swift-flowing creeks.
The last place to ford the North Platte River was 125 miles from Fort Laramie. It would take a good hour and a half to get a waggon train over the ford.
From there the way continued over “very long steep hills”, the road very bad and very sandy, and they would enter into the difficult waterless stretch called Rock Avenue. Here it would be hard going over steep hills, moving from spring to spring. The soil was mostly alkaline and made an unpleasant dust and brackish water – animals and people who could not resist drinking from the alkaline pools fell terribly ill.
They were travelling now at a height of 5,000 to 6,500ft. A little way before reaching the Sweetwater River they would come to the Saleratus Lakes.
Saleratus is a naturally occurring sodium or potassium bicarbonate and was used as a raising agent for food. It worked quickly on a high heat and was ideal for cooking on a campfire, although if too much was used, the food turned a little green. Settlers appreciated being able to gather their own saleratus from the side of this lake.
The companies would pass the big landmark of Independence Rock before following the meandering Sweetwater River. They crossed the Sweetwater nine times, including an exhausting three crossings in a two-mile section in one narrow canyon in the Rattlesnake Hills.
The travellers would see Devil’s Gate, where the river carved a fantastic narrow canyon through the rock, and would struggle across the Rocky Ridge, a 12 mile barren and rocky stretch.
Immediately after the ninth and last crossing of the Sweetwater, the Trail crossed the Continental Divide at South Pass. This is a wide open saddle, 20 miles across, at an altitude of over 7,500 ft and often people did not realise that they had crossed it. When the first Mormon pioneers came there in late June 1847, they could see in the distance mountains higher than they had ever seen, covered in snow.
Now all the rivers would be running west to the Pacific.
The companies then travelled a dry stretch of 40 miles following the Big Sandy River, which was rather more sand than river:
“from here to Green River, hardly ever free from stench of dead cattle”said a man in the 2nd company.
At last they would reach Green River, and this they had to cross. Fording was very risky and if you misjudged the current or slipped off the narrow gravel bar that allowed safe passage, you could lose everything. There were ferries, but these waggon trains were saving money and
“we waded every river till we came to Green River, which was so swift and deep that we had to cross in waggons, and the water would almost take the oxen off their feet,”remembered a girl in the 2nd Company.
Fort Bridger was 55 miles further on, and there the Mormon Trail left the Oregon Trail, to carry on south west, to cross Bear River and enter Utah.
Henry Stocks remembered
“this last hundred miles is the worst part of the Journey, a long steep Hill we had to go up, 5 or 6 miles long & very steep. Another Hill called the little Hill: Very steep”Finally – after three months on the Trail – they would come into the Salt Lake Valley and enter Salt Lake City.
This, many of them were very surprised to find, only had a population of four or five thousand.
Henry Stocks calculated that he had travelled 6,773 miles from his home in Vulcan Foundry in Lancashire to the Salt Lake Valley – and the last 1,200 miles were with ox waggons from Mormon Grove.
Life on the Trail
Many of the travellers were too occupied and too weary to keep an account of their journey.
But some kept trail diaries and these record hard travelling across mountains, deep canyons, sand and quagmires. They saw flowers, cactuses, wild grapevines, tall grass and hot springs. They encountered mosquitoes, wolves, hyaenas and snakes. The buffalo herds were so thick that travellers could sometimes only get through them by shooting at them. They met other travellers on the road and many waggon trains. There were Indians - some they found friendly, some frightening, others had an eye on the travellers' cattle. Everywhere there were the unwanted belongings and human refuse of countless travellers and many graves, often opened up and disturbed by wolves.
Each waggon train was under the command of a Captain. Everybody on the emigrant trails knew the importance of a strong command.
A Mormon Captain divided his company into groups of ten waggons, and appointed a Captain over each Ten and a Captain of the Guard, who was in charge of security for the whole company.
The Captains would leave messages, written in pencil on an ox or buffalo skull, for the trains following behind.
In each Company there would be the ox-drawn waggons, a few riding horses, possibly a mule or two, spare oxen and dairy cows.
Here is a description of life in the 4th Company, in which the Stangers, Hoggs and Thomas Wilson travelled – all young people aged under 30, accompanied by very small children:-
The 4th Company travelled ten or eleven to a waggon, with a tent to each waggon. The men who were not engaged in driving would be in charge of the other cattle, ready to help haul or manhandle the waggons, and to act as an armed guard if necessary.
At 4 o’clock in the morning a bell was rung round the corral and the tents, to get the people from their beds. A quarter of an hour later, all the men had to be at roll call with their guns (which were their own, or lent to them by the Church) and they would be put through some military drill, while the women lit the fires, milked the cows and made the breakfast.
Breakfast would be eaten, the tents packed up, the wood and water packed, the cooking pots put in the waggons, the waggon axles greased (otherwise the noise was appalling), and the oxen yoked and the Company would set off, usually at about 7 am.
Most of the people walked most of the way. Only little children could be sure of riding all the time, though it is clear from the accounts that in the 4th Company, where there was not an abundance of provisions, people were getting in and out of the waggons in order to have a break from walking.
They would “noon” in the middle of the day, stopping to rest and feed the cattle, and perhaps sleep a little in the heat, and then they would set off again until they got to the next camping place. Sometimes the Company would stop earlier, sometimes it would go on by moonlight, in order to get to a place with good water and grazing.
There they would turn the oxen out to graze under armed guard – when dark came, they would be corralled or watch would continue through the night. The tents would be put up. The children would fetch wood and if there was none – which happened for many miles – then they would gather “buffalo chips” (buffalo dung, which if dry, burned steady and with no smell).
The weary travellers would get the water, light the fires, make the supper and talk about the day.
At about 8 pm, the Captain of the Ten would call everybody together for worship, advice and instruction, and, apart from the men who were standing guard to keep the cattle from straying or being stolen, everybody would go to bed.
The Company would generally stop on Sundays for rest and worship, but sometimes the more urgent need was to get more miles covered or to get to better water or grazing.
Sometimes two or three waggon trains would travel in convoy for a while, depending on their progress, the feed for the cattle and so on. Each Captain had the responsibility of deciding his exact route, according to the conditions prevailing.
The journey was hard. Boletta Johnsen, one of the Danish women in the same company as the Etheringtons, said:
“I had five children to care for, three men to cook for and two cows to milk”and her daughter was sick in the waggon for half the journey.
Charles Hogg from Faceby remembered it bitterly – being so tired, being the only driver in his outfit, having so much to do that he never got to the nightly meetings of his Ten:
“I recollect one little episode that took place one night just as I had driven the last peg into the tent. I stepped up to the meeting which was just over; Captain Gardner asked me to dismiss the meeting which I refused to do, feeling bad that I was treated so unfair”.But the Captains of Companies tried to vary the routine for their people to alleviate their weariness.
Captain Richard Ballantyne of the 4th company announced three weeks into the trek, that they would have a celebration because it was the anniversary of the arrival of the Mormon pioneer band into the Valley of the Great Salt Lake. They would only go a short distance in the morning and then they would camp for the day.
Accordingly, they bustled about and set flags of all sorts and sizes onto the waggons, and the women picked prairie flowers and made wreaths for the oxen and the Brethren, so that by the time they got to the camping ground at 11, nearly all the oxen had wreaths of flowers on their heads.
They drew the waggons into a corral and watered and fed the cattle. Extra rations were drawn so that the women could make sweets, rice puddings and apple tarts. Some of the men painted a banner to float in the breeze at the west end of the corral and others took the waggon boxes from some of the waggons to make a table some 60 or 70 yards long, covered with white table cloths.
The women rummaged through their boxes to get out their caps and dresses and each Ten sat down together to eat roast venison and boiled buffalo, puddings, tarts, tea and coffee. There were prayers and speeches until Elder Glover said
“we will have no more speaking for the present, but you old men can take your old women and enjoy yourselves in the dance”and Captain Ballantyne was heard saying
“old men and young maids, Brother Glover”to laughter from all.
Then they had songs and comic anecdotes and they danced till 2 o’clock in the morning to the music of Elder Pitt’s violin and Henry Clegg’s dulcimer.
Again, after 7 weeks on the road, beyond La Bonte Creek, Wyoming, Captain Ballantyne suddenly announced as they camped for the night that there would be a “Dance on the Green”. The ladies were quickly dressed and ready, they had a hymn, prayers and an address and then some 15 sets of people – who had been walking now for nearly two months – danced until midnight.
But Captains had harsher duties too. They could not let the people get slack and careless, and discipline had to be maintained.
Captain Secrist of the 2nd Company was so impatient at one point, that he told some of his company that they would do exactly what he told them, or they could stay behind.
Captain Ballantyne of the 4th Company spoke reprovingly of the people in camp who indulged their love of fishing and hunting instead of paying attention to the Sabbath duties. He also had rather a struggle getting some of the men to do their daily duties properly.
Once his Captain of the Guard warned people not to travel outside the camp, or to leave the camp without permission, because
“these mountains are full of Indians and we don’t want to lose one of you”and that very afternoon a young father went away towards Scotts Bluffs, lost sight of the camp in the prairie and could not find his way back until morning.