Chapter 10: To The Promised
by Gordon B. Hinckley
IT WAS apparent to Brigham Young and the other leaders of
the Church that it would be unwise to attempt to reach the Rocky Mountains
in the year 1846, since the expedition now had been seriously weakened by
the loss of the young men who had marched with the Mormon Battalion.
Accordingly, a temporary settlement was established on the Missouri.
The site, adjoining the present city of Omaha, soon had
more of the appearance of a town than a camp. Many of the people got along
with dugouts and other crude shelters. However, a thousand sturdy log houses
were erected before January 1847.
During all of that winter feverish activity went on.
Anvils rang with the making and repairing of wagons. Available maps and
reports were carefully studied, and every preparation possible was
undertaken to insure the success of the move scheduled for the following
The community was not without its pleasures, although
comforts were few. Dances were frequently held under the sponsorship of the
various quorums of the Priesthood. Religious worship was carried on as
though the people were permanently settled. Schools for the children were
successfully conducted, for the education of the young has always been of
prime importance in Mormon philosophy.
But often a pupil—sometimes several—did not appear when
the school bell rang. A type of scurvy, called black canker, took a
sorrowful toll. Lack of proper nourishment, insufficient shelter, extremes
of temperature in the lowlands along the river—these made the people easy
victims of disease.
In recent years the Church has erected a monument in the
old cemetery of Winter Quarters. In heroic size it depicts a mother and
father laying a child in a grave they knew they never again would visit.
Surrounding the monument are the graves of some six hundred of those who
died at this temporary encampment on the prairie.
When water began to run and grass to grow in the early
spring of 1847, plans were completed for the sending of a pioneer company to
the Rocky Mountains. Their responsibility was to chart a route and find "a
place" for the thousands who would follow.
On January 14 President Young delivered to the Saints what
he declared to be a revelation from the Lord. This became the constitution
governing their westward movement. It is an interesting document, reading in
part as follows:
The Word and Will of the Lord concerning the Camp of
Israel in their journeyings to the West:
Let all of the people of the Church of Jesus Christ of
Latter-day Saints, and those who journey with them, be organized into
companies, with a covenant and promise to keep all the commandments and
statutes of the Lord our God.
Let all the companies be organized with captains of
hundreds, captains of fifties, and captains of tens, with a president and
his two counselors at their head, under the direction of the Twelve
And this shall be our covenant, that we will walk in all
the ordinances of the Lord . . .
And if any man shall seek to build up himself, and
seeketh not my counsel, he shall have no power and his folly shall be made
Seek ye; and keep all your pledges one with another; and
covet not that which is thy brother's.
Keep yourself from evil to take the name of the Lord in
vain . . .
Cease to contend one with another, cease to speak evil
one of another.
Cease drunkenness, and let your words tend to edifying
If thou borrowest of thy neighbor, thou shalt return
that which thou hast borrowed; and if thou canst not return, then go
straightway and tell thy neighbor, lest he condemn thee.
If thou shalt find that which thy neighbor hast lost,
thou shalt make diligent search till thou shalt deliver it to him again.
Thou shalt be diligent in preserving that which thou
hast, that thou mayest be a wise steward; for it is the free gift of the
Lord thy God, and thou art his steward.
If thou art merry, praise the Lord with singing, with
music, with dancing, and with a prayer of praise and thanksgiving.
If thou art sorrowful, call on the Lord thy God with
supplication, that your souls may be joyful.
Fear not thine enemies, for they are in mine hands, and
I will do my pleasure with them . . .
To these general standards of conduct were added other
specific rules. Every man was to carry a loaded gun or have one in his wagon
where, in case of attack, he could get it at a moment's notice. At night the
wagons were to be drawn in a circle to form a corral for the teams. There
was to be no travel or work on the Sabbath; both teams and men should rest
on that day. Prayer, night and morning, should be a regular practice in the
On April 5 the pioneer company started west. It consisted
of 143 men, three women, and two children, with Brigham Young leading the
group. Fortunately, when they had gone only a short distance, Apostles
Parley P. Pratt and John Taylor arrived at Winter Quarters from England.
They brought with them barometers, sextants, telescopes, and other
instruments. In the hands of Orson Pratt, an accomplished scientist, these
made it possible for the pioneers to determine the latitude, longitude,
temperature, and elevation above sea level of their position each day. Such
information was invaluable in the preparation of a guide for those who were
to come later.
One of the famous trails of history already existed along
the south side of the Platte River. It was to become more heavily traveled
in years to come by thousands of emigrants bound for Oregon and California.
However, Brigham Young determined against using the Oregon road, and
concluded to break a new trail on the north side of the river. In so doing,
he said, the Mormons would avoid conflict with other westward-bound people,
and would also insure more feed for the cattle of the companies to follow.
It is interesting to note that when the Union Pacific Railroad was built
some years later, it followed this Mormon road for a very considerable
In 1847 great herds of buffalo roamed the plains. It was
customary practice among westward-bound emigrants to shoot them simply for
sport. But Brigham Young took a different attitude. He advised his people to
kill no more than were needed for meat.
A Log of the Journey
The pioneers were interested in knowing the number of
miles they covered each day. The first device employed to determine this was
a red cloth tied to a wagon wheel. By counting the revolutions of the wheel
and multiplying this number by the circumference of the rim, it was possible
to determine the distance traveled. But watching the revolutions of a wheel,
day in and day out, soon became tedious. There was need for a better way.
Appleton Harmon solved the problem. Carving a set of
wooden gears, he constructed what was called a odometer or odometer. It was
a novel device, the forerunner of the mileage meter of our modern
speedometer. And though constructed of wood, it was amazingly accurate.
For the guidance of those who should follow, the pioneer
company left letters of direction, mileage, and conditions of the trail.
These were tucked in an improvised mail box or were painted on a
sun-bleached buffalo skull.
Journals were carefully kept, containing notes of many
details. An excerpt or two from Orson Pratt's journal will serve to
Saturday, May 22.—At a quarter past five this morning the
thermometer stood at 48.5 degrees. There was a light breeze from the south,
the sky being partially overspread with thin clouds.
Five and a half miles from our morning encampment we
crossed a stream, which we named Crab Creek; 1 3/4 miles further we halted
for noon. A meridian observation of the sun placed us in latitude 41
°ree; 30' 3". With our glasses Chimney Rock can now be seen at a distance
of 41 miles up the river. At this distance it appears like a short tower
placed upon an elevated mound or hill. Four and a quarter miles further
brought us to another place where the river strikes the bluffs; as usual we
were obliged to pass over them and in about 2 1/4 miles we again came to the
prairie bottoms, and driving a short distance we encamped, having made 15
1/2 miles during the day. For a number of miles past, the formation, more
particularly that of the bluffs, has been gradually changing from sand to
marl and soft earthy limestone, the nature of which is beginning to change
the face of the country, presenting scenes of remarkable picturesque beauty
. . .
Sunday, May 23.—Today, as usual, we let ourselves and
teams rest . . . Several of us again visited the tops of some of these
bluffs, and by barometrical measurement I ascertained the height of one of
them to be 235 feet above the river, and 3,590 feet above the level of the
sea . . . Rattlesnakes are very plentiful here . . . Soon after dinner we
attended public worship, when the people were very interestingly and
intelligently addressed by Erastus Snow, Brigham Young and others.
The route of the pioneers lay up the valley of the Platte
to the confluence of the North Platte and South Platte Rivers. It then
followed the North Platte through what is now Nebraska and Wyoming to a
point where the Sweetwater River flows into the North Platte. The route then
lay along this stream to its headwaters near South Pass.
By June 1 the company had reached old Fort Laramie where
they were surprised to find a group of Church members from Mississippi who
had come from the south by way of Pueblo, Colorado with the purpose of
joining the pioneer company and following them to their destination.
On June 6 they moved over South Pass, that place where the
Rockies gently slope to the prairie, and over which moved most of the
westward-bound emigrants. At South Pass the Mormons met Major Moses Harris,
a famous trapper and scout. From him they received a description of the
basin of the Salt Lake. However, his report of the country was unfavorable.
Of this interview Orson Pratt writes: "From his description, which is very
discouraging, we have little hope of even a moderate good country anywhere
in these regions. He speaks of the whole region as being sandy and destitute
of timber and vegetation, except sage brush."
On June 28 they met that wiry veteran of the west, Jim
Bridger. Anxious to learn all they could of the country toward which they
were traveling, the Mormons accepted his suggestion that they make camp and
spend the night with him. He indicated that some good country could be found
both to the north and the south of the basin of Salt Lake, but discouraged
any plan for establishing a large colony in the basin itself.
On June 30 Samuel Brannan rode into view. He was a member
of the Church, and on February 4, 1846, the date of the first exodus from
Nauvoo, he and more than two hundred Mormons had sailed from New York bound
for California by way of Cape Horn. Landing at Yerba Buena, now San
Francisco, he had established the first English-language newspaper published
there. Leaving California in April, he had ridden east over the mountains to
meet Brigham Young. Enroute he had passed the scene of the Donner Party
tragedy of the preceding winter, and gave the Mormons a description of that
ill-fated camp in which more than a score of people starved to death in the
snows of the Sierras. Brannan enthusiastically described for President Young
the beauties of California. It was, he indicated, a rich and productive land
of great beauty and equable climate. There the Mormons could prosper. But
President Young could not be dissuaded from the purpose to which he had set
himself—God had a place for his people and there they would go to work out
"This is the Place"
As the pioneer company approached the mountains, travel
became more difficult. Their teams were jaded and their wagons were worn.
Moreover, the steep mountain canyons, with their swift streams, huge
boulders, and heavy tree growth presented problems very different from those
experienced on the plains.
On July 21 Orson Pratt and Erastus Snow, two advance
scouts, entered the Salt Lake Valley. Three days later Brigham Young, who
had moved more slowly because of illness, rode out of the canyon and looked
across the valley. He paused, and with a prophetic gesture announced, "This
is the place."
This was the promised land! This valley with its salty
lake gleaming in the July sun. This treeless prairie in the mountains. This
tract of dry land broken only by a few bubbling streams running from the
canyons to the lake. This was the object of vision and of prophecy, the land
of which thousands yet at Winter Quarters dreamed. This was their land of
refuge, the place where the Saints would "become a mighty people in the
midst of the Rocky Mountains."