Among the annals of the American West, few documents match the power of overland trail diaries. Written with the immediacy of news stories, all the comedy and tragedy of the human condition appear in these often-simple accounts. They tell stories of heroism and depravity and evoke the challenge Western lands posed to the first white settlers.
Since early Mormons were commanded to keep journals, their literature contains some of the best reports of these remarkable adventures, such as "A Journal Kept by Howard Egan of the Pioneer Expedition to the Westward" in 1847. This astonishing record, kept in a small leather-bound pocket journal and written in a tiny but readable script, is now preserved at Yale University's Beinecke Library.
A former sailor, Egan's life is an epic in itself: Besides accompanying Brigham Young's pioneer company, Egan was a trailblazer, missionary, gold miner, courier, freighter, Indian fighter, overland captain and a reputed Danite, who earned a redoubtable reputation as a Mormon hard case. He smuggled ammunition from California to Utah to help Young prepare to fight the U.S. Army in 1858, and in the 1860s he managed Pony Express operations in the Great Basin. Egan also described the first tragedy the Mormons experienced in the Salt Lake Valley.
On the morning of August 11, 1847, Thomas Bullock noted a large number of Ute warriors came "to our Camp, many of them are entirely naked & all armed with a bow and arrows." But that afternoon's catastrophe had nothing to do with Indians. "We were all much surprised & grieved by the unusual occurrence among us of an afflicting & domestic calamity," Egan journalized. As "Brother Crow" was fetching a pail of water from City Creek, he discovered the body of his nephew, Milton Howard Therlkill, laying in the water near the dam the Mormons had built to re-baptize each other. The child had been seen playing with his younger brother by the side of the stream. Egan concluded he had fallen in some ten minutes before being spotted.
The pioneers worked as hard as a modern emergency room crew to save the three-year-old. Young Milton was immediately taken out and treated. "Notwithstanding every remedy usual in such cases was resorted to for its resusitation [sic], for an hour or more, they were at length obliged to give up the cause as hopeless." The boy was the son of George W. and Martilla Jane Therlkill. "The grief of both parents was great, but that of the agonized mother baffles all description," Egan wrote. The heartbroken mother alternately "laughed, wept, walked to & fro." She refused all attempts at consolation "being apparently unable to become resigned to her domestic and melancholy bereavement."
The pioneer clerk noted that the lad was exactly three years, eight months and twenty-six days old. Thomas Bullock reported it was the first death in the valley, a claim that would have surprised the Utes who visited the camp that morning. The next day at two p.m., the pioneers buried the child on Brother Crow's lot. Orson Pratt gave "a beautiful & affecting prayer" on behalf of the bereaved parents and friends. After a few remarks "by way of exhortation & instruction," Pratt concluded with "a brief consoling address to the parents & friends of the deceased." Even 150 years ago the death of a child was the hardest of life's mysteries to comprehend.
Utah historian Will Bagley recently returned from exploring the Yale Collection of Western Americana as a research associate at the Bienecke Library.