It was tough times early in 1849 in Great Salt Lake City. Mercantile goods were scarce and what was available was not cheap, having to be freighted from the east. For the early citizens of the Provisional State of Deseret, as they called their mountain settlement, money was in short supply, crickets and grasshoppers had done considerable damage, crops were meager and nothing to rave about, and their Indian neighbors were becoming testy. All things considered, morale was a mite low and the community, such as it was, was in need of some encouragement.
At a Sunday meeting in April, one of the speakers was Heber C. Kimball, a member of the First Presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and who was, next to Brigham Young, the most powerful man in the valley. No one ever dozed when Kimball spoke; he was well-known for saying things to capture an audience's attention for he minced no words in speaking his mind. New York newspaper publisher Horace Greeley would say of Kimball that in conversation with a Gentile, the apostle had announced, "I do pray for my enemies! I pray they may all go to hell."
Kimball in '49 had not yet reached full stride as a pulpit-pounder, but he had a knack for making a point. Some said he was coarse and listened to him tight-lipped, but on this Sabbath he was moved to inspire those around him, to lift their spirits. They were down, they were hungry and they barely had clothes on their back. Matter-of-fact almost every man in the congregation was clad in animal skins of one sort or another.
Kimball stood, and after a few opening words, came to the point: "Never mind, in less than a year there will be plenty of clothes and everything that we shall want will be sold here at less than St. Louis prices." Charles C. Rich, a fellow apostle sitting nearby, was astonished at the remark. "I don't believe a word of it," Rich said, in what may have been crowd consensus. George A. Smith, also an apostle, looked up and said, "Brother Kimball, you have burst your boiler this time sure." Kimball was somewhat startled himself. As he sat down, he muttered he was "afraid he had missed it some."
In the East, a virus was taking hold--gold fever. Stories of fantastic riches springing from the discovery at Sutter's Mill in California spread with astonishing speed. Extravagant claims of fortunes made overnight appeared in newspapers, along with accounts of gold lumps of "16 and 26 pounds" being exhumed from the rivers. Within a few months the rush was on. In May an immigrant, from St. Joseph, Missouri, who signed his name E Pluribus One of 'Em, wrote the New York Tribune that 900 wagons were on the trail west--averaging three men to a wagon--which would make nearly 3,000 gold seekers, allowing for the considerable number going with pack mules.
In early June, A.W. Babbitt with a small party carrying the U.S. mail to Great Salt Lake City reported he "counted" (as he passed on the north bank of the Platte) 6,000 wagons heading west on the Oregon-California road near Fort Laramie. Another correspondent writing to St. Louis newspapers reckoned there must be a scarcity of firearms in the states because the immigrants "are covered with them." Every man had a rifle and revolver or two. One man had three Bowie knives in his belt.
By the time the "rushers" reached the Plains west of Fort Laramie they were starting to shed some of their gear and provisions. The grass was showing the heavy demand of horses, mules and oxen--and firewood was fast vanishing. "Thousands of pounds of the finest flour and bacon were offered for sale at--$1 per hundred, and no takers. It was left by the road," the St. Louis correspondent noted. At Fort Laramie flannel shirts were selling for a dime, wagons for $5 to $25. One party bought a "cord" [a pile 8 feet long, 4 feet high and 4 feet wide] of clothing at such rates.
Once over South Pass, the "fever" reached epidemic proportions. Eastern newspapers estimated that by the third week in June there were 20,000 people and 60,000 animals in a headlong dash to be first to California. Now they began lightening their loads in earnest. At the outset the gold seekers overstocked on everything. They brought sawmill parts, blacksmith shops, gold-digging equipment, grindstones, chain and a thousand sundry items. The overland trail was littered with valuable plunder as the travelers jettisoned these encumbrances one by one. But the immigrants' loss was the Mormon gain. While much was abandoned on the Plains, more reached Great Salt Lake City.
The first '49ers arrived at the City of the Saints in mid-June. Brigham Young had anticipated the increased trail traffic and sent a party of missionaries to the Green River to trade and operate a ferry. On a 20-mile stretch west of present Casper, Wyoming, they reported finding at least $50,000 in iron, trunks clothing, and other discarded belongings, strewn among the several hundred rotting ox carcasses adding their stench to the sweltering summer prairie.
When the first gold seekers strode from Emigration Canyon that June morning Heber C. Kimball's extravagant prediction began coming true--in spades. The Mormons were about to reap a most welcome and completely unexpected harvest. Every mule in the valley suddenly increased tenfold in value. A light Yankee wagon could be traded for three or four heavy Murphy models with a yoke of oxen to boot. The argonauts were consumed with a desire for speed.
Common domestic muslin, which sold for 5 to 10 cents a yard in St. Louis, was offered by the bolt at the same price to Mormons in trade for green vegetables. The finest in spades and shovels went for 50 cents each as the '49ers trimmed their baggage. Full chests of joiner's tools priced at $150 in the East, traded for $25. Smaller merchants, hoping to deal in the gold fields, switched from wagons to pack horses in Great Salt Lake City, and found it expedient to leave whatever could not easily be rolled into a bundle or tied safely onto a pack animal.
In one respect, merchants were fortunate in finding Mormons to share their losses, others had no consumers to absorb the supplies. Between South Pass and Fort Hall, roads were choked by hundreds of wagons entirely helpless, many of their teams drowned in crossing streams or starved for want of grass. Men, maddened because they could not get by or go ahead at trail passes blocked by broken-down wagons and teams, fought and killed each other.
Benjamin Johnson was in his field when he saw a company of argonauts roll from Emigration Canyon. "...almost their first inquiry was for pack saddles and fresh animals in place of their jaded ones," Johnson recalled. "I traded them a jack and a jenny and began the making of pack saddles, rigging them with rawhide. And oh! what a change! I could now get flour, bacon, sugar rice, soap, tea powder, lead, tobacco, the finest clothing, with wagons and harness, in exchange for pack outfits, which I could supply in quantity."
Historian Brigham D. Madsen in his Gold Rush Sojourners in Great Salt Lake City tells of sharp bargains by Mormons who were reluctant to part with their strong and healthy animals but would finally give in to overly generous offers. For instance, Chapman Duncan started bargaining with one yoke of oxen and by autumn had two yoke of oxen, two colts, two mules and one horse. George Morris found that after some haggling, he would take two large footsore oxen, a third ox and $10 in trade, for his smaller team of two oxen. Then he turned his newly acquired livestock to run loose in marshy grass for a few days, salving their sore feet.
Thus refreshed, the animals attracted other travelers who offered two yoke of oxen, $15, and a $110 wagon for Morris's three oxen. By the end of the tourist season, Morris owned five yoke of oxen, a wagon, four cows, plus clothing, boots, shoes, bread and groceries enough to make his family more comfortable "than we had ever been before." Zadok Judd parlayed two horses and a proper reluctance into trades that brought him three yoke of cattle, a good wagon, a cook stove, a dozen shirts, a silver watch, some tools and a half-barrel of pork.
One gold seeker went to Benjamin Johnson's home late on a Saturday night, according to historian Madsen, and wanted to buy packsaddles, insisting he could not wait until Monday for his party was leaving at sunup. Johnson labored the night through until time for church to make up the order. The immigrant gave Johnson three sets of harness and a new wagon "with more camp outfit, clothing and goods in it than a fair price to pay four-fold for my work. When they got what they wanted, the gold seekers cared for nothing they had to leave."
As for Brigham Young, he considered such transactions to be a "mutual blessing." But the record is silent on whether Heber C. Kimball was tempted to crow: "I told you so."