There is cold weather, and then there is cold weather. In Salt Lake City, the record is minus 30, recorded February 9, 1933. That's cold. For the state, the record is substantially lower: a minus 69 in February 1985 at a place called Peter Sinks in Cache County. The temperature didn't come close to falling that far in 1857 in the Fort Bridger area, but it was low enough to wreak damage and perhaps save Great Salt Lake City from being occupied by the U.S. Army.
In those days, Fort Bridger--mountaineer Jim Bridger's trading post--was in Utah Territory (Green River County, actually), and it became winter quarters for the Utah Expedition, a military force of some 1,500 troops ordered to unseat Brigham Young as governor of the territory and install Alfred Cumming of Georgia in his place. As the soldiers--elements of the 5th Infantry, the 10th Infantry, the 4th Artillery and the 2nd Dragoons--made their way west over the Continental Divide, through South Pass from Fort Leavenworth, Kansas T., they ran into bad weather in the vicinity of Hams' Fork of the Green River in present Wyoming, northeast of Fort Bridger. It was November, and cold describes it well.
The expedition was under the command of Colonel Albert Sidney Johnston, who hadn't reached the main body yet; that wouldn't happen for a month. The troops were congregating near Fort Bridger, and supply wagons and work cattle (oxen) were at a place designated Camp Winfield on Ham's Fork. Such was the situation during the first week of November 1857 as soldiers, teamsters and supply wagons struggled to rendezvous at the trading post where they would bivouac until the mountain passes to the city of the Saints opened in the spring.
Oh yes, one other thing. This business about unseating Brigham Young, the Mormon prophet, as Utah's governor?
It seems the Washington bureaucracy had neglected to inform him that he had been fired, so to speak, and Governor Young chose to treat the oncoming military force as invaders. "Mobbers" is the word he used. The approaching army was to be considered an invading force, and the Nauvoo Legion, Utah's military army, was organized to "repel the enemy." A guerrilla company under the leadership of Lot Smith, a young Mormon firebrand, was dispatched to harass and worry the invaders.
That's when winter set in hard. Not quite as bad as Jim Bridger might describe a cold snap: "When ye'd speak, the words would fall as icycles, and it were necessary to melt the icycles over a campfire afore ye could hear what was bein' said." Not quite as cold as that, but cold enough.
The bad spell closed in on the early morning of November 6 as Companies A and D of the 10th Infantry joined the regiment at Ham's Fork. Before the day was out, the soldiers would call this "the camp of death." Five hundred animals perished that night. Captain John W. Phelps, 4th Artillery, noted in his log that of 103 horses to pull his cannon and caissons, more than sixty died during the night, and the 2nd Dragoons had lost half their animals.
Private Charles A. Scott, an artillery man, marched to camp in the teeth of a violent storm that evening and made a mental note for his diary that "horses, mules, oxen were dying in harness by the dozen." When he finally fell in an exhausted sleep in his tent, Scott did not awaken when a horse toppled over on the tent, bringing the canvas down on its occupants. "We had to crawl out from underneath this morning half froze to find the thermometer at 16 below," he wrote. "Rather a hard show for the poor horses, no shelter and nothing to feed on but sage brush and but few of them with strength enough left to masticate it. A couple could not stand the pressure, they gave up the ghost," Scott recorded in pencil. Other diarists and letter-writers would have to wait until the ink thawed before penning their thoughts.
Outdoors, the mud was hard as granite, the snow depth fourteen inches with a sharp and jagged crust that resisted footfalls until the sun's rays had played across the surface for an hour or so. The Mormons fared little better.
Major Lot Smith had for some days been suffering from a severe cold when his company of twenty-six Legionnaires with a baggage wagon was ordered to duty "on the coldest day I ever experienced." Howard Spencer had volunteered to go along, but he had a terrible fever sore on his leg and was turned down. "Boys," he said, "If you ever want to get out of doing anything, just scratch your leg a little." With that, he rolled up his pants leg and filled the gaping wound with hot embers from the campfire.
Smith ordered his men to mount up and head toward Fort Bridger, where "the enemy" was camped. "I feared the night more than all the troops we had seen during the campaign," said the guerrilla leader who a month earlier had set aflame more than seventy U.S. government supply wagons and forced the Army to go on short rations. "We had a terrible time," he recalled in later years.
"The men froze faces, ears and feet. I saw that all would perish if we remained with the baggage wagon, so I told the teamsters they could shelter themselves with the blankets and we would push on to Bear River. I was mounted on a magnificent horse, but the snow was deep and the wind blew fiercely. The men were ordered not to stop for any reason." It was so intensely cold that the riders couldn't tell if their hats were on without feeling for them. His men had to be careful in touching their ears, which were stiff as sticks and turning black; most of their feet were frostbitten.
In the Army camp, Captain Phelps had a new problem: His surviving animals, wild from the want of food, wandered in search of warmth. The officer ordered men to drive the oxen back to camp. Among them was one pitiful ox wearing a yoke that dragged its head to the snowpack. As the morning warmed, the thermometer budged to a half-degree above the zero mark. Phelps gazed over the carcass-strewn herd ground. Two crows and a camp dog chased a rabbit through the snow. "One of the crows flew close over and behind, the other was three or four yards to the rear, and the dog followed at a distance of a hundred yards." The chase continued for some time, the officer noted. Then the rabbit disappeared.
At a nearby wagon, teamsters struggled with its running gear. Some of the wheels recently greased adhered to the axles so they slipped instead of rolling. The moisture in the grease had frozen. A correspondent for The New York Tribune with the expedition wrote his editor: "While thawing hands over a campfire, one poor old ox staggered through the brush, passed between me and an officer, directly into the blaze, in which it stood until the hair was burned from its forelegs and flesh was scorched. Then it retreated a yard or two, fell and died."
Ultimately, Colonel Johnston would send Captain Randolph Marcy with a detachment of volunteers over the mountains to Fort Massachusetts in New Mexico for replacement horses and mules. Marcy succeeded, losing but one man to the elements. When Marcy returned the next June 1858, the Utah Expedition would move on to Great Salt Lake City, but by then the crisis was over, President James Buchanan had proclaimed amnesty and the "Utah War" was ended. Governor Cumming accepted the seal of Utah and took over from Governor Young. The troops moved south of the city and established Camp Floyd. For a time it would be the largest military station in America.
On the eve of the Civil War, having been promoted to brigadier general, Albert Sidney Johnston took his leave of Utah. In time he would join the Confederacy and would be mortally wounded at the battle of Shiloh. The terrible winter of 1857-58 and its Camp of Death high in the mountains of Utah would disappear in the forgotten past.