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Slow River Crossing: Quicksand Snares Pioneer Wagons and Horses
Harold Schindler
Published: 04/23/1997 Category: Nation-World  Page: A2

Editor's Note: To commemorate the 150th anniversary of the arrival of the Mormon pioneers in Utah, The Salt Lake Tribune is offering this day-by-day account of their trek from Winter Quarters, Nebraska, to the Great Salt Lake Valley. Tribune history writer Harold Schindler, using diaries, letters, journals and reminiscences that have come to light this century, has fleshed out the narrative.

April 23, 1847

Wilford Woodruff wrote in his journal, "This was a day of adventure for the pioneer camp. Twelve of us started this morning to search out a ford across the dangerous, difficult & troublesome Loup Fork of the Platte River." The party went downstream some distance where several pioneers waded in, but found the water so deep and the bottoms so laced with quicksand that it was decided to move up to the old Pawnee village and scour that area for a solid crossing. Willard Richards said he rode through "Pawnee Town" about a half-mile west of the Mormon camp and counted what was left of 175 lodges burned to the ground by a Sioux raiding party at a time when the Pawnees were away on a hunting expedition.

Some pioneers located a spot that seemed fordable. "We had two channels to cross with a sandbar in the middle," Woodruff wrote, "the deepest water was three to four feet and very rapid, it was 300 yards straight across." Some patches of quicksand were so soft as to sink a man or horse instantly, he said, and struggling only made it worse.

Luke S. Johnson was the first to try. He had no load, not even a box upon his wagon, yet he got over only with great difficulty. Orson Pratt started next with part of his load, but when he had gone scarcely twenty feet his horses began to sink in the sand and become mired. Several men sprang into the water and lifted on the wheels until the carriage could reach the sandbar in midstream. He started for the far shore but got only half way when his horses again sank in quicksand and one fell. Again men went to his assistance, unhitching the horses and leading them across.

Brigham Young took the Revenue Cutter (the leather boat) out, loaded Pratt's goods into the boat and floated them across. Using a long drag rope, the men pulled Pratt's carriage over to the shore. The teams and wagons of Woodruff, John Pack and William Wardsworth were helped across in the same fashion. At that point, Young ordered no more wagons to attempt a crossing.

The pioneers made camp a quarter of a mile upstream where the river was no more than two feet deep. Still, there were many beds of quicksand dangerous to teams and which almost pulled one wagon to pieces. Vehicles in crossing the quicksand made a noise like the rattle of wheels on stone pavement.

Now, with Woodruff and only five others on the far side of the Loup left to guard the teams against an estimated 600 Pawnees camped a short distance downstream on the same side of the river, Young called a meeting of captains and suggested the pioneers build two rafts to ferry the rest of the company across. Tarlton Lewis and Thomas Woolsey were elected to build and manage the rafts. The Revenue Cutter would be used to carry across--as many of the loads as possible from the wagons. Teams with empty wagons would ford the stream. Once a number of wagons had crossed, it was felt the quicksand would pack down solidly enough to support those remaining. The pioneers were determined to test the theory tomorrow.

Meanwhile in Los Angeles, 1st Lt. James Pace of the Mormon Battalion with twenty-seven noncommissioned officers and men with rations for thirty days, was ordered to march to Cajon Pass and relieve Company C of the battalion in occupying and defending the pass from hostile Indians.

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