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Pawnees Stole Horses, Then Fired On Porter Rockwell, Search Party
Harold Schindler
Published: 04/27/1997 Category: Nation-World Page: A2

Editor's Note: To commemorate the 150th anniversary of the Mormon Trail, The Salt Lake Tribune is offering this day-by-day account of the Mormon Pioneers' original 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 following narrative.

April 27, 1847

It was the intention of the camp today to move out briskly after breakfast and make for the main branch of the Platte River. Porter Rockwell and William Clayton had left earl y with the thought of picking up a trace of the horses lost yesterday, but after following a set of tracks into the tall brush for some distance, they turned back because they had gone unarmed and were now convinced the missing animals had not strayed, but had been stolen.

Once the camp broke and started west, Rockwell and three others--Tom Brown, Joseph Mathews and John Eldredge--took the back trail after the thieves. Brigham Young, Heber C. Kimball, Wilford Woodruff and some other hunters were out ahead of the wagons. About mid-morning, the company reached a valley of lush green grass, but no wood or water. There were plenty of buffalo signs though, and the pioneers lingered long enough to allow their animals to graze and rest before continuing.

Just as the hunters were ready to ride, two antelope wandered into the valley and were spotted by Woodruff, John Brown and Roswell Stevens. Brown got off the first shot. Woodruff and Stevens also hit it, but the antelope stood firm. Not until one of the hunters approached and stuck the animal with a knife did it bound forward and run a short distance before dropping.

They dressed out the kill and took it back to the pioneer company which had made camp on Prairie Creek near the good grass. Luke Johnson shot a large rattlesnake and brought it into camp for the oil. "[Roswell] Stevens killed a hare, the nearest like the English hare of any I have seen in this country," Clayton noted.

Meanwhile, Rockwell and his party followed the horses' trail to a point about two miles from the pioneer camp of two days ago. He saw what he thought was something moving in high grass nearby and, nudging his horse forward, he eased his rifle up. "Probably just a wolf," said Tom Brown. No sooner had the words escaped his lips, than fifteen Pawnees, naked save for breechcloths, burst from the grass. Each was armed with a rifle, bow and more than a dozen arrows.

"Ambush!" Rockwell shouted. He held his ground as the Indians turned and eyed the four riders warily. Rockwell motioned them back with the muzzle of his rifle.

"Bacco, bacco," one repeated, hand outstretched.

"No tobacco," Rockwell said. "Back off!" Slowly the four Mormons turned away from the Indians, but before they had gone fifty yards the Pawnees opened fire. Rockwell and Brown reined in sharply and wheeled to face the attack, then spurred forward. The other two, Mathews and Eldredge, did the same. Seeing the angry whites charging down on them, the Pawnees sprinted for the river and vanished in the high grass and brush.

Returning to the pioneer company, Rockwell reported the incident to Young. "They weren't Sioux, and it's sure they got our two missing horses. A squall blew up with much thunder and lightning, but little rain. Nevertheless, one hunter put his weapon into John Brown's wagon out of the drizzle. Brown tossed his coat over the gun; but when he went to retrieve it, a pocket caught on the hammer of the musket and the weapon fired. The ball tore through some clothing bags, setting them afire, passed through the rear of the wagon close by two or three men and smashed into the foreleg of Lewis Barney's mare as he was leading her past the wagon. Mathews shot the animal to put her out of her misery.

That made four of the company's best horses lost in as many days. The wagon fire was put out with little damage. But the accident brought a sharp warning from Young about the careless handling of loaded weapons.

Distance traveled this day: 16 miles.

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