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.
May 10, 1847
Willard Richards composed a letter detailing the pioneer trek thus far and it is to be posted for the next Mormon emigrant company expected in six to eight weeks. Orson Pratt explained how the message was handled. "It was carefully secured from the weather by inserting it in a saw cut made parallel to the surface of a board and cleated shut. The board is six inches wide and eighteen inches long and attached to a fifteen feet pole set five feet into the ground." According to Wilford Woodruff, on one side of the board was written in red chalk: "Open this and you will find a letter." And on the other side: "Look in this, 316 miles to Winter Quarters. Bound westward. Pioneers." On the post itself was written: "Platte Post Office."
The camp moved out and traveled two miles to a small stream which Heber C. Kimball named Skunk Creek. It was easily forded, though the ground was soft on the west side. About this time, Porter Rockwell and Tom Brown discovered a strange bay horse, which seemed quite wild, running alone on the prairie. They gave chase to try to catch it. But it easily outran them. John Brown said that when the Mississippi company of Mormons passed on the other side of the Platte River last season on their journey west, one lost a mare and two colts. It was his opinion that the strange bay was the eldest of the two colts. Thomas Woolsey and John H. Tippetts saw the same horse near here last winter when they came through from the Mormon Battalion at Pueblo in present-day Colorado.
The company traveled six miles and stopped for the noon break. The past two miles were over soft prairie and though last year's grass had not been burned off, the wagon wheels cut through the sod frequently. Back at Skunk Creek, Joseph Hancock and Phineas H. Young killed the fattest young buffalo the pioneers have yet had. Later they shot a fine young buck and the camp enjoyed a taste of venison. Amasa Lyman shot a hare.
The journey continued at 2:00 p.m., and in another mile and a half the company crossed a bad slough. For a mile beyond, the ground was wet and soft, and the teams began giving out. At half-past four, Brigham Young gave the order to make for the timber, which was somewhat off course, but necessary to save the livestock and obtain wood and water. Camped about 5:00 p.m. and found plenty of browse for the horses. Clayton said it appeared evident "we are above the junction of the north and south forks of the Platte."
"William Clayton has suggested a method of counting miles," Pratt said. "Brigham Young asked that I give it some attention. Accordingly I propose a device that will record a mile for each 360 revolutions of a wagon wheel of certain circumference. The weight of this entire device need not exceed three pounds." Appleton Milo Harmon began work on the device.
Another reason so many pioneer diaries contain strikingly similar entries comes from the pen of Howard Egan, who writes, "Got up this morning at 4:00 a.m. Best night's rest I have had for some time. I made a fire and put the bread down to bake. Then went to Luke Johnson's wagon to write up my journal. As I have not much time to do it during the day or evening, I have to catch up most of the time after taking care of my horses. When the weather gets warmer I hope I shall be able to write some early in the mornings."William Clayton has kindly let me have his journal to take minutes from until I can get time to keep it up every day, for which I am thankful."
Meanwhile, General Stephen W. Kearny prepared to leave Los Angeles for his march to Washington, D.C. He said he would take pleasure in representing the patriotism of the Mormon Battalion in the halls of Congress, and ask for three men from each company of the battalion to be detailed as his escort.
Participants on the Mormon Trail Wagon Train had a beautiful, balmy day for sixteen miles from just below Elm Creek to just south of Overton, Nebraska. "Everyone seems pretty up today," said Tom Whitaker of Midway. "Maybe psychologically it was my best day yet." Whitaker's horse, Louie, who pulled a muscle in his left hind leg a few days ago, was improving. He did not favor it today. "He's traveling normal and strong and eating well," Whitaker said. "Things are looking up."
Just one incident marred an otherwise perfect day's ride. "The wagon train was held up for fifteen to twenty minutes because we thought a woman was lost," Whitaker said. The woman, who signed on only for the day, left her husband on the wagon during the morning break and failed to tell him she was planning to walk for a while. Her husband became frantic as they combed the wagons and the walkers looking for his wife. "She was a diabetic so everyone thought she had an insulin reaction or had fallen in a ditch," Whitaker said. "But she was just up ahead." The incident did not detract from an otherwise fine day.
Joseph Johnstun of Salt Lake City was buoyant. "We had water, we had potties, we had lunch," Johnstun reported. The train arrived in camp early--about 1:30--leaving enough time for Johnstun and others to visit some historic landmarks. They went to the site of the Plum Creek Massacre, where Cheyenne Indians attacked a small train of twelve wagons in 1864, killed eleven men and captured one woman and a nine-year-old boy. It was sobering to note how vulnerable the early wagon trains were, Johnstun said.
On Friday, communities along the road had many signs welcoming the modern-day pioneers. "Most of the signs even spelled, 'Mormon' correctly," Johnstun said, noting that about a third of the signs have spelled it, "Morman."
While the Johnstun group was sightseeing, Whitaker and his son, Ryan, had to repair the wagon canvas. It ripped in five places after they pulled an awning too tight. "Almost daily some little repair needs to be done," he said. "Bolts tightened, wheels greased, something sewn or mended."