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Mormon Trail Series
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Pioneers Find Wet Buffalo Chips Are Not Good As Cooking Fuel
Harold Schindler
Published: 05/15/1997  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.

May 15, 1847

This morning the Camp of Israel prepared to cross the bluffs directly rather than continue trying to go around them at a great cost in time and effort. It was cloudy and cold when the bugle sounded before sunrise. William Clayton likened it to a day in January, rather than mid-May. "Rain began about 8:00 a.m., but cleared off within the hour," according to Howard Egan.

"We found it necessary to double team the wagons in crossing the bluffs; but we got over without much difficulty, much better than we had anticipated," Clayton said. The company traveled some three miles and stopped about 10:30 a.m. on "the best grass" seen so far along the route. The trail over the steep bluffs took on a zigzag pattern, then rain fell again in a steady drizzle, making conditions cold and disagreeable, complained Egan. The pioneers started again about noon and journeyed another three miles before stopping to rest the teams again.

According to Clayton, the cattle soon filled themselves on the sweet grass and that proved a comfort and blessing to the camp, which for weeks has seen nothing but overgrazed countryside due to the numerous buffalo herds. Feed was good, but wood remained scarce. The camp consensus: Buffalo dung does not burn well when wet. Said Egan, "This morning I baked some bread and fried some antelope meat, made coffee and had a very good breakfast...all cooked with wet buffalo chips."

Clayton had much the same to say about the fuel situation. "Some of the men have been lucky enough to pick up a few sticks and some dead wood, but our chief dependence for fuel is dry buffalo dung which abounds everywhere, but the rain has injured it some for burning."

And then, of course, there was the other concern: Indians. "About two miles back," wrote Clayton, "we passed a place where the Indians camped during their hunt. It is plain that whole families are amongst their number as the footprints and moccasins tracks of children have several times been seen. They evidently make use of the buffalo dung for fuel, and for seats they dig up sods and lay them in a circle around their fire, which is in the center. We have passed a number of these little temporary camping spots this afternoon."

Orson Pratt commented that, "Fresh tracks of Indians have been discovered in the sand. It is their custom frequently to follow emigrants hundreds of miles, keeping themselves secreted during the day and watching for the best opportunities to steal during the night. Our wagons are generally organized in the circumference of a circle--a forward wheel of one locked into the hind wheel of another, forming a circular fortification, in the interior of which our horses are well secured during the night, while the whole camp is securely guarded by a sufficient number of men.

During the day while our teams are grazing about fourteen men usually encircle them on all sides to prevent them from straying or being suddenly frightened away in case of any sudden incursion of Indians, accompanied by their horrid yells, which they frequently practice on purpose to scatter the horses and cattle of emigrants, and afterwards hunt themselves at their leisure."

Pratt also had something to say about small parties of emigrants seeking runaway animals on their own. "In case groups of two or three go in search of [runaways], they are sometimes fallen upon and robbed of their clothing and of their saddle horses, if they have any. If they are so fortunate as to escape with their lives, they return to camp naked and in a sad forlorn condition. These are scenes which have frequently befallen the adventurer in these savage and inhospitable wilds."

Some men took the leather boat on wheels, the Revenue Cutter, several miles into the bluffs to retrieve a four-year-old buffalo bull that Luke Johnson and Eric Glines shot last night; it made fine fat meat, according to Norton Jacob. Amasa Lyman said O.P. Rockwell shot another bull in the evening. The hunters reported there were no cows among the herds in this vicinity. Since buffalo hunters prefer cows, they wondered if the Indians single them out when they hunt.

Distance traveled today: 8 miles.

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