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 20, 1847
The pioneer company started at 7:45 this morning, but did not travel more than a quarter-mile before the roadometer on the wagon in which William Clayton was riding broke a cog. The rain had caused the wood to swell and stick fast, snapping off one of the teeth on a small gear. The wagon was delayed a half-hour while Appleton Milo Harmon took the contrivance apart and reassembled it minus the broken part. "Without the small wheel, I have to count each mile after this," Clayton complained.
Nevertheless, the Mormon company pushed ahead. In another half-mile the company crossed a stream eight feet wide and little more than two feet deep (Clear Creek). From then on the wagon train followed a twisting route along the banks of the Platte River to avoid wet and swampy bottomland.
The company nooned opposite a ravine running up the bluffs and at its foot sprawled a flat expanse of some fifteen acres. At the far side of this bottom area could be seen a grove of trees "not yet in leaf." John Brown thinks they are ash and that the flat area is Ash Hollow, or Ash Creek, according to John C. Fremont's map.
"We are anxious to determine whether this is Ash Hollow or not," said Clayton, "for if it is, the Oregon Trail strikes the river at this place and if it can be confirmed, we then have a better privilege of testing Fremont's distances to Fort Laramie. We have already discovered that his map is not altogether correct in several respects, particularly in showing the windings of the river and the distance of the bluffs from it." Clayton suggested some men cross the river and investigate the hollow and Orson Pratt, Amasa Lyman, Luke Johnson and John Brown brought the Revenue Cutter, the leather skiff, into play. But the North Platte was swift enough that oars were useless and, according to Pratt, "we were obliged to drag it most of the way over the shoals of quicksand."
They soon located the Oregon Trail and Brown, who traveled the trail near Fort Laramie last year heading west with the Mississippi Company and was familiar with the country, recognized Ash Hollow at once. He also was able to locate the grave of an emigrant he helped bury the past summer.
The boat party returned to camp and continued the journey west. After three and one-quarter miles, they crossed a Platte tributary stream they named Castle Creek (now Blue Creek). Again they found quicksand along the streambed. Some had to double-team to make it over, but all crossed safely. Another four or five miles and the company stopped to pitch camp at 5:30 p.m. having traveled eight miles this afternoon. Erastus Snow remarked, "We left a very good trail behind us, as good as seventy-three teams, seventeen cows, and 148 men could make. Plenty of driftwood for fuel."
The bluffs along the south bank of the North Platte directly opposite the camp have been named Castle Bluffs (now Blue Hill) for their similarity to the castles in England. The pioneers reported seeing more and more rattlesnakes. Some time in the last day or two, Wilford Woodruff claimed Joseph Egbert, driving Pratt's carriage, accidentally rammed the carriage tongue into the rear end of Woodruff's carriage. "It broke the end board and allowed water to enter when it rained, so that it wet my things," Woodruff reported. "Today John Fowler ran his wagon into it again, but when I spoke to him about it, he denied it, which caused some words between us," said Woodruff.
Pratt, Lyman and Thomas Bullock both noted in their journals that a single cedar tree on the north bank of the North Platte contained the remains of an Indian child and the necessary items, Pratt said, for "a future land of enjoyment, according to Indian tradition. The grave was as solitary as the tree."
Bullock wrote, "It was wrapped in a thin layer of straw, then two deer skins and covered with a buffalo robe. The body was lashed to the tree with rawhide strips. Also with the child was a bowl, spoon, a horn and shot pouch."
Distance traveled today: 15 miles.