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Mormon Trail Series
The Salt Lake Tribune Arch
Pleasant Sabbath Turns Into a Day Of Snakebite and Laying of Hands
Harold Schindler
Published: 05/23/1997 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 23, 1847

The morning was fine and pleasant this Sabbath. Howard Egan walked to the river, started a fire and began doing his laundry. "He kindly volunteered to also wash my dirty clothing, which I accepted as a favor," said William Clayton. After breakfast a number of the Council of Twelve Apostles joined Brigham Young in climbing the bluffs to view the curious landscape they named Ancient Bluff Ruins. In the group with Young were Heber C. Kimball, Willard Richards, Wilford Woodruff, George A. Smith, Ezra T. Benson and Amasa Lyman.

Meanwhile, Clayton strolled out to examine "an adder" which George Billings discovered. "It was dark brown, about eighteen inches long and three-quarters-inch thick through the body. They are represented as being very poisonous." With rattlesnakes prolific in the area, it was inevitable that there would be an incident in the pioneer company. It came about 11:00 a.m. when Nathaniel Fairbanks limped into camp, crying he had been bitten on the calf of the left leg by a large yellow rattler.

He had gone to the bluffs with Aaron Farr and Benjamin Rolfe and as the three men were jumping from one ledge to another, the snake struck Fairbanks. He said that within two minutes he felt his tongue prickle and begin to numb. By the time he reached camp, his face and hands felt like a foot that had fallen asleep.

The pioneers immediately applied tobacco juice and leaves and turpentine to the wound; they also bound tobacco leaves over the fang marks and down his leg, which was quite swollen. A shaken William Clayton described how some members of the Mormon priesthood "laid hands on him" and prayed for his recovery. Luke S. Johnson applied a corn-meal mush poultice and administered a dose of tincture of lobelia after Fairbanks was induced to take a strong drink of alcohol and water. He soon began vomiting violently. The afflicted man complained of nausea and a dimming of his eyesight. "He appeared in much pain," remarked Clayton.

Meanwhile, on top of the bluffs, Woodruff had carried to the summit a bleached bull buffalo skull. On it he wrote the names of all the Mormon apostles who were present. John Brown, who had joined the group in the climb, also wrote his name on the skull, which was positioned on the southwest corner of the bluff. Orson Pratt carved his name on a solitary red cedar, the only tree on top of the bluff. Thomas Bullock later added Pratt's calculation of the altitude (235 feet above the North Platte River), followed by his own name and that of Luke Johnson.

Back at camp, Young called a meeting of the pioneers and told them he was pleased thus far with the camp. He said, "No man has disobeyed my counsel that I know of. And I will do the scolding in this camp, no other man shall," Amasa Lyman recalled. After dinner, in a conversation with Heber Kimball, William Clayton remarked that buffalo gnats had bitten both men rather severely. Although the insect is quite small, he said, it is capable of punishing a person with itching aching pain worse than a mosquito bite.

A gale was blowing and, after two hours, heavy rain fell, accompanied by lightning and thunder. The temperature dropped sharply. Woodruff recalled with trepidation a story told by the Indian trader Peter Sarpy, that several years ago in this same region, it was warm and sunny in the afternoon and viciously cold that night, so much so that sixteen of Sarpy's best horses perished from exposure. "I covered all my horses I could with blankets and got up several times in the night to see to them. They shiver with cold, but survive," he wrote in his journal.

Brigham Young, Kimball and Benson visited Nathaniel Fairbanks and administered to him. He seems much better, Clayton said.

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