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.
June 7, 1847
As the Camp of Israel prepared to move out this morning, Orson Pratt was giving William Clayton a few pointers on how to use a sextant. For Clayton, it was the opportunity of a lifetime to learn the intricacies of mathematics and astronomy from a man he much admired, a man he called "professor." "He has promised to teach me to take observations and calculate latitude and longitude and I intend to improve the opportunity!" Clayton noted in his journal."
It was about then that one Oregon-bound emigrant train from Chariton County, Missouri, passed the pioneer camp. The other Missouri party was already ahead. Willard Richards had left a letter for future Mormon companies and sandwiched it in a guide board announcing "Distance to Fort John [Laramie] 30 miles." The pioneers started a little after 7:00 a.m. and Clayton walked about five miles alongside Pratt, discussing astronomy and philosophical subjects."Heber Kimball then let me have his horse to ride," Clayton wrote.
Norman Taylor and Rodney Badger, who had been arguing constantly since the trek began, finally called it quits. Taylor took his belongings from Badger's wagon and his horse from the team and moved them to John Y. Greene's wagon. About 11:00 a.m., the company halted to feed on the west bank of a small stream and spring of clear water (Bear Creek). Another party of Missourians, these from Andrew County, with thirteen wagons and four yoke of oxen to each wagon, came up.
Once the Mormon camp started, it continued a gradual climb, following the course of a dry creek to the heights commanding a breathtaking view of the surrounding landscape. "We were opposite Laramie Peak of the Black Hills, some ten or fifteen miles to the southwest," said Erastus Snow. The Hills got their name, Clayton surmised, from the vast forest of pine trees covering them. "The pine grows in the most rocky places and abounds on the highest hills, while on the lower bluffs it is sparsely scattered and in the bottom land, which looks rich and good, there are none," according to Clayton.
There are huge cobblestones on the trail, deposited during summer flash floods or torrential rains, and the Mormons sent a work party ahead to roll the rocks out of the way as they went along. "They have also dug down some places and leveled others, which will make the road much better for other companies," Clayton said.
After five and one-quarter miles, the caravan stopped at Horseshoe Creek and pitched camp for the night on "one of the clearest and largest springs of water yet seen." Kimball discovered it and called it "Heber's Spring." Everyone agreed that the feed here was more luxuriant and plentiful than any they had found before. The area abounded in wild mint and sage, filling the air with its perfume. But what excited Wilford Woodruff, a "compleat angler," is the promise of trout in the spring. "I went fishing with a hook and line to see if I could get some trout, but caught nothing." Alas and alack.
The camp hunters were out. John Brown shot his first black-tailed deer and one of the other pioneers bagged an antelope. Lewis Myers, Robert Crow's hunter, also shot a deer, but the Crows, according to Clayton, were "unwilling to conform to the rules of the camp in dividing and reserve it all to themselves. Crow says if they got more than they could use, they would be willing to let the camp have some."
One deer and one antelope do not go far divided among 148 people, so when John Pack discovered that one of the Missouri companies had killed an antelope and taken only the quarters, leaving the balance, he picked up the remains and brought them to camp. Crow, meanwhile, nearly had a serious accident. He was trying to yoke a pair of wild steers and having trouble. A number of pioneers used their lariats and saddle horns to rope the struggling animals when one became tangled and fell, toppling Crow with him. A pioneer cut the rope and freed Crow, shaken but otherwise uninjured. Clayton also noticed that Myers, the hunter, roasted the antlers of the young deer he killed and ate them.
And Clayton also learned that the entire Crow family depended on Myers for food. "They having no bread stuff nor anything, only [eat] what he kills and the little flour and meal paid him by James Bordeaux for his part in helping ferry wagons across the North Platte." Clayton no longer complained that the Crows would not share.
As the pioneers settled in for the night, they did not know of the second Mormon wagon train which at that hour was camped on their trail at the Elkhorn River.