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Rising River and Strong Wind Mean Nightmarish Crossing for Pioneers
Harold Schindler
Published: 06/14/1997 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.

June 14, 1847

The pioneers finished breakfast early so that by 4:00 a.m., the first division of the Camp of Israel could start ferrying its goods over the North Platte River in the leather skiff while others worked on building rafts. A major problem was the spring runoff and strong wind from the southwest. The North Platte was rising each day with added snowmelt, making it difficult for the pioneer company even to swim their horses and oxen across the 100-yard expanse.

An initial plan was to float wagons over. They brought a rope across and attached one end to the tongue of John Pack's wagon to pull it over by an ox team. But when the wagon reached midstream, the current rolled it over as if it were nothing more than a large log. Erastus Snow said, "The wheels and bows appeared alternately upon the surface of the water, its contents spilling out." Pack's wagon eventually was rescued from the river, but he valued his loss of a plow, some axes and a quantity of horseshoes at $30.

Next they tried roping two wagons abreast with pine poles lashed beneath them; but the current treated that arrangement much the same, tumbling them over. First one wagon rolled to the surface, then the other. "When they struck the bottom in shallower water, the result was broken bows and reaches," Snow said. Someone suggested the use of small rafts which had been floating the freight of the wagons over. "The difficulty in poling a raft in deep, swift water was such that wind aiding the current swept them downstream one or two miles before reaching the other shore, though the river was not more than 100 yards wide," Snow said.

Attempting to haul the rafts straight across by ropes only made it easier for the current to pull them under. Finally, the pioneers found that two rafts equipped with oars, "well manned," could manage a landing in about a half-mile. They then were towed back by oxen.

While this was going on, a work party set about building two canoes, two and one-half feet in diameter, and twenty-three feet long. These were coupled five feet apart between cross-timbers and cornered with puncheon (short, upright wooden posts), and manned with good sturdy oars. This "ferry," operated by three men, could float a loaded wagon. While one party worked to complete it, another was busy shoveling out a landing. By now the pioneers understood they would be two or three days, perhaps more, in crossing the entire company.

A torrential rain fell late in the afternoon, drenching everything. William Clayton noted dourly, "the river has been rising all day and is rising even faster since the storm." At the height of the seven-minute onslaught, the horses in camp bolted and ran two or three miles before they could be rounded up. Men of the camp worked from dawn to dark, much of the time in water up to their armpits. When they quit, the first division had ferried eleven wagons, the second division another twelve; only forty-eight more to go. There was little difficulty in getting the freight over, for one man could carry it in the Revenue Cutter faster than the rest of the camp could ferry a wagon over.

At one point in the struggle, some men thought that if a man would ride over on the upper side of a wagon, his weight might prevent the wagon from tipping over. Howard Egan volunteered. "Soon after we pushed off, Andrew Gibbons jumped in the river and caught hold of the end of the wagon. When we got to about the middle of the river, the wagon began to fill with water and roll from one side to the other and then turn over. I got on the upper side and hung on for a short time, then it rolled, throwing me off.

I saw I was in danger of being caught in the wheels or the bows and swam off, but one of the wheels struck my leg and bruised it some. I swam for shore...the wagon rolled over a number of times before it hauled in. Some of the bows were broken. We decided the safest way was to take wagons over on a raft, even though it was very slow and might take three or four days." Several hundred miles to the east, the second Mormon emigration was burgeoning on the Elkhorn River. A liberty pole had been erected and flew a white flag, "as a signal for peace and to designate it as a gathering place."

As of this evening, 300 wagons have assembled, and the companies were being organized in Tens, Fifties and Hundreds, according to John Smith's journal.

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