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 21, 1847
It was fine and warm this morning as the Camp of Israel--roused itself and moved its seventy-plus wagons along the trail west. Three and a quarter miles brought the pioneers to another of the saleratus beds that seem to prevail in this region. The saleratus itself stretched for a quarter mile and served as a basin for several small saltwater lakes. It looked like a swamp and stank. It smelled like lime, according to William Clayton.
But when used as baking soda, it was unbeatable, and Harriet Page Wheeler Young, one of three women in the pioneer company, would attest to that. She made some bread using the saleratus and pronounced it "the best." The taste of the loaves was equal to any she had ever made. Her endorsement was enough to send a half-dozen pioneers--including her husband, Lorenzo Dow Young, with George Billings, George Brown, Robert Baird and Norton Jacob, among others--scurrying to the beds to scoop up pails of the white stuff "for future cooking needs."
Travelers report the waters here are poisonous, but it is probable that the only poison is salt. Cattle drink freely when they can get no other water, and the more they drink the thirstier they get. Then they burst. And that is said to be the effect of the "poison," Clayton theorized.
The pioneers pulled in at the banks of the Sweetwater River at noon, having journeyed seven and one-half miles over a sandy trail destitute of wood, water and grass. The riverbanks sprout good grass, but no wood and only one solitary tree is to be seen, and it stands by the ford. Independence Rock is a little west of here on the north bank of the river. Wilford Woodruff and John Brown, who missed connection with the pioneers the day before and spent the night with a Missouri company headed for Oregon, stopped at the rock before rejoining the Mormon company and examined the many names of trappers, traders, travelers and emigrants painted or scratched into its surface.
While on the rock, Woodruff and Brown took time to offer a prayer on behalf of the pioneer camp for a continued safe journey. As they were attending to their devotions, a Missouri company in the distance was burying Rachel Morgan, twenty-five, the third in her family to be buried on the overland trail. "They were supposed to have been poisoned by cooking in new copper vessels," Woodruff remarked.
After surveying the landmark, Woodruff climbed down and reminded himself to write in his journal, "I was the first Mormon that climbed that rock." (It got its name in 1830 when William L. Sublette and a mountain-bound American Fur Company caravan camped there on July Fourth and celebrated the day. He dubbed it Rock Independence.)
Erastus Snow, who reined in his wagon next to Brigham Young and others of the main party, paid particular attention to the Sweetwater. He called it a "beautiful little river" and said, "From the ford, we gradually ascended about five miles, passed through an opening in this chain of rocks and descended to the river bottom again, camping a mile above what is commonly called Devil's Gate, an aperture in the mountains or a chasm through which the river forces itself about 100 feet wide with perpendicular rocks on each side."
In Howard Egan's journal entry for the day is this terse observation: "Some of the men killed two snakes here." Levi Jackman had food on his mind. "Our provisions are getting scarce. Lyman Curtis and I concluded to ration ourselves to one pint of flour or meat per day each."
The second Mormon emigration on the Platte River, forty miles west of Winter Quarters, hailed the arrival of the cannon and the Nauvoo Temple bell, "for which we have been waiting almost two weeks," writes Patty Sessions. "We are now ready to start tomorrow morning." Because of the death of Jacob Weatherby at the hands of hostile Indians a few days ago, heavy emphasis has been placed on being well armed and prepared during the impending journey. The cannon--a six-pounder--will be hauled by two yoke of oxen.