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Wagon Train Crosses South Pass, Meets With Famed Mountain Man
Harold Schindler
Published: 06/27/1997 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 27, 1847

As ox teams strained to haul Camp of Israel wagons toward the saddle that was South Pass in the Wind River Mountains, the pioneers met an eight-man party of mountaineers from Oregon leading a string of twenty packhorses laden with robes, skins and pelts. Many Mormons took the opportunity to write letters to Winter Quarters for the trappers to take with them. The wagon train continued over the summit where Orson Pratt had calculated the altitude of the Continental Divide at that point to be 7,085 feet above sea level. The company proceeded down the west slope to Pacific Springs where Pratt, George A. Smith and John Brown awaited them with Moses "Black" Harris, the celebrated mountaineer.

Harris was a monumental figure in the fur trade, despite the fact that so little is known of him. He was a South Carolinian and one of the more famous of William Ashley's "enterprising young men" of the 1820s. The sobriquet "Black" likely came from the dark hue of his skin. Artist Alfred Jacob Miller described him as a man of wiry form, made up of bone and muscle, with a face apparently composed of tanned leather and whipcord, finished with a particular blue-black tint "as if gunpowder had been burnt into his face."

Harris had a reputation for being a raconteur of truly tall tales that rivaled the boastful Jim Beckwourth. George F. Ruxton said, "He was the darndest liar was Black Harris--for lies tumbled out of his mouth like boudins from a buffler's stomach. He was the child as saw the putrefied forest in the Black Hills"--where birds were made of stone. William Clayton thought Harris to be "a man of intelligence and well acquainted with the western country." He had carried along some newspapers and allowed the Mormons to peruse a number of issues of the Oregon Spectator and the first issue of the California Star, this published in Yerba Buena (San Francisco) by no other than Sam Brannan, who took a shipload of church members to the coast aboard the Brooklyn.

But Harris gave them a discouraging report of the Salt Lake Valley and environs. The whole region, he said, was sandy and destitute of timber; no vegetation but the wild sage. He gave a better view of the Cache Valley which he said was a fine place to winter cattle. Ah well, sighed Clayton, after so many contradictory reports from various travelers, the Latter-day Saints would just have to see the country for themselves. Changing the subject, he confided to his journal, that it was the general feeling of the camp that because today was the third anniversary of the assassination of Mormon prophets Joseph and Hyrum Smith in Carthage Jail, it was thought to take a day of rest. But because "the gentile companies are so close in our rear, Brigham Young thought it best to keep ahead of them for the benefit of our teams." For that reason they made camp at Dry Sandy, having traveled during the day a total of 15 miles.

Jacob Norton explained that Black Harris explored a nearer route from there to Oregon last year (the Applegate cut-off), and he was available to guide any emigrant company. Amasa Lyman, Roswell Stevens and Thomas Woolsey, and two soldiers from the Mormon Battalion arrived at the Mormon ferry near the upper crossing of the North Platte today. Captain James Brown and the battalion's Sick Detachment were a few miles behind them.

Patty Sessions is sick. With the second Mormon emigration, she writes, "My face is swelled and I can hardly sit up. It hard for me to drive the team all the way." Charles C. Rich writes, "Parley Pratt, John Taylor, Jedediah M. Grant, A.O. Smoot, and others went six miles to the Missionary and Farming Station of the Pawnees to look at the ford of the Loup River." The camp awaits their report.

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