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.
July 21, 1847
Erastus Snow saddled his horse and left the main company of pioneers on East Canyon Creek at sunup, then rode the five grueling miles through the narrow ravine known today as Little Emigration Canyon to the summit of Big Mountain Pass. As he picked his way up to the pass, he marveled that "this is the only notch or opening of the mountains known in this region that is at all practicable for a road, except through the canyon of the Weber River, which is very rough and passable only in the lowest stages of water and scarcely passable for wagons at any stage."
At the pass, Snow for the first time caught sight of the Great Salt Lake Valley some fifteen miles in the distance. He carefully nudged his horse down the treacherous west slope and followed a creek seven miles into today's Mountain Dell. Here he overtook Orson Pratt and his advance party working to improve the trail for the main company. He and Pratt rode over Little Mountain and down into what they called Last Creek Canyon [Emigration] and after another six or seven miles reached a very steep hill leading to a butte overlooking the valley.
It was obvious that the emigrant parties of the year before had labored hard to surmount the hill, but both Mormons were convinced that with concentrated effort their advance company could clear out the tangle of willows and oak brush on the creek bed and chop a tolerable wagon road through. Snow crawled for some distance on his hands and knees through the thicket, hoping to find an opening. But the rattle of a snake discouraged him, "which lay coiled up a little under my nose, having almost put my hand on him; but as he gave me the friendly warning, I thanked him and retreated." Rejoining Pratt at the edge of the thicket, the two men then skirted south of the tangle of underbrush and "ascended the butte [Donner Hill]." Then, according to Snow, "We involuntarily, both at the same instant, uttered a shout of joy at finding it to be the very place of our destination!"
The two, overwhelmed at the vista before them, made their way down the east bench some four miles toward the center of the valley, making note of several small creeks flowing from the mountains to the "Utah outlet" (Jordan River). "Although we had but one horse between us [Pratt's was with the working party], we traversed a circuit of about twelve miles before we left the valley and returned to camp 9:00 p.m.," Pratt said.
"We found them about three miles from where we left them at noon, with Willard Richards and George A. Smith and the main camp a half-mile above them," according to Snow. The main company of pioneers had a difficult time of it today. Their teams had been in harness about ten hours without being fed, and many in the company wanted to camp at Mountain Dell and rest, while others wanted to push beyond Little Mountain. It was there many oxen and horses began to fail, but the pioneers managed to reach the summit. According to William Clayton, "The descent was not nearly so steep as the other [Big Mountain], yet many locked both hind wheels [to slow the wagons]. At 7:30 p.m. we formed our camp near the creek [Emigration], having gone fourteen miles in thirteen hours." The going had been so rough that at one point Joseph Rooker's wagon overturned. Fortunately, there was little damage.
Wilford Woodruff remained with Heber C. Kimball, Ezra T. Benson and Lorenzo D. Young on East Canyon Creek while a wheel on John Fowler's wagon was repaired and Brigham Young continued convalescing. "In the afternoon I waded the creek two miles and fished with the fly down to the mouth of the canyon and caught eight trout," Woodruff recorded in his journal.
Burr Frost, the blacksmith, also endured a wagon breakdown while he was repairing others. For the time being, his wagon and the pioneer cannon were left behind until teams could be spared to bring them on.
In instructions to Orson Pratt, Brigham Young suggested the advance parties upon entering the valley "not crowd upon the Utes until we have had a chance to get acquainted with them...but plant our seeds [and potatoes] as speedily as possible, regardless of future location," he urged. Young encouraged Pratt to "prosecute the route, as you have done, until you arrive at some point in the valley where you might hear the potatoes grow, if they had only happened to have been there." Then, Pratt was to bend all efforts to have the ground tilled and the seeds put in the ground.
Again discussing the Indians, Young suggested, "the Utes may feel a little tenacious about their choice lands on Utah Lake and we had better keep farther north toward the Salt Lake, which is more of a neutral ground. By so doing we should be less likely to be disturbed and have chance to meet with the Utes." This last advice was a measure of just how well the Mormon leader understood the land he intended to settle, yet had never seen.