Chambers, John G., to Editor, 14 May 1854, “Second Letter from the Mormon City, Utah Territory,” Manchester Examiner, 2 Sep. 1854.
To the Editor of the Examiner and Times.
In my last letter I gave you an account of my journeyings from England to Keokuk, a young but thriving city, beautifully situated on the banks of the Mississippi river, about 1,500 miles from the mouth of it. It was the place chosen by the Mormons for the starting point to cross the plains, it being considered a more healthful route to Council Bluffs than the one formerly traversed by them up the Missouri river to that place. I will therefore now proceed to give you a short description of the route from Keokuk to Great Salt Lake City, as I travelled with a company of Mormons, and did not lose any opportunity of observing the order and discipline to which the whole body were subjected, and which enabled that singular people to achieve so much and overcome so many difficulties, a great deal of which is already known in part to your readers.
On the 1st day of June, 1853, the company with which I determined to travel, moved from the city of Keokuk, Iowa, under the superintendence of Mr. Cyrus H. Wheelock. The train consisted of upwards of fifty waggons, drawn by ox teams; and a very imposing spectacle it presented, as it moved along over the black, loamy soil of Iowa, the white canvass of the numerous waggons affording a striking contrast. Away we went, somewhat joyfully, to see the wonderful city in the Valley of the Rocky Mountains, the rumbling of the wheels of the waggons, the cracking of the whip, and the shouting of the teamsters affording a little variety to the monotony which we had endured in camp at Keokuk.
The country through which we were passing was very fertile, and but thinly populated. The route through Iowa to Council Bluffs was crowded on the right and left with beautiful woodland scenery, and there were immense prairie lands covered with grass, varying from one to six or seven feet in height, affording good food for cattle. The rivers that intersected the territory were full of excellent fish, and many of the company employed themselves at the camping grounds on the rivers in fishing. Many times I thought of the English farm-labourers and operatives, and said within myself, “Here is a land well fitted for such men to locate upon, and cultivate, and with a little industry raise their own crops, and their own stock, and live in comparative independence.” Here and there, as we moved along, we came up with settlers who were living in some degree of comfort, but it appeared to me that they indulged themselves in lazy habits, otherwise they might soon have considerable property around them.
Before I proceed to describe any circumstances of our travels, I will state here that the Mormons maintained a similar organisation across the plains as they did in crossing the sea. The whole were under the control of one captain, and he was empowered to elect others to assist him. There were captains of hundreds, of fifties, and of tens. These subordinate captains presided over a certain number of waggons, and had to see them over all difficult places; and to see that every man did his duty in watching, in herding the cattle, and in everything connected with camp life. There was also a captain of the guard appointed; his duty consisted in calling out the guard at the close of each day, when the company were camped. Officers were appointed to go ahead, and search out suitable camping grounds. A chaplain was also appointed; his duty consisted in calling meetings for prayer and public worship, every Sabbath Day being set apart for that purpose, the Mormons believing that the cattle required rest as well as themselves. The chaplain had also to see that all persons in camp attended the meetings, or to know the reason why they did not, and to see that all the sick were visited; it was his business to see that the sacrament was duly administered to every good member in the church, every Sabbath Day. Under this system, everything moved on in wonderful harmony among so large a number of individuals, from different parts of England, Scotland, and Ireland, and some from France. If anything wrong occurred – if there was any dispute or quarrelling among the members – or if any of them committed any crime that was unseemly and unbecoming a Mormon – a council was called of the whole camp, at which the president of the company presided, and the individual must confess his fault, if proved guilty, or be disfellowshipped. This procedure was fully carried out over the plains, until we arrived in the Valley of the Mountains, and every individual arrived in safety.
We proceeded on our tedious journey, under this kind of discipline, keeping the north side of the Missouri river until we reached Council Bluffs, where we camped for about one week, for the purpose of taking in our last supply of provisions, previous to leaving the last point of civilisation, as it was here the Mormons had arranged to have a large supply brought up by the steamboats to the city of Council Bluffs, to provision all their companies for the remainder of the journey. I may just mention, that Council Bluffs is a considerable city to be so far inland. It was first located by the Mormons, but is now occupied by numbers of Yankee speculators and half-breed Mormons, who make considerable during the emigration season.
It occupied considerable time to cross the Missouri ferry, but this done, we pushed forward through the remainder of the country occupied by the Iowas and the Omahas, but were not visited by either of these tribes. As we passed into the Pawnee territory, these natives soon paid a visit to our camp. Early one morning a party of Pawnees visited us, and conversed with Mr. Dykes (who was returning from a Mormon mission to Denmark), as he had crossed the plains at other times, and was somewhat acquainted with the languages of the Indian tribes. A pipe of tobacco being produced and lighted, the party sat down with Mr. Dykes and Mr. Wheelock, forming a circle upon the grass. The pipe was passed from one to the other, each one puffing three or four times, first to the right and then to the left, and lastly upwards, which was a sign that they were at peace with all around, and with the Great Spirit. The chief was made to understand that Mr. Wheelock was our chief, and he immediately embraced him, saluting him with the Pawnee kiss. The party then separated, taking with them many presents in the shape of biscuits, &c.; their object was to hunt buffaloes. This tribe is considered one of the most thievish of all the tribes on this route, but they did not exhibit any of these propensities in our company.
The company with whom I travelled were not at all annoyed by the Indians; perhaps we were too numerous for them. They frequently came and traded their skins and buffalo robes, moccasins, &c. for beads, trinkets, and bread or flour; but never showed any disposition to quarrel with us. I afterwards heard that a large party of Pawnees mustered on the route, and demanded large quantities of flour, more than the companies could well spare. They showed fight towards one company under Captain [John] Brown, because they would not give them more than 200 lb of flour, and drew out in order of battle. When Captain Brown saw their determination, he gave orders to his “boys” to get their rifles ready. But on the Indians perceiving this, they withdrew without further molestation. As a general thing, I may observe here, that the various tribes of Indians will listen to reason if you can possibly converse with them, and can be made to exercise kindness, and many of the virtues common to humanity.
Numerous and novel to me were the many scenes and trials in crossing the plains. Every two or three days we were visited by fearful storms of thunder and lightning, accompanied with tempestuous winds and torrents of rain and hail. Occasionally the force of the wind would overthrow a tent, and expose the inmates and the goods to the mercy of the storm; but help was soon at hand, and again the tent was reared. If a storm came on whilst travelling, orders were given to halt and turn the hind part of the waggon to the storm; the cattle unhitched, and permitted to graze, to prevent a “stampede.” You in England can form little idea of the thundr storm on the plains. Its first approach is indicated by the rising of a small, dark cloud on the horizon, which gradually increases, and spreads with considerable rapidity over the plain. The thunder is heard booming along like the sounds of a large park of artillery, with a deep richness of tone that cannot be conceived in the narrow and confined streets of the towns and cities of England. These sounds seldom cease until the storm is over. Then comes the brilliant silvery flash of the lightning, which illumines the darkness of midnight with a light so pure that it would be possible to pick up a pin from the prairie ground, if one were there. Ofttimes have I experienced considerable pleasure in watching this awfully grand phenomenon of nature, as it lighted up my waggon, during the silent hours of the night; the shrill voice of the guard as he called the hour and “all’s right,” together with the pealing thunder, every now and again breaking the monotony of the hours of slumber. The rain fell in torrents, and hail came down upon our canvass as though the “boys” above were pelting us with alabaster marbles; but the canvass withstood the battery in first-rate style. In all tempestuous storms which we passed through, I never observed any fear displayed by the Mormons; but every man was at his post, either at midnight or in the day time, – In thunder, lightning, or in rain.
Previous to our arrival at Fort Laramie, we passed many places that were colonised by prairie dogs. These cunning little animals partake somewhat of the rabbit species, and burrow under ground, differing in their formation and in some of their habits. The nose and mouth are like the rabbit; the ears are short, and appear as though they had been cut. The other portion of the body is much like that of the dog, with the exception of the tail, which, I believe, is short and bushy. They generally occupy a large piece of sandy land; raise mounds by scratching a hole to burrow in, leaving the entrance at the top; and when anything disturbs them, there is one always on the watch, who raises the alarm by a sudden howl, and down they all go. It requires a smart marksman to shoot one, they are so exceedingly quick. At night, the howling of the prairie dogs and of the wolves around our camp was sometimes very great; and you might imagine them close upon your heels, so fierce and loud did they howl. If a horse or an ox fell or “gave out” from fatigue, the wolves were soon upon the track, scenting out their prey, and by the light of the morning the bones of the animal were to be seen pretty well cleared of the flesh. These ferocious animals were very numerous, and at times very bold, attacking beasts in or near the camp at midnight unless the guard is keeping a sharp look-out; they invariably quit on the appearance of daylight.
Many rivers lay in our path, which we had to cross; some by ferry-boat, others we ran our teams through without stopping. Sometimes it was rather difficult to cross these streams by ferry boat, with heavily-laden waggons, owing to the sand-banks, snags, &c.; but these things appeared to be little in the way of the Mormons, for us soon as the difficulty presented itself, a dozen men were immediately at hand with spades, shovels, and pickaxes, to remove any obstacle that might be likely to retard our progress. In fact, a company of pioneers was formed – a man out of every twelve being required every morning. This party had a captain over them, and he called them out, and went ahead of the camp; and on perceiving any bad or difficult places, they endeavoured to smooth the path for the coming train, reducing, where possible, sudden descents and steep inclines, filling up sloughs and mud holes with prairie grass and brushwood, covering all with soil, thus giving a firmer footing for the cattle; forming bridges and repairing those that were broken down or carried away by the floods. In this manner the train met with little or no delay until they camped in the evening.
I must now hasten to give you a slight sketch of our journey from Fort Laramie, as we had up to this time been engaged in crossing rivers and plains, but now we were about to experience a change, – the Black Hills lay before us as we approached the fort – these we had to cross previously to our arrival at the Valley of the Great Salt Lake.
We reached Fort Laramie on the 24th August, and pitched camp on the north side of the river Platte – the same side on which we had been travelling. Here the company set about making repairs; refixing anything that was out of order, and tightening the tires on the waggon wheels, as we were about to experience a change in the character of the roads – from sand and mud to rocky mountains. Fort Laramie is but a small village, consisting of a store, an hotel, and some few houses. The inhabitants chiefly depend upon trading with the emigrants and Indians, and speculating with cattle. There is a mail station here also, and a company of the United States army to defend the rights of all travellers.
It was at Fort Laramie that we received a visit from the tribe of Indians called Sioux. These are a more noble looking race than the Pawnees, being taller and more athletic, with intelligent and rather handsome features. They went through the smoking ceremony with the chief of our company, and he made them some presents, one of whom received an old black dress coat, a hat, and a pair of pants; the coat he soon put on, and ‘cut a dash” through the camp with the new garb, being a man upwards of 6 feet well proportioned and noble features. The pants he could not get on, and said they were “no good,” as he could not walk or run in them. The female portion of this tribe were of a beautiful appearance, though having a dark skin; they partake somewhat of the Spanish features, being brunette, with dark bright eyes. Two of these came to camp one morning, just as we were bout to move, riding upon ponies, sitting cross-legged, and wished to trade their moccasins for bread, or trinkets, or jewels, but when we offered anything they could make no use of, they would smile, and truly their smiles were exquisite, enough to make an Englishman forget where he was. Many of this tribe followed us some distance, and seemed much attracted by a funeral ceremony that took place at Fort Laramie, which was the burial of one of the aged fathers of the company, who had come out from Ashton-under Lyne, near your city, with his family, and who was very desirous of seeing the valley in the far west.
But I am afraid I shall lengthen out too much, if I enumerate all the little circumstances that occurred on this journey. We now had crossed the Platte river, and were running on the south side of it, leaving it to the right for a short time, and again coming to it. The hills that skirted our path on our left were covered with the dark foliage of the fir-tree, and, in the distance, appeared perfectly black. As the train advanced (which was a slow motion) we had ample opportunity of witnessing the varied mountainous scenery that now presented itself on every side. We would occasionally find ourselves running along a high ridge, from which we had an extensive view of immense basins or valleys, extending for miles every way, surrounded by lofty and rugged mountains. next we would have to lock our waggon wheels, as we were descending a steep declivity into one of these beautiful valleys, and it would seem to the unexperienced traveller that we had got into a place from which there was no escape, as to all appearance we were locked in by impassable rocks of stupendous magnitude. But onward we pressed, until we came to a steep ascent, where it would require the doubling of teams to rush the waggons up to the next lofty ridge, and which again gave us a view of the apparently endless nature of our journey. On this part of our journey the company frequently refreshed themselves by the many springs of clear water that rushed from the foot of the mountains.
On the 29th of August we started on our journey as usual, but the day proved a rather eventful one. We had gone a short distance previously to camping for dinner, and for that purpose we turned a little out of our path, and proceeded towards the river Platte, where there was a deal of dry bunch grass, which is good feed for cattle. We halted, the cattle were unhitched from the waggons, and driven in a herd to the water. Orders had been given by the captain that no fires should be lighted, as, from the dryness of the grass, it was dangerous to do so. Two or three of the company did not hear the order, and without thought lighted fires. The inflammable nature of the prairie grass caused the flames to spread with considerable rapidity, being also aided by the brisk wind that was blowing. It appeared a critical moment. The flames, in some instances, reached the tops of the wagons, and set the canvas on fire. Horror was depicted on many countenances, and it seemed as though the whole company would be destroyed. Every exertion was made to put out the flames, men pulling off their coats, and women their shawls, to batter out the fire, but it was all to no purpose. The fury of the fiery element increased, and roared like thunder as it rolled along the ground, the heat being so great that it singed the men as they attempted to move the wagons to windward.
The captain, however, gave orders for the oxen to be brought up, and hitched in. A movement to an adjacent hill was commenced, and as soon as we got there out of danger, we again halted, and sat down on the grass to dine, watching the progress of the fire, which had by this time well-night reached the river, and there was presented to our view a large blackened surface – the effects of the destructive element.
Having recovered from the fright we had received from witnessing the prairie on fire, we again proceeded on our way over the Rocky Mountains; our course continuing much the same as previously described – over rocky and smooth ground, continuing to rise in altitude as we advanced, the highest elevation we attained being about 7,000 feet above the level of the sea.
Near to Independence Rock (an immense round rock, with a flat top on Sweetwater river, 300 miles from Great Salt Lake city, carved, and cut, and painted with all kinds of names of parties emigrating to and from California and Salt Lake) – near to this rock there is a fort and mail station, called Chambault Fort, and it is also a trading-post. Here also is a curiosity – the waters of the Sweetwater rush through, between two perpendicular rocks of considerable loftiness, and this is called Devil’s Gate.
At Fort Bridger (113 miles from the city) there is also a trading-post. From this point to the city, the mountains take a great elevation – the highest being about 7,000 feet above the sea. The approach to the city is through kanyons of eight or ten miles in length, being much cut up by creeks, and lined on either side by perpendicular rocks – a very dangerous passage for an army in a hostile country.
At the mouth of the Emigration kanyon, through which we passed, we were five miles from the city, and as we approached it, the sun was just skirting the horizon in the west, on the 6th day of October, 1853.
In my next letter, I will give you a full description of the city, and other important particulars connected with the Mormon population in the Rocky Mountains.
P.S. I should have stated that when we arrived at Fort Bridger, we found a company of the Mormon militia in full possession of the fort, who had been sent by Governor Brigham Young, to arrest Mr. Bridger on a charge of selling ammunition to the Indians, and inciting them against the Mormons. Bridger had made his escape to the mountains, and a party were in pursuit of him, whilst a portion of the above company remained at the fort to protect the companies of Mormons emigrating to the valley.
[Source: British Library, 19th Century British Library Newspapers]