J[aques], J[ohn], "Some Reminiscences," Salt Lake Daily Herald, 15 December 1878, 1.
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SALT LAKE CITY, Dec. 14, 1878.
In my last week's letter Captain [Edward] Martin's handcart company was brought along to camp on this side of the north Platte, at the last crossing, on the the 20th of October (1856), the first day of winter, with cold wind, sleet, and snow. Do you know that was the very next day after that on which, forty-four years before, the great Napoleon decided on his disastrous retreat from Moscow? For, in relating these handcart adventures, my mind has involuntarily run back to that terrible time though this handcart expedition was an advance, not a retreat. The handcart company never retreated one day nor one yard, never thought of retreating, but in all their difficulties the people kept their faces steadfastly towards Salt Lake.
The next day after crossing the Platte the company moved on slowly, about ten miles, through the snow, and camped again near the Platte and at the point where the road left it for the Sweetwater. It snowed three days, and the teams and many of the people were so far given out that it was deemed advisable not to proceed further for a few days, but rather to stay in camp and recruit. It was hoped that the snow and cold would prove only a foretaste of winter and would soon pass away and the weather would moderate, but that hope proved delusive. It was expected that help from Salt Lake would soon reach the company, which cheering expectation was shortly realized. In this camp the company stayed, resting and recruiting as well as could be under the circumstances, the snow remaining on the ground and the frost being very keen at nights. Here the flour ration fell to four ounces per day, and again, for the third and last time, might the emigrants have said, with Sir Walter, "Like a summer-dried fountain, when our wants are the sorest." This was the extremity of their privations as to food, but not the end of their sufferings, for the injurious effects of their privations told upon them during the remainder of their journey and for some time after. Indeed, with some of the company relics of these effects remain, of one sort or another, to this day. In addition to the flour ration, considerable beef was killed and served to the company, as had been the case most of the journey. But the cattle had now grown so poor that there was little flesh left on them, and that little was as lean as lean could be. The problem was how to cook it to advantage. Stewed meat and soups were found to be bad for diarrhaea and dysentery, provocative of and aggravating those diseases, of which there was considerable in the company, and to fry lean meat without an atom of fat in it or out of it was disgusting to every cook in the camp. The outlook was certainly not encouraging, but it need not be supposed that the company was in despair, notwithstanding that the situation was rather desperate. O no! A hopeful and cheerful spirit pervaded the camp, and the "songs of Zion" were frequently heard at this time, though the company was in the very depths of its privations. Though the bodies of the people were worn down, their spirits were buoyant, while at the same time they had become so accustomed to looking death in the face that they seemed to have no fear of it, nor of corpses either, the bodies of the dead having become such familiar sights as to lose their ordinary thrilling influence on beholders, and to be no more thought of with repulsive aversion, nor specially and nervously avoided, than the living.
In my letter last week I omitted to say that a way back from Fort Laramie the company met Jonathan Grimshaw and company many or most of whom were dissatisfied "Mormons," returning from Salt Lake to the states and part of them to England, for the reason, as some of them said, that they could get no work and nothing to eat in Utah. How they got away under those circumstances is a mystery.
The 28th of October was the red letter day to this handcart expedition. On that memorable day Joseph A. Young, Daniel W. Jones, and Abel Garr galloped unexpectedly into the camp amid the cheers and tears and smiles and laughter of the emigrants. These three men being an express from the most advanced relief company from Salt Lake, brought the glad word that assistance, provisions, and clothing were near, that ten wagons were waiting at Devil's Gate for the emigrants, which cheering intelligence had been previously communicated to Captain [William] Hodgetts' wagon company, in camp hard by, and first reached by the express, who, after a very brief stay in the handcart camp, pushed on to Captain Hunt's wagon company, encamped on the Platte, about ten miles below and beyond the handcart company. The express stayed with Hunt's company for the night.
All was now animation and bustle in the handcart camp, and everybody was busy at once in making preparations for a renewed start in the morning. The revived spirits of the company were still further exhilarated by an increased ration of flour that day, three quarters of a pound I believe. With cheered hearts and renewed hopes the emigrants retired to their beds that night, and no doubt many of the sleepers made pleasant excursions into the mystic regions of dreamland.
Early on the morning of the 29th the handcart company left the Platte and struck across the country for the Sweetwater. Joseph A. Young and his companions, returning from Hunt's company, overtook Martin's company before night and camped with it at Rock Avenue, about thirty-six miles east of Devil's Gate.
In the afternoon of the last day of October, the company met C. H. Wheelock, Daniel W. Jones, and David Garr, who were going to meet the various companies. About dark the company arrived at Greasewood creek, between thirty and forty miles from the last crossing of the Platte. At Greasewood creek were found George D. Grant, R. T. Burton, Charles Decker, C. G. Webb and others, with six wagons laden with flour and other things, from Salt Lake, who had come to the assistance of the belated emigrants. This was another time of rejoicing. Some of the relief party had met the emigrants a mile or two away from camp and had helped to pull some of the carts along. Here some stockings boots and other clothing were distributed among the emigrants, also a few onions, which were highly prized, and a pound of flour ration was served out, which was the daily ration, with the exception of about two days if I recollect rightly, thenceforth to the end of the journey. This was the beginning of better days as to food and assistance but the cold grew more severe, and was intense much of the way. In Napoleon's retreat, the winter came on with unusual earliness and severity, and the severity of the weather continued to increase. So it was with this handcart expedition.
Here allow me to present some extracts from a letter written by George D. Grant, dated Devil's Gate, Nov. 2:
"We had no snow to contend with, until we got to the Sweetwater. On the 19th and 20th of October we encountered a very severe snow storm. We met Brother Willie's company on the 21st. The snow was six to ten inches deep where we met them. They were truly in a bad situation, but we rendered them all the assistance in our power. Brother W. H. Kimball returned with them, also several other brethren.
Previous to this time we had sent on an express to ascertain, if possible, the situation and whereabouts of the company yet back, and report to me. Not thinking it safe for them to go farther than Independence Rock, I advised them to wait there. When we overtook them they had heard nothing from the rear companies and we had traveled through the snow from eight to twelve inches deep all the way from Willow creek to this place.
Not having much feed for our horses, they were running down very fast, and, not hearing anything from the companies, I did not know but what they had taken up quarters for the winter, consequently we sent on another express to the Platte bridge. When the express returned, to my surprise I learned that the companies were all on the Platte river, near the upper crossing, and had been encamped there nine days, waiting for the snow to go away, or, as they said, to recruit their cattle. As quick as we learned this, we moved on to meet them. We met Brother Martin's company at Greasewood creek on the last day of October. Brother Hodgetts' company was a few miles behind. We dealt out to Brother Martin's company the clothing, etc., that we had for them, and next morning, after stowing our wagons, full of the sick, the children, and the infirm, with a good amount of luggage, started homeward about noon. The snow began to fall very fast, and continued until late at night. It is now about eight inches deep here, and the weather is very cold. You can imagine between 500 and 600 men, women and children, worn down by drawing handcarts through snow and mud, fainting by the wayside; falling chilled by the cold; children crying, their limbs stiffened by cold, their feet bleeding, and some of them bare to snow and frost. The sight is almost too much for the stoutest of us. Our company is too small to help much. It is only a drop to a bucket, as it were, in comparison with what is needed. I think that not over one-third of Martin's company is able to walk. This you may think is extravagant, but it is nevertheless true. Some of them have good courage, and are in good spirits, but a great many are like children, and do not help themselves much more, nor realize what is before them. Brother Charles Decker has now traveled this road the forty ninth time, and he says he has never before seen so much snow on the Sweetwater, at any season of the year. Brother Hunt's company are two or three days back of us, yet Brother Wheelock will be with them to counsel them, also some of the other brethren who came out."
On the evening of November 1st, the handcart company camped at the Sweetwater bridge, on this side of the river, about five miles on the other side of Devil's Gate, arriving there about dark. There was a foot or eighteen inches of snow on the ground which, as there were but one or two spades in camp, the emigrants had to shovel with their frying pans, or tin plates, or anything they could use for that purpose, before they could pitch their tents, and then the ground was frozen so hard that it was almost impossible to drive the tent pegs into it. Some of the men were so weak that it took them an hour or two to clear the places for their tents and set them up. They would shovel and scrape away at the hard snow a few minutes and then rest, then shovel and scrape and rest again, and so on.
The next day the company moved on to Devil's Gate, where were more of the relief party with wagons and provisions. The wagon companies arrived within two or three days after.
On the 3rd Joseph A. Young and Abel Garr were sent as an express to Salt Lake to convey information as to the situation of the emigrants. In preparing for this express journey home, Joseph A. put on three or four pairs of woolen socks, a pair of moccasins, and a pair of buffalo hide overshoes with the wool on and then remarked, "There, if my feet freeze with those on, they must stay frozen till I get to Salt Lake." This express arrived at its destination at 4 o'clock on the morning of the 18th.
At Devil's Gate an earnest council was held to determine whether to endeavor to winter the emigrants at that point, or to push them on to Salt Lake as fast as possible. It was decided to continue the march to Salt Lake the same season. Two or three days after arriving at Devil's Gate, the handcart company was in part reorganized, and most of the carts were left there. Two, I believe, of the best remaining were retained for each hundred, and these were loaded chiefly with cooking utensils, such as frying pans, bake kettles, saucepans, and camp kettles, so that the loads in these few carts were of a weighty nature. The remainder of the baggage of the company was put on the wagons. Under this arrangement, the company started from Devil's Gate westward, and when about three miles away crossed the Sweetwater to the north side, and camped at a place known since as Martin's ravine. It is not exactly a ravine, but a recess or opening in the mountains, which here ran along near to the river. The passage of the Sweetwater at this point was a severe operation to many of the company. Like Napoleon's passage of the Beresina, it was the worst river crossing of the expedition. It was the last ford that the emigrants waded over. The water was not less than two feet deep, perhaps a little more in the deepest parts, but it was intensely cold. The ice was three or four inches thick, and the bottom of the river muddy or sandy. I forget exactly how wide the stream was there, but I think thirty or forty yards. It seemed a good deal wider than that to those who pulled their handcarts through it. Before the crossing was completed, the shades of evening were closing around, and as everybody knows, that is the coldest hour of the twenty-four, or at least it seems to be so, in a frosty time, and it seemed so then, for cold enough it was. The teams and wagons and handcarts and some of the men forded the river. A son of Heber C. Kimball and a son of George D. Grant, and I believe several others of the relief party, waded the river, helping the handcarts through and carrying the women and children and some of the weaker of the men over. If I were certain of the names of all those brave waders I would insert them here.
In that rear part of the company two men were pulling one of the handcarts, assisted by two or three women, for the women pulled as well as the men all the way, so long as the handcarts lasted. When the cart arrived at the bank of the river, one of these men, who was much worn down, asked, in a plaintive tone, " Have we got to go across there?" On being answered yes, he was so much affected that he was completely overcome. That was the last straw. His fortitude and manhood gave way. He exclaimed, "O dear? I can't go through that," and burst into tears. His wife, who was by his side, had the stouter heart of the two at that juncture, and she said soothingly, "Don't cry, Jimmy. I'll pull the handcart for you." A noble and generous offer, which, however was not carried out. Jimmy besought one of the "boys" from "the valley," who was in the water, to carry him over. The "boy" urged that the women and children had the first claim, but finally consented to carry him across. Jimmy got on the back of the "boy" to ride over, and the "boy" started with him. This little episode, however, ended badly for Jimmy, for, before he was carried entirely across, the "boy" slipped and fell with Jimmy into the water, very wet water it was too, and very cold, freezingly cold, enough to congeal anything. The women with the handcart were carried over safe, and the cart remained with the one man to pull it through. He rolled up his pants as high as he could, pulled off his stockings and boots which he had happened to receive at Greasewood reek, put on a pair of old shoes he carried with him, and all alone went into the river with naked legs and with his cart laden with pots and kettles. It was easy enough to go into the river, but not so easy to pull across it and get out again. The way of the ford was to go into the river a few yards, then turn to the right downstream a distance, perhaps forty or fifty yards, and then turn to the left and make for the opposite bank. When in the water the narrow felloes of the cart wheels cut into the soft bottom of the river bed and he soon got stalled. Two of the "boys" in the water went to his help, and one soon exclaimed "D-u it, you don't pull an ounce!" So hard was the tugging at the cart that it required the utmost combined strength of the three to take the vehicle through safe to dry land. While in the river the sharp cakes of floating ice below the surface of the water struck against the bare shins of the emigrant inflicting wounds which never healed until he arrived at Salt Lake and the dark scars of which he bears to this day. When the river was forded, he found that Jimmy and the women assigned to help pull the cart were all gone on to the camp at the base of the mountains, from half a mile to a mile distant. The way to camp was over rising ground, covered with sage brush, and with about a foot of snow on the surface, similar to the benches adjacent to this city in winter. All alone he had to pull his heavily laden cart over the snow and the clumps of sage brush for road there was none, till he reached the camp. Going through the river and taking his cart single-handed to camp after he had effected the crossing of the river, on that piercing cold evening was the hardest piece of tugging he had encountered on the entire journey, and it was the last on the journey, which was much better. When he arrived at the camp, he had to climb the mountain to cut some cedar for firewood. The "boys" of the relief party had cut some wood for the camp, but that was all appropriated before he arrived in camp. So he went on the mountain, and the mountains there are little else than rocks, and he took his little hatchet, for axes were few in camp. Green cedar was of little use. Nothing but dry cedar was really serviceable for fuel, and the dry cedar was almost as hard as iron, while his hatchet had not been ground since he left the Missouri, if it had since he left Iowa city. So I will leave you to imagine how long he was that night before he succeeded in getting fuel for those depending on him.
At Devil's Gate at that time was a sort of fort or trading post, consisting of several log houses or huts, but vacated when the emigrants were there, as it was not a pleasant place for wintering. But those log huts with generous wood fires on the hearths, seemed very comfortable to the emigrants, though not large enough to accommodate more than a few of them.
Well, I have brought the emigrants along to Devil's Gate, and as I have exhausted your available space, I must leave them there for a week. If they suffer in consequence, it will not be because of the height of the temperature, for, strange as it may seem, that particular gate is located in a semi arctic region, and that particular season was of a semi-arctic character. The exact temperature I could not tell, as I do not know that there was a thermometer in camp, or in any of the camps.