Heritage Gateways

Official Sesquicentennial K-12 Education Project
sponsored by the Utah State Board of Education, the BYU-Public School Partnership and the Utah Education Network

Pioneer 1847 Companies

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1847: Saturday, April 10 - Food was Scarce and Any Creek an Obstacle.

Date: April 10, 1847

Camping on the open prairie was no picnic for the Mormon pioneers. One of the biggest problems was the lack of wood for fires to cook food.

The scarcity of trees across the Nebraska prairie made wood a valuable commodity. Trees and brush occasionally could be found along the rivers, but not every day.

As the pioneers broke camp April 10. many did not have wood to make fires so they skipped breakfast. However, the men cut considerable grass to feed the cattle.

Jolting along in their wagons, the party crossed Big Papillion Creek during the morning. Any body of water, from a small creek to a large river, was a barrier for the company. The creeks usually were narrow, but with high, steep banks. Getting across was accomplished by everybody grabbing shovels and digging the banks down. Wagons were then driven through the gap. The water normally was quite shallow.

At the Big Papillion the pioneers found a few cottonwood trees. Some they promptly chopped down and most of the party cooked and ate the breakfast they had missed earlier on the prairie. A few had managed a meal before breaking camp that morning and these continued their journey after crossing the creek. They reached the Elkhorn River about noon and then followed the river eight miles to a known crossing point where there was plenty of timber.

The advance wagons found a raft built and waiting for them -- the work of a few men sent ahead several days earlier for just that purpose.

Working quickly because of coming darkness, a number of the leaders floated their wagons across the Elkhorn. The river at this point was about 160 feet wide and the water was four feet deep in places. The Elkhorn was the first major milestone on the trip.

Getting across was wet work. The horses were ridden through the water to the other side and the cattle driven along with them. The raft was controlled by cattle pulling guide ropes on both sides of the river.

Seen in modern times, the Elkhorn doesn't look too formidible -- a fairly shallow body of water and not too wide. But for the pioneers it was a time-consuming obstacle. In l978 the crossing site is surrounded by cornfields. A Union Pacific railroad line spans the river nearby and Highway 6 is about a mile to the south.

During the evening many of the pioneers who had stopped to eat at Big Papillion Creek arrived on the scene and lent a hand with the rafting. This group had run into a marshy creek along the way and the men had to help pull the wagons through. Writing in his journal that night, Lorenzo Young called it "a hard day's work."

Nightfall found members of the party camped on both sides of the river. Eight men were posted for guard duty throughout the night because several pioneers reported seeing Indians prowling around the area.

Not everybody bringing up the rear reached the river by dark. Some of the main party, including the wagons with Brigham Young, camped near the banks of the Elkhorn, but about four miles upstream from the rest of the group.

Howard Egan, whose wagons were still traveling separately from the others, covered about 15 miles, which was pretty good marching time. He camped for the night on the open prairie "near a ravine which provided us water."

The pioneers" traveling speed was dictated by the oxen, who could make only about two miles an hour slower than a man could walk. Thus the pace had to be rather leisurely. No one had any trouble keeping up.

To properly appreciate the pioneer route, it is necessary to understand that the trail was not a narrow pathway in the same sense as a road. Rather, it was a corridor which might be a few dozen yards wide to several miles in width, depending on the terrain. Wagons moving along the trail traveled anywhere in that corridor, the exact path
depending on available grass for cattle, campsites, and other factors.

The main group of pioneers who camped April 10 on both sides of the Elkhorn was not far from the site of the future town of Waterloo, a Union Pacific Railroad community laid out in 1871 and named after the famous European battlefield.

Source: 111 Days to Zion © Copyright 1997 Big Moon Traders and Hal Knight. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or utilized in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording or by any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publisher. This includes educational uses.