Heritage Gateways

Official Sesquicentennial K-12 Education Project
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Pioneer 1847 Companies

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1847: Monday, May 3 - Indian scare alarmed pioneer hunting party

Location: Elm Creek, Nebraska - Location: 40:43:10N 99:22:18W Elevation: 2262 feet

Date: May 3, 1847

Prairie fires continued to burn in the distance. Flames had destroyed large areas of grass in the past three days and crept within a mile of camp.

Because the fire had ruined much of the available grazing, Brigham Young ordered 15 scouts to ride ahead and examine the route. If possible, they were to find some areas of unburned grass.

The pioneers were positive the fires had been deliberately set by Indians to destroy the grass and drive off the buffalo "so we cannot subsist," Norton Jacob wrote in his journal. He said the prairie was burned over "or is still burning as far as the eye can see."

Twenty men were designated as hunters and set forth on foot and horseback, accompanied by two empty wagons. They split into two parties in search of game.

The remainder of the camp stayed put near the water and grass to rest the cattle, make wagon repairs and await reports of what lay ahead on the trail.

One of the hunters, William A. Empey, was chasing an antelope over a rise when he suddenly came upon what he described as "300 or 400 Indians," all of them mounted warriors hidden in a low area near the river.

Empey wheeled his horse about and retreated at full speed, giving the alarm to other hunters that a war party of Indians was coming. "We returned immediately to camp at a pretty smart trot," Jacob reported.

Empey, 38, a Canadian who later became a missionary to England and helped colonize some areas of southern Utah, was not to reach Salt Lake Valley that year. He was among several men left behind at one point to build a ferry for the pioneers who were still coming. He entered the valley in 1848.

After the hunters returned to camp with the alarming news, other men were sent out to gather those still on the prairie, including the second party of hunters.

In this second group was Wilford Woodruff, who said he had a bad cold which had settled in his side, but who had gone hunting despite not feeling well.

He said his party had "marched 10 miles back and forth over the hills and saw no game."

The hunters were sitting on a bluff taking a rest when they saw "horsemen approaching from the camp in haste, bearing a red flag." They walked down to meet the riders and learned of the Indian alarm.

Woodruff said a large party of Indians in the area probably means they are seeking to waylay small groups of pioneers and rob them of their horses and clothing and "would take life if they could not do it without."

As the hunters and searchers returned they managed to kill three antelope and two buffalo calves and bring the carcasses back to camp.

The buffalo calves were shot when one group of hunters encountered a small herd. William Dykes dismounted from his mule to get a better shot, "a dangerous practice," according to Jacob.

In this case, the mule broke away and ran after the fleeing buffalo. One man tried to give chase, but his horse quickly tired. Stephen Markham, who had a better horse, then pursued the mule for two or three miles and finally caught it.

"Horses can be lost this way and never recovered," Jacob said. Once an animal gets mixed in with the buffalo herd, there is no way to get it back, he wrote.

The unfortunate Dykes, 31, a native Pennsylvanian, crossed the plains several more times, but eventually left the Utah territory and settled in Nebraska where he died in 1879.

While the hunters and scouts had considerable excitement and the Indian scare, the rest of the camp set up forges, shoed horses, repaired wagon wheels, continued to dry meat for jerky, did washing and other camp chores.

That night the cannon was unlimbered and made ready. It was "fired twice in the night, just to let the Indians know we were awake," Woodruff said.

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.