Heritage Gateways

Official Sesquicentennial K-12 Education Project
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Pioneer 1847 Companies

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1847: Saturday, May 8 - The awesome sight of Buffalo blackening the prairie on all sides

Location: Gothenburg, Nebraska - Location: 40:55:46N 100:09:37W Elevation: 2567 feet

Date: May 8, 1847

The Mormon pioneer wagons are like ships adrift in a sea of buffalo.

"The prairie on both sides of the river is literally black with buffalo," William Clayton said. "To try to say what number we have seen this morning would be folly."

Wilford Woodruff recorded that it appeared as if "the face of the earth was alive and moving like the waves of the sea."

Heber C. Kimball said he had heard many buffalo stories in his lifetime, but never expected to behold what his eyes were now seeing.

The buffalo are "more tame than they have been" and walk near the sides of the wagons. Horsemen have some difficulty driving them from the path ahead.

"If horsemen chase buffalo, the animals turn around and look at them as soon as the riders stop," Norton Jacob wrote in his journal.

"No pen nor tongue can give an idea of the multitude now in sight continually," Clayton said. "Multitudes would have been killed if the president did not prohibit the brethren from shooting them only as we need the meat."

Brigham Young and Kimball explored some distance along the bluffs on foot and reported "the grass is eaten perfectly bare and the prospect of feed for our teams is poor indeed."

Clayton said hundreds of buffalo can be seen lying dead on the prairie, but added that it was unknown whether they succumbed to starvation or were killed by hunters who had passed this way recently. The stench made some pioneers ill.

Lorenzo Young said a buffalo calf wandered into camp "and seems determined to stay with us,"but the company left it behind. "Before we got out of sight, a large wolf came upon it and carried it off .. . it looked very cruel."

He said his wife Harriet "has not enjoyed the day," because of a toothache. Young said he gave her a blessing "and she got better."

Clayton experienced what he called a "tedious" day. He had counted every turn of a wagon wheel trying to get an exact measurement of how far the pioneers traveled.

The company needed to know how far they moved each day and the distance between various camp grounds, water, fuel and other important points, such as creeks. The information was vital to the many wagon trains which would be following.

At first they just guessed at the distance covered, but none of the figures were the same and Clayton felt most of the estimates were too high.

"There is generally a difference of two and sometimes four miles in a day's travel between my estimation and that of some others and they all thought I underrated it," he said.

Convinced he was right, Clayton figured a way to get an accurate test of the mileage. He measured a wheel on one of Kimball's wagons and found that 360 turns of that wheel equaled exactly one mile -- no more, no less.

He spent the day walking alongside the wheel and counting every rum it made. Adding up the revolutions, he figured the company had come a little more than 11 and three-quarter miles.

Others in the camp had paced the day's travel at 13 and 14 miles, "which serves to convince more strongly that distances have been overrated." he said.

Adding the new figures to his previous calculations, Clayton pounded a small cedar post into the ground and wrote on it in pencil: "From Winter Quarters, 295 miles, May 8 "47."

He said he repeatedly suggested that some device be built which could be attached to a wagon wheel and measure the distance traveled. Simply counting the turns of a wheel was enough to make a man dizzy.

Many in the camp are beginning to give serious consideration to the idea "and I hope it will be done," he wrote.

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.