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Pioneer 1847 Companies

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The Pioneer Trek of 1847 - Part III, Fort Laramie to Fort Bridger

Date: June 10, 1847

On Saturday, June 5th, the pioneers were ready to leave for the Continental Divide at South Pass and Fort Bridger, 397 miles west. For a little over one month the pioneers would be on the Oregon Trail with several other Gentile (non-Mormon) companies, with whom they would vie for the best campgrounds, feed, and priority in fording rivers.

On their first day out from Fort Laramie they came to what is now called Mexican Hill. They may have been familiar with the frontier hyperbole regarding this steep cut down the bluffs to the river. While descending, so the story went, if a tin cup fell out of a wagon it would land in front of the oxen. Two miles west of Mexican Hill is Register Cliff and 1 1/2 miles beyond that are some of the most dramatic trail ruts in the world--four feet deep in solid rock--near what is now Guernsey, Wyoming, in Guernsey State Park. Near here is Warm Springs Canyon, the Emigrants" Wash Tub, where the water is always a warm 70 degrees.

Two days later, near Horseshoe Creek, Heber C. Kimball discovered a large spring, which was named after him. On Sunday, June 13th, while at their fording site on the Platte, frequently referred to as "Last Crossing," the pioneers established a ferry for the Saints who would follow. It was also established to be a money-making venture. Ten men were left behind to operate and maintain what soon became known as Mormon Ferry.

When the pioneers left Last Crossing on June 19th, they quit the Platte for good. From the Elk Horn River to Last Crossing they had followed its generally gentle valley for more than 600 miles. The easy part of the trek was over, as the next 50 miles would prove. The stretch from Last Crossing through Emigrant Gap, by Avenue of Rocks, Willow Springs and up Prospect Hill to the Sweetwater River near Independence Rock was the worst section of the whole trail between Nauvoo and the Salt Lake Valley. It was a "Hell's Reach" of few and bad campsites, bad water, little grass, one steep hill, swamps, and stretches of alkali flats.

But the pioneers endured and lived to enjoy refreshing draughts of the Sweetwater River, which probably acquired its name either from American trappers because of its contrast with the other brackish streams in the vicinity, or from French voyagers, who called it the Eau Sucree because a pack mule loaded with sugar was lost in its water. This small, gentle, beneficent river, which all Oregonians and Mormons followed for 93 miles to South Pass, made it possible for travelers to reach their destination in one season, avoiding a winter in such desolate country.

Like all travelers before and after them, the pioneers stopped to climb the huge turtle-shaped Independence Rock and some carved or painted their initials or names into or on it. Four and a half miles west was the equally famous Devil's Gate, another popular resting place on the trail.

Its name derives from the notion that the formation bears the profiles of twin petrified genies. It is a 1,500-foot-long, 370-foot-deep gap in a rocky spur, through which flows the Sweetwater. Signatures can still be found in this gap.

West of Devil's Gate came Martin's Cove, the Split Rock ruts, Three Crossings, the Ice Springs, the Willie's Handcart grave, and South Pass.

On June 27th they crossed the flat, almost imperceptible 7,750-foot-high continental divide at South Pass, the "Cumberland Gap" of the Far West. Oregonians and Californians tried to reach this pass by July 4th in order to get to their destinations before winter. (The Mormons, with a shorter distance to go, did not have to be so careful.) At Pacific Springs, immediately west of South Pass, the pioneers refreshed themselves and their animals. These famous springs, so named because their waters flowed to the Pacific Ocean, were the recognized beginning of the sprawling and ill-defined Oregon Territory.

A few miles farther, on the aptly named Dry Sandy, they met Moses Harris, the first of the mountain men with whom they consulted about their destination. Harris, who had roamed the west for twenty-five years, did not think much of the country around the Great Salt Lake; he said it was barren, sandy, and destitute of timber and vegetation except wild sage. On the next day, still on the Dry Sandy, the pioneers met the famous Jim Bridger, who was on his way to Fort Laramie, and spent some time with him discussing the Valley of the Great Salt Uke. This camp was the setting of Bridger's well-known challenge that he would give a thousand dollars for a bushel of corn raised in the Great Basin. For his help, Young gave Bridger a pass for the Mormon Ferry on the Platte.

At this time, Bridger, who was quite "likkered up," entertained them with some of his tall tales, like the one about the glass mountain strewn about with the corpses of animals and birds that had killed themselves running and flying into it; or the one about petrified birds singing in a petrified forest; perhaps the one about a stream that ran so fast it cooked the trout in it; or about the rock he threw across the Sweetwater River, which just kept on growing until it became Independence Rock; and maybe the story of the time some Indians chased him up a narrow canyon closed at the head by a 200-foot waterfall. "And how did you escape, Jim?" the Mormons may have asked. "I didn't," he'd have answered, "they scalped me."

June 29th was a banner day: the Mormons, passing the famous Parting of the Ways made the best distance of the whole crossing--23 3/4-miles, against an overall average of 10 miles per day. Such a distance was covered only because there was no water between the Dry Sandy and the Sandy. By July 3rd they were at the Green River where they established another ferry. From there they passed Church Butte and, finally, on the afternoon of July 7th, they arrived at Fort Bridger, a poorly built ramshackle adobe establishment on Black's Fork of the Green River, put up in 1842 to service emigrants on the Oregon Trail.

Source: Historic Resource Study - Mormon Pioneer National By Stanley B. Kimball, Ph.D., May 1991. (The study focuses on the history of the trail from its official beginning in Nauvoo, Illinois, to its terminus in Salt Lake City, Utah, during the period 1846-1869. During that time, thousands of Mormon emigrants used many trails and trail variants to reach Utah. This study emphasizes the "Pioneer Route" or "Brigham Young Route" of 1846-1847. The sections on Mormon beliefs and motivations for going west have been omitted. Interested persons can find ample sources for that information. The footnotes, bibliography, maps, pictures, pioneer companies by name and dates for the 22-year period, and historic sites - about 2/3 of the book - have also been left out for space considerations. Thanks to Dr. Kimball and the National Park Service for the availability of this information.)