The Pioneer Trek of 1847 - Part II, Kearney to Fort Laramie
Date: May 5, 1847
A few days later, on May 5th, the pioneers experienced another of the great natural phenomena of the plains--a prairie fire. Usually caused by dry lightning or Indians, it became a scourging wall of flame that, wind-driven, could reach a height of twenty feet, could scorch and blind buffalo, overtake a horse, and easily engulf a slow-moving ox train. Nebraska country was a great sea of grass, which summer sun and winter frost regularly dried or killed, leaving it tinder to great fires every fall and spring. There are only two ways of fighting such a fire: with firebreaks or backfires. The pioneers had time for neither, they simply drove their wagons to a convenient island in the Platte and let the fire pass harmlessly by.
On May 10th, west of the confluence of the North and South Platte rivers, several pioneers gave some thought to making an instrument to attach to a wagon wheel that would measure miles traveled. Prior to this William Clayton had kept track of distance by tying a red cloth to a wagon wheel and counting its revolutions (360 to the mile). The device was an endless screw fashioned out of wood. It was because of this measuring device and his detailed journal that Clayton was later, in 1848, to publish his famous The Latter-day-Saints" Emigrants" Guide.
West of Ash Hollow, a famous camping site on the Oregon Trail, the Mormons entered the broken lands of the Upper Missouri Basin and the terrain became increasingly more interesting and varied. For 80 miles to Scotts Bluff, the pioneers traveled through what might loosely be called a monument valley. Along this stretch on both sides of the river are some of the most famous and dramatic topographical features of the Mormon and Oregon-California Trails. Courthouse Rock, Chimney Rock, and Scotts Bluff guarded the Oregon Trail, while Indian Lookout Point and Ancient Ruins Bluff sentineled the Mormon Trail. In mid-May they crossed a short section of Nebraska's Sand Hills, where ruts can still be found.
On May 22nd the pioneers made camp near the most impressive topographic site along the entire Mormon Trail, a place the Mormons called Ancient Ruins Bluff, which consists of three separate and magnificently eroded formations. On Sunday, May 24th, Brigham Young and others climbed the main bluff. While there, they wrote their names on a buffalo skull and left it on the southwest corner. (Years later this author tried to find this skull but, of course, it was no longer there.)
In this general area the pioneers engaged is some mock trials and elections. James Davenport, for example, was accused of "blocking the highway and turning ladies out of the way," and "Father" Chamberlain was voted the most even-tempered man in camp--always cross and quarrelsome.
On May 24th, at their camp opposite Courthouse Rock, at one time thought to have been named from its fancied resemblance to the St. Louis courthouse, the pioneers were visited by a party of Sioux, certainly the largest of the Great Plains tribes and the most dominant. The visit was pleasant and the pioneers were favorably impressed with the Indians.
On May 26th, they passed Chimney Rock--a principal milestone, which, though only 452 miles from Winter Quarters, came to be considered sort of a halfway mark. This most familiar sight on the Oregon Trail was an eroded tusk of Brule clay jutting some 500 feet above the Platte. No one is known to have successfully climbed it, but there is one legend that an Indian suitor, in order to win a bride, reached the top, only to plunge to his death. On Friday, May 28th, they were opposite the massive formations of clay and sandstone called Scotts Bluff and passed the future site of the famous Rebecca Winter's grave. The grave is famous, because it is one of the very few authenticated Mormon emigrant graves known.
The following day was Sunday and, just east of what today is the Wyoming state line near Henry, Young convened a special meeting. They went out on the bluffs clothed themselves in their temple robes and held a prayer circle to pray for guidance.
That same day they spotted the pyramidal bulk of Laramie Peak looming regally above the "Black Hills," today's Laramie Mountains, the first western mountains seen by westering Americans. A day later they passed out of what is now Nebraska and came upon a wagon track that led them to Fort Laramie, 30 miles farther west.
Fort Laramie has had at least three names. It was founded in 1834 as Fort William, later called Fort John, by which name the pioneers knew it, and then in 1849 it became Fort Laramie, after a French trapper, Jacques LaRamie. Thus far the pioneers had suffered no deaths, little illness, and the loss of only four horses, two to the Indians and two accidentally killed--one was shot (loaded firearms kept in jolting wagons or held by people on horseback claimed many a life needlessly on the frontier), the other fell into a ravine while tethered, and broke its neck.
In 1847 while at Fort Laramie, the pioneers rested their animals and themselves and prepared to pick up the Oregon Trail, the longest wagon road in history. Called the main street of the old west, the Oregon Trail stretched over 2,000 miles from Independence, Missouri, to the Columbia River. It had been blazed between 1811 and 1839 and thereafter tens of thousands used the trail annually on their way to Oregon and California. Estimates range from 350,000 to 500,000 people used the Oregon Trail up until the coming of the railroad in 1869. Those going to California left the Oregon Trail at Soda Springs and Fort Hall in what is now Idaho.
While at Fort Laramie, the pioneers were joined by seventeen advance members of the "Mississippi Saints" from Monroe County, Mississippi, who had been waiting for them for two weeks. Among this advance group were six females: Elizabeth Crow and her five daughters. The Mississippi Saints told the pioneers that most of their group and some soldiers of the Mormon Battalion, too sick to pursue the march any farther (commonly called the Sick Detachment), were at Fort Pueblo in what was to become Colorado. To help this group join the pioneers in the Valley, Young dispatched four men to Fort Pueblo. This meant a net gain of thirteen individuals, bringing the number of the pioneer group to 161 people with 77 wagons.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.)