Tooele Transcript Bulletin – News in Tooele, Utah

January 24, 2013
Old journals, letters tell stories of what pioneer life was like

Come take a walk with me back in time, along a trail less traveled.

The written word is powerful beyond the passage of time, of which pioneer journals and diaries attest. During a timehonored past they record lives otherwise forgotten. Explorers and mountain men passed through what later became Utah Territory, recording places and things, making maps of rivers, lakes and passage through mountains but never intending to settle there permanently. Utah pioneers later used this information as they followed the maps into what became their own destiny.

Although some would change history, writing of pioneers bears mute testament of events that did happen, often with poignant description.

Parting in the “old country” brought sadness to families when they knew they would in all likelihood never see each other again. Letters from parts of the European continent from where pioneers embarked in emigration to America are often both inspiring and tragic. However, as journals note, emigrants were taken with the changes in their lives and could not resist the lure of the west. Labor as hard as they did in any season of their lives was recorded with fervor, noting that their health was better and their spirit good, even in the face of odds.

In one journal, it was recorded that in the Salt Lake Valley during the year since the arrival of a particular wagon train, there had been 15 graves dug. It listed that one drowned, one was carried there dead, one was killed by a log falling, one was killed by eating a poison root, two died from consumption, one died from a liver complaint, one had imprudent exposure while in perspiration, and perhaps six children died from various accidents or illnesses. However, the writer states, to balance this, in one row of eight houses adjoining in one week there were seven births and the brethren suppose that about 120 births occurred in those 12 months.

Another penned account states that just before reaching the Platte River, a sister got run over by her own wagon, breaking her leg. The wagon train traveled another 12 miles after this incident before camping for the night.

Letters were sent between wagon trains traveling between the Salt Lake Valley and the Elk Horn, about 27 miles from Winter Quarters in Nebraska. One man was enlisted by Brigham Young to be the record keeper and in the length of travel across the plains he carried the records in what was referred to as the Big Wagon. Once oxen pulling the Big Wagon died, they had to be replaced. Then the wagon ran into a stump and the tongue was broken and had to be repaired, which took 45 minutes. Usually an extra tongue made out of hardwood was strapped beneath the wagon. After that, a tongue bolt broke and they had to camp for the night until blacksmiths in the company got it replaced.

A letter carried by a rider from the Salt Lake Valley was given to a westbound wagon train captain in August 1848 while the wagons were on the Sweetwater River, 789 miles from Winter Quarters. It stated that there were some 450 buildings in the fort in the Salt Lake Valley, including one partly finished grist mill, three saw mills, farm buildings and a threshing machine and fan mill on City Creek propelled by water. The crops had been attacked by crickets but gulls had arrived and eaten many. Three babies had died, but there had not at any time been what is commonly understood by sickness of health in the valley. Another extract stated that a mid-wife had a harvest of 248 little cherubs since living in the valley. She had delivered many sets of twins and once eight babies in a week.

As weary emigrants were making their way across the continent by wagon train anticipating settling in the Salt Lake Valley, approximately 30,000 California emigrants traveled the same trail, some pausing briefly in the valley to rest and replenish supplies before continuing their journey to the coast, many searching for newly discovered gold in that area.

In late spring of 1848, Winter Quarters was abandoned as some 2,400 exiled pioneers began their trek westward to the Rocky Mountains. Many women and their families of young children and infants in arms made this journey. Most of the men were heads of families but a few were unmarried serving as drovers, guards or scouts.

Upon arrival in the Salt Lake Valley, the success or despair of the journey was reflected in the journal entry. One man wrote that the valley was a lush landscape, with verdant green trees and streams of water running through it. He and his family had survived the trip in good health and were excited about the new life facing them. Another man’s description of what he saw upon arrival was that it was bleak and dry with not even a tree existing for a bird to sing in. He had lost his wife during the passage and his words painfully recorded his suffering.

An earnest call issued by the first presidency of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Utah Territory had the desired effect. They had responded to the instructions: “Let all who can procure a loaf of bread and one garment on their back be assured there is plenty of water and pure, by the way, and doubt no longer, but come next year to the place of gathering, even as flocks of doves fly to their windows before a storm.”

Journal and diary entries attest of the pioneer spirit as they gathered together all in one place to worship their God and begin new lives.

Patricia Holden is the publicist for the Tooele County Company of the Daughters of Utah Pioneers. She is also a member of the DUP SheepRock Camp. She can be reached at v4bar@wirelessbeehive. com.

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