The Latter-day Saints, like hundreds of thousands of other Americans and emigrants in the mid- to late 1800s, crossed the Great American Plains and the Rocky Mountains in their quest for a better life in the West. But surely this was the most unusual group to make the journey. Organized in companies—with captains, committees, and choirs—they sang, danced, and worshiped their way across half a continent, building bridges, planting crops, and erecting shelters in an orchestrated effort to ensure a better passage for those who would inevitably follow.
Perhaps the most significant landmark on the overland trail, Chimney Rock is a finger of Brulé clay jutting nearly 500 feet into the western Nebraska sky. Emigrants were constantly amazed that it appeared so close, while the distance from first sighting to actual arrival seemed to take so long. Not only did emigrants write about it in their journals, but many painted or sketched it, and they often carved their names and dates of passage in its soft flanks. A lightning strike in August 1992 blasted five feet from the top of the famous landmark.
July 15, 1848
“Camped opposite Chimney Rock. . . . Here the scenery is remarkable, interesting and romantic. It produces an impression as if we were bordering on a large and antiquated city.”
Richard Ballantyne diary, 2 vols. (1847–48), 2:15, Church History Library, Salt Lake City.
July 17, 1848
"The camps moved off at nine o'clock, President Kimball's company taking the lead. Stopt at noon to water & feed six miles west of Chimney Rock. As we come forward President Brigham Young's camp moved off & part of Brother Snow's company commenced crossing the river at this point. President H.C. Kimball's company commenced a little past 5 and crost one hundred & eighty wagons to dark; all safe, except one wagon of Brother Howard Egan tipt partially over on the side; nothing injured; a few things wet.
This ford was considered one mile across. We generally had to put on the strength of three wagons as the fellows of each wagon generaly burried themselves in gravel & sand. We found our corells on the south bank of the main Platt & set out our guards as usual. No wood; poor grass; plenty of muddy water (Journal of William Thompson, 17 July 1848, as reprinted in the Journal History of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 24 Sep. 1848, 70:33–34).
Journal Entry: Chimney Rock
"As soon as we had struck our wagon in the corral, unyoke the cattle, gather wood, or buffalo chips for cooking, and usually to save fuel, dig a hole in the ground about 3 feet long, one wide, and 6 inches deep. This prevented the wind from blowing the heat away. . . The next thing was to get the cows (they were drove all together clean behind all the company) and milk, then drive stakes to tie the cattle to an about this time the drove would come in and then get the cattle and tie them.
"These were regular and sometimes as many more, according to camping ground, sometimes have to go a mile and a half for water and sometimes had to dig wells. Each ten herded their cattle and every man and boy able to do it took their regular turn according to the number of the ten. In the ten I was in there was an increase until the number of wagons amounted to 24 and 25 persons to herd, and it came each ones turn once in 5 days taking 5 to each days company.
"The guarding of the camp fell on each man proportionally once in 7 and sometimes 6 nights, and then half the night, only. The herding and guarding together with my daily tasks kept me beat down and wore out all the time. The women were as well drove beat down as the men.
"Sundays were scarcely a day of rest nor could it be if we travelled Monday" (As quoted in Wallace Stegner, The Gathering of Zion: The Story of the Mormon Trail , 203).
William Henry Jackson
August 10, 1866
"The Mormon corral presents a lively, interesting scene. Three hundred men, women and children grouped within the space occupied by the encircled wagons very naturally making it so. A few of the families have small tents that are put up both inside and outside the corral; the rest sleeping either in their wagons or under them.
The whole outfit is divided into messes of convenient size, and, as soon as camp is located, the first thing to do is to start the fires; those whose duty it is to provide fuel foraging around in every direction for 'chips,' sage brush, or any other material available, and soon forty of fifty bright little fires are twinkling inside and outside the corral, with coffee pots, frying pans, and bake ovens filling the air with appetizing incense.
From a little distance one of these encampments, at night, resembles an illuminated city in miniature, and as one approaches nearer there is usually the sound of revelry. In every Mormon train there are usually some musicians, for they seem to be very fond of song and dance, and as soon as the camp work is done the younger element gather in groups and 'trip the light fantastic toe' with as much vim as if they had not had a twenty mile march that day" (The Diaries of William Henry Jackson: Frontier Photographer, ed. LeRoy R. Hafen and Ann W. Hafen , 64–65).