Near Red Buttes, a few miles north of present-day Casper, Wyoming, the Latter-day Saints established what was probably the first commercial ferry on the Platte River. With a view toward creating funds to assist later pioneer companies, Brigham Young asked nine men of the vanguard company to stay behind and run the operation.
Each year the Church sent men to run the ferry just before the beginning of the emigration season, monopolizing the traffic until the California gold rush began and competing ferries were established. The location of the Mormon ferry varied, and the 1847 site was abandoned for another location in 1849.
The ferry was discontinued by 1853 with the construction of John Richard’s toll bridge. In this vicinity during October 1856, the impoverished Willie and Martin handcart companies crossed the freezing water of the Platte River, the effects of which hastened the deaths of many who were already in failing health.
June 16, 1847
“President Young thought it wisdom to leave A number of the brethren here & keep a ferry until our Company Came up. Emegrants will pay for ferrying $1.50 cts per waggon.”
Wilford Woodruff journal, June 16, 1847, Church History Library, Salt Lake City.
Peter O. Hansen
July 2, 1849
"The weather was windy and dusty. We traveled about 21 miles to the ferry [Upper Platte Ferry] and found good feed on the bench and bottoms."
Tuesday, July 3
"Cloudy, cool weather; we laid by to repair wagons, etc. Some of the troops going to Oregon and California were here trying to cross the river. More than half of them had deserted already and about half of the rest were fixing themselves up to leave likewise. It was a great joy that we met some of our brethren who were ferrying at this place" (Journal of Peter O. Hansen, 2–3 July 1849, as reprinted in the Journal History of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 7 Aug. 1849, 76:8).
"We halted for a short time and took shelter under our carts. After the storm had passed we traveled on until we came to the last crossing of the Platte River. . . . The water was deep and very cold and we . . . drifted out of the regular crossing and we came near being drowned, the water coming up to our arm pits. . . .
". . . After we got out of the water we had to travel in our wet clothes until we got to camp and our clothing was frozen on us. . . . When we got to camp, we had but very little dry clothing to put on.
"We had to make the best of our poor circumstances and put our trust in God our Father that we may take no harm from our wet clothes. It was too late to go for wood and water, and wood was too far away that night. The ground was frozen [so] hard we was unable to drive any tent pins in. As the tent was wet when we took it down in the morning it was somewhat frozen, so we stretched it open the best we could and got in under it. . . .
"Every day we realized that the hand of God was over us. . . . We knew that we had not strength of our own to perform such hardships if our heavenly Father had not help us . . ." (Diary of Patience Loader Rosa Archer, Harold B. Lee Library, special collections, Brigham Young University 67, 73–75, spelling and punctuation modernized).
Vincent E. Geiger
“The Mormons have established a blacksmith shop here also at which they are making lots of money. So that with the ferry and shop they have as good a gold mine as any in California.”
Vincent E. Geiger, as quoted in Dale L. Morgan, “The Ferries of the Forty-Niners,” Annals of Wyoming, Apr. 1959, 23.
“The crossing of the North Platte was fraught with more fatalities than any other incident of the entire journey. . . . More than a score or two of the young female members waded the stream that in places was waist deep. Blocks of mushy snow and ice had to be dodged. The result of wading of this stream by the female members was immediately followed by partial and temporary dementia from which several did not recover until the next spring.”
Josiah Rogerson, as quoted in LeRoy R. Hafen and Ann W. Hafen, Handcarts to Zion: The Story of a Unique Western Migration (1960), 109.
Elizabeth Horrocks Jackson Kingsford
October 19, 1856
"Some of the men carried some of the women on their back or in their arms, but others of the women tied up their skirts and waded through, like the heroines that they were, and as they had gone through many other rivers and creeks. My husband (Aaron Jackson) attempted to ford the stream. He had only gone a short distance when he reached a sandbar in the river, on which he sank down through weakness and exhaustion.
My sister, Mary Horrocks Leavitt, waded through the water to his assistance. She raised him up to his feet. Shortly afterward, a man came along on horseback and conveyed him to the other side. My sister then helped me to pull my cart with my three children and other matters on it. We had scarcely crossed the river when we were visited with a tremendous storm of snow, hail, sand, and fierce winds. . . .
"About nine o'clock I retired. Bedding had become very scarce so I did not disrobe. I slept until, as it appeared to me, about midnight. I was extremely cold. The weather was bitter. I listened to hear if my husband breathed, he lay so still. I could not hear him. I became alarmed. I put my hand on his body, when to my horror I discovered that my worst fears were confirmed. My husband was dead. I called for help to the other inmates of the tent. They could render me no aid; and there was no alternative but to remain alone by the side of the corpse till morning.
Oh, how the dreary hours drew their tedious length along. When daylight came, some of the male part of the company prepared the body for burial. And oh, such a burial and funeral service. They did not remove his clothing—he had but little. They wrapped him in a blanket and placed him in a pile with thirteen others who had died, and then covered him up with snow. The ground was frozen so hard that they could not dig a grave.
He was left there to sleep in peace until the trump of God shall sound, and the dead in Christ shall awake and come forth in the morning of the first resurrection. We shall then again unite our hearts and lives, and eternity will furnish us with life forever more.