John Watkins pioneer history, 1-5.
Trail excerpt transcribed from "Pioneer History Collection" available at Pioneer Memorial Museum (Daughters of Utah Pioneers Museum), Salt Lake City, Utah. Some restrictions apply.
We started on our journey one fine day and raised our tents. We had a few yoke of oxen and wagons to carry the provisions and tents, while we had to haul on our hand-carts, our bedding, clothing, cooking utensils and children. I was bugler for the company. My duty was to call then [them] up in the morning, to come to prayers, when to march, pitch tents and go to bed. We were under the presidency and leadership of Edward Martin and Daniel Tyler, veterans of the Mormon Battalion.
While traveling through the state of Iowa with six hundred immigrants with hand-carts and dust of harvest weather four or five inches deep, the sun pouring down on our heads and the perspiration and wet dust streaming down our faces and in our throats, choking us so we could hardly breath and tantalized by the people coming out of their houses and telling us that was a (dam) hard way to serve the Lord, and how the young hoodlems would go ahead of the company to the next river or creek to ridicule our wives and daughters who had to raise their dresses out of the water to wade the streams as there was not many bridges in those days. Many of the amusing incidents of our journey through the states I must pass by briefly until I come to the main incident of our journey.
Our rations was one pound of flour for grown people and half rations for children and the work being so laborious that the young people got very hungry, myself included. The roads were very heavy, being sometimes sand, sometimes mud and sometimes dust, which made progress slow, much slower than had been calculated on, consequently when we got out on the prairie our food ran short, our rations were then cut down and half and finally to four ounces of flower [flour] a day to grown people and two ounces to children, which continued day after day making the people very hungry and weak. With cold weather and winter approaching while out on the prairie, we all were frightened and a council was called at which they all decided, under the circumstances, to lighten the loads to a few pounds each, which was w[e]ighed out to them with a pair of scales, leaving out quilts and blankets, overcoats, cooking utensils and everything that could be dispensed with which were put in a heap and set fire to for fear some one would be tempted to pick out something that they needed so badly. Every thing that human ingenuity could devise to try and save the lives of the people so they could get in early and the snows would not catch them in the South Pass and the Big and Little Mountains.
The night after we crossed the last crossing of the Platte river the snow started to fall and winter set in, finding us with scarcely any clothing and very little food. The cold and hunger was so intense that we stopped a day or two in camp and before we moved camp, buried fourteen people in one grave who died from cold and hunger; Up to this time a great number of our company had died through hunger and cold. The people who were to meet us from Salt Lake did not arrive as expected.
When at last the company arrived from Salt Lake with supplies it did not encrease our rations any. The only difference it made, our rations continued as they had been and if the relief had not come, in a few days we would have had no food at all. The company, when they started to our relief, had plenty of provisions but had met two or three companies on the road who were out of provisions and they had divided up with them so when they reached us, comparatively speaking, there was only a little left. We had been traveling many days in the snow and the cattle having nothing to eat, became so poor and emaciated that they would lie down and no persuasion or beating could induce them to go further. They being worn out with hunger and cold, were nothing but a stack of bones and were not worth the time it would take and the delay it would make to the company to kill them so they were left for the wolves to devour.
On one of these occasions I noticed an ox that could not be drove loose, was left to perish and I conceived the idea that if I went back in the night, I might kill it and thus get something that would help to sustain us. I told my plan to William L. Binder who occupied the same tent with me and invited him to help me kill the ox and bring in some of the remains but Binder’s feet were so badly frozen that he could not go and his wife prefered to go in his place. I did not like the idea of going alone, miles out on the prairie with another man’s wife, so I invited a man by the name of James Hunter to help us and share with the beef such it might be called.
We waited till after night fall and all the camp had retired to their beds and every sign of life had fled from the camp. Then we three with a hand cart crept quietly and secretly from the camp, for if we were discovered, we would not be allowed to go out to risk our lives on such an expedition. We were all highly elated to get from camp without being discovered and began our tramp back across the prairie in the direction we had come during the day. It was bright moonlight night beams reflections like the purest diamonds. The wind was blowing bitter cold, it was freezing hard and the snow was about eighteen inches deep, No one can realize the intense cold of the night like this, unless they have spent one in a similar place in midwinter.
We were all thinly clad and armed with all the implements of destruction that we could get together, a small rifle of about twenty-two caliber with one load, and old case knife with both sides broken off and only the piece of iron in the center, a small shingling hatchet with a handle seven inches long and one corner broken off. These were our implements. They had all seen better days, but we were glad to get them.
We traveled on hunting for the ox until we were five miles from camp out on the cold bleak prairie, when we came upon the ox standing, chilling and freezing to death. We stopped a few minutes to co[u]ncil, knowing that it was impossible to kill the ox where it now stood, the cold was so intense and distance to great to haul the meat. In coming out I had noticed a deep ravine or gulley a mile and a half from camp. I thought if we could get the ox there we would be a little sheltered from the wind and much nearer to haul the meat, so we concluded to drive the ox there.
By this time the woman was shivering and her teeth chattering with the cold, suddenly she gave up and was determined that she could go no further. She was pleading and begging to lay down. I told Mr. [James] Hunter that Mrs. Binder was dying and if she did we would be hung for murder, for it was realy no more or less than murder to bring a woman out on such a bitter cold night so thinly clothed. If we let her have her own way she would certainly die for the death sleep that precedes freezing was upon her. We did not like to leave the ox so we decided to place the woman in the shaves of the hand cart and let her lean against the brace that was there placing the breast against when pulling. Then I got in the shaves with the woman, placed one hand on the cart and with the other arm supporting her, making her walk in spite of her cries and entreaties, for we knew that was the only way of saving her life.
Mr. hunter took the hatchet and drove the ox, for the only way to make him move was by striking his back-bone with the hatchet and that sounded like striking a board. When I became tired in the shaves, Mr. Hunter would take my place and I took his, changing places at short intervals until at last we managed to reach the ravine, our gulley allured to. It being as we expected a little sheltered from the wind. The woman by this time was a little revivied by her walk and we set the hand cart up on end and placed her in it to protect her as much as possible from the cold. Then we make ready for the ox.
I was just immigrating from London and was not a very good marksman so I knew that I must take good aim, so I pointed my gun straight at the forehead of the ox and fired, but just as I fired the ox moved his head at the last load I had in the world went far from it’s mark. We were then in a dilemma for we did not like to leave our ox after all the trouble we had gone through. We decided to do our best to kill him with what we had so we tried to cut his throat.
The snow was so deep we could not find a rock to sharpen our case knofe [knife] but went to work. I held the ox by the horns while Hunter took hold of the loose skin of the throat in one hand and the knife in the other and began sawing on his throat. When Hunter got tired sawing we would change places. He holding the ox while I sawed awhile. The ox would stand still until his throat began to hurt, then he would run off and we had to catch him again and bring him back to repeat the operation, the knife was so dull that we could never tell where we sawed last. We continued this mode of butchering for nearly an hour without making any impression, so we gave up that scheme in despair.
We then decided to try the hatchet, but it had one corner broken off so we could not hurt him very much at a time with that. Hunter would hold him by the horns while I hit him with the hatchet on the head and at each blow the ox would break away and we had to catch him again. Then Hunter would think that he could strike harder than I, and he would try. Then I got out of patience with Hunter and told him he did not half hit him and Hunter told me to try myself if I thought I could do better, and so we kept changing places until he had a place in his head nearly the size of your hand where the hide was hacked up like mince meat. Hunter at last gave the final blow and the ox staggered and fell to the ground, taking me with him. I fell underneath his head and shoulders, hurting me terribly and pinning me to the ground so that I could not move, but I told Hunter to blaze away at him while he was down, for I was afraid that he would get up and run off again and we could only get one lick at him when he was on his feet. But he did not get up again for Hunter had killed him.
When we were sure that he was dead and I was liberated from underneath him, we made ready to skin him. Now if I could describe the skinning of that ox I would like to, but I cannot, but to give you some idea of what it was like, just take a piece of hoop iron and try to skin an ox with it, then you can realize what we passed through in skinning this one. We tried to saw through the hide, but not being experienced butchers, we could not get through the thick hair and hide. We tried to get a start at the eyes and then at the mouth thinking the skin would be thinner in those places, finally we got the ox on his back and tore through the skin, then we found out that it was much easier to saw on the edge of the hide after it was started.
At last we got the ox cut open and brought the woman to the side of it and she was glad to put her hands in the warm blood of the ox to keep them from freezing. By this little warmth the woman seemed to get so much better that we all felt happy. The knife and hatchet would freeze to our hands and we had to thaw them off in the warm blood and inter[v]als, but we thought we were doing a good job and would get something to eat. So we worked away until the ox was cut up and loaded on our hand-cart. Mr. Hunter did not like to leave the head, he thought that would make good soup, then he wanted the feet so we loaded them on but they proved to be too heavy and we all so weak that we could not pull the load, so we had to throw the head and feet away. We then started on our way back to comp when all at once Mr. Hunter gave out as the woman previously had done. He begged piteously for us to let him lie down and sleep, but I knew that he was freezing to death and the only hope of saving him was to make him walk, so we put him in between us, the woman on one side and I on the other and pulled the hand-cart and him as well, for he just let his legs drag and kept begging to let him sleep.
It was by very hard toil that we managed to get him and the beef to camp. When we arrived mr. Binder was waiting up for us. He was sitting by a few sagebrush coals with a tin cup and a bone in it stewing. When we reached the few smoldering coals, we let go of Hunter and he fell prostrate towards the fire, freezing and starving he seized the tin cup and immediately swallowed the contents. We managed to get him and his share of the beef in his tent just as it was breaking day.
We had been out the whole of that bitter night. Drinking that boiling soup make [made] mr Hunter so very sick that he was not able to help himself and could not hide his meat away and consequently when the people began moving around, they discovered the meat and notified the Captain, Edward Martin about it. I being bugler for the camp, the Captain sent for me and told me to call the people together which I did[.] Then the Captain told them he understood there was meat in camp and that poor meat was better than none and it must be divided among the people. I slipped away from the crowd and hid my meat and Mrs. Binder’s, wrapping it in clothes and hiding it in every available place.
When they questioned Mr. Hunter he was so sick that he could give no information where he obtained the meat. Hunter from that time on had to be hauled in a wagon to Salt Lake. After suffering many hardships and burying a great number of our company, we arrived in Salt Lake on the last day of November 1856. But with the best of nursing it took Mr. Hunter three months, after our arrival to recover from that night’s adventure on the Plains.
Years have passed since that night and Mrs. Binder and mr. Hunter have passed to the great beyond. I am getting on in years and children and grandchildren play around my door. But I have never for one single moment regretted what I have passed through or the cause for which I came. The Lord revealed to me what I had to pass through and I was prepared for what trials I had to bear, for they all transpired as I had foreseen in my vision.