Josiah F. Gibbs, "'Pioneer' Day," The Free Lance (Marysvale, Utah), 24 July 1903, 4-5.
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CROSSING THE PLAINS IN 1857
Note. A large number of those who crossed the plains from 1847 to 1857 have passed to the Great Beyond, and those of us who yet tarry have climbed the sunlit side of the "Great Divide" and are passing downward into the darkness of that "other side".
To the young who can form but a vague idea of the stirring incidents of those early overland journeys this brief and simple narrative, delivered as an address on July 24th, 1902, in Marysvale, Utah, is dedicated by J.F. GIBBS.
In all the list of holidays there is not one around which, to the people of Utah, there cluster so many tragic and tender memories as the day we are now celebrating.
The events of the 24th day of July, 1847, were but the climax of the most remarkable journey ever undertaken by men, women and children. History furnishes no parallel to the exodus from Nauvoo of the "Mormon" people and their flight from the outposts of civilization to the rallying point on the Missouri river, and the subsequent journey into and across the wilderness untrodden except by the great herd of buffalo, elk, deer and antelope and by the hardly less wild and more savage Indians.
Those who, ten years after the first caravan crossed the great American desert, followed the well-beaten highway which had been blazed by the Pioneers and deepened by subsequent travel, found not the milestones of civilization. Instead, there were well-rounded mounds of earth that marked the resting places of the sleeping dead -- men,women, children and babes, whose journey to the "Promised" land had been broken by the hand of death. Those desolate graves, occasionally a broken-down wagon, a stove or other articles discarded because of over-laden teams, the remains of work animals that had perished in the hard service of the overland journey, and the dark, sinuous trail ever reaching out towards the land of the setting sun were the only reminders that human voice, other than the uncivilized jargon of savages, had ever disturbed the weird silence of those seemingly interminable plains.
My friends, go back with me to the little town of Florence perched on the high bluffs on the west bank of the Missouri river, and some four miles north of the present site of Omaha. Let the time be the summer of 1857 when Florence was the rendezvous of the Mormon emigration.
Together let us make the journey of the thousand miles which marked the vast and toilsome distance between the Missouri river and the valley of the Great Salt Lake. We cannot make the journey in the luxurious palace cars of today nor drawn by the "iron horse" which, on a road of steel and with the clang of bell and screams of triumph, rushes onward day and night with the speed of the hurricane, but in covered wagons with patient oxen for the motive power.
Necessarily the halting places on the line of march must be few; the time brief and the scenes painted with the figments of a memory somewhat dimmed by forty five years in which have been crowded a swift procession of stirring experiences and incidents. In fact, our companion and guide, as I now remember him, was a small boy clad in a calico shirt, denim overalls, a straw hat, and feet shod with the covering that Nature gives to all mankind.
From nearly every clime and nation, there are gathered at Florence some 150 souls—the remnant of the season's emigration. The provisions, raiment, bedding, cooking utensils and keepsakes sacredly guarded in memory of homes and relatives beyond the sea, are stowed away in the white topped wagons. The extremely aged, the sick and helpless may ride, the rest of us will walk.
On a bright morning early in July, the cattle are yoked and hitched to the wagons. The animals are of all ages, sizes, and sex, with from four to eight in each team. A pair of large oxen are used on the tongue while a pair of cows, perhaps, or heifers, are placed in the lead.
Many of the cattle have not before been yoked nor heard the rattle of chains. As a rule the teamsters are as green and even more awkward than the cattle, and as the train pulls out on its journey of nearly a hundred days it is not an unusual sight to see a whole family—perhaps from Denmark—"strung out" on each side of the team, and in their native tongue urging English understanding bovines to keep on the road. Fortunately the country is level and no wagons are overturned. After a few days of hard experience the patient cattle "pick up" a few words of a foreign language and everything moves along with the regularity and smoothness of clockwork.
The incidents of each day and night are pretty much the same and we will be satisfied with the depiction of twenty four hours out on that great stretch of undulating country called the plains.
The sun rises in a cloudless sky and beats down with almost tropical intensity on the heads of bronzed and weary pilgrims. Often great clouds of dust rises from the road and envelopes the slow moving caravan. Ever onward towards the west, as if under a sky of hot and burnished brass, those ever patient cattle toil laboriously with their heavy loads. From the heated earth arises almost impalpable dust that clogs the nostrils of those patient brutes, and fills their blinded eyes until almost human tears course down their drawn and wrinkled cheeks. Dust covered tongues protrude from mouths parched with thirst, the cruel bows sink deep behind the shoulder joints, yet onward through the dust and heat they toil with no murmur of complaint at their hard lot. (The ability to complain is alone vouchsafed to man.)
The memory of those faithful brutes urged on by voice and whip inspires one with gratitude that the tireless "iron horse" has relieved the descendants of those mute toilers of the old time burdens.
Except where attacks of the redmen are imminent the pilgrims gravitate into small knots of congenial spirits and trudge in front, in the rear or beside the slow-moving train. The small boys and girls ever alive to the strange life and surroundings are here, there and everywhere, hunting flowers, smooth pebbles to shy at serious looking prairie dogs, or capturing sand lizards and horned toads with which to frighten the larger girls.
At noon we halt for lunch and to give the cattle a rest and time for grazing. Perhaps the day's travel has been over one of those dreary, sandy stretches where no water is seen over a distance of twenty to thirty miles, and where the ground is too high to permit the digging of wayside wells. In that case the tired oxen, with unquenched thirst, lie down to rest. Or it may be less cruel to those patient servants to keep in motion during the twelve to fifteen hours than to halt on a waste of sand.
As the sun nears the western horizon, no matter how tired the cattle may be, there is no need of whip or voice to urge them forward. Experience has taught them that the day of toil and thirst is drawing to a close. With eager strides the faithful brutes press on; the blistering sand is left behind; succulent grass appears and, descending an easy grade,we come into full view of a stream and never before did water look so clear and cool to man or beast.
The lead wagon turns off the road and stops within a few rods of the stream; the next is drawn up close to the first until the front is almost in contact with the rear wheel of the first wagon. The third wagon is moved to a like position on the other side and thus, right and left, the wagons turn out of line and take position with tongues on the outside while the rear wagons gradually close in and form an oval-shaped enclosure with an opening between the ends of the rear wagons. The "corral" completed, the oxen are unyoked, and with low "moos" of delight, often with tails and heels high in the air, rush madly for the stream into which they plunge regardless of depth or danger.
Immediately the camp is a scene of intense activity. Men, women, girls and boys, impelled by hunger scurry here and there and soon return with arms, aprons or skirts filled with fuel which, by the way, is more often "buffalo chips" than wood. Water is procured, tents are pitched, cooking utensils and food are taken from convenient places in the wagons and soon the gathering twilight, or darkness, is relieved by a score or more of cheerful camp fires.
In an incredibly short time supper is served, generally on the ground where hungry pilgrims squat or sit, and the small boys and girls impatiently wait for the indispensable blessing on the bread and bacon, buffalo and antelope meat which, if the wind be active, is liberally seasoned with ashes from "buffalo chips."
With the rude but grateful repast ended, the temporary guard over the cattle is relieved by the regular half-night herdsmen who, if the redmen are peaceful and forage scant, drive the oxen out to fresher pasture where they remain until daylight. If there is danger, the cattle are herded nearby until satisfied, then driven into the corral formed by the wagons where they lie down until daylight when they are again turned out to graze.
After the cooking utensils are cleaned and put away, the captain's voice or the notes of a bugle call the pilgrims together for evening worship. Often and often have I wished that an artist imbued with the loftiest inspiration would paint in all its solemn and weird vividness a life-like picture of that evening worship. Out upon the undulating plains with the great blue vault of infinite space bending over all while myriad suns and worlds move in majestic harmony above them, are gathered the sons and daughters of many climes. They comprise a mass of heterogeneous units fused by a common and lofty faith into a homogeneous whole. The camp fires produce a fantastic and unreal mingling of lights and shadows that come, go and tremble as if in fright at the unseen dangers that seem to people the mysterious environment. Suddenly, but with infinite softness and sweetness, the stillness is broken and out upon the evening air, rising and falling in rhythmic numbers, float the words and music:
"Oh, My Father, thou that dwellest
In thy high and glorious place,
When shall I regain thy presence
And again behold thy face."
We then hear the voice of prayer invoking the protection of the Almighty from the dangers that ever environ the pilgrims.
A few kindly words of timely admonition, counsel and, if necessary of chastisement, are spoken by the captain. The words and music of another hymn are wafted out into the silence of the night, and if camp has been made, as it often is, in the vicinity of the narrow homes of the dead, the hymn will be "the Resurrection Day."
The pilgrims disperse and lights are seen in the tents and wagons from which in subdued and often strange accents is heard the low murmur of evening prayer.
The lights are extinguished, the camp fires burn low, flicker and in a short time the mantle of darkness descends and not a sound is heard except, perhaps the moan of some sick brother or sister, the wailing of an infant newly born, perhaps, or dissatisfied with the meager nourishment of the mother's breast reduced in quantity and quality by the arduous toil incident to the journey to the "Promised land," or the soft footfall of the camp guard as he paces his lonely vigil.
Such, my friends, is a faintly colored picture of one day on the plains and very similar to each of the other days consumed in the journey.
This address would be incomplete without brief reference to a very few incidents that occurred from time to time.
There was a mysterious something in the air of the great plains that affected even the tired and gentle oxen and caused them to be extremely sensitive to unusual sights and sounds. The crack of a rifle, the distant bellow of a buffalo or the muffled roar from a herd of thousands of those "monarchs of the plains," the bark of a coyote, and often without visible cause, I have seen them start and with tails and heads high in the air race madly for miles. At other times as if each animal were touched with a "live" wire they would spring into their yokes and dragging the heavy wagons stampede in every direction. One scene of a stampede became our camp-ground. A bleached buffalo skull bore in lead pencil the sad history and, so far as my memory serves me, read as follows:
"Captain Jesse Martin's train of 42 wagons camped here July 27th 1857. As we were driving into camp the oxen stampeded killing a mother and son." A couple of freshly made graves with buffalo skulls for headstones bore gruesome evidence of the tragedy.
The first stampede of which I was a witness occurred about 40 miles out from Florence and during a drizzling rain. A partially broken steer sulked and laid down in the road. His mate was unyoked and the sulky one forced up and out of the road where he again laid down. The place was on the summit of quite a steep ridge which, on the west, merged into a narrow flat then abruptly terminated in a ravine about 12 feet deep with vertical sides. A bridge spanned the ravine and all but one wagon had descended the hill and crossed over.
The father of the small boy in calico shirt and overalls had stopped his team on the hill and handing the whip to his son, went to the assistance of Captain Wm. G. Young who, with a black whip, was persuading the steer to rise. With a frightful bellow the animal sprang to his feet and with the yoke on dashed down the road. The team on the remaining wagon instantly made a wild rush in the same direction. There were two small sisters in the wagon, but the frantic efforts of the small boy were fruitless. The father dashed by, taking the whip as he ran, but was too far in the rear when the fearful race began. The frenzied oxen followed the road and would have made the crossing but for the steer which had again laid down in the road and thus caused the team to swerve to the left and point their course straight for that murderous looking ravine. Those in charge of the other teams dared not to leave them and it seemed as if every heart stopped beating while the plunging oxen neared the brink of that awful death trap. It was not for the lack of courage that strong men stood and looked in horror on the seemingly inevitable ending, but from a sense of utter helplessness and inability to cover the distance in time to avert the impending tragedy. One there was, however, nearer than the others who, snatching his cloak from his shoulders as he ran, leaped in front of the team and waved the cloak in the faces of the leaders, at the same time running backwards, toward what seemed certain death. The maneuver was successful. The leaders reared and fell. The wheelers raised their heads and down on their haunches slid on the damp ground until the wagon came to a standstill. Like a flash the one who had barred the race to death sprang on the near leader and grasping her by the horns prevented her from rising while others, who soon arrived, untangled and unhitched the team and turned the wagon in the direction of safety. It was less than three paces from the heads of the prostrate leaders to the brink of the ravine.
Just one more incident, small in itself but illustrating the kindly heart of the hero of that runaway. One evening as the caravan pulled into camp that familiar object—a newly-made grave—greeted us. While the oxen were being unyoked I visited the narrow resting place of the stranger. At the head of the grave was the familiar buffalo skull, and the writing said he was a native of Denmark, and gave the details of his age, etc. Coyotes had dug down into the shallow grave and had eaten the flesh from the face and skull. I returned to camp and told the story of the mutilated dead to my hero and benefactor. Taking a shovel he returned with me and after drawing the burial sheet back over the dead man's face, gently replaced the earth. We—the man and small boy—were alone. There was no one to be impressed by hackneyed words of sympathy for the stranger dead, but as the last shovelful of earth was placed on the grave and tenderly smoothed down, my friend, as if speaking to the occupant of the grave, remarked, "There, dear brother, rest in peace." The name of the man with the courage of an immortal and the tenderness of a woman is A. Milton Musser whom nearly all will remember as one who, without compensation, ably served the people of the then Territory of Utah as Fish commissioner.
A. Milton Musser who, hale and hearty, still lives in Salt Lake City, was but one of the type of men and women who blazed the trail and founded a commonwealth in the wilds of the great west.
And who, with clear brains and the instinct of justice, will upbraid the Mormon people for clinging to the faith which was but the impelling force in the hearts of the pioneers to the achievement of the success which crowned their efforts to make the "desert blossom as the rose."