I am tracing my Mormon pioneer roots because my story began with those who came before.
Assassinating a leader is a powerful way to send a message. The message sent with Prophet Joseph Smith’s murder was, “Mormons are not welcome here.”
After Smith’s assassination, Brigham Young became the second prophet of the Mormon church. His ascension to the role of the prophet was not without controversy.
After years of attempting to live among non-Mormons, Brigham Young decided to lead the saints westward to a place they would call Zion. Here they could practice their faith in the way God intended without fear of pissing off politicians or causing fear among locals.
The government gave land out west to white men daring enough to tame it. The fact native people were already occupying the land seemed not to be a consideration. Brigham Young chose Utah. The Mexican-American War would determine whether Utah would remain a Mexican territory or become part of the United States.
Saints from various states began gathering in anticipation of moving. They saw Brigham Young as God’s mouthpiece. In that belief rested their faith.
Winter travel to Utah was too dangerous. The saints built camps to winter over while waiting for spring. At one point, over ten thousand saints camped at the largest one in Winters Quarters, Nebraska.
It was no small feat to organize the logistics of moving an entire church body. Members included men, women, many pregnant, infants, children, and the elderly. There were no railways to Utah, so travel on the rustic roads would take months. Goldminers, trappers, and others seeking new fortunes also used these trails. The Mormon Trail was a portion of what would become known as the Emigrant Trail.
Instead of traveling as one church body, they formed smaller groups called companies. Each company had a leader called a captain. The company’s name was that of its leader. Mormons kept detailed records of who traveled in each company.
Brigham Young would lead the first group of saints from Winters Quarters to Utah in the Brigham Young Vanguard Company. Daniel wanted his family to travel with them, but Young asked him to stay behind. He needed Daniel’s farming skills to plant a bountiful harvest to sustain the saints. Daniel put aside his desires for the good of the church and did as the prophet asked.
In April 1847, Brigham Young began the emigration of the saints towards Utah in a company of just over hundred and fifty people. Clarrisa Clara Decker, one of Young’s wives, was in this company. Though eighteen at the time, she had married Young two years earlier in Nauvoo, Illinois, when she was sixteen. The only children in this first company were two boys, Lorenzo and Isaac, age six. Three months later, in July, the company arrived in Utah. While overlooking the Salt Lake Valley, Young says, “It is enough; this is the right place, drive on.”
While their prophet was away, Daniel and his family used their time wisely, making preparations. Once again, having land to sell enabled Daniel to buy wagons, animals, and supplies needed to build a new life. More impoverished families made handcarts which they pulled or carried their belongings on their backs.
Hogs were grown and butchered. They cured the meat and used the entrails to render lard which they stored in barrels. Corn and flour were ground and stored in sacks. Anticipating they might not have fire-building capabilities on the trail, they prepared foodstuffs that didn’t need cooking.
Daniel prepared land to plant potatoes, corn, cabbage, buckwheat, and grain. When the crops were ready, Daniel harvested them for food for his family and the animals he planned to take. He packed seeds in anticipation of planting them in new soil nearly a thousand miles away. By this time, Daniel was an experienced home builder. He made clapboards for cabins to provide shelter from the bitter Nebraskan winter.
Space in the wagons was limited, so Daniel had to decide what tools and weapons to take. These would be crucial for building, farming, and protection. His wives, Mary and Peninah, probably worked together to determine which household items like utensils, fabric, bedding, clothing, pots, and pans to take.
Daniel planned to take oxen, horses, and cows for food, milk, and farm work. He built coops on the wagon ends to carry geese, hens, and pigs. Daniel made wooden frames to hold the heavy canvas covers they put over the wagons to protect them from the heat, sun, wind, and rain. The family’s dogs and cats would make the journey as well. In addition to playing with the children, they also had essential jobs like herding livestock and keeping rodents from eating valuable food stores.
At this time, Brigham Young had many plural wives, while Daniel had only married one more wife, Peninah Shropshire Cotton. Peninah, a teenager at the time, had initially been hired to help Mary care for the Wood family home and children. Peninah was Native American and a member of the church. At nineteen, she formally joined the family as Daniel’s wife. She and Daniel’s oldest daughter Rebecca were close in age. They gave birth to sons within a week of each other in 1847. Both baby boys were named Daniel, Daniel Cotton Wood, and Daniel Moss.
In Winters Quarters, the Wood family consisted of Daniel, age forty-seven. His wives, Mary, forty-four, and Peninah, twenty-one. Mary and Daniel’s children, John, eighteen, Harriet, thirteen, and Elizabeth, eight. Mary and Daniel’s oldest daughter, Rebecca, twenty-two, traveled with her husband John Moss, twenty-eight, and their two children, Mary, three, and Daniel, one. Peninah and Daniel’s son, Daniel Cotton, was also one year old. It was common for multi-generational families like Daniels to emigrate together.
Less than a year after spending time in Salt Lake getting the wheels of community building in motion, Brigham Young returned to Winters Quarters to bring more faithful saints to the promised land. Daniel and his family would be part of the second company of saints Brigham Young led to Utah in the spring of 1848. This company was called the Brigham Young Company. This company was much larger, numbering over a thousand faithful souls. More than a hundred and thirty were children under the age of two. The oldest was over seventy. Seventeen were wives of the prophet himself.
Oxen and horses pulled three hundred wagons. If each family brought a few heads of cattle, the animals outnumbered the people.
Daniel was Captain of Fifty, which meant he was responsible for the families in fifty wagons. As captain, he needed to ride on horseback. The responsibility of driving their wagons and carriage fell on his wives, Mary and Peninah, his teenage son John and his son-in-law, John Moss.
Daniel described the wagon train as the Camp of Israel. He felt a kinship to the Israelites of old, who also wandered searching for a home. He had faith the Lord would protect them on their holy journey.
Before leaving, Daniel planted another crop for the saints left behind, waiting for their turn to reach Zion. Expecting the journey to last three months, the Brigham Young Company left Winters Quarters, Nebraska, on June 5th, 1848.