I am tracing my Mormon pioneer roots because my story began with those who came before.
For over twenty years, starting in 1847, an estimated 60,000 to 70,000 Mormon pioneers left homes in Nebraska, Iowa, Missouri, Kansas, New York, and even faraway England to migrate toward Utah. Hundreds of thousands more continued to other states, including California and Oregon.
Most traveled via wagon trains. Less fortunate pioneers pulled handcarts behind them. Eventually, they used the transcontinental railroad for their journeys west.
A group of pioneers who traveled together was called a company. Companies took their name from the man responsible for leading them. The church attempted to keep records of each company. In later years, they compiled handwritten rosters into a database showing the company name, date of emigration, date of arrival, and each member who traveled. By clicking on a name, you can learn more about them and, in many cases, see how they fit in their family tree.
Companies varied in size. Some were as small as three to five people, while other companies numbered in the hundreds. The Brigham Young company, which Daniel and his family traveled in, was the largest named company with over a thousand men, women, and children.
Over a dozen of Brigham Young’s plural wives traveled with him. Daniel traveled with nine family members, including two wives, four children, two grandchildren, and one son-in-law.
During the early days of the Mormon migration, Mexico and America were at war over control of some territories, including Utah. President James K. Polk demanded five hundred Mormon men leave their families and help fight.
According to family journals, Uncle Sam threatened to kill Mormon men, women, and children if they did not comply. Although this seems an unbelievable threat, it was not the first time a government official had threatened the saints’ lives.
Taking the threat seriously, boys as young as twelve and fifteen joined the Mormon battalion. Losing hundreds of men’s muscles and skills meant the pilgrimage’s responsibilities to Zion fell on the shoulders of those left behind.
Some companies established rules to follow while traveling together. There were practical rules, like returning lost property to the Captains for safekeeping, tying dogs to wagons at night, and bringing horses and mules into camp before sundown. Other rules of not leaving camp without permission and pledging implicit obedience to the leaders were attempts to keep order in place.
Because Daniel was a captain responsible for fifty wagons, Mary and Peninah probably handled most of the Wood family’s day-to-day tasks.
Who was responsible for getting the family ready each morning when the camp horn sounded? Who cared for the children who were at times fussy, uncooperative, and bored as they walked alongside the wagons. Who tucked them in at night under heavy handmade quilts?
Who unpacked food and pans for cooking when the wagons circled at night? Who harvested the buffalo, which had been killed and brought to the camp to share? Who figured out ways to build fires from dried weeds and buffalo dung? Who broiled meat and baked mince pies in the rudimentary outdoor kitchens? Who was responsible for keeping bedding and clothing clean and dry?
Who drove the wagons and hiked up their long skirts to help push when the wooden wheels got stuck in the muddy rustic roads? Who bravely navigated wagons across rivers bulging with rapid waters?
Daniel initially hired Peninah to help Mary, who had not recovered from her three children’s deaths. Was Mary incapacitated mentally, physically, or emotionally during this journey? Peninah, who was also pregnant, must have been incredibly exhausted as she grew a baby inside her belly.
What disagreements or resentments arose due to the division of labor?
All this is left to my imagination because I could not find diaries that either Mary or Peninah wrote. And overall, less was written about the contributions of Mormon women.
The wagons traveled between one to twenty miles each day. Broken wagon wheels and mud-clogged axles slowed the journey. The saints might spend a whole day strategizing how to cross a river rapidly flowing with heavy rains. Sometimes if the river was too full, they were forced to wait days for the water to subside.
Mother Nature provided plenty of storms, wind, and rain. One night the wind was blowing with such fury the Wood family had to hold the tent down on the inside to keep it from blowing over. Later, Daniel recalled the silliness of seeing men in their shirttails running around picking up tents, wagon covers, and bedding that the wind heartlessly blew around.
Although the death rate was relatively low, they had to contend with severe illnesses like consumption, cholera, diarrhea, chills, and fevers. Women gave birth. Some men, women, and even children suffered injuries from being trampled by animals or run over by wagon wheels.
Daniel’s youngest son, Daniel Cotton, developed a swelling on his back that continued growing. If it broke inside, the infection could kill him. Having exhausted every effort, Daniel went off by himself to pray. He had faith God could heal his son. While in prayer, Daniel felt angels surround him. He returned to camp, telling his family God had promised his son would recover. Shortly after that, the swelling did break, releasing pus described as a “pint of matter.”
The saints saw animals like bears, antelope, and buffalo along the way. Thousands of buffalo looked like moving black clouds. Hunting them provided meat for the camp. They also fished. One method used to catch fish involved stretching a sheet across the stream. As fish swam over the sheet, two people lifted the corners to trap the fish inside.
Saints took their herds off-road to find grass to graze on since the areas closest to the roads had been eaten bare by those traveling before them.
In addition to playing with the children, the dogs and cats also had jobs. Dogs kept the cattle from wandering off and warned of predators. Cats kept rodents out of valuable food stores.
Each day they stopped before sundown to corral the wagons together for safety. After unhitching the animals, each wagon was locked to the wagon ahead of it, thus forming a large circle. At times, for fun, Daniel timed how long this took. They were able to get it done in about six minutes.
Inside the circle, the family set up their tent and make-shift kitchen. Children ran free, chasing dogs, cats, and each other. Here they built community and companionship. Together brothers and sisters of the church sang, prayed, read scriptures, shared tips for traveling, and hushed petty gossip.
Usually, they only stayed in each place for one night unless it was a Sunday. Sundays were the sabbath, a day of worship and rest. If they found a spot with adequate water and plentiful wood, they might camp for a few days to wash, bathe, cook, bake, and repair the wagons.
The grand and sublime landscapes included plains, grassy meadowlands, winding roads, steep bluffs, and mountain passes.
I wonder what Native tribes like the Arapaho, Blackfeet, Cheyenne, Lakota, Shoshone, and Ute tribes thought witnessing the migration of those seeking a better life out West. What did they feel about seeing their ancestors’ land crisscrossed with ant-like caravans of wagons filled with people and their possessions? Would they have done something different if they had foreseen the catastrophic results for their people?
Daniel knew they were being watched and worried about being attacked and killed in what he called “Indian Country.”
Once out of Nebraska, the saints stopped at Fort Laramie in Wyoming. This old trading and military post provided a place to rest while getting additional supplies.
Also in Wyoming was Independence Rock, a well-known landmark on the emigrant trails. The rock bore drawings and paintings from the Native tribes. Later, as white adventurers, settlers, and saints began their westward expansion, they carved their names, dates, and initials into it. It was like a register to the West.
At nearly 140 feet tall, visitors described it as a great stone turtle, a big bowl turned upside down, a giant elephant up to his sides in the mud, and an enormous whale. Did the children use it as a giant slide?
While camping here, Daniel woke to what he described as a heavenly sound. Some saints had climbed to the top of the rock and were singing under the stars. Daniel got out of bed to join them until well past midnight. I wonder if they sang the hymn, “Come, Come, Ye Saints,” written by the Mormon poet Willaim Clayton, which spoke of precisely what they were experiencing.
“Come, come, ye Saints, no toil nor labor fear;
But with joy, wend your way.
Though hard to you this journey may appear,
Grace shall be as your day.
‘Tis better far for us to strive
Our useless cares from us to drive;
Do this and joy; your hearts will swell—All is well! All is well!
We’ll find the place which God for us prepared,
Far away in the West,
Where none shall come to hurt or make afraid;
There the Saints will be blessed.
We’ll make the air with music ring,
Shout praises to our God and King;
Above the rest, these words we’ll tell—All is well! All is well!”
While in Wyoming, they stopped at the fur trading fort, which Jim Bridger had established. It was about a hundred miles east of Salt Lake City. Bridger believed the Salt Lake Valley was a desolate desert, hardly a wise place to settle and raise crops. Probably in jest, he offered to pay a thousand dollars for the first ear of corn grown there.
In Utah, they entered Echo Canyon. About fifty miles from Salt Lake, Echo Canyon would be the last canyon they needed to pass through. Knowing they were almost to Zion, did their whoops of relief bounce off the walls of the deep and narrow canyon walls as they celebrated how far they had come?
If my grandfather and I made this road trip today, we could eat breakfast in Nebraska, drive just over thirteen hours and enjoy dinner in Utah. Instead, Daniel and the Brigham Young Company arrived in Utah in late September of 1848. Over a hundred days from when they first left Winter Winters Quarters, Nebraska.
It had been fourteen years since Daniel first left Canada to follow the prophet, who spoke for God. Daniel, who described himself as a refugee, had finally reached Zion.
I feel proud of Daniel’s tenacity, vision, and strength. And I am equally disappointed. As he achieved greater freedom and less persecution, he tolerated others’ bondage and dehumanization within the church body.
I had hoped his experience of being demeaned meant he wouldn’t accept the demeaning of others. But that was not the case.