History Mormon Battalion Chapter 37 Section A


Get Horses Shod and Procure An Outfit-Johnson’s Mill-Nude Indians-Mrs. Johnson’s Story-Horrible Account of Suffering-Human Beings Living on the Flesh of Their Fellows-Taste Developed for Such Food-Meet Samuel Brannan Returning to California-Doleful Account of Salt Lake Valley-Captain James Brown Met-Epistle From the Twelve Apostles-Letters From Friends

On the 26th, we traveled twenty miles and encamped on American Fork, two miles from Sutter’s Fort. Here the animals that had become tender-footed, were shod, at a cost of one dollar per shoe. We also purchased our outfit of unbolted flour at eight dollars per hundred. In those days, California and every other western territory had but little bolted flour, except such as was transported from the United States or the Sandwich Islands. Those were days of vigor, health and long life.

On the 27th, the pioneers and about thirty others advanced, while the bulk of the company remained to get horses shod. The advance made about eighteen miles, from which point, our course changed from northward to eastward.

On the 28th, we arrived at Captain Johnson’s mill, on Bear Creek. This man had Indians laboring for him, who were entirely naked. I noticed one large man, probably six feet in height, come and stand by the door, an unabashed picture of nature unadorned. He was apparently waiting for the young woman of the house-the captain’s wife-to give him something to eat. Captain Johnson passed in and out of the house while the savage stood by the door, without taking any exceptions to his nude appearance, from which we inferred that he was used to seeing the Indians in such a condition. Indeed, we were informed that those he hired, went without clothing, and the Indian we saw there was probably one of his employees.

Captain Johnson was said to have been one of Fremont’s battalion, and his young wife was one of the survivors of the ill-fated company who had been snowed in at the foot of the Sierras, already alluded to. Her mother, Mrs. Murray, who was a Latter-day Saint, was among the number who perished in that horrible scene of death. The circumstances under which she became a member of that company were explained to us by her daughter, Mrs. Johnson.

The lady being a widow, with several children dependent upon her for support, while residing in Nauvoo, heard of a chance of obtaining employment at Warsaw, an anti-“Mormon” town, thirty miles lower down the Mississippi. Thinking to better her condition, she, accordingly, removed to Warsaw, and spent the winter of 1845-46 there. In the spring of the latter year, a party about emigrating to Oregon or California, offered to furnish passage for herself and children on the condition that she would cook and do the washing for the party. Understanding California to be the final destination of the Saints, and thinking this a good opportunity to emigrate without being a burden to the Church, she accepted the proposition, but, alas! the example of Sister Murray, although her motives were good, is an illustration of the truism, that “it is better to suffer affliction with the people of God” and trust in Him for deliverance, than to mingle with the sinful “for a season,” and be lured by human prospects of a better result!

The company crossed the plains during the summer of 1846, under the guidance of Captain Hastings. They passed through Salt Lake Valley, around the south end of the lake, and proceeded on westward. Lacking that union which has characterized companies of Saints, while traveling, they split up into factions, each party determined to take its own course. The few who remained with the persevering Captain, pushed through to California, while the others were caught in the snows of the Sierra Nevada Mountains.

The party Mrs. Murray was with was next in rear of that of the Captain, and, of course, nearest the source of relief. After their food was exhausted, in fact, after several had succumbed to death through hunger and others were subsisting upon their flesh, a few of them, one of whom was Mrs. Murray’s eldest daughter (afterwards Mrs. Johnson), in desperation, resolved to make an attempt to cross the mountains and obtain relief. Fitting themselves out with snow shoes, they started, and, after proceeding some distance, they met Captain Hastings and a party from the Sacramento Valley, coming with provisions to relieve them. On reaching the camp of the starving emigrants, the relief party found Mrs. Murray dead and others perfectly ravenous from starvation. Children were actually crying for the flesh of their parents while it was being cooked. There was good reason to suspect that Sister Murray had been foully dealt with, as she was in good health when her daughter left her, and could scarcely have perished from hunger during the brief period of her absence.

Leaving Captain Johnson’s mill, we proceeded on, following the trail of General Kearny. On arriving at Bear Creek, in Bear Valley, we found three wagons and a blacksmith’s forge, which had been abandoned by the emigrants who were snowed in the previous winter. We rested there one day, to recruit our animals, the feed being good, and found plenty of huckleberries, which were a fine treat.

During the 3rd of September, we passed other wagons at the place where General Kearny’s party had buried the remains of the famished emigrants, and at night reached the place where the rear wagons of the unfortunate Hastings company were blocked by the snow, and were horrified at the sight which met our view-a skull covered with hair lying here, a mangled arm or leg yonder, with the bones broken as one would break a beef shank to obtain the marrow from it; a whole body in another place, covered with a blanket, and portions of other bodies scattered around in different directions. It had not only been the scene of intense human suffering, but also of some of the most fiendish acts that man made desperate by hunger could conceive.

It seemed that on reaching that point on their journey, the unfortunate emigrants were divided into several different parties. Some lagged behind because there was work required to make a road for their wagons, and they were determined not to do it themselves; others were in favor of stopping to recruit their animals, all of which were turned out to grass when the storm came, and scattered and buried them up. In this terrible dilemma their provisions were soon exhausted, and they began to subsist upon the bodies of their dead relatives. Those who had no deceased relatives borrowed flesh from those who had, to be refunded when they or some of their relatives should die. In some cases, children are said to have eaten their dead parents, and vice versa. Some were supposed to have been murdered as we would butcher an ox.

When relief came, one man had a trunk packed full of human flesh and two buckets full of human blood, stored carefully away. When questioned about the blood, he professed to have extracted it from the veins of two women after they were dead, but the seemingly well-founded opinion was that there had been foul play. Some were caught in the act of eating human flesh for a lunch, as a matter of choice, while they were passing over the mountains with the relief party, after they had obtained plenty of other food. And when their pockets were examined, they were found to contain chunks of human flesh, which were taken from them and thrown away. One man had even acquired such a mania for that kind of food, that after he had been in Sacramento Valley some months, where food was plentiful, he admitted to having a longing for another such a meal, and expressed to a stout, comely lady a desire for a roast from her body. This cannibal, whose name might be given were it not for shame’s sake, was, when we passed through Sacramento Valley, being watched for by the lady’s husband, who swore he would shoot him on sight.

Leaving the tragic scene on the morning of the 6th of September, we resumed our journey, and in a short time met Samuel Brannan returning from his trip to meet the Saints. We learned from him that the Pioneers had reached Salt Lake Valley in safety, but his description of the valley and its facilities was anything but encouraging. Among other things, Brother Brannan said the Saints could not possibly subsist in the Great Salt Lake Valley, as, according to the testimony of mountaineers, it froze there every month in the year, and the ground was too dry to sprout seeds without irrigation, and if irrigated with the cold mountain streams, the seeds planted would be chilled and prevented from growing, or, if they did grow, they would be sickly and fail to mature. He considered it no place for an agricultural people, and expressed his confidence that the Saints would emigrate to California the next spring. On being asked if he had given his views to President Brigham Young, he answered that he had. On further inquiry as to how his views were received, he said, in substance, that the President laughed and made some rather insignificant remark; “but,” said Brannan, “when he has fairly tried it, he will find that I was right and he was wrong, and will come to California.”

He thought all except those whose families were known to be at Salt Lake had better turn back and labor until spring, when in all probability the Church would come to them; or, if not, they could take means to their families. We camped over night with Brannan, and after he had left us the following morning, Captain James Brown, of the Pueblo detachment, which arrived in Salt Lake Valley on the 27th of July, came up with a small party. He brought a goodly number of letters from the families of the soldiers, also an epistle from the Twelve Apostles, advising those who had not means of subsistence to remain in California and labor, and bring their earnings with them in the spring.

Henry W. Bigler received a letter from Elder George A. Smith, of the Apostles, stating among other things, that President Brigham Young, with one hundred and forty-three Pioneers, arrived in Salt Lake Valley on the 24th day of July. It also mentioned the arrival of the Pueblo detachment of the Battalion, and stated that some were very busy putting in garden and field crops, while others were making adobes to build a temporary fort as a safeguard against Indians. The letter also stated that President Young and the Pioneers would return to Council Bluffs, and Father John Smith, Patriarch, would preside until the Twelve returned the next season.

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