The snow, and sleet, and rain which fell, as it appeared to them, without intermission, made the road over the rich prairie soil as impassable as one vast bog of heavy black mud. Sometimes they would fasten the horses and oxen of four or five wagons to one, and attempt to get ahead in this way, taking turns; but at the close of a hard day of toll for themselves and their cattle, they would find themselves a quarter or half a mile from the place they left in the morning. The heavy rains raised all the water courses: the most trifling streams were impassible. Wood fit for bridging was often not to be had, and in such cases the only resource was to halt for the freshets to subside; a matter, in the case of the headwaters of the Chariton for instance, of over three weeks’ delay.
These were dreary waitings upon Providence. The most spirited and steady murmured most at their forced inactivity. And even the women, whose heroic spirits had been proof against the lowest thermometric fall, confessed their tempers fluctuated with the ceaseless variations of the barometer. They complained. Too, that the health of their children suffered more. It was the fact, that the open winds of March and April brought with them more mortal sickness than the sharpest freezing weather.
The frequent burials made the hardiest sicken. On the soldier’s march it is matter of discipline, that after the rattle of musketry over his comrade’s grave he shall tramp it to the music of some careless tune in a lively quick step. But, in the Mormon camp, the companion who lay ill and gave up the ghost in view of all, all saw he lay stretched a corpse, and all attend to his last resting-place. It was a sorrow then, too, of itself, to simple-hearted people, the deficient pomps of their imperfect style of funeral. The general hopefulness of human-including Mormon-nature, was well illustrated by the fact, that the most provident were found unfurnished with undertaker’s articles; so that bereaved affection was driven to melancholy makeshifts.
The best expedient generally was to cut down a log of some eight or nine feet long, and slitting it longitudinally, strip off its dark bark in two half cylinders. These, placed around the body of the deceased, and bound firmly together with withes made of the alburnum, formed a rough sort of tubular cofin, which surviving relatives and friends, with a little show of black crape, could follow with its enclosure to the hole, or bit of ditch dug to receive it in the wet ground of the prairie. They grieved to lower it down so poorly clad, and in such an unheeded grave. It was hard-was it right?-thus hurriedly to plunge it in one of the undistinguishable waves of the great land sea, and leave it behind them there, under the cold north rain, abandoned, to be forgotten. They had no tombstones, nor could they find a rock to pile the monumental cairn. So when they had filled up the grave, and over it prayed a miserere prayer, and tried to sing a hopeful psalm, their last office was to seek out landmarks, or call in the surveyor to help them determine the bearings of valley bends, headlands, or forks and angles of constant streams, by which its position should in the future be remembered and recognized. The name of the beloved person, his age, the date of his death, and these marks were all registered with care. His party was then ready to move on. Such graves mark all the line of the first years of Mormon travel-dispiriting milestones to failing stragglers in the rear.
It is an error to estimate largely the number of Mormons dead of starvation, strictly speaking. Want developed disease, and made them sink under fatigue, and maladies that would otherwise have proved trifling. But only those died of it outright who fell in out-of-the-way places that the hand of brotherhood could not reach. Among the rest no such thing as plenty was known, while any went an hungered. If but a part of a group was supplied with provision, the only result was that the whole went on the half or quarter ration, according to the sufficiency that there was among them; and this so ungrudgingly and contentedly, that, till some crisis of trial to their strength, they were themselves unaware that their health was sinking, and their vital force impaired.
Hale young men gave up their own provided food and shelter to the old and helpless, and walked their way back to parts of the frontier States, chiefly Missouri and Iowa, where they were not recognized, and hired themselves out for wages, to purchase more. Others were sent there to exchange for meal and flour, or wheat and corn, the table and bed furniture, and other last resources of personal property which a few had still retained.
In a kindred spirit of fraternal forecast, others laid out great farms in the wilds, and planted in them the grain saved for their own bread, that there might be harvests for those who should follow them. Two of these in the Sac and Fox country, and beyond it, (Garden Grove and Mount Pisgah), included within their fences about two miles of land apiece, carefully planted in grain, with a hamlet of comfortable log cabins in the neighborhood of each.
Through all this the pioneers found redeeming comfort in the thought that their own suffering was the price of immunity to their friends at home. But the arrival of spring proved this a delusion. Before the warm weather had made the earth dry enough for easy travel, messengers came in from Nauvoo to overtake the party, with fear, exaggerated tales of outrage, and to urge the chief men to hurry back to the city, that they might give counsel and assistance there. The enemy had only waited till the emigrants were supposed to be gone on their road too far to return to interfere with them, and then renewed their aggressions.
The Mormons outside Nauvoo were indeed hard pressed; but inside the city they maintained themselves very well for two or three months longer..
Strange to say, the chief part of this respite was devoted to completing the structure of their quaintly-devised but beautiful temple. Since the dispersion of Jewry, probably, history affords us no parallel to the attachment of the Mormons for this edifice. Every architectural element, every most fantastic emblem it embodied, was associated, for them, with some cherished feature of their religion. Its erection had been enjoined upon them as a most sacred duty. They were proud of the honor it conferred upon their city, when it grew up in its splendor to become the chief object of the admiration of strangers upon the Upper Mississippi. Besides they had built it as a labor of love; they could count up to half a million the value of their tithings and free-will offerings laid upon it. Hardly a Mormon woman had not given up to it some trinket or pin-money; the poorest Mormon man had at least served the tenth part of his year on its walls; and the coarsest artizan could turn to it with something of the ennobling attachment of an artist for his fair creation. Therefore, though their enemies drove on them ruthlessly, they succeeded in parrying the last sword-thrust, till they had completed even the gilding of the angel and trumpet on the summit of its lofty spire. As a closing work, they placed on the entablature of the front, like a baptismal mark on the forehead,
THE HOUSE OF THE LORD Built by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. HOLINESS TO THE LORD!
Then at high noon, under the bright sunshine of May, the next only after its completion, they consecrated it to divine service. There was a carefully studied ceremonial for the occasion. It was said the high Elders of the sect traveled furtively from the camp of Israel in the wilderness, and, throwing off ingenious disguises, appeared in their own robes of holy office, to give it splendor.
For that one day the temple stood resplendent in all its typical glories of sun, moon, and stars, and other abounding figured and lettered signs, hieroglyphs, and symbols: but that day only! The sacred rites of consecration ended, the work of removing the sacro sancta proceeded with the rapidity of magic. It went on through the night; and when the morning of the next day dawned, all the ornaments and furniture, everything that could provoke a sneer had been carried off; and except some fixtures that would not bear removal, the building was dismantled to the bear walls.
It was this day saw the departure of the last Elders, and the largest band that moved in one company together. The people of Iowa have told me, that from morning to night they passed westward like an endless procession. They did not seem greatly out of heart, they said, but at the top of every hill, before they disappeared, were to be seen looking back, like banished Moors, on their abandoned homes, and the far-seen temple and its glittering spire.
After this consecration, which was construed to indicate an insincerity on the part of the Mormons as to their stipulated departure, or at least a hope of return, their foes set upon them with renewed bitterness. As many fled as were at all prepared; but by the very fact of their so decreasing the already diminished forces of the city’s defenders, they encouraged the enemy to greater boldness. It soon became apparent that nothing short of an immediate emigration could save the remnant.
From this time onward the energies of those already on the road were engrossed by the duty of providing for the fugitives who came crowding in after them. At a last general meeting of the sect in Nauvoo, there had been passed an unanimous resolve that they would sustain one another, whatever their circumstances, upon the march; and this, though made in view of no such appalling exigency, they now with one accord set themselves together to carry out.
Here begins the touching period of Mormon history; on which, but that it is for me a hackneyed subject, I should be glad to dwell, were it only for the proof it has afforded of the strictly material value to communities of an active common faith, and its happy illustrations of the power of the spirit of Christian fraternity to relieve the deepest of human suffering. I may assume that it has already fully claimed the public sympathy.
Delayed thus by their own wants, and by their exertions to provide for the wants of others, it was not till the month of June that the advance of the emigrant companies arrived at the Missouri.
This body, I remember, I had to join there, ascending the river for the purpose from Fort Leavenworth, which was at that time our frontier post. The Fort was the interesting rendezvous of the Army of the West, and the head quarters of its gallant chief, Stephen F. Kearney, whose guest and friend I account it my honor to have been. Many as were the reports daily received at the garrison from all portions of the Indian Territory, it was a significant fact, how little authentic intelligence was to be obtained concerning the Mormons. Even the regions in which they were to be sought after, was a question not attempted to be designated with accuracy, except by what are very well called in the West “Mormon stories,” none of which bore any sifting. One of these averred, that a party of Mormons, in spangled crimson robes of office, headed by one in black velvet and silver, had been teaching a Jewish pow-wow to the medicine men of the Sauks and Foxes. Another averred that they were going about in buffalo robe short frocks, imitative of the costume of Saint John, preaching baptism and the instance of the kingdom of heaven among the Iowas. To believe one report, ammunition and whisky had been received by Indian braves at the hands of an Elder with a flowing white beard, who spoke Indian, he alleged, because he had the gift of tongues-this, as far north as the country of the Yankton Sioux. According to another yet, which professed to be derived officially from at least one Indian sub-agent, the Mormons had distributed the scarlet uniforms of H. B. M’s servants among the Pottawatamies, and had carried into their country twelve pieces of brass cannon, which were counted by a traveler as they were rafted across the East Fork of Grand river, one of the northern tributaries of the Missouri. The narrators of these pleasant stories were at variance as to the position of the Mormons by a couple of hundred leagues; but they harmonized in the warning, that to seek certain of the leading camps, would be to meet the treatment of a spy.
Almost at the outset of my journey from Fort Leavenworth, while yet upon the edge of the Indian border, I had the good fortune to fall in with a couple of thin-necked sallow persons, in patchwork pantaloons, conducting northward wagon loads of Indian corn, which they had obtained, according to their own account, in barter from a squatter for some silver spoons, and a feather bed. Their character was disclosed by their eager request of a bite from my wallet; in default of which, after a somewhat superfluous scriptural grace, they made an imperfect lunch before me off the softer of their corn ears eating the grains as horses do from the cob. I took their advice to follow up the Missouri; somewhere not far from which, in the Pottowatamie country, they were sure I would encounter one of their advancing companies.
I had bad weather on the road. Excessive heats, varied only by repeated drenching thunder squalls, knocked up my horse, my only traveling companion, and otherwise added to the ordinary hardships of a kind of life, to which I was as yet little accustomed. I suffered a sense of discomfort, therefore, amounting to physicial nostalgia, and was, in fact, wearied to death of the staring silence of the prairie, before I came upon the objects of my search.
They were collected a little distance above the Pottawatamie Agency. The hills of the “High Prairie” crowding in upon the river at this point, and overhanging it, appear of an unusual and commanding elevation. They are called the Council Bluffs; a name given them with another meaning, but well illustrated by the picturesque congress of their high and mighty summits. To the south of them, a rich alluvial flat of considerable width follows down the Missouri, some eight miles, to where it is lost from view at a turn, which forms the site of an Indian town of Point aux Poules. Across the river from this spot the hills recur again, but are skirted at their base by as much low ground as suffices for a landing.
This landing, and the large flat or bottom on the east side of the river, were crowded with covered carts and wagons; and each one of the Council Bluff hills opposite, was crowned with its own great camp, gay with bright white canvas, and alive, with busy stir of swarming occupants. In the clear blue morning air the smoke steamed up from more than a thousand cooking fires. Countless roads and by-paths checkered all manner of geometric figures on the hill sides. Herd boys were dozing upon the slopes; sheep and horses, cows and oxen, were feeding around them, and other herds in the luxuriant meadow of the then swollen river. From a single point I counted four thousand head of cattle in view at one time. As I approached it seemed to me the children there were to prove still more numerous. Along a little creek I had to cross were women in greater force than blanchisseuses upon the Seine, washing and rinsing all manner of white muslins, red flannels, and particolored calicoes, and hanging them to bleach upon a greater area of grass and bushes than we can display in all our Washington Square.
Hastening by these, I saluted a group of noisy boys, whose purely vernacular cries had for me an invincible home savoring attraction. It was one of them, a bright-faced lad, who, hurrying on his jacket and trousers, fresh from bathing in the creek, first assured me I was at my right destination. He was a mere child; but he told me of his own accord where I had best go and seek my welcome, and took my horse’s bridle to help me pass a morass, the bridge over which he alleged to be unsafe.
There was something joyous for me in my rambles about this vast body of pilgrims. I could range the wild country wherever I listed, under safeguard of their moving host. Not only in the main camps was all stir and life, but in every direction, it seemed to me I could follow “Mormon roads,” and find them beaten hard, and even dusty, by the tread and wear of the cattle and vehicles of emigrants laboring over them. By day, I would overtake and pass, one after another, what amounted to an army train of them; and at night, if I encamped at the places where the timber and running water were found together, I was almost sure to be within call of some camp or other, or at least within sight of its watch-fires. Wherever I was compelled to tarry, I was certain to find shelter and hospitality, scant, indeed, but never stinted, and always honest and kind. After a recent unavoidable association with the border inhabitants of Western Missouri and Iowa, the vile scum which our own society, to apply the words of an admirable gentleman and eminent divine, “like the great ocean washes upon its frontier shores,” I can scarcely describe the gratification I felt in associating again with persons who were almost all of Eastern American origin-persons of refined and cleanly habits and decent language, and observing their peculiar and interesting mode of life; while every day seemed to bring with it its own special incident, fruitful in the illustration of habits and character.