Select Page

History Mormon Battalion Chapter 01 Section N

Before my attack, I was fond of conversing with an amiable old man, I think English born, who, having then recently buried his only daughter and grandson, used to be seen sitting out before his tent resting his sorrowful forehead on his hands, joined over a smooth white oak staff. I missed him when I got about again; probably he had been my mourning neighbor.

So, too, having been much exercised in my dreams at this time, by the vision of dismal processions, such as might have been formed by the union in line of all the forlornest and ugliest of the struggling fugitives from Nauvoo, I happen to recall as I write, that I had some knowledge somewhere of one of our new-comers, for whom the nightmare revived and repeated without intermission the torment of his trying journey. As he lay feeding life with long drawn breaths, he muttered: “Where’s next water? Team-give out! Hot, hot-God, it’s hot. Stop the wagon-stop the wagon-stop, stop the wagon!” They woke him-to his own content-but I believe returning sleep ever renewed his distressing visions, till the sounder slumber came on from which no earthly hand or voice could rouse him; into which I hope he did not carry them.

In a half dreamy way, I remember, or I think I remember, a crowd of phantoms like these. I recall but one fact, however, going far in proof of a considerable mortality. Earlier in the season, while going westward, with the intention of passing the Rocky Mountains that summer, I had opened, with the assistance of Mormon spades and shovels, a large mound on a commanding elevation, the tomb of a warrior of the ancient race; and, continuing on my way, had left a deep trench excavated entirely through it. Returning, fever-struck, to the Papillon camp, I found it planted close by this spot. It was just forming as I arrived; the first wagon, if I mistake not, having but a day or two before halted into place. My first airing upon my convalescence took me to the mound, which, probably to save digging, had been re-adapted to its original purpose. In this brief interval they had filled the trench with bodies, and furrowed the ground with graves around it, like the plowing of a field.

The lengthened sojourn of the Mormons in this insalubrious region, was imposed upon them by circumstances which I must now advert to.

Though the season was late, when they first crossed the Missouri, some of them moved forward with great hopefulness, full of the notion of viewing and choosing their new homes that year. But the van had only reached Grand Island and the Pawnee villages, when they were overtaken by more ill news from Nauvoo. Before the summer closed, their enemies set upon the last remnant of those who were left behind in Illinois. They were a few lingerers, who could not be persuaded but there might yet be time for them to gather up their worldly goods before removing, some weakly mothers and their infants, a few delicate young girls, and many cripples and bereaved and sick people. These had remained under shelter, according to the Mormon statement at least, by virtue of an express covenant in their behalf. If there was such a covenant it was broken. A vindictive war was waged upon them, from which the weakest fled in scattered parties leaving the rest to make a reluctant and almost ludicrously-unavailing defense, till the 17th day of September, when one thousand six hundred and twenty-five troops entered Nauvoo, and drove all forth who had not retreated before that time.

Like the wounded birds of a flock fired into toward night-fall, they came straggling on with faltering steps, many of them without bag or baggage, beast or barrow, all asking shelter or burial, and forcing a fresh repartition of the already divided rations of their friends. It was plain now, that every energy must be taxed to prevent the entire expedition from perishing. Further emigration for the time was out of the question, and the whole people prepared themselves for encountering another winter on the prairie.

Happily for the main body, they found themselves at this juncture among Indians who were amicably disposed. The lands on both sides of the Missouri, in particular, were owned by the Pottawatamies and Omahas, two tribes whom unjust treatment by our United States, had the effect of rendering most auspiciously hospitable to strangers whom they regarded as persecuted like themselves.

The Pottawatamies on the eastern side, are a nation from whom the United States bought, some years ago. a number of hundred thousand acres of the finest lands they have ever brought into market. Whatever the bargain was, the sellers were not content with it; the people saying their leaders were cheated, made drunk, bribed, and all manner of naughty things besides. No doubt this was quite as much of a libel on the fair fame of this particular Indian treaty, as such stories generally are; for the land to which the tribe was removed in pursuance of it, was admirably adapted to enforce habits of civilized thrift. It was smooth prairie, wanting in timber, and of course in game; and the humane and philanthropic might rejoice therefore that necessity would soon indoctrinate its inhabitants into the practice of agriculture. An impracticable few, who may have thought these advantages more than compensated by the insalubrity of their allotted resting place, fled to the extreme wilds, where they could find deer, and woods, and rocks, and running water, and where, I believe, they are roaming to this day. The remainder being what the political vocabulary designates on such occasions as “friendly Indians,” were driven-marched is the word-galley slaves are marched thus to Barcelona and Toulon-marched from the Mississippi to the Missouri, and planted there. Discontented and unhappy, they had hardly begun to form an attachment for this new soil, when they were persuaded to exchange it for their present fever patch upon the Kaw or Kansas river. They were under this second sentence of transportation when the Mormons arrived among them.

They were pleased with the Mormons. They would have been pleased with any whites who would not cheat them, nor sell them whisky, nor whip them for their poor gipsey habits, nor bear themselves indecently towards their women, many of whom among the Pottawatamies, especially those of nearly unmixed French descent, are singularly comely, and some of them educated. But all Indians have something like a sentiment of reverence for the insane, and admire those who sacrifice, without apparent motive, their worldly welfare to the triumph of an idea. They understood the meaning of what they call a great vow, and think it the duty of the right-minded to lighten the votary’s penance under it. To this feeling they united the sympathy of fellow sufferers for those who could talk to them of their own Illinois, and tell the story how from it they also had been ruthlessly expelled.

Their hospitality was sincere, almost delicate. Fanny Le Clerc, the spoiled child of the great brave, Pied Riche, interpreter of the nation, would have the pale face Miss Devine learn duets with her to the guitar; and the daughter of substantial Joseph La Framboise, the interpreter of the United States-she died of the fever that summer-welcomed all the nicest young Mormon Kitties and Lizzies, and Jennies, and Susans, to a coffee feast at her father’s house, which was probably the best cabin in the river village. They made the Mormons at home, there and elsewhere. Upon all their lands they formally gave them leave to tarry just so long as should suit their own good pleasure.

The affair, of course, furnished material for a solemn council. Under the auspices of an officer of the United States, their chiefs were summoned, in the form befitting great occasions, to meet in the dirty yard of one Mr. P. A Sarpy’s log trading house, at their village. They came in grand toilet, moving in their fantastic attire with so much aplomb and genteel measure, that the stranger found it difficult not to believe them high-born gentlemen, attending a costumed ball. Their aristocratically-thin legs, of which they displayed fully the usual Indian proportion, aided this illusion. There is something, too, at all times very mock-Indian in the theatrical French millinery tie of the Pottawatamie turban; while it is next to impossible for a sober white man, at first sight, to believe that the red, green, black, blue, and yellow cosmetics, with which he sees such grave personages so variously dotted, diapered, cancelled, and arabesqued, are worn by them in any mood but one of the deepest and most desperate quizzing. From the time of their first squat upon the ground, to the final breaking up of the council circle, they sustained their characters with equal self-possession and address.

I will not take it upon myself to describe their order of ceremonies; indeed, I ought not, since I have never been able to view the habits and customs of our aborigines in any other light than that of a reluctant and sorrowful subject of jest. Besides, in this instance, the displays of pow wow and eloquence were both probably moderated by the conduct of the entire transaction on temperance principles. I therefore content myself with observing, generally that the proceedings were such as every way became the grandeur of the parties interested, and the magnitude of the interests involved. When the red men had indulged to satiety in tobacco smoke from their peace pipes, and what they love still better, their peculiar metaphoric rodomontade, which, beginning with celestial bodies, and coursing downwards over the grandest sublunary objects, always managed to alight at last on their Grandfather Polk, and the tenderness for him of his affectionate colored children; all the solemn funny fellows present, who played the part of chiefs, signed formal articles of convention with their unpronounceable names.

The renowned chief, Pied Riche-he was surnamed Le Clerc on account of his remarkable scholarship-then arose, and said:

“My Mormon Brethren,

“The Pottawatamie came, sad and tired, into this unhealthy Missouri Bottom, not many years back, when he was taken from his beautiful country beyond the Mississippi, which had abundant game and timber, and clear water everywhere. Now you are driven away, the same, from your lodges and lands there, and the graves of your people. So we have both suffered. We must help one another, and the Great Spirit will help us both. You are now free to cut and use all the wood you may wish. You can make all your improvements, and live on any part of our actual land not occupied by us. Because one suffers and does not deserve it, is no reason he shall suffer always, I say. We may live to see all right yet. However, if we do not, our children will.-Bon jour.”

And thus ended the pageant. I give this speech as a morsel of real Indian. It was recited to me after the treaty by the Pottawatamie orator in French, which language he spoke with elegance. Bon jour is the French, Indian and English hail and farewell of the Pottawatamies.

The other entertainers of the Mormons at this time, the Omahas, or Mahaws, are one of the minor tribes of the Grand Prairie. Their great father, the United States, has found it convenient to protect so remote a dependency against the over-powering league of the Dahcotahs or Sioux, and has judged it dangerous at the same time to allow them to protect themselves by entering into a confederation with others. Under the pressure of this paternal embarrassment and restraint, it has therefore happened, most naturally, that this tribe, once a powerful and valued ally of ours, has been reduced to a band of little more than a hundred families, and these, a few years more will entirely extinguish. When I was among them, they were so ill-fed that their protruding high cheek bones gave them the air of a tribe of consumptives. The buffalo had left them, and no good ranges lay within several hundred miles reach. Hardly any other game found cover on their land. What little there was, they were short of ammunition to kill. Their annuity from the United States was trifling. They made next to nothing at thieving. They had planted some corn in their awkward Indian fashion, but through fear of ambush dared not venture out to harvest it. A chief resource for them, the winter previous, had been the spoliation of their neighbors, the prairie field-mice.

These interesting little people, more industrious and thrifty than the Mahaws, garner up in the neat little cellars of their under-ground homes, the small seeds or beans of the wood pea vine, which are black and hard, but quite nutritious. Gathering them one by one, a single mouse will thus collect as much as half a pint, which, before the cold weather sets in, he piles away in a dry and frost-proof excavation, cleverly thatched and covered in. The Omaha animal, who, like enough may have idled during all the season the mouse was amassing his toilsome treasure, finds this subterranean granary to give out a certain peculiar cavernous vibration, when briskly tapped upon above the ground. He wanders about, therefore, striking with a wand in hopeful spots; and as soon as he hears the hollow sound he knows, unearths the little retired capitalist along with his winter’s hope. Mouse wakes up from his nap to starve, and Mahaw swallows several relishing mouthfuls.

But the mouse has his avenger in the powerful Sioux, who wages against his wretched red brother an almost bootless, but exterminating warfare. He robs him of his poor human peltry. One of my friends was offered for sale a Sioux scalp of Omaha, “with grey hair nearly as long as a white horse’s tail.”

The pauper Omahas were ready to solicit as a favor the residence of white protectors among them. The Mormons harvested and stored away for them their crops of maize; with all their own poverty they spared them food enough besides, from time to time, to save them from absolutely starving; and their entrenched camp to the north of Omaha villages, served as a sort of breakwater between them and the destroying rush of the Sioux.

This was the head quarters of the Mormon Camps of Israel. The miles of rich prairie, enclosed and sowed with the grain they could contrive to spare, and the houses, stacks, and cattle shelters, had the seeming of an entire county, with its people and improvements transplanted there unbroken. On a pretty plateau, overlooking the river, they built more than seven hundred houses in a single town, neatly laid out with highways and byways, and fortified with breast-work, stockade, and block-houses. It had too, its place of worship, “Tabernacle of the Congregation,” and various large workshops, and mills and factories provided with water power.

They had no camp or settlement of equal size in the Pottawatamie country. There was less to apprehend here from Indian invasion; and the people scattered themselves, therefore, along the rivers and streams, and in the timber groves, wherever they found inviting localities for farming operations. In this way many of them acquired what have since proved to be valuable pre-emption rights.

Upon the Pottawatamie lands, scattered through the border regions of Missouri and Iowa, in the Sac and Fox country, a few among the Iowas, among the Poncas in a great company upon the banks of the L’Eau qui Coule, or Running Water river, and at the Omaha winter quarters, the Mormons sustained themselves through the heavy winter of 1846-1847. It was the severest of their trials. And if I aimed at rhetorical effect, I would be bound to offer you a minute narrative of its progress, as a sort of climax to my history. But I have, I think, given you enough of the Mormon’s sorrows. We are all of us content to sympathize with a certain extent of suffering; but very few can bear the recurring yet scarcely varied narrative of another’s distress without something of impatience. The world is full of grief, and we cannot afford to expend too large a share of our charity, or even our commiseration in a single quarter.

This winter was the turning point of the Mormon fortunes. Those who lived through it were spared to witness the gradual return of better times. And they now liken it to the passing of a dreary night, since which they have watched the coming of a steadily brightening day.

Before the grass growth of 1847, a body of one hundred and forty-three picked men, with seventy wagons, drawn by their best horses, left the Omaha quarters, under the command of the members of the High Council, who had wintered there. They carried with them little but seed and farming implements, their aim being to plant spring crops at their ultimate destination. They relied on their rifles to give them food, but rarely left their road in search of game. They made long daily marches, and moved with as much rapidity as possible.

Copyright © 2017 Mormon History. All Rights Reserved.
This website is not owned by or affiliated with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (sometimes called the Mormon or LDS Church). The views expressed herein do not necessarily represent the position of the Church. The views expressed by individual users are the responsibility of those users and do not necessarily represent the position of the Church. For the official Church websites, please visit LDS.org or Mormon.org.

Pin It on Pinterest