Companies of immigrant converts traveling to Utah prior to the completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1869 had many experiences in common. They had to get to the embarkation points in Iowa, Missouri, and Nebraska; they were met by immigration agents who helped them overcome obstacles in preparations for the journey; and then all had to endure the seemingly endless overland trek, subject to storms, heat, dust, hunger, sickness, and even death.
Immigration, though, from the standpoint of church leaders in Salt Lake City, was a constantly evolving physical and financial challenge to accommodate an ever increasing number of new Saints. The initial companies of the late 1840s had to be very self sufficient. It took time for Brigham Young to work out the best way to move the hundreds, then thousands, of Great Basin-bound church members and new converts. The Perpetual Emigrating Fund (PEF) is pretty well documented and known. Less is generally understood about arguably the most successful pre-railroad immigration plan, the down and back companies.
A combination of factors played a part in the evolution of expediting the westward migration in the late 1850s. It became obvious after the handcart experiences of 1856 and 1857 that while relatively inexpensive, the hardship and human toll of hauling handcarts 1500 miles across the Great Plains and the Rocky Mountains was not worth the savings. Also, the Utah War stopped all immigration in 1858, and sharply curtailed the number of companies in 1859.
Even during the 1850s, many companies of both wagons and handcarts had to be sent relief supplies as they crossed Wyoming, as the food that could be carried dwindled and the late season weather slowed the final stages of the overland journey. By 1859, President Young and other church leaders knew that the handcart companies could not continue, and a new plan was put in place to assist immigrants.
Short of hard cash, the church nevertheless had a surplus of livestock and experienced teamsters. It was decided that starting in 1861 complete wagon trains would leave the Salt Lake Valley in April, arriving at the terminus of the railroads in Nebraska in June or July, and carry the westbound Saints back to the Valley before winter set in. Communities and wards were given assignments to provide teams, wagons, and men to drive them. Those donating the outfits or providing their service as teamsters were given tithing credit for their time and labor, rather than being paid in cash.
The first set of wagons left for Nebraska April 23rd, 1861, consisting of 200 wagons, some 260 men, and some 2,200 oxen. They carried with them 150,000 pounds of flour and other non-perishable provisions. Preparations had been hard under way, and the teams and teamsters gathering, when just two days earlier, word of the fall of Fort Sumter arrived in Salt Lake City, heralding the start of the Civil War.
Under the shadow of impending war, Missouri’s status as a border state and potential battlefield created unanticipated problems that had to be dealt with as the train pushed east. In Nebraska and elsewhere, immigration agents suddenly were faced with the prospect of bridges being burned, possible predation by partisan raiders, railroad interruptions, and a sudden shortage of supplies and the basic tools of immigration. Saints were already in transit from England and Denmark, with a large contingent of converts from Pennsylvania.
Jacob Gates, the immigration agent in charge at Florence, Nebraska, where the railroad ended that year, scrambled to set up a camp to accommodate some three thousand anticipated immigrants, the first arriving in late May. The first company started west almost immediately, some buying their own wagons, others using wagons provided by Gates. More Saints arrived over the next six weeks, eventually numbering 2,500 in camp by July 2nd. Elder Lorenzo Snow had estimated some 300 wagons would be needed. Ultimately, almost 600 were bought locally, came west with some of the immigrants themselves, or came overland from the Salt Lake Valley. Probably due to the threat of war, up to an additional one thousand church members made their way to Nebraska unanticipated by the agents or church leaders.
Approximately four thousand men, women, and children made up the companies of 1861, and all companies were able to escape the most direct consequences of the expanding Civil War. By late summer, most railroad routes that crossed Missouri had interruptions due to bridge burnings or the tracks being torn up. Some trains were indiscriminately fired on by troops from both sides. All in all, it was an auspicious start to the Church’s new emigration program, and another example of the great role that emigration agents like W. C. Staines and Jacob Gates played in smoothing out the process for the Utah-bound emigrants.
The down and back companies suspended their operations for 1865, resumed again in 1866, were briefly interrupted in 1867, with a final year of service in 1868. The trips were quicker, sometimes taking as little as eight to ten weeks to cover the distance from eastern Nebraska to the Salt Lake Valley. With hard cash a limited commodity in Utah during these years, the church found itself rich instead in livestock and willing laborers. Often additional ox teams were herded east to be sold to help defray the costs of emigration, or to finance the purchase of manufactured goods and raw materials not available in Utah. Apostle David B. Haight’s grandfather, Horton D. Haight, captained four companies over the lifetime of the program. In 1866, his team of 60-plus wagons brought back only a handful of families, instead hauling wire, batteries, and other goods for the Deseret Telegraph.
In 1869, with the completion of the transcontinental railroad, wagons were no longer the preferred means of westward migration and the down and back companies ceased. During their eight-year duration, Leonard Arrington estimates that almost two thousand wagons and their drivers, carrying over a million pounds of flour and other food items, made the trip east to bring back over 20,000 immigrants to Utah. Compared to the ill-fated handcart experiment of the 1850s, the down and back companies provided more food, more security, and less of the physical challenges that plagued the handcart companies.
My own ancestors spanned this time frame. My father’s great-grandfather, Jorgen Christoffer Folkman, and grandfather Jens Peter Folkman, traveled in a company of handcart pioneers in 1857. The majority of the immigrants in that group came together from Denmark, and few spoke any English. The first captain of the company was a short tempered Scotsman who spoke no Danish, and communication problems created additional hardships and misunderstandings for the Danish converts. Part way across Nebraska, the company was overtaken by a group of returning missionaries from the Midwest, including Christian Christiansen, also a Dane and fluent in both English and Danish. At the request of the Danish Saints, Christiansen agreed to replace the original captain of the company, and while not without difficulties, the rest of the trip to Utah proceeded more smoothly. (This new captain Christiansen was not the artist C.C.A. Christensen, but by coincidence, C.C.A. was a member of this handcart company and wrote an extensive account of his journey.)
My paternal grandmother was the daughter of a young English convert, Charlotte Senior, who came with her family from England in 1869. On the transatlantic crossing, she met a returning missionary, Frederick King from Ogden, an English native, who had difficulty with seasickness and didn’t come up on deck until several days into the trip. They traveled together on the railroads in the first company of European saints to complete the entire crossing of the plains by train.
They renewed their acquaintance once in Utah, and married in 1871. In 1873, they traveled from Ogden to Arizona as part of Horton Haight’s unsuccessful first colonizing mission south of the Colorado River in Arizona, first having to purchase and outfit a covered wagon. Having missed the wagon crossing of the plains, they more than made up for the experience in the deserts of Arizona. That unsuccessful mission turned out to be somewhat of a “down and back” experience of their own.
[Sources: Leonard Arrington, Great Basin Kingdom, University of Nebraska Press, 1958, 205-211. All references to the down and back trains are from this source: William Hartley’s article in the September 1985 Ensign, and various journal accounts available on the Overland Travel Database.]