One hundred and fifty-five years ago, give or take a few days, a reporter for a New York newspaper visited the Mormon camp near Iowa City, Iowa. He painted a word picture of the scene for his readers in the East:
The camp, as viewed from the brow of a neighboring hill, which commands a wide sweep of country, presents a fine spectacle. Over one hundred tents, and perhaps as many covered wagons, with their spires and arches of dazzling white – contrast well with the green sward of the prairie and the sparkling ripples of the river running close beside.
The camp is reached by a side road, diverging from the great highway which leads to Fort Desmoines and Council Bluffs. In all about three thousand have rendezvoused in this spot, of whom some eighteen hundred still remain in expectation, however, of soon striking their tents for their long march. Three separate divisions have already gone forward. The remainder will start, it is supposed, in about a fortnight, and the leaders are now laying in supplies for the journey.
The tents are arranged in rows, with wide streets between them – the wagons generally in rings, with an entrance at one side, and sleeping tents on the outside.
He investigated the means by which the pioneers had arrived at that point, either by prepaying their expenses in Europe – which “insures to them a team from this city to the end of their journey – no mean advantage, by the way” – or by support of the Perpetual Emigration fund company.
On the journey these ‘Lord’s poor’ are provided with hand carts (five men to each) on which they are expected to carry their luggage, through fourteen hundred miles of weary wayfaring.
The present stock of cattle in camp is numerous and valuable. There are in all four hundred-and-forty-five oxen, twenty mules and a few horses. Really when in motion, such a train must make a display of no ordinary character.
There is seen, as you enter the camp, a smithery, a workshop and a store, all full of business and industry. There seems to be no disposition to shirk duty, however laborious. Women and children appear alike interested in getting all things ready for a start.
The start for those budding pioneers, though, would be delayed for weeks yet. The smithery and workshop were engaged in turning out handcarts, with green lumber that would soon shrink, and iron hoops that would refuse to stay connected to the warping wooden wheels. Those cattle would stampede, with many of them being lost, delaying and handicapping the companies further.
The industrious pioneers, eager to make their start, would be largely members of the two handcart companies led by Captains James G. Willie and Edward Martin; the herd of animals would be pulling the few wagons that accompanied those two companies of handcarts, and the wagons of the William B. Hodgetts and John A. Hunt companies that would travel with them and largely share their fate on the plains of Wyoming.
I have seen other contemporary news accounts of Mormon pioneer companies at the start of their journey, sometimes including interviews with their leaders. This report is, I think, the first I have seen that mentions an identifiable pioneer who was not a leader, and a woman at that.
Speaking of the fair sex reminds me that I saw one really handsome female, and many good-looking ones, during many visits to the camp. I learned that a few of them were of highly cultivated minds, and one (the prettiest too, by a curious anomaly) was pointed out to me as an accomplished poetess. All their beauty and talent, however, are consecrated to the interests of the church, and the whilom lady will pull the hand-cart cheerfully with a woman of no education or refinement. No distinctions seem to be made among them, except so far as money can make them. Children absolutely swarm in and around the encampment and I have often come near trampling on the small fry as I rode through camp on my Indian pony.
The “accomplished poetess” was Emily Hill (later Woodmansee), 20 years old and newly arrived from England, who would survive the trek. One of her poems (“As Sisters in Zion”) is sung today; others of her poems have been in earlier editions of our hymn books.
The New York correspondent concludes:
I would have been glad to write more fully respecting the organization and government of these religionists. I have made the acquaintance of their leaders, and have found them courteous, cultivated, and, in business transactions, uncommonly “sharp.” They converse freely with those in whom they have confidence, respecting their plans and prospects; and strangers sometimes can learn news of Mormon movements while the people in the camp itself are in blissful ignorance of their fate.
“In blissful ignorance of their fate.” Indeed.