Elizabeth Cumming’s Peculiar Journey to Utah Territory

by Virginia Vallee Delaney, © 2002:


Elizabeth Cumming realized from the start that her trip to Utah Territory would be different from others who traveled to the western frontier. She was on a mission of peace but accompanied by an army prepared for war. They were leaving at the wrong time of year in a period of serious political unrest. She knew it was an uncertain adventure. While getting ready she wrote her sister that her preparations were “… peculiar ones for a peculiar journey.”

The year was 1857 and Elizabeth was accompanying her husband, Alfred Cumming, on his way to Salt Lake City to succeed Brigham Young as governor of Utah Territory. They traveled with approximately 1800 soldiers prepared to establish a Fort near Salt Lake (eventually named Camp Floyd). There was a pressing need to establish a fort in the territories acquired in the 1848 Treaty of Guadeloupe Hidalgo and to punctuate the resolve that the territories would be part of the United States and adhere to the principle of the separation of church and state as presented in the Constitution.

The army was large since previous officials indicated that Brigham Young had thoughts of establishing a separate nation, and officials worried that the Mormons might resist a federal presence in the area and would not accept the newly appointed governor.

Governor Cumming had orders to make peace if possible. The army had orders to defend United States land if need be. As a consequence, Elizabeth traveled west as winter was approaching with a long train of dragoons, teamsters, sutlers and wagons loaded with supplies. We can share their adventures because Elizabeth wrote letters along the way that are still preserved.

In her first letter, written August 25, 1857 on a boat worming its way up the Missouri River from St. Louis, she anticipated the challenges ahead. Feeling eager, she told her sister, “The journey is an idea perfectly to my taste, very attractive.” But, because they were leaving late in the season, she felt serious apprehensions. She foresaw “biting winds in the unsheltered prairies” and deep snow drifts in the mountain passes where “fires will not stay lighted for the wind.” In the middle of August she shared her worries with her sister. “I have longed and wished to go, but to go soon.”

When Elizabeth reached Fort Leavenworth, Kansas Territory, she learned her husband had not yet received orders from Washington, which meant the objectives of the Utah Expedition were still up in the air. Obviously the party could not leave Fort Leavenworth until they had orders. One reason for the delay was political confusion in the aftermath of the recent Dred Scott ruling by the Supreme Court that declared slavery legal in all Territories. This shocking overturn of previous compromises happened in early March (Mar. 6, 1857) just two days after the inauguration of the new Democratic president, James Buchanan. Kansas, already bleeding over the slavery issue, felt another crunch as leadership shifted and loyalties realigned. Buchanan, facing a nation on the verge of civil war, had heard conflicting views about Utah. Some officials told him a revolt was under way. Something needed to be done. He started planning to appoint a new governor for Utah and to send a backup of troops but it took awhile to settle on objectives and strategy.

On September 4th orders finally did come. Elizabeth wrote from Fort Leavenworth, that they had heard that day from Washington. “Six companies of dragoons ordered to be prepared for Utah. It will take at least ten days so they tell me”. The orders to Governor Cumming from the Secretary of State, Lewis Cass, were to make peace if possible. Cass said that federal officers were not to interfere “with any of the peculiar opinions of the inhabitants…” and were to “uphold the constitutional right of freedom of worship.” [C-187 p 4-5 note 6] The military orders were more astringent. The army was to establish a fort near Salt Lake City and, if attacked, to defend Governor Cumming and all parties under their protection.

In the same letter , Elizabeth cautioned her sister not to believe what she read in the newspapers. “It has been amusing, and sometimes irritating”, she wrote, “to see the statements gravely made, often without any foundation. I could tell you some striking discrepancies that would surprise you very much.”

For the past several months, the newspapers had been printing stories about affairs in Utah and rumors about the national response. According to Elizabeth, very few of the statements made in the papers were actually true. Elizabeth made clear that it would be a grave mistake to base important decisions on newspaper reports.

Communications were a major problem in 1857. The Transcontinental Telegraph connecting east to west was still an idea in the making. Even the Pony Express was not yet in operation. The Golden Spike would not be driven until 1869. In 1857 transmitting information to the far west took many days in the summer and was near impossible in the winter. Governor Cumming and other newly appointed federal officials were on their way to handle transactions with the Mormons in person. They were told to be diplomatic.

On October 24, after 600 plus miles on the trail, the Cummings, with Dragoons under Colonel Cooke, reached Fort Laramie. At Fort Laramie they received a warm welcome but also several pieces of bad news. The first bad news was that Brigham Young had declared martial law and signed a Proclamation forbidding the entry of United States troops in Utah Territory for any reason. Elizabeth said the Proclamation arrived at Fort Laramie the day before they arrived and was already being sent by messengers on horseback to Washington.

Brigham Young’s proclamation, printed Aug. 25 in the Salt Lake newspaper, began, “We are invaded by a hostile force…” and said near the end, “ we will not be slain without an attempt to defend ourselves.” After forbidding the army to enter Utah and warning that the Mormons were prepared to fight, he officially declared Martial Law and forbade any person to leave or enter the territory without authorized permission from him. It was a harsh, provocative, emotional document, which aroused hatred and anger on both sides. The Mormon people trembled with terror. The United States officials waxed indignant. The armies bristled.

The worst news came from couriers of the Tenth Infantry, who were three weeks ahead of the Governor’s party. Elizabeth told her sister, “The Mormons have burned 72 U.S. wagons (contents unknown) ahead of us, and have burned off the grass in many places – so that we must depend on corn entirely.” With these acts, Brigham Young’s army had initiated hostilities. Elizabeth doubted that they would make it to Salt Lake City that winter.

Burning supply wagons and destroying the grasses that animals needed to survive was an act of war. The Mormons were painfully aware of the dangers of winter in the high country between Fort Laramie and Fort Bridger. The year before, many members of the Mormon Handcart companies had frozen to death in that area in the month of October. Burning the means of survival in this area was clearly intended to subject the Army to Utah to the same fate. Brancroft, in his History of Utah, highlights the worst dangers and the many deaths that could have been avoided if the emigrants had had supplies and draft animals.

Elizabeth knew of the dangers. She prophesied that large numbers of their animals would die in the ride ahead. In her letter written November 28 (after they reached Black’s Fork) we find that her prophesies came true. She mourned, “It is like a nightmare to think of our journey. We left about 200 animals dead; we loosened the harness and they fell on the road – some stood still in the snow – ravens all around them, the animals freezing but not dead – only motionless.”

Crossing South Pass, the governor’s party was caught in a fierce Wyoming storm, the temperature dropped to 44 degrees below zero. In Elizabeth’s words, “We reached the summit of Rocky Mountains and winter at one and the same time.” They had only “Sage brushes” for fuel, “which burns like paper.” They chopped and burned surplus wagons and harnesses for survival. It was as she had anticipated “—at night not only cold, but wind.”

Elizabeth particularly lamented the loss of her pony, her six year old friend, who was lost at night in the snow. “When we had only 3 bushels of corn left for 55 mules, food for five days, he ate my bread with me morning and night.”

On the west side of South Pass, the excursion encountered a new horror: Two thousand animals of the Tenth Infantry ahead of them had died of starvation and cold. Frozen carcasses littered the way. Elizabeth wrote, “We were two or three days passing through this Golgotha—20, 30 bodies in view at a time.”

As Elizabeth had guessed, the entourage halted before their real destination was achieved. Writing from Black’s Fork, she explained to her sister, “Our animals are all dead or dying, and we must stop here all winter, where there is food and water.

Strung out along Black’s Fork, just south of Fort Bridger (which had been burned by the Mormons), U.S. troops and numerous civilians settled down in an odd assortment of tents and dugouts. Together they numbered about 2,500 souls, a booming community for its day. They named it Camp Scott.

At that time, Wyoming Territory was still a dozen years from creation. Bridger Valley and much of the upper Green River were part of Utah Territory.

This meant that Alfred Cumming, the official governor of Utah Territory, was now in Utah. So, as told by Elizabeth, he made Camp Scott the official seat of government. For six months, Camp Scott, in the Bridger Valley, was the de facto capital of Utah. The governor’s mansion and capitol building consisted of four tents and a tipi. This contingency Elizabeth did not predict.

While at Camp Scott, Elizabeth wrote eleven news filled letters that have been preserved. They were edited and published in 1977 by Ray Canning and Beverly Beeton with the title, The Genteel Gentile. This rare book was limited to 1500 copies. These letters tell the inside story of a gentle foreseeing lady who made a peculiar journey. They are informative, as well as charming.

Note: This is a rewrite of a similar article I published in the Bridger Valley Pioneer, Lyman Wyoming, January 7 1988.

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