21 Heading West

                                                          William Warner Major


Jill C. Major, Author

The journey across the plains began. It was 1283 miles from Nauvoo to the Salt Lake Valley, walking, riding in a body-shaking wagon or on a horse. The trek to the Salt Lake Valley was a feat of remarkable courage, especially when one considers that they were leaving the end of May, fully understanding that they would arrive too late to plant crops. Yet, they trusted in God and the other followers of Brigham Young who were already working, building, and planting in the desert beyond the Rocky Mountains.


Because of the journal entries of companion pioneers, we know that the Major family owned at least one horse, two wagons, a dog1 and four oxen.2 It was a challenge for these middle-class British city dwellers to learn the skill of driving an ox team. Oxen moved at the tedious rate of about 2 miles an hour when pulling a loaded wagon. Sarah or William Jr., walked on the left side of the ox team using a sharp stick to prod or flicking a whip shouting "gee" when they wished the huge animals to turn right or "haw" for turning left. . At times Joseph Smith Major or William Warner Major, Jr. rode in the wagon. One of them fell out during the journey and was run over (see journal entry August 6, below). William Warner Jr. also herded the cattle at times when the company camped (see journal entry dated June 19, below). Oxen were durable and reliable, yet before the journey was over, the Major family would lose at least one of these gentle, stubborn animals.3


Frequent trips to Missouri were made by the pioneers to gather supplies for the trip. Since William Warner Major visited St.Louis just prior to his final exit from Winter Quarters, he may have offered portraits for food and supplies while there.4


On the trail, Thomas Bullock and the Major family traveled together most of the distance. Several entries in Bullock’s journal indicate that Major was assigned the job of sketching a visual record of the journey. Another assignment Major received was to guard the camp, which he did every first and fourth days and every fifth night.5 William Sr. and probably William Jr. learned to shoot guns to provide food and protect their family, quite unheard of in London, where even the police didn’t carry guns. One can imagine him driving his wagon, searching the horizon for possible trouble, and at night walking with his rifle in hand, listening to the sounds of crickets, wolves and owls, trying to keep eyelids from shutting after hard day’s travel. There was a guard posted inside the corral where the horses were kept and others posted outside the wagons where the cows were tied. All night long, each hour they would call out the hour and their location: "Twelve o'clock in the corral, and all is well." The next guard would repeat the call, identifying his location, until each one of the guards reported in.6


Sarah Major may have driven the second wagon, although the family could have hired someone to do the job. Her duties included washing, cooking, gathering Buffalo chips on the prairie for fuel, a task most the women felt was odious, tending her children and doing what ever she could to help others. Sarah was probably at the beginning of another pregnancy during this journey. This compounded the normal tiredness of long days walking and working, with the additional fatigue of nourishing a growing fetus.


Brigham Young's Company consisted of 1,229 people, 397 wagons, 74 horses, 19 mules, 1,275 oxen, 699 cows, 184 loose cattle, 411 sheep, 141 pigs, 605 chickens, 37 cats, 82 dogs, 3 goats, 10 geese, 2 beehives, and 8 doves.7 President Heber C. Kimball’s company departed at the same time as Brigham Young and it included 226 wagons and 662 people, bringing the total to 623 wagons and 1,891 people headed west together in two great encampments.