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Picturing history: The Elkhorn River on the Mormon Trail

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By April 1847, the time had finally come for the first group of members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to leave Winter Quarters, Nebraska, and begin their trek to the Rocky Mountains. Heber C. Kimball led the first wagons away on April 5, 1847. Moving in stages, he soon arrived on the banks of the Elkhorn River.


This sign identifies the Elkhorn River near the boundary of Colfax and Saunders counties, Nebraska. | Kenneth Mays

After some interruptions, Brigham Young joined those waiting at the rendezvous or staging area at the Elkhorn. There, according to Richard Bennett, Brigham Young organized “the pioneer camp 'into a traveling capacity.' He selected a military profile, establishing rules for safe conduct, and setting strategy to deal with the Indians.” Bennett explains in “We’ll Find the Place” that the Elkhorn was the unmarked boundary line between the Omaha and Pawnee tribes.

Wagons had to be taken across the river on rafts. Mormon pioneer Thomas Bullock recorded that the Elkhorn “is a large stream and sometimes overflows its banks” and is “full of quick sand” (see "The Pioneer Camp of the Saints" edited by Will Bagley).

The staging and crossing site at the Elkhorn River was just south of present-day Fremont, Nebraska. Norton Jacob, a member of the Pioneer Camp, first crossed the Elkhorn on April 11, 1847. He remembered the river as being about 150 feet wide. After a brief return to Winter Quarters, Jacob crossed it again on April 15 (see "The Mormon Vanguard Brigade of 1847," edited by Ronald O. Barney).

At the staging and crossing site, the river flows by the boundary of Colfax and Saunders counties. That site was about 27 miles west of Winter Quarters and 1,000 miles east of the Salt Lake Valley.

Kenneth Mays is a board member of the Mormon Historic Sites Foundation and a retired instructor in the LDS Church’s Department of Seminaries and Institutes.