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The book version of James Gammell's life story is now available. Click on this image.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Leaving Texas

Trails West
Map by Frederick Smoot

Brigham Young called James Gammell on a mission to Texas in September 1856, and gave him a specific assignment:  he was to remain “until he got all the Mormons in Texas out to Utah.”  The three-month journey across the plains gave James plenty of time to consider how he might accomplish such a daunting task.  As soon as he arrived in Texas, he went to work locating the new Mormon converts and compiling a list of their names.  Since land was cheap, he advised them not to try to sell their farms,(1) but to keep them and sell everything else, including any slaves, and to invest the money “in young cattle, adding them to the cattle they already had.”  He “assured them they could sell their cattle in Utah at a price that would make more for them than they could make in Texas in three years.”  Supposedly, he also informed them that if they didn’t like Utah once they arrived, they could sell everything, except the teams required to take them back to Texas.  He instructed them to sell, buy, and barter to acquire just the outfit that he advised for the journey to Great Salt Lake City.  For the next few months, he continued to visit them and to give them directions.  By May 1857, “he had them all on the road.”(2)

On March 4, 1857, James left his brother William’s home in Houston, accompanied by Eleanor Pratt(3) and her two children, his brother-in-law Captain Andrews,(4) and a Mr. Stanfield [or Standifird?].  He traveled to Ellis County, Texas, (south of present-day Dallas), where the Mormon emigration group was fitting out for a trip across the plains.(5)  Homer Duncan, presiding elder of the Texas conference, was assigned as captain of the company of Texas Saints.  The group started the trip to Salt Lake Valley in May 1857.  Besides the animals used for drawing the wagons, the company brought with them over thirteen hundred head of cattle.  “They trailed their herd northward up the Old Shawnee Trail across the Red River past Preston.  Reaching Fort Gibson in Indian Territory in present-day Oklahoma, they trailed northeastward on the Old Military Road to Fort Leavenworth, Kansas Territory [on the Missouri River.]”(6)

Near Fort Leavenworth, James crossed the river to Independence, Missouri, which was, at the time, a hotbed of hatred towards Mormons.  There he encountered an anti-Mormon mob led by W.M.F. Magraw.(7)  Magraw was particularly angry because he had just lost his federal contract for the Salt Lake City mail delivery to a group of Mormons.  Elder John Taylor recorded the story of the mob assault and James’ narrow escape:

At Independence, Mo., brother James Gammell, who was with a company of Texians on their way to the valley, was mobbed by a band of ruffians in front of the public square, at the instance of Mr. Magraw, the former mail contractor, who told him “if he was not gone in fifteen minutes he should hang on that tree,” pointing to one in the vicinity.  Gammell immediately fled, as he saw a number of ruffians armed with revolvers; they followed him on foot and on horseback, firing at him as he ran; by leaping fences he, however, evaded them, although he had as many as fifty shots fired at him; he afterwards swam the Missouri River, and escaped, and is now with us.(8)

John Henry Standifird, a new Mormon convert traveling with the Homer Duncan Company of Texas Saints, wrote in his diary that in March 1857 he started overland to Missouri and was also threatened by the mob at Independence:

[I] Fell in company with some Latter-day Saints who were emegrating (sic) to Utah.  I investigated their doctrines and was baptized by William C. Moody and 20 miles west or southwest of Independence, confirmed by Homer Duncan on June 14.  The next day [I] started with the Saints for Utah where I arrived 9 September 1857…Thro the unwise course of Sister Pratt in publishing me as having assisted her with means, the mob were looking for me; but thro the overruling hand of God their eyes were blinded so that the mob did not recognize me and I escaped their clutches.(9)

The mob had also threatened Elder Erastus Snow, prompting John Taylor to enlist a group of brethren to guard them:

In consequence of this and other appearances of hostility, we selected a guard of our own brethren who have accompanied us to this place [Elm Creek].  We expected here to join the mail en route for Utah, but the river is impassable, and we can only correspond through the medium of two or three good swimmers.  We were informed that this said Mr. Magraw is superintendent for the construction of the military road, and acting as government agent on said road; that twenty men were going on as an advance surveying party, and that about one hundred were to follow them.  Brother Gammell says that some of those in the advance party were the men who fired at him; but as he is preparing a statement of the affair, and will forward it with the next mail, I must leave this matter with him.(10)

Sidetracked by his narrow escape from the mob and his swim across the Missouri River, James became separated from his Texas wagon company.  He was fortunate, though, to meet up in Nebraska with John Taylor and Erastus Snow’s twelve-man company, headed back to Salt Lake City.  John Taylor kept a detailed trail journal, and we are fortunate to have a record of his personal insights into James’ personality.   After recording some of the interesting events of James' early life, John Taylor noted that "he [James] seems to have possessed a strong predilection to put the world right."   Taylor must have been amused that Gammell was more concerned about the horses he lost than he was about his own life:

[James] joined the Mormons at Salt Lake—was there what is termed a Winter Mormon: but as he has wintered and summered seven years, he calls himself a regular out and out Mormon.  He is a pretty decent, thorough going fellow, goes it strongly for equal rights, complains bitterly of McGraw taking his horses, and seems to think more of them than of being shot at by him and his ruffians in Independence.  My private opinion, from the twinkle of his eye, when speaking on the subject is, that it would not be very good for McGraw’s health to meet him on equal grounds.  He is now acting as outrider, hunter and assistant cook…(11)

John Taylor’s letter, written at Elm Creek, Nebraska, indicates that James was on the trail about midway through Nebraska by July 9, 1857.  On July 21, Ira Hinckley(12) recorded in his diary that James spent the night at Horseshoe Creek, a Mormon way station, located west of Fort Laramie, Wyoming, on the pioneer trail:

In the morning Brothers J Taylor Er Snow W. Martindail J Gamell come up About 2 P.M. making there way to GSL City to get out of the way of there Enimiys.  They staid till 9 A.M. I sent them on to Dear Creek in [?} crags with [?] 2 more men 5 horses. they spoke to us [?} few minutes give us good instructions they blessed us and went on thare way rejoysing.(13)

The John Taylor and Erastus Snow wagon company arrived in Salt Lake City on August 7,(14) but apparently James and another man named Stewart had parted with the rest of the company at the Green River cutoff on August 2.(15)  Walker reported years later that at Green River James “got aboard the stage coach and went into the city to see the wives and babies.” (16) James must have arrived home sometime between August 7 and September 10.  His original Texas Company, trailing a huge herd of cattle, arrived a month later.  Part of the company, led by William Moody, arrived in Salt Lake City on September 14, and Homer Duncan’s group on September 20.(17)

John Henry Standifird, who arrived in Salt Lake City on September 9, 1857, reportedly saw James Gammell on September 10:

I, J.H. Standifird, walked into Salt Lake City, Utah without any money in my pocket, put up at S. L. Hotel on the 10th met Jim Gammel who took me to his home where I remained several days, then I went to Bountiful and worked on the Bountiful Tabernacle as Carpenter until the latter part of the month (Sept) when with other men we were sent east to Fort Bridger to hedge up the way of U.S. troops from coming into S.L. City until the U.S. could investigate the situation in Utah which they did in the Spring of 1858.  I was in Lott Smith Co. of raiders on government trains of Supplies. 3 trains were destroyed by fire.(18)

James’ joyful homecoming didn’t last long; dark clouds loomed on the horizon.  On August 18, Brothers Richards and Stringham, traveling in one of the last wagon companies of the season, reported passing two companies of government supply wagons loaded with freight for the federal troops, and headed for Salt Lake City.  The military march to Utah Territory was conducted under great secrecy, without any official advance notice to Territorial Governor Brigham Young.(19)  This period of Mormon history became known as (President James) Buchanan’s Blunder or the Utah War.
  1. Land could be purchased from territory of Texas at $1 an acre on a ten-year payment plan at low interest.
  2. Joseph C. Walker, History of the Mormons in the Early Days of Utah, pp. 53-56.
  3. Because she knew that her estranged husband, Hector, was in pursuit of her, Eleanor decided to travel from Ellis County with a non-Mormon named Mr. Clark, and his wife and children.
  4. Captain James B. Andrews was married to James’ sister, Margaret Jane.
  5. Steven Pratt, p. 235.
  6. Mormon Pioneer Overland Travel, 1847–1868, narrative of Homer Duncan Company (1857).
  7. It is possible that Magraw may also have been one of Hector McLean’s henchmen, since he specifically targeted James Gammell.
  8. Taylor, John, “Editorial Correspondence from the Plains,” The Mormon, 8 August 1857, 3. (Written at Elm Creek, 15 miles above Fort Kearney, Nebraska, on July 9, 1857.)
  9. Diary of John Henry. See Mormon Pioneer Overland Travel, 1847-1868, Trail excerpts.
  10. Taylor, John, “Editorial Correspondence from the Plains,” The Mormon, 8 August 1857, 3. (Written at Elm Creek, 15 miles above Fort Kearney, Nebraska, on July 9, 1857.)
  11. Scott, Stuart, Australasian Canadian Studies, Vol 25, No. 2, 2007, p. 77. (Quoted from John Taylor, “Mormon Life on the Plains—On the way to Utah,” New York Times, September 30, 1857.)
  12. Hinckley was a blacksmith at the Horseshoe Creek, Wyoming station from May-July 1857.
  13. Ira Nathaniel Hinckley Diary, 1857 Mar-1858 June, (MS 13687), Church Archives. (See description of the stations on the trail in Great Basin Kingdom, by Arrington, p. 168.)
  14. Orson F. Whitney, History of Utah, Vol. 4, p. 83.
  15. Scott, Stuart, Australasian Canadian Studies, Vol 25, No. 2, 2007, p.77. (Quoted from George John Taylor’s diary.)
  16. Walker, Joseph C., manuscript “History of the Mormons,” p. 53-56.
  17. “Immigration,” Deseret News (Weekly), 16 Sep 1857, 224; and 23 Sep 1857, 229.
  18. John Henry Standifird Papers, 1857-1909.
  19. Mormon Pioneer Overland Travel, 1847-1868, S.W. Richards and Briant Stringam, trail excerpt, Aug. 18, 1857.


  1. Patricia Riddell LococoFebruary 24, 2011 at 7:29 PM

    Is there any connection between Erastus Snow and Samuel Snow, who was in Van Diemen's Land with James Gemmell?

  2. I don't think there is any connection between Erastus Snow and Samuel Snow. Erastus was born in 1818 in Vermont, and lived in Kirtland, Ohio, in the 1830's. He was called to the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of the Mormon Church in 1849. Erastus Snow and Orson Pratt were the first two Mormon pioneers to enter the Salt Lake Valley in July 1847.

  3. Patricia Riddell LococoFebruary 25, 2011 at 2:53 PM

    It appears that many men risked their lives to ensure the safety of one woman - Sister Pratt. Remarkable behavior on the part of the men.