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Saturday, March 5, 2011

Feramorz Little and a Story of Winter Survival

Feramorz Little

Feramorz Little, a nephew of Brigham Young, was elected mayor of Salt Lake City in 1876 and served three consecutive terms.  He traveled to Palestine with Apostle George A. Smith, ascended the Mount of Olives in March 1873, and witnessed the dedication of the Holy Land for the return of the scattered tribes of Israel.(1)  A self-made businessman and philanthropist, he was one of Utah’s foremost citizens.

Note:  I neglected to publish this post in its proper chronological order (1852-1853), so I will post it now.  I have found such a wealth of information about James Gammell that it's difficult to manage it all.  (A great blessing...not a curse!)  Thank you to Reed Russell, who sent me the Biographical Sketch of Feramorz Little in March 2010.

In summer 1851, Feramorz Little contracted to carry the monthly mail between Salt Lake City and Fort Laramie, a distance of more than five hundred miles with no settlement in between.  On his return trip from Fort Laramie to Salt Lake City in December 1852, Little and his party met up with James Gammell at Fort Bridger.  The gripping story of the final leg of their journey home is recorded in the Biographical Sketch of Feramorz Little (1890).  Had it not been for Feramorz’s experienced judgment and perserverance, James would have died from hypothermia.

Feramorz Little left Salt Lake City with the eastern mail on November 1, 1852, accompanied by a Canadian Frenchman named David Contway, four passengers, and an outfit of pack and saddle animals.  The weather was bitter cold when they arrived at Fort Laramie, and the mail from Independence, Missouri, had not arrived.  They waited twenty days for the eastern mail, which was delayed by severe snowstorms.

On November 25, Little sprained his ankle.  The army surgeon at Fort Laramie advised him that if he attempted to travel with his injured leg he would probably lose his life.  But he was determined to be home in time for the birth of his child, so the company headed west as soon as the mail arrived.  An Indian called Yodes, who was experienced in mountain travel, accompanied them.

The snow falling at Laramie was a sign of trouble for the return trip.  They were ten days getting to Devil's Gate, and the country was full of snow.  The second night from Devil’s Gate they encountered a terrible snowstorm.  By this time Little’s ankle was badly swollen, and he had to use a crutch.  For the next several days they fought strong winds and drifting snow.  Despite the difficulties of traveling, Little's leg soon improved, and he threw away his crutches.  On December 23, the party left Green River and started for Fort Bridger.  As they traveled on, “the snow was immense, even for that country. Each of the party had a saddle horse, but seldom rode. The saddle horses led the way and made the traveling easier for the pack animals.”

At Fort Bridger, Feramorz Little and his party met up with James Gammell, who was snowbound at the fort along with Robert Holliday, and Major Holman, superintendent of Indian affairs for Utah, and his attaches.  All were on their way to Salt Lake City and “had considered themselves snow-bound for some time.  Their courage revived when they saw the success of the mail carriers, and they concluded to proceed with them.”

On the first day out from Fort Bridger, James and the mail company traveled only five miles. As they set up camp in the cedar timber, another severe snowstorm set in.  It was intensely cold.  Mr. Little's experience had taught him the folly of standing around a fire under such circumstances:

He [Little] proposed that the company go to bed at once, as the falling snow would soon cover them and they would be warm and comfortable.  No others of the company appeared to comprehend the wisdom of the advice.  Large fires were made and the clothing on the side of the body next to the fire soon became saturated with melting snow.  As that side was turned from the fire the clothes froze hard, and by this change of alternately freezing and thawing, the outer garments became such a cake of ice that it could not well be gotten rid of.  By getting into bed in this condition the heat of the body would thaw the ice and thus thoroughly water-soak both clothing and bedding, making the future far more uncomfortable than the present.  After a while it seemed impracticable to go to bed at all, and the night was spent around the campfire.

Morning found the men in a very uncomfortable condition.  Their outer garments were so stiff with ice that it was difficult to get into their saddles without breaking the cloth.  Major Holman, thinking it impracticable to proceed, was desirous of returning to Fort Bridger.  In the meantime, Mr. Little had learned that a Frenchman there [at Fort Bridger] had two Flat-head horses.  These animals were raised in a country where snow falls deep in the winter, and for this reason were accustomed to traveling in it.  He did not like the idea of going back, but he knew the capabilities of this breed of horses in the snow, and the hope of getting the two [horses] at Bridger to assist him home [in time for the birth of his baby] induced him to go back.

The Flat-head horses were purchased at a high price, and, after remaining one day at Fort Bridger, the party of nine men, with sixteen horses, turned their faces once more toward Salt Lake.  With twelve days of severe labor they reached the mouth of Echo Canyon, seventy miles west of Fort Bridger, the Flat-head horses usually leading the outfit.  At that place [Echo Canyon] in an isolated condition, lived a Mr. David Lewis and family.  They had not much to eat and the travelers could only obtain a little elk meat.  On the morrow Mr. Little and his assistants attempted to go down the bed of Weber River, with a view of reaching Great Salt Lake in that direction.  This proved to be an undertaking of great difficulty.  In shallow water the stones in the bed of the stream were covered with ice, making them very slippery.  In the eddies the ice was strong enough to bear the animals but, since it [the ice] was weak around the edges, it was difficult to get the animals on to it.  The sharp edges of the ice cut their legs severely, often exposing the sinews and causing profuse bleeding.  The second day it was evident the animals were becoming exhausted and only about one mile had been made.  The plan was given up as impracticable.  The snow was too deep to attempt to get through it with exhausted animals.

Near the place where the old emigrant road crossed the Weber River, the company found some hills where the snow had been blown away and the grass was exposed.  They decided to leave the animals there until spring.  The two sacks of mail they had carried from Laramie weighed seventy pounds each.  The letter sack was packaged in buffalo skin to protect its contents from the weather.  The paper mail and other valuables were stored in a large iron boiler.  Due to their increasing exhaustion, they decided to limit their load to the bare minimum.  They left everything behind except the letter mail, which was to be dragged on the snow, one blanket for each man, a hatchet, a little elk meat, and some matches.  Now without horses, they trudged through snow that was “several feet deep, and usually let a man in full up to the knees.  Where there was brush under it, the difficulty was much increased.”  Major Holman wisely decided to spend the winter with the Lewis family.  James Gammell and Robert Holliday chose to accompany the mail:

Messrs. Gammell and Holliday permitted the mail party to lead and break the track for them.  At first Yodes and Contway took the lead, all keeping hold of the lariat attached to the mail.  When the one on the lead became weary, another exchanged places with him.  In a short time those dangers became so frequent that Mr. Little [even with his bad ankle] preferred to try to break the way.  The first day eleven miles were made up East Canyon Creek…

That night they made camp near the road, gathered enough fuel to build a fire, and slept a little.  The next day it became obvious that Gammell was showing signs of hypothermia and was fading quickly:

In the month of January at that high altitude, with snow or water soaked ground around their fire for a bed, and one blanket for covering, it is needless to say they were up early in the morning…The foot of the Big Mountain was soon reached.  They were only twenty-five miles from the object of their toils, Salt Lake City.  Five miles up hill would seem a hopeless task for men in their condition.  As they ascended the mountain the severity of their labor sensibly increased.  The day was a very cold one, and when part way up Mr. Gammell was manifestly giving up.  His beard and face were heavily covered with icicles, caused by the congealing of the moisture from his breath.  His eyes were sunken and haggard.  He said that he could not go any further and wanted to rest; in fact, he evinced a strong determination to camp without regard to place.  He was evidently in the first stages of insensibility from freezing.  To leave him was certain death, and that in a short time.  His companions were under the necessity of husbanding the little strength left them, or they would perish together.

The Indian, Yodes, had but little human kindness in his nature.  This characteristic made him quite useful in this trying emergency.  Mr. Little quietly told him to get a switch from a tree conveniently near and wake up Mr. Gammell for he was freezing.  A grin of satisfaction spread over the features of Yodes as he broke a limb from the tree and gave Mr. Gammell a cut around the legs.  The pain and insult together began to arouse his dull sensibilities, and he attempted to get hold of the Indian to chastise him, but Yodes managed to dodge and put in occasional doses of switch.

The medicine was severe but, with all Mr. Little's sympathies for the sufferer, he thought the doses too light for the necessities of the case, and called out, "Wake him up, Yodes!"  Mr. Gammell, to repay Yodes, soon became pretty well warmed up.  He was then told; with some emphasis, that they could not camp there but must go to the top of the mountain.  The remedy was severe but it saved the man.  They all succeeded in making the ascent.  There Mr. Gammell was told that a man who could climb up a hill could certainly go down it, and if he would not go without, they would drag him down.  The threat proved to be all that was necessary, for they all arrived at the foot of the mountain on the west side.

Near the trail were four trees but a few feet apart.  The snow was not quite so deep under the branches as it was outside of their shelter.  The blankets were spread down and Mr. Gammell put into them.  The other four of the party cleared the snow off the ground under the trees and gathered fuel, which was quite abundant and convenient.  A cheerful fire was soon burning and preparations made to spend the night to the best possible advantage.  Mr. Gammell was soon warmed up and for that time saved.

The camp was about seventeen miles from Salt Lake City.  Mr. Little, after a careful consideration of all the chances of success or failure, concluded that it was better for himself and companions to use what strength they had left in making a desperate effort the following day to reach the city.  The night was too cold to sleep much.  In the morning all prepared the best they could to take the desperate chances of the day.  No one could be expected to render any assistance to another.  Life or death hung on the issue of that day's exertions, for the chances were against any of them living through the cold of another night without shelter, after the exhaustion of another day's labor.

Deseret News, January 22, 1853

The mail pouch wrapped in buffalo hide, the hatchet, blankets, and everything except the clothes on their backs, were left in camp.  Mr. Little ate some meat and left all except what he thought he might want during the day.  He led out; Yodes and Mr. Contway followed.  The hard-beaten road in Emigration Canyon was much harder than the soft snow on Feramorz Little's injured leg.  He suffered much pain the remainder of the way.  When he arrived at his home in the evening, he lay down on a lounge and did not leave the house for two weeks.  Yodes and Mr. Contway were hardy men and got into town all right.  A search party was sent out from Holliday and Warner's store in search of Gammell and Holliday.  Fortunately they succeeded in reaching the eastern part of the city and were safe.  Feramorz Little arrived home on January 20, 1853, and on the 23rd, his daughter Juliette was born.(2)
  1. Orson Hyde first dedicated the Holy Land on October 24, 1841.
  2. James A. Little, Biographical Sketch of Feramorz Little, published by The Juvenile Instructor, Salt Lake City, 1890, pp. 22-35.

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