Among the Mormons

A nineteenth-century writer meets Brigham Young and explores the "City of Saints"

The lake from which the city takes its name is about twenty miles distant from the latter, by a good road across the level valley bottom. Artistically viewed, it is one of the loveliest sheets of water I ever saw, bluer than the intensest blue of the ocean, and practically as impressive, since, looking from the southern shore, you see only a water-horizon. This view, however, is broken by a magnificent mountainous island, rising, I should think, seven or eight hundred feet from the water, half a dozen miles from shore, and apparently as many miles in circuit. The density of the lake-brine has been under- instead of over-stated. I swam out into it for a considerable distance, then lay upon my back on, rather than in, the water, and suffered the breeze to wail me landward again. I was blown to a spot where the lake was only four inches deep, without grazing my back, and did not know I had got within my depth again until I depressed my hand a trifle and touched bottom It is a mistake to call this lake azoic. It has no fish, but breeds myriads of strange little maggots, which presently turn into troublesome gnats. The rocks near the lake are grandly castellated and cavernous crags of limestone, some of it finely crystalline, but most of it like our coarser Trenton and Black River groups. There is a large cave in this formation, ten minutes' climb from the shore.

I must abruptly leap to the overland stage again.

From Salt Lake City to Washoe and the Sierra Nevada Mountains, the road lies through the most horrible desert conceivable by the mind of man. For the sand of the Sahara we find substituted an impalpable powder of alkali, white as the driven snow, stretching for ninety miles at a time in one uninterrupted dazzling sheet, which supports not even that last obstinate vidette of vegetation, the wild-sage brush. Its springs are far between, and, without a single exception, mere receptacles of a salt, potash, and sulphur hell-broth, which no man would drink, save in extremis. A few days of this beverage within, and of wind-drifted alkali invading every pore of the body without, often serve to cover the, miserable passenger with an eryipelatous eruption which presently becomes confluent and irritates him to madness. Meanwhile he jolts through alkali-ruts; unable to sleep for six days and nights together, until frenzy sets in, or actual delirium conies to his relief. I look back on that desert as the most frightful nightmare of my existence.

As if Nature had not done her worst, we were doomed, on the second day out from Salt Lake, to hear, at one station where we stopped, horrid rumors of Goshoots on the warpath, and, ore the day reached its noon, to find their proofs irrefragable. Every now and then we saw in the potash-dust moccasin-tracks, with the toes turned in, and presently my field-glass revealed a hideous devil skulking in the mile-off ledges, who was none other than a Goshoot spy. How far off were the scalpers and burners?

The first afternoon-stage that day was a long and terrible one. The poor horses could hardly drag our crazy wagon, up to its hubs in potash; and yet we knew our only safety, in case of attack, was a running fight. We must fire from our windows as the horses flew.

About four o'clock we entered a terrible defile, which seemed planned by Nature for treachery and ambush. The great, black, barren rocks of porphyry and trachyte rose three hundred feet above our beads, their lower and nearer ledges being all so many natural parapets to fire over, loop-holed with chinks to fire through. There were ten rifles in our party. We ran them out, five on a side, ready to send the first red villain who peeped over the breastworks to quick perdition. Our six shooters lay across our laps, our bowie knives were at our sides, our cartouch-boxes, crammed with ready vengeance, swung open on our breast-straps. We sat with tight-shut teeth, only muttering now and then to each other, in a glum undertone, "Don't get nervous, don't throw a single shot away, take aim, remember it’s for home!" Something of that sort, or a silent squeeze of the hand, was all that passed, as we sat with one eye glued to the ledges and our guns unswerving. None of us, I think, were cowards; but the agony of sitting there, tugging along two miles an hour, expecting to hear a volley of yells and musketry ring over the next ledge, drinking the cup of thought to its microscopic dregs, —that was worse than fear!

Only one consolation was left us. In the middle of the defile stood an overland station, where we were to get fresh. horses. The next stage was twenty miles long. If we were attacked in force, we might manage to run it, almost the whole way, unless the Indians succeeded in shooting one of our team, the coup they always attempt.

I have no doubt we were ambushed at several points in that defile, but our perfect preparation intimidated our foes. The Indian is cruel as the grave, but be is an arrant coward. He will not risk being the first man shot, though his hand may overpower the enemy afterward.

At last we turned the corner around which the station-house should come in view.

A thick, nauseous smoke was curling up from the site of the buildings. We came nearer. Barn, stables, station-house, all were a smouldering pile of rafters.

We came still nearer. The whole stud of horses, a dozen or fifteen, lay roasting on the embers. We came close to the spot. There, inextricably mixed with the carcasses of the beasts, lay six men, their brains dashed out, their faces mutilated beyond recognition, their limbs hewn off,— a frightful holocaust steaming up into our faces. I must not dwell on that horror of all senses. It comes me now at high noonday with a grisly shudder.

After that, we toiled on twenty miles farther with our nearly dying horses; a hundred miles more of torturing suspense on top of that sight branded into our brains before we gained Ruby Valley, at the foot of the Humboldt Mountains, and left the last Goshoot behind us.

The remainder of our journey was horrible by Nature only, without the atrocious aid of man. But the past had done its work. We reached Washoe with our very marrows almost burnt out by sleeplessness, sickness, and agony of mind. The morning before we came to the silver mining metropolis, Virginia City, a stout, young Illinois farmer, whom we had regarded as the stanchest of all our fellow passengers, became delirious, and had to be held in the stage by main force. (A few weeks afterward, when the stage was changing horses near the Sink of Carson, another traveller became suddenly insane, and blew his brains out.) As for myself, the moment that I entered a warm bath, in Virginia City, I swooned entirely away, and was resuscitated with great difficulty after an hour and a half's unconsciousness.

We stopped at Virginia for three days, saw the California of ’49 reenacted in a feverish, gambling, mining town, descended to the bottom of the exhaustlessly rich "Ophir" shaft, came up again, and resumed our way across the Sierra. By the mere act of crossing that ridge and stepping over the California line, we came into glorious forests of ever-living green, a rainbow -affluence of flowers, an air like a draught from windows left open in heaven.

Just across the boundary, we sat down on the brink of glorious Lake Tahoe, (once "Bigler," till the ex-Governor Of that name became a Copperhead, and the loyal Californians kicked him out of their geography, as he had already been thrust out of their politics,) a crystal sheet of water fresh-distilled from the snow-peaks, its granite bottom visible at the depth of a hundred feet, its banks a celestial garden, lying in a basin thirty-five miles long by ten wide, and nearly seven thousand feet above the Pacific level. Geography has no superior to this glorious sea, this chalice of divine cloud-wine held sublimely up against the very press whence to was wrung. Here, virtually at the end of our overland journey, since our feet pressed the green borders of the Golden State, we sat down to rest, feeling that one short hour, one little league, had translated us out of the infernal world into heaven.

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