The Westward Exodus of James Holt

By Tiffany Taylor

Based on the Writings of James Holt

The following narrative includes excerpts from the journal of James Holt, a Mormon pioneer, who, with his family, ventured from Nauvoo, Illinois into Iowa and the Nebraska Territory where they lingering for several years before continuing on to their final destination of the Salt Lake Valley.

Text in italics comes directly from James Holt’s journal. The other material, including the pictures, has been added to help illustrate the Holt’s journey across the Midwest.

James Emmett came after me to go with him; he said he had been appointed before Joseph’s death to choose a few families and travel among the Indians, and to the Rocky Mountains. Bishop Miller testified to me that Emmett had been appointed by Joseph as he said, and that he had the privilege of choosing who he pleased to accompany him, so I concluded to go; he also chose John Cutler to go with him and he wished us to reveal it to no one, not even our wives, where we were going, for everything was in such an uproar that he was afraid a great many would follow, and it might cause suffering. A whole settlement on bear Creek joined us.

We traveled up the Iowa River and all met five miles above Kitchen’s Settlement, which was the highest settlement at that time on the Iowa River. Here my wife died and was buried; she left a child about two months old; my wife died in October and the child soon afterwards. Leander, my eldest son also died there in November.

Iowa River Map

The exact location of “Kitchen’s Settlement” is uncertain; however, the Iowa River runs through central Iowa, so it is assumed that, if the James Emmett Company was somewhere along the Iowa River, they took a northwesterly course after leaving Nauvoo. According to the following excerpt, they were still along the Iowa River in 1845.

January first, 1845 we started again, still traveling up the Iowa River, about fifty or one hundred miles, where we rested and made sugar. Here we were visited by Brothers Fullmer and Lyman who were sent by Brigham Young to stop us from going any farther at present, and have us go back, as he thought there were too many following us. Here, on the 11th day of February, 1845, I married Parthenia Overton.

Resumed our journey in March and went to Vermillion, a French trading post, and before arriving the French and Indians saw us and came to meet us to learn our intentions. After being informed, they escorted us to the fort where we arrived June 17th. Bennett went about fifteen miles to see the Indian Chiefs who were drying their Buffalo meat for their winter’s provisions. They were of the Sioux Nation. After he told them his business (being able to converse with them in their own tongue) he returned with seven of their chiefs. One of the chiefs named Henry, who had been educated in Petersburg College and had settled at this place. They brought several bales of dried Buffalo meat as a present, which was very acceptable and we made a feast for them of the best we had. Emmett gave Chief Henry the Book of Mormon to read and after he had read the preface and explained it to his comrades they all gave a great shout for joy; they danced, sang, shouted and had a joyful time. Emmett asked them why they were so happy; they told him their great chief, who had died twenty years before, had told them that the whites would bring them, this very year, the record of their forefathers, and they had almost forgotten it until he presented them with this book, and they felt to rejoice. They wished him to stop with them and teach them to farm. We sent out in a few days and killed two or three loads of buffalo which helped us in the line of provisions greatly.


Map from

The following is from

Vermillion, is a community of 10,000 atop a bluff on the Missouri River in the southeastern corner of South Dakota. Its name is derived from the original Sioux name meaning “red stream.” The junction of the Missouri River and Vermillion River had for generations been the camping ground of a band of the Yankton Sioux Indians.

“The present site of Vermillion was first visited by French fur traders at the close of the 18th century. On August 24, 1804, Lewis and Clark camped at the mouth of the Vermillion River and from there made their trek to Spirit Mound. Afterwards, numerous trappers and fur traders went up and down the river, and the Columbia Fur Company established a trading post at the river’s mouth. John James Audubon, the famous artist, visited the Vermillion ravine in 1843 to enjoy the abundance of bird life.

“On August 8, 1844, the first white settlers to the area were a group of Mormons seeking a new home after being driven out of Illinois. This group eventually moved down river near Omaha, and from there they continued to points west until they arrived in Utah in July of 1847.”

In the spring we put in garden seeds and were preparing to plant corn and raise a crop, when John Butler returned from Nauvoo with James Cummings, bringing word from the Twelve for us to meet the Church at the Bluffs; so we broke camp and traveled to the Bluffs, where we met the Church and went about twenty-five miles beyond and camped at Keg Creek; some of the Brethren went down the Missouri to work for corn; we obtained a load or two and were ready to return with it to our families when word came for us to hurry up and join George Miller’s Company which was waiting for us, ready to proceed to the Rocky Mountains; we got our families and crossed the Missouri River, joining Miller’s company, and were making for Pawnee, a trading station, but learned that the men had all been driven out by the Indians; we started to return when the men fell in which our company. Brother Miller promised to haul their effects. The day before we were to arrive at the station the men went on ahead to arrange things at the fort for our reception. About noon Emmett came to me and said he was impressed that something would happen to those men and wished to get my horse and overtake them. He went on to the fort and found the Indians collected to kill them. He told the men to make a feast for the Indians and treat them well and they would not harm them until he could go back to camp and return with help. He reached camp about one o’clock at night and called for a few men to go with him to the fort immediately; about twenty-five or thirty responded including myself; it was about fifteen miles to the fort. It was a perilous time, women were clinging to their husbands and trying to prevail upon them not to leave them in their dangerous position, but we commended them to the Lord and departed on foot and arrived at the fort by the first glimmer of dawn. We found the Indians asleep in a circle around their campfire; we surrounded them and pointed our guns at them ready to fire at a given signal. Emmett spoke to the chief and he arose with the well known, ‘Ugh,’ at which the Indians all arose; finding themselves in a trap, they shook hands all around, led by their chief, and silently took their departure. We now went back and met our teams which had been hitched up by the men and women of the company and arrived at the fort during the day.

Keg Creek, Iowa

Mormon Trail
Photograph near Keg Creek, Iowa,. Tiffany Taylor, 2005.

The Keg Creek settlement was located in Keg Creek Township. The original Keg Creek Surveyor's Record reads as follows:

Keg Creek Township

“T. 74 N. R. 42 W.

“The exterior survey was made in August 1851 and the subdivision survey in November of the same year. John Cassidy, Deputy Surveyor with William Cassiday Asst. Surveyor had the following crew: James Shilledy and Thomas B. Gostage, Chairmen, Joshua E. Roberts, axeman, and John E. Shelledy, flagman. Cassiday's notes of the Township follows:

The surface of the Township is generally broken although there is some land that is well adapted to farming with third rate soil. There is no timber in the Township except at Highland Grove and that is but little and principally cut down to make improvements at that place and even the tops of that used for rails is built into a fence on the west of the grove to secure the crops from the depredation of stock. There is seven residents in the grove with about 150 acres of improvements which on the north and east of the grove appear to be held in common and would be as follows two settlers on the south 1/2 Sec. 18, from settlers on the NE 1/4 Sec. 19 and one on S 1/2 Sec. 19. There is some springs and abundance of still water in every part of the Township. Keg Creek, the principal stream affords abundance of water to drive machinery of any kind if needed but the scarcity of timber forbids any but a sparse population and that to be engaged in stock raising. The roads in the Township are on the divides and good. The principal travel to Canesville and Traders Point go through it (Mormon Trail). No appearance of rock or coal. There is an improvement and house on west 1/2 Sect. 21 but no residents.

“Mr. Cassiday reports a road leading north from HIghland Grove across Sec. 7 and into Sec 6 but does not report its leaving SEc. 6. When Hardin Tonwship (75 N-42 W) was subdivided Deputy Surveyor Baumgardner showed a road which he called Kanesville road coming out of Sec. 31 and bearing NE across Secs. 29, 28, 27 and 26 through a settlement of Corbins and Fields as it is assumed that this road enters Sec. 6 of Keg Creek Township on the north one threaded south to Highland Grove settlement where it forms the Psga road to Kanesville. The account is given of a road leading North from Sec. 14 through Sec. 11 and into Sec. 2.

“When Mr. Cassiday made his survey of Silver Creek Township T 14 N. R 421 he made reference to crossing a brok between Secs. 7 and 15 which crossed the west line of SEc. 18, however he makes no reference to that stream in his survey of this Township. This stream flows into west fork of Silver Creek in Sec. 24 and is noted by dotted lines.”

"The general history of this township is that of Silver Creek up to [October 14,] 1873, when it was cut out of that township." It was given its name when some early settlers found several kegs of whiskey hidden in the willows along the banks of the creek running through the area." (History of Pottawattamie County, Iowa, 202-203)

"KEG CREEK . Thought to have been at a site at headwaters of Keg Creek when post office established, about 7 miles northwest of Treynor, 5 miles south of McClelland (SE/SE Sec. 29, Hardin Twp. 75N, R42W), but later on the creek itself at a site 7 miles southwest of Treynor (SW Sec. 21, Keg Creek Twp. 74N, R42W). Established August 3, 1874, Henry F. Mudge; closed August 16, 1875; reopened January 4, 1880; closed November 28, 1881; reopened December 14, 1881, Mrs. Lucy A. Carson (Mrs. James D. Carson); closed February 28, 1883; reopened February 11, 1892, Rasmus Campbell; discontinued February 9, 1899." (Ghost Towns of Iowa, 375)

Pawnee Camp, Iowa

Location of Genoa
Location of Genoa, Nebraska, map coutesy

“A few members of the Brigham Young, Heber C. Kimball, George Miller/James Emmett companies stayed at the Pawnee Station which is a few miles west of current day Genoa, Nebraska instead of going to the Ponca Camp in current day Niobrara, Nebraska. They arrived in August of 1846 and were recalled to Winter Quarters, arriving there in October, 1846.” (“Pawnee Camp,” Winter Quarters Archive, Brigham Young University, 2006)

We stayed here about two weeks, harvested grain and were ready to start, when a dispute arose as to the leadership; we had been increased by two companies; one led by Kimball and one called ‘Brigham’s Company.’ Miller wished to have the honor of being chief captain because he had started first. Some of the brethren wrote to Brigham at the Bluffs to settle the dispute, who advised us not to go further this seasons, but to find a suitable place and winter and he would advise us farther in the spring. We camped at the mouth of the Puncaw River, and built shanties to winter in.

Niobrara sunrise
Niobrara sunrise, photograph courtesy of Pamela C. Johnson

It is assumed that what James Holt referred to as “Puncaw” was actually a reference to the aforementioned “Ponca Camp in current day Niobrara, Nebraska.”

In the summer of 1846 the James Emmett Company was merged into George Miller's Company. Most of the Emmett Company remained with Miller and went to Ponca. Lyman Hinman and Gardner Potter went with Jacob Gates to Pawnee Camp.

Companies organized by Brigham Young, and Heber C. Kimball at the Cold Springs Camp joined combined with Miller's Company and became the advance party for the Church. They were told to stop and find a place to winter. After considering their options, a High Council headed by George Miller voted to go north to winter with the Ponca (also commonly spelled as Punca, Puncaw, Punckaw, Puncah) Tribe on the Niobrara (Running Water, Swift Water) River. They arrived in August of 1846 left in April of 1847.

The group then reportedly moved back to the bluffs in 1847. According to Allen Russell: "We (the Punckaw Camp) settled on a little creek about 3 miles west of Winter Quarters, where the main body of the saints were located. Before we reached there, the Pioneers had started for the west with President Brigham Young, at their head. Punckaw Camp, or part of the camp, stopped there and raised our crops and some went to other places. We raised good crops of what little seed we had. In the summer, we cut hay for Winter, hauled logs and made log cabins to live in."

Monument to Mormon pioneers
Monument to Mormon pioneers, Niobrara, Nebraska, photograph courtesy of Pamela C. Johnson

It would appear from the information given that Ponca Camp was indeed located near present-day Niobrara, Nebraska. Interestingly, the 1880 Johnson's History of Nebraska includes an entry for a town named Ponca which was the county seat of Dixon County. This present-day town is situated along the Missouri River and is 72.9 miles from Niobrara. It is thus assumed that the site of Ponca Camp was where another town of Ponca, Nebraska is currently situated in Knox County, only 4.8 miles from Niobrara. (Town information provided by Microsoft Streets and Trips, 2005)

For interest's sake, an excerpt from the Johnson's History of Nebraska, by Harrison Johnson (Omaha: Henry Gibson, 1880) is included.


"The County Seat [of Dixon County], is situated at the confluence of the west and south branches of Ayoway Creek, in the northeastern part of the County, and is at present the terminus of the Convington, Columbus and Black Hills Railroad. It derives its name from the Ponca Indians, who, in recent years, roamed over the hills and plains in this vicinity. Since the advent of the railroad, in 1877, the town has made wonderful improvement, and its business has more than doubled. Three years ago it was a village of three or four hundred inhabitants; to-day it has eight hundred, and is the largest and most flourishing town in this part of the State. It has two good weekly newspapers, the Courier and Journal, a commodious Court House, excellent school and Church advantages, and business houses representing the various lines of trade." (page 331)

The grain we brought from Pawnee Fort was not divided up. Six bushels of corn, forty pounds of flour and a few oats fell to my share. Our method of preparing our grain, was to pound it in a mortar, the corn we parched and then pulverized in the mortar; we tried many things too; in order to sustain life; even to make biscuit of Elm Bark, but it was a poor substitute; we were poisoned from eating Gar eggs, and concluded they were not food for man.

The next spring, Brigham sent word for us to come back to the Bluffs. We were now without provisions and Emmett took a horse and started on ahead to obtain means to get provisions; he agreed to meet us at a certain place, but did not until we got to Mousquite Creek, near our journey’s end and we suffered greatly for want of food, but by hunting wild animals and fowls, we were kept from starving.

Near Mosquito Creek

When James Holt mentioned “Mosquite Creek,” he was probably referring to the Latter-day Saint settlement at Mosquito Creek in Pottawattamie County Iowa. The location of the settlement is illustrated on the map below.

Photograph near location of Mosquito Creek settlement, Tiffany Taylor, 2005


The sketches below are by Matthew Chatterley and are featured in the book The Iowa Mormon Trail: Legacy of Faith and Courage, edited by Susan Easton Black and William G. Hartley.
The image on the left is of the Mormon Battalion Ball, supposedly held near Mosquito Creek in 1846.
The sketch on the right is of the Mosquito Creek Valley.

Mormon Battalion Ball Mosquito Creek Valley

At the Bluffs our company was broken up. Emmett and a few of us went down on the Waupensee Creek and took up farms, in Fremont County, Iowa, we sowed buckwheat, planted potatoes and raised a crop.

My first child by my wife Parthenia died on the 10th of August 1847. We remained here for several years and began to accumulate means. There was all manner of wild fruit, grape, raspberry, blackberry, mulberry, strawberry and nuts of all kinds that would grow in cold climate, a great amount of wild game, deer, elk, coon, turkeys and other fouls, fish, honey bees, all kinds of timber.

The "Waupensee Creek" James Holt wrote about was actually Wabonsie Creek. Wabonsie Lake cane been seen in the map of Scott Township, Fremont County, Iowa below.

James and Parthenia Overton gave birth to a son, James Overton Holt, on 8 October 1848. The baby's birth record lists him as being born in Bartlett, Fremont, Iowa. (“Family Data Collection,” Thus, it is assumed that the family lived in the town of Barlett, shown below in Scott Township.

Map from the 1875 Atlas of Fremont County, Iowa.

The Church went on to the Rocky Mountains, the first company arriving in Salt Lake Valley July 24th, 1847, led by Brigham Young, who was now installed as President, with Willard Richards and Heber C. Kimball as his counselors and others chosen to fill their places in the Twelve.

Iowa was a very unhealthy place, my family was sick a great part of the time and I was afflicted with the flu.

In the Spring of 1852 I made calculations to go to Salt Lake Valley; I tried to sell my place but could only get three hundred and fifty dollars for it. We started about the middle of July and went to Keg Creek, about eight miles, left some of my stock and my three oldest children here to care for them and I expected to return the next morning, but having a presentiment that something would happen I unloaded and started back about dark and arrived there before dawn and learned that William had fallen from the back of the oxen and broken his arm which was set by those who had bought the place. Started back to Keg Creek, taking the children and all my effects and arrived before night. Started again in a day or two and went as far as Mousquite, where I stopped about a week waiting for one Dr. William Isaac Smith to join us, as he wished to travel with us as company as far as possible on account of sickness, he was not a Mormon and was going to California. We were joined by a Brother Levi and family, being then only three families. We crossed the Missouri River on the 27th day of July and arrived in two days at Ash Hollow; the next day we traveled only seven miles and next day July 31st my son, Franklin, was born, and next day we continued our journey. One day we were met by about five hundred Indians who blocked the road, but seeing our small number and thinking we were brace, divided and let us pass through; they spread their blankets; we gave them flour, sugar, coffee and a few other things we could spare; some of them followed us for a day or two and helped drive our cattle.

We finally reached Salt Lake Valley and went about forty-five miles north of Salt Lake City, to the bend of the Weber River, arriving there on the 27th day of October 1852, having been just three months on the way.

Journal excerpts are from Maurine Winsor Farnsworth Thompson, James and Mary Pain (Payne) Holt, James and Parthenia Overton Holt: Ancestors and Descendants (1995), 27-31.