Matthias Cowley was an elder who was returning from England, having served a mission there. While en route, he presided for a time over 544 Latter-day Saint emigrants, 540 of whom were Scandinavians. These sailed from Liverpool aboard the Westmorland on April 25, 1857, and landed at Philadelphia on May 31. Almost immediately, to their horror, they learned that Apostle Parley P. Pratt had been killed and that President James Buchanan was sending an army against the Utah Mormons. Nevertheless, from Philadelphia on June 2, the company headed for Iowa City by rail, via Baltimore, Maryland, and Wheeling, Virginia. In Iowa, the party divided into two components: a handcart company to be led by James P. Park (and later by Christian Christiansen) and a wagon company to continue under Cowley's leadership. By June 15, the wagon train was about 10 miles west of its starting point and the emigrants were in "first rate condition," in spite of the fact that they were still learning to handle ox teams. None of the travelers had ever seen an ox before arriving in Iowa City. One of the emigrants said that attempts to manage the teams were "comical as well as pitiful. . . . Sometimes the oxen would be piled up on top of each other in spite of the efforts of the men on each side of them, for many of the oxen had never been worked. . . . Fortunately, no one was hurt." Because it was so difficult to get the animals into their yokes, they were not unyoked for three weeks, until the company reached Florence, Nebraska Territory. Apparently, yoking and unyoking oxen was learned as the emigrants crossed the plains.
Captain Cowley's party arrived at Florence July 2 and was again headed west July 6. It consisted of 198 individuals, 31 wagons, 122 oxen, and 28 cows. As it crossed the plains, the train stayed on the north side of the Platte River, traveling along sandy, hilly roads, fording creeks and rivers, seeing buffalo herds and sometimes killing buffalo for meat, and experiencing all kinds of weather. The company had no stampedes but lost several cattle to alkali poisoning. Several individuals purchased additional cattle along the way. Though the travelers had expected trouble from Indians, they found the natives to be friendly and mostly interested in receiving gifts of food. At one point on the trail, grasshoppers swarmed around the travelers in great clouds for several days, almost blocking out the sun.
Meanwhile, the Christiansen handcart train was never very far from the wagons, and the two companies often camped together. The emigrants occasionally saw long government wagon trains that were headed for Utah and, on August 17, they camped near "one or more" of these near the upper crossing of the North Platte. Two other Mormon companies were also there. Captain Cowley's train made the entire overland journey almost without accident. However, as it descended Big Mountain, the road was slick as there had been rain, and though the men tugged on ropes to hold the wagons back, one vehicle rolled over into a gully, scattering its contents and startling its young occupants. The train arrived in Salt Lake City on September 13, the same day as the Christiansen handcart company. There were no deaths during the journey.(1)