MORMAN DISASTER AT MURPHY LAKE
by Morris W. Werner
A tradition has long persisted in Nemaha County that a party of Mormons en route to Utah wintered about seven miles northeast of Seneca prior to the settlement of Kansas Territory. Their reported campsite was at Murphy Lake about two miles southeast of Baker's Ford, near the mouth of Deer Creek. The emigrant trail from St. Joseph crossed the South Fork of Big Nemaha at Baker's Ford after its discovery in 1845 by Col. Stephen Watts Kearny. Driven by hunger, the Mormons drained the lake in order to catch and eat the fish. Many became ill and died, their graves marked with boulders which some years later were used in a barn foundation.
Like all traditions, this story contains elements of truth. Perhaps the only serious flaw is the time frame of the event. The statement of the eye witness quoted below indicates that the encampment was in August 1855, rather than the winter of 1853-54. This date also dovetails with the known activities of the Latter Day Saints Church at Mormon Grove three miles west of present Atchison. At this camp emigrant parties were organized and equipped by the Church for the trip across the Plains in 1855-56. Since they were only going as far as Salt Lake City, they left later in the season than the West Coast emigrants, thus avoiding contact with the hostility and suspicion usually directed against Mormons.
Cholera was probably the main cause of death, and was no doubt imported from their staging area at Mormon Grove. A cemetery containing fifty or more unmarked graves, many of whom died with cholera, was left behind when the LDS Church abandoned Mormon Grove in 1856. Mrs. P. W. Cox, daughter of Eli and Eliza Williams was nine years old when she and her family settled on Deer Creek northwest of future Oneida in 1855.* The following quotation is from a statement made to Ralph Tennal, editor of the Sabetha Herald, when she was about seventy years of age:
"We settled on Deer Creek. After we left the government road, there was nothing for us to follow but Indian trails... We were told to take the divide at McCloud's grave, which had become a signpost, that would take us to Deer Creek. We traveled in a large covered wagon drawn by oxen... We had journeyed from Atchison County, Missouri... There was not one family living between where we settled and Brown County, and only two shanties stood where people held claims."
The Williams' Cemetery is shown on the USGS Vern 7.5 Minute quadrangle in the NW1/4 S33 T1S R13E. It is « mile east of Central City and about 3 miles east of Murphy Lake on the S. Fork of Nemaha River. Posey W. Cox was a Union Army veteran.