"It is a tradition that a wing of the Mormon exodus....stopped on the way and spent the winter of 53 and spring of 54 at (Murphy) lake. The story goes that the lake was drained, that the emigrants ate the fish and many of them died. The general office of the Mormon people at Salt Lake could not confirm the story about the fish, but it has been handed down through the years and there may be something to it." (Seneca, Kansas Courier-Tribune, Anniversary Edition 1938)
Although this story may be somewhat distorted, there is documentary evidence which supports the basic premise. In 1853 and again in 1855, the LDS Church organized parties of European converts for the trip across the Plains at Atchison, KT. Atchison was not formally settled until after the formation of Kansas Territory, but a ferry had been in operation by George Million at this location since 1850. A party of 500 converts from Liverpool, England, shepherded by Sylvester H. Earl, used this spot as a staging area in 1853. Mr. Earl had been a member of the Mormon Pioneer Company to Utah in 1847, and had spent 1850-52 as a missionary in England. They were met at "Atchison" by Elder S. M. Blair, and left for the Plains June 13, 1853, arriving at Salt Lake on Sept. 10.
After experimenting in 1854 with a new route from Westport and Ft. Leavenworth through Ft. Riley, the Church returned to Atchison in 1855, establishing a base camp at Mormon Grove three miles west of the Missouri River.
In 1855 four or more trains were organized at Mormon Grove totaling perhaps 1500 Saints. Their route across Kansas appears to have been northwest on the "New Ft. Laramie Road" to the vicinity of Kennekuk, and then continuing on the "Old Ft. Laramie Road" as established by Maj. Wharton in 1844 to the head of Walnut Creek in present Brown County. Near present Fairview they chose to follow Col. S. W. Kearny's 1845 trail to Baker's Ford about nine miles north of present Seneca. The Eli Williams family from Atchison County, Missouri, settled on Deer Creek in Nemaha County in 1855, and reported many Mormon wagon trains passing.
Cholera took a heavy toll in both 1853 and 1855. Some of the converts had died of the disease before arriving at the jumping-off place, and sanitation at the base camp was of the most primitive sort. A cemetery at Mormon Grove contains about 50 unmarked graves, mostly cholera victims.
According to Mr. Earl, the 1853 party was two days out on the plains when Cholera struck. They were probably in southern Brown County by that time. He reported that nearly one third of the group (150 persons?) died, a disaster so enormous that Earl says simply, "This was the greatest sorrow that I ever witnessed."
This seems to be the basis for the Nemaha County tradition, but it does not establish the location of a death camp or address the winter layover. Perhaps Blair's party managed to keep moving for a couple of days, which would have brought them to the vicinity of the South Fork of Nemaha River. Murphy Lake was an ideal campsite for the Mormons, who preferred to remain apart from the main migration. It is located near the mouth of Deer Creek about one mile southeast of Baker's Ford where the main trail crossed the South Fork. The presence of Cholera would have caused overlanders to avoid the area, and most would have passed without knowing of its existence.
A Mormon death camp existed at Murphy Lake in 1855, and is documented by the Eli Williams family who settled in the NW1/4 S33 T1S R13E that summer. Their nine year old daughter, who became the wife of Posey W. Cox, reported the story of draining the lake and eating the fish. She said she saw clothing scattered around which "had been torn off the dead" in August 1855. However, this does not confirm that a Mormon camp existed here the winter of 1853-54. If there were upwards of 100 deaths here in 1853, it seems that more physical evidence would have remained when the first settlers arrived two years later. It was probably a virtual impossibility for the survivors, many of whom were women and children, to have buried that many victims. It may be that Blair and Earl were forced to abandon some of their sick and dying, and that there were more survivors than they reported.
Six diaries of the 1855 Mormon migration from Mormon Grove have been summarized by Merrill J. Mattes in Platte River Road Narratives. John Hindley apparently was captain of the first train, leaving the first week in June, 1855. William Knox, a member of this train of 51 wagons, says they suffered from Cholera, but made no record of the number of deaths. Charles Bailey was in the second party which left June 27. He reported 32 deaths from cholera, plus 8 (dead?) run over by wagons during a stampede, and 5 shot dead. No explanation is given for the shooting deaths. Elder S.M. Blair was leader of the third train leaving on July 15. E. W. East, who was with this group, reported 30 cholera deaths. They arrived at Salt Lake City Sept. 11. The "Hoopers and Williams Train" was the last of the season, leaving July 28. Isaiah M. Coombs says there were two deaths out of a party of 61. They arrived at Ft. Kearny Sept. 7, and were probably the party which rescued the Murphy Lake survivors in August.
Based on these records, the 40 deaths reported at Murphy Lake in 1855 were probably from more than one party. Perhaps cholera victims from earlier groups were left at the lake to recover or die, with the survivors to be rescued by later trains.
The location of the death camp/winter quarters of the 1853 emigration remains entirely conjectural. Murphy Lake is a possibility, but perhaps the 1853 and 1855 tragedies have been merged into a single tradition.
There is no evidence at this point that a winter camp ever existed, but it is worthy of note that only one Mormon party left from Atchison in 1853. Friends or relatives who remained behind with cholera victims could expect no further help from the Latter Day Saints that year. It seems likely that survivors made their way back to Missouri River towns and joined other LDS emigrant parties in 1854 or simply melded into the general population. Perhaps some of the Mormons organized at Pleasant Grove in the Salt Creek valley west of Ft. Leavenworth in 1854 were survivors of the Blair/Earl Party, but this has not been confirmed. At this point it appears that there is solid documentary evidence supporting the tradition of Mormon deaths as reported by The Courier-Tribune in 1938. The question remains as to the location of the 1853 death camp; perhaps this question will never be resolved.
2. Stanley B. Kimball, an authority on Mormon history, says that the 1855 Mormon Grove Saints consisted of 8 companies totaling 337 wagons and 2,041 Persons. Only 97 left Mormon Grove for Utah in 1856. The route traveled in 1855 is documented by Mrs. Posey W. Cox, daughter of Eli and Eliza Williams. (Ralph Tennal, History of Nemaha County, 1916)
3. There were no settlers on the South Fork of Nemaha River until the Kansas-Nebraska Bill was signed into law in May 1854. W. W. Moore and Walter Beeles "squatted" at the emigrant trail crossing that summer. George H. Baker, Eli Williams, Hiram H. Lanham, Benjamin Shaffer, John Jett, Thomas and J. L. Newton settled nearby in 1855. If it existed, the 1853 Mormon campsite and cemetery must have been known to these early settlers, and we must assume that they are the source of the tradition cited in 1938. (Seneca, Kansas, Courier-Tribune, 1938 Anniv. Ed.)
4. Murphy Lake is shown on the 1887 Atlas of Nemaha County on the South Fork of Nemaha River, NW corner of the SW1/4 S25 T1S R12E. It was an ox-bow lake, and is not shown on modern USGS quadrangles.