Brigham Young has been called “The American Moses.” This is more fitting than most people realize. In direct revelation, the Lord called the Latter-day Saints the “Camp of Israel.” (See Doctrine and Covenants, Section 136.) The first part of the journey west was the most difficult, due mostly to the winter departure of the Saints from Nauvoo. Although the weather was comparatively mild when the first of the Mormons left Nauvoo, it soon became severe, and they trudged through mud and snow into Iowa. It took 131 days to travel only 300 miles. In comparison, The Pioneer Company a year later took only 111 days to cover 1,050 miles from Winter Quarters, Nebraska, to the Great Salt Lake Valley. Many Saints fell ill, including Brigham Young, and the apostle found that the Saints could be as much of a plague as any illness. The blessings of the Lord are always predicated on how well we hearken to His counsel and commandments, how unified we are in peace and forgiveness, and how carefully we care for the poor and afflicted.
“Lack of food… plagued the departing Saints. Wishing to be with their leaders, many of them had failed to follow the counsel to be prepared before leaving. Brigham Young, Heber C. Kimball, and a few others had begun the journey from Nauvoo with a year’s supply of provisions, but most others left with hardly any food. Their unpreparedness caused some, who had brought provisions and were willing to share, to deplete their supply within a few weeks. President Young had the overwhelming responsibility of being a father to all. One journal entry manifests his discouragement: ‘Unless this people are more united in spirit and cease to pray against Counsel, It will bring me down to my grave. I am reduced in flesh so that my coat that would scarcely meet around me last Winter now laps over twelve inches. It is with much ado that I can keep from lying down and sleeping to wait the resurrection.’”
Interestingly, in Doctrine & Covenants, Section 136, the Camp of Israel is commanded by God to dance and sing as they traveled west. This they did, with organized bands and original songs written along the way. One traveler noted that he saw the Mormons dancing so vigorously one evening, one would never know that they had walked all day.
As the Saints faced days of challenge, it refined them, so that Brigham Young was able to praise their faithfulness. “I did not think there had ever been a body of people since the days of Enoch, placed under the same unpleasant circumstances that this people have been, where there was so little grumbling, and I was satisfied that the Lord was pleased with the majority of the Camp of Israel.”
In March of 1846, the Saints began to leave their camp at Sugar Creek, Iowa. To increase food supplies, some Mormons found work in Iowa, and the Nauvoo band even played concerts to raise money. Scouts were sent out to find the best route west, avoiding the hostile state of Missouri. It was difficult for Brigham Young to keep the camp organized, to calm the zeal of those who wanted to speed ahead, and to be certain there were enough supplies.
Wet weather during March and April slowed the Saints’ progress across southern Iowa, with stretches of mud for miles. Hosea Stout wrote, “The horses would sometimes sink to their bellies on the ridges, teams stall going down hill. We worked and toiled more than half the day and had at last to leave some of our wagons and double teams before we could get through.”
Eliza R. Snow recorded that the wind was a “perfect gale attended with a heavy shower of rain—and several of our habitations were leveled and the roofs of our wagons barely escaped the wreck of elements.”The weary travelers awoke the next morning to a little snow, a slight freeze, and a rising creek. With clothes and bedding often drenched and with the cold temperatures, frequent illnesses and occasional deaths further hindered travel.
Progress was so slow that the Mormon leaders began to realize the Saints would not reach the west that season. They began a new plan to establish crops and way-stations along the way for Mormon wagon trains that would follow. “By 24 April the pioneers reached a place they named Garden Grove, sixty miles northwest of Locust Creek and about halfway across Iowa. Within three weeks they had broken 715 acres of tough prairie sod, built cabins, and established a small community. A high council was called to regulate both Church and civic affairs, and two hundred people were assigned to improve this first way station.”
A few days later Brigham Young arrived and immediately organized a second way station at Mount Pisgah. Another high council was appointed, and several thousand acres were cooperatively enclosed, planted, and farmed. One of the new leaders, Ezra T. Benson (great-grandfather of the thirteenth President of the Church), declared, “This was the first place where I felt willing in my heart to stay at, since I left Nauvoo.” Soon Mount Pisgah outstripped Garden Grove in size and significance. Both, however, were important pioneer way stations from 1846 to 1852.
The leaders were considering sending a fast-moving party to the Rockies ahead of the rest of the group. That plan was scrapped when the U.S. Army conscripted so many men to serve in the Mormon Battalion. With the battalion gone, energies were directed toward finding a suitable winter way station. Elder Wilford Woodruff appeared in camp with unsettling news. A church authority in England had pilfered funds designated for the Saints’ move to the west, and the Saints in Nauvoo were too poor to proceed. Orson Hyde, Parley P. Pratt, and John Taylor were dispatched to England to solve the problems of the Church there. A good area near a proposed ferry site on the banks of the Missouri River was selected in early September and surveying was begun. By the end of the month a town of 820 lots had been laid out and some lots spoken for. Winter Quarters, as the Brethren called the community, came into being.
Even as the Saints were straggling out of Nauvoo, the Nauvoo Temple was dedicated to the Lord on April 30, 1846. Mobs stepped up their attacks on the remaining Latter-day Saints when they realized the exodus was taking longer than planned. By mid-August less than fifteen hundred Saints remained in Nauvoo, some of them new converts from the East who had arrived too late to join the earlier companies. Most of them had exhausted their savings just to reach Nauvoo and now looked to Church leaders as their only hope to proceed West.
By the second week in September the anti-Mormons were determined to drive the Saints out of Nauvoo. Approximately eight hundred men equipped with six cannons prepared to lay siege to the city. The Saints were forced to surrender unconditionally in order to save their lives and gain a chance of escaping across the river….Those who could quickly crossed the river without provisions or additional clothing. Finally, the mob entered the city, looted homes, and desecrated the temple. Some Saints who were not able to escape fast enough were beaten or thrown into the river by the mob.
Camps of poor refugees lined the Mississippi River bank on the Iowa side. While leaders scrambled to help them, unable to raise donations because of bigotry against them, the Saints were saved by flocks of quail that landed in their camps, a repeat of the blessings received by the ancient Israelites.
Rescue teams sent by Brigham Young arrived in time to save the Saints from starvation and winter exposure. The poor Saints were dispersed throughout various camps in western Iowa. A handful made it all the way to Winter Quarters. Almost 4,000 Saints were residing in Winter Quarters when winter began. Another 2,500 were camped on the east side of the Missouri River on Indian lands. Over 1000 were elsewhere in Nebraska and Iowa. Fifteen hundred were temporarily settled in St. Louis.
Jane Richards recorded in her journal the story of her little, dying daughter, who had suffered for weeks and finally expressed the desire for a little potato soup. In sight of a potato field, a sister had begged for a single potato, but was refused. Sister Richards said, “I turned on my bed and wept, as I heard them trying to comfort my little one in her disappointment. When she was taken from me I only lived because I could not die.”
Sickness and death stalked the camps of the Saints. During the summer many travelers suffered from the exposure-related diseases of malaria, pneumonia, and tuberculosis. Lack of fresh vegetables brought on a plague of scurvy, which the Saints called “black canker.” Serious sickness was no respecter of persons or position, and many of the leaders, including Brigham Young and Willard Richards, became seriously ill. Wilford Woodruff wrote, “I have never seen the Latter-day Saints in any situation where they seemed to be passing through greater tribulations or wearing out faster than at the present time.” Over seven hundred people died in the camps by the end of the first winter.
It is difficult to imagine thousands of people stranded and suffering in this manner in the middle of America with no help or aid from surrounding populations or the U.S. Government, but such was the situation with the Mormons. Still, “Brigham Young encouraged the [Saints] to celebrate with feasts and dancing. Women often came together in neighborhood groups to gather food, quilt, braid straw, comb each other’s hair, knit, wash clothes, and read letters.
Throughout the winter of 1846–47, additional preparations were made for continuing the westward exodus. Though the Church and its members had suffered almost beyond measure during the previous year, the Saints still harbored fond hopes for the future. Much was learned in 1846 that would pay tremendous dividends in the future.
*Parts of this article were adapted from the LDS Institute Church History Manual.