The Mormon Battalion was not the first group of Latter-day Saints to reach the west. One group of Mormons sailed out of New York harbor aboard the ship Brooklyn on 4 February 1846, coincidentally the same day the first Saints left Nauvoo. The ship sailed all the way south from New York around the southern tip of South America (Cape Horn), northwest to the Hawaiian Islands, then on to San Francisco, a journey of five months. There were 238 Latter-day Saints on board, and during the journey, there were two births and ten deaths. The leader of this group was Samuel Brannan. He developed the idea that the Saints should settle in California and became disaffected when Brigham Young and other leaders preferred the great basin of Utah. Some members of his party disaffected with him.
Also, during the winter of 1846–47 about 275 Latter-day Saints formed a substantial community at Pueblo, hundreds of miles west of the main body of the Saints at the Missouri River. This group consisted of the three sick detachments from the Mormon Battalion and approximately sixty “Mississippi Saints” who had come to Pueblo in August. These Mormons were later guided to the Salt Lake Valley.
Brigham Young sought all the knowledge possible to prepare the Saints and choose the route to Utah Territory, interviewing explorers, sending out scouts, and consulting with the Lord. He received the revelation that is now Section 136 of the Doctrine and Covenants, with commandments for the conduct of the Camp of Israel.
Delegations went to each encampment to read the revelation and to announce the names of men Brigham Young desired to go in the Pioneer Company and in the companies to follow during the first year. Throughout the spring Church leaders held many meetings with various emigrating companies, providing information relative to their tentative location, the construction of boats for fording rivers, methods of pioneer travel, planting seeds, and irrigation.
Apostles John Taylor and Parley P. Pratt arrived in Winter Quarters from England. They brought money contributed by the English Saints and scientific instruments for calculating latitude, elevation, temperature, and barometric pressure. The Saints also used odometers to calculate mileage. The first pioneer group left Winter Quarters on April 16, 1847. The journey they undertook was 1,100 miles.
The advance company of pioneers entered the Salt Lake Valley on 22 July 1847, and immediately set up a crude irrigation system to flood the land and prepare for planting. On 24 July, Brigham Young and the rear company arrived at the mouth of Emigration Canyon. Wilford Woodruff drove President Young in his carriage. They looked to the future as they gazed over the valley. Wilford Woodruff wrote:
Thoughts of pleasing meditations ran in rapid succession through our minds while we contemplated that not many years that the House of GOD would stand upon the top of the mountains while the valleys would be converted into orchard, vineyard, gardens and fields by the inhabitants of Zion and the standard be unfurled for the nations to gather there to.
Brigham Young said he was satisfied with the appearance of the valley as a “resting place for the Saints and was amply repaid for his journey.”
On a later occasion, Wilford Woodruff explained that when they came out of the canyon he turned the carriage so that President Brigham Young could see the whole valley. “While gazing upon the scene before us, he was enwrapped in vision for several minutes. He had seen the valley before in vision, and upon this occasion he saw the future glory of Zion and of Israel, as they would be, planted in the valleys of these mountains. When the vision had passed, he said, ‘It is enough. This is the right place. Drive on.’”
Within a week, a survey of the area had begun and a plot chosen for the temple. Men not engaged in farming were making adobes for a temporary fort. The Mississippi Saints and some of the “battalion boys” who arrived in the valley in October built a bowery for public meetings on the temple block.
Brigham Young, the Apostles and many of the original Pioneer Company stayed in Salt Lake Valley only one month before returning to Winter Quarters to lead more Latter-day Saints to the West. En route they met with 1,553 Saints who were already on their way to the Salt Lake Valley. More familiar with the terrain this time, and with fewer wagons and light loads, men and teams found the traveling considerably faster.
Later, Brigham Young would surmise that hardy, but poorer Latter-day Saints, many of whom were converts from Europe, could make it across the plains on foot, pushing and pulling their possessions in handcarts, with other supplies in wagons. This idea was ultimately successful, in spite of the casualties borne by the Martin and Willey handcart companies, who left the mid-west ill-supplied and too late in the season. Even the Saints of these ill-fated companies, wherein death and frostbite took a high toll, never complained of the experience, because of the spiritual help they received along the way. One participant said they became familiar with God and would not trade the experience. These Saints were rescued by others from Utah and taken into their homes.
Brigham Young had been sustained as the prophet of the Church on 5 December 1847. Since then, succession has proceeded smoothly, as the senior apostle has become the prophet when the former prophet dies. On the 27th of December that same year, a conference of the general membership of the Church sustained President Young, the First Presidency, the Twelve Apostles, the Quorum of Seventy, and the Patriarch to the Church.
The Mormon Saints were virtually the only white settlers in the vast Great Basin, the name for an area about the size of Texas between the Rocky Mountains on the east, the Sierra Nevadas on the west, the Columbia River drainage on the north, and the Colorado River drainage on the south. The area was relatively isolated and arid and short on timber and game. The Saints realized that settling here would require considerable faith and their best efforts, but they believed that with God’s help they could succeed.
The first year (spring and summer 1848) brought a near-starvation period and the well-known plague of crickets with the miracle of the sea-gulls, that flew in in flocks, ate the crickets, disgorged them, and then ate more. The gulls continued their attacks for over two weeks until the crickets were effectively eliminated. Many people were forced to eat the native Sego Lillies, which are now the Utah State flower. By August, however, the worst was over, and a great feast was held.
A plan for distribution of farming lands worked out in the fall of 1848 was consistent with President Young’s philosophy that the land should not be monopolized by the earliest settlers, but should be put to its most productive use for the good of the community. There was to be no private ownership of water and timber—natural resources important to the entire community. Under the direction of bishops, workers turned out to build irrigation systems and roads to the canyons. Families received the right to use water and timber in proportion to the work they put into building and maintaining these systems. Disputes over land and resource use were mediated by priesthood leaders. Even though there was considerable cooperation among the Saints in the use of land, water, and timber, private business enterprises gradually developed to regulate these same resources.
The winter of 1848-49 brought severe weather and food shortages. Some Latter-day Saints were tempted to pack up and move to California. But President Young and Apostle Heber J. Kimball prophesied of coming prosperity, security, and plenty, all of which did come to pass. The following summer brought a bountiful harvest.
Brigham Young called families to establish settlements elsewhere in Utah and neighboring areas. Some of these locations were pleasant, and others were extremely challenging. Among the earliest settlements were Ogden, Provo, and Tooele, Utah. Brigham Young established a Perpetual Emigration Fund (PEF), from which money could be loaned to poorer immigrants, who would then replenish the fund when they got on their feet. Eventually, before the railroad was connected and more easily brought converts to Utah Territory, about 70,000 Latter-day Saints trekked across the plains to Utah, making it one of the greatest movements in American history.
In the first years following the 1847 founding of a refuge in the West, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, under inspired leadership, achieved a remarkable work. It began to conquer a desert, establish a core of settlements, gather thousands of refugees to Deseret, and courageously take the gospel to many nations of the earth.
*Parts of this article were adapted from the LDS Intstitute Church History Manual.