Nauvoo Observance Commemorates Pioneers’ Sacrifice
By Roger Black, Church News contributor
Bracing themselves against a stiff February wind blowing across the frozen Mississippi, modern-day descendants of the Latter-day Saints who were forced to cross the river in 1846 and others assembled in front of Nauvoo’s Cultural Hall on February 2 to commemorate what President Gordon B. Hinckley called “the exodus to greatness.”
When the commander of the color guard gave the order, senior missionaries, acting as a company of the Nauvoo Legion, led a procession of marchers wearing placards with the names of ancestors who actually crossed the plains, a carriage with Elder Al Christensen and his wife, Sister Doris Christensen, dressed as Brigham Young and wife Mary Ann, and horse-drawn wagons down Main Street to the Trail of Hope on Parley Street, which the commemorators followed to its end at the banks of the Mississippi.
There, in the shadow of a statue depicting Joseph Smith and Brigham Young looking west, the shivering celebrants raised an American flag and listened solemnly as names of the ancestors of current Nauvoo, Illinois, missionaries—ancestors who started the trek and ended up in graves along the way—were read. As the notes of “Taps” drifted across the Mississippi, a moment of silence was observed by those present to honor the valiant pioneers and the faith they had to follow a prophet.
According to President Russell Gilliland of the Illinois Nauvoo Mission, the exodus commemoration has been an annual event since 1996, the sesquicentennial anniversary of the Saints’ migration to the Great Basin. The event has previously been held on February 4, the date in 1846 on which Charles Shumway ferried his wagon across the river on a barge.
“We felt that it was more important to hold the commemoration on a Saturday this year, when more local members of the Church, friends in the community, and a growing number of out-of-area visitors could join the senior elders and sisters of the mission to pay respects to the valiant pioneers whose sacrifice made it possible for the Lord to establish a base of operations in Utah, than it was to observe the historically correct date,” said President Gilliland.
Marchers pass John Taylor’s print shop on Main Street toward the Trail of Hope on Parley Street to commemorate the forced exodus of Nauvoo residents in 1846. Photo by Dave Herbold.
Kathy Black, a visitor from Indiana and a former Nauvoo missionary, agreed. “We have such a fondness for this place, and it is so humbling to remember those who gave their lives in their efforts to follow a prophet. We appreciated the chance to take a weekend trip and be part of this,” she said.
Four young men from San Diego, a couple from Wyoming, and a Young Women youth group from Indiana were among those who traveled to participate in the event. Including missionaries, there were around 300 participants this year.
As he awaited his opportunity to join in the walk, Craig Dunn, a Nauvoo resident and amateur historian, reflected on the circumstances that caused the Saints to begin their journey in the dead of winter. “The Anti-Mormon Party in Hancock County wanted the Saints out,” he said, “and they didn’t have the patience to wait for the terms of the agreement that Brigham Young had worked out with Governor Ford to play out. If the Saints hadn’t started when they did, they faced a level of violence that could have been catastrophic.”
Portraying the Nauvoo Legion, senior missionaries lead a procession toward the Mississippi River landing. Photo by Alene Endter.
Although most of the Mormon emigrants crossed the river on barges, at one point, the weather turned so frigid in 1846 that the ice on the Mississippi was thick enough to support teams and wagons, hastening the exodus.
The ice in 2013 wasn’t that thick, but participants in this year’s commemoration felt the sting of the cold wind enough to appreciate what their hardy forebears must have felt.
The commemoration concluded with an event Sunday evening in which various missionaries told of the experiences of their ancestors who were in Nauvoo, stories of ancestors who joined the Saints in the Salt Lake Valley after the exodus from Nauvoo, and personal accounts from missionaries who were the first members of their families to join the Church.
One woman summed up the feelings of many, when she commented that this was one of the most spiritual experiences in which she and her family have participated.
Attendees arrive at a landing where 1846 pioneers crossed the Mississippi River into Iowa. Photo by Roger Wise.