The migration of ten thousand Latter-day Saints from Nauvoo, Illinois, to the Great Salt Lake Valley in the late 1840s stands as one of the great events in Mormon history. Joining in the westward trek, when Salt Lake City became the new headquarters for the Church in 1847, were members in other parts of the United States and thousands more, converts from Europe, who gathered with the Saints in the new western Zion.
The pioneers of 1847 charted a route across uninhabited plains to the Rocky Mountain refuge. Along this famous Mormon Trail in succeeding years marched an estimated eighty thousand Latter-day Saints in wagon trains and handcart parties. The migration was made easier after 1869 by the completion of the first transcontinental railroad in the United States. But by the end of the century Church leaders were discouraging migration. Instead they emphasized the need to build up the Church in many lands. New “gathering places,” they said, would be established in wards and stakes worldwide.
Joseph Smith anticipated the move to the Rocky Mountains as early as 1842. At first, his intent was to establish a stake in the valley of the western mountains, and perhaps others in Oregon and Texas, without abandoning Nauvoo. Threats against his life and harassment of the Saints forced a reconsideration of this idea. When the Prophet was killed at Carthage Jail in 1844, some of his enemies thought the Church would fall apart and its members scatter. They failed to recognize that strong individual testimonies gave members a commitment to the cause that was greater than any man. Antagonists failed also to consider the firm leadership of Brigham Young, president of the Twelve, who was determined to carry out the policies established by Joseph Smith.
Brigham Young’s succession to the presidency was challenged first by Sidney Rigdon. President Rigdon, first counselor in the First Presidency since 1833, had shared many important spiritual experiences with the Prophet. But in October 1843, Joseph Smith refused to sustain his counselor because of Rigdon’s slothfulness and suspected opposition to the work. When others supported Rigdon the general conference retained the distrusted counselor over the Prophet’s objections. Following the Martyrdom, and while the apostles were gathering to Nauvoo to assume the leadership of the Church, President Rigdon sought support for his claim to the presidency.
On August 7 the disaffected counselor outlined his proposal to the Twelve and local priesthood leaders. The following day the Saints gathered in large numbers for an outdoor meeting to hear the question discussed. President Rigdon believed that a counselor to Joseph Smith was in the direct line of succession. He wanted to become “a spokesman for Joseph.” Brigham Young reminded the assembly of the nature of Church government. Only the Twelve, he said, had the authority to ordain a new president. For several years the Apostles had functioned in an expanded role with Church-wide responsibilities, implementing the 1835 revelation on priesthood that gave the Twelve an authority equal to that of the First Presidency. (D&C 107:23–24)
After President Young and other speakers concluded the day-long special conference, the congregation sustained the Twelve to act in the office of the First Presidency. Three years later, in December 1847, the Twelve reorganized the presiding quorum. Brigham Young became president and chose Heber C. Kimball and Willard Richards as counselors. The Twelve Apostles functioned as the First Presidency for three years after the death of Brigham Young in 1877, and for nearly two years following John Taylor’s death ten years later. President Wilford Woodruff urged the Twelve to effect an immediate reorganization of the First Presidency after his own death, and this practice has been followed since then.
Sidney Rigdon’s apparent willingness to accept the decision of the August 1844 conference did not last long. Soon he was reviving his claims to an authority greater than that of the Twelve. He left Nauvoo to organize his own church in Pennsylvania and was excommunicated along with a few other disaffected members.
One other early claim to the presidency came from James J. Strang. A convert of just four months, Strang claimed that Joseph Smith himself, a few weeks before his death, had ordained Strang to become the next president of the Church. Strang possessed a letter, allegedly written by the Prophet, supporting his claim, but the Twelve pronounced the letter a forgery, and historical investigations since that time have confirmed this opinion. Nevertheless, Strang continued in his claim and gathered a small group of followers to his settlement on Beaver Island, in Lake Michigan, where he pronounced himself a king. He ruled the colony until he was killed by one of his own people in 1856. Elder Lyman Wight also led away a group of members into Texas in a direct challenge to Brigham Young’s counsel.
Even though President Young expected eventually to lead the Saints from Nauvoo, he encouraged them to remain long enough to complete the temple. This effort consumed the energies of the community for the succeeding eighteen months, as members donated food and clothing for the construction workers and contributed their time to help build the impressive structure. The Saints earnestly desired the blessings of the temple promised them by Joseph Smith. President Young and the Twelve met frequently with the temple committee and architect William Weeks to hasten construction. In the late Spring of 1845 the capstones were raised into place. It was expected to be completed by the general conference of April 1846.
While this work proceeded, there again began to be tension in Nauvoo. The stresses that had led to the Martyrdom reappeared. President Young advised the Saints to avoid politics. He hoped to avoid creating animosity toward the Church, but already certain opponents of Nauvoo’s political strength were asking the state legislature to repeal the Nauvoo city charter. This important question was debated at length, and the final vote of the legislature in January 1845 left the Mormon city without government. Nauvoo officials acted quickly to establish police protection with a citizens volunteer force. The Twelve asked Illinois Governor Ford for help. He guided them in creating a town government, limited to a 2 1/2 square kilometers section of the city. This new Nauvoo government assured temporary stability.
Opponents of the Saints were not satisfied. Antagonistic local newspapers argued that Church members should not hold public office in the county. This reopened public debate and started many incidents of vandalism against Mormon property. Anti-Mormons and cooperating apostates hoped to drive the Saints from scattered settlements into Nauvoo and then force the entire community from Illinois.
As the opposition increased the Twelve and the Council of Fifty—(a body of men organized March 11, 1844 by Joseph Smith—to be the nucleus of God’s future government on earth. That is, the political government, not the Church government) quietly planned for an exodus beyond the borders of the United States. Exploring parties left Nauvoo to scout temporary settlement sites in western Iowa. Correspondence with government officials in Washington D.C. and in the states confirmed the Twelve’s decision: Only in an isolated, uninhabited part of the country would the Saints have peace.
In September 1845 the anti-Mormons began burning Mormon homes in the small, scattered farm communities surrounding Nauvoo. Unprotected families were forced from their log farm homes as the vigilantes set fire to their homes. The mobs destroyed more than two hundred homes and farm buildings, plus several mills and dozens of grain stacks. The friendly Sheriff Jacob Backenstos vainly attempted to preserve order. President Young advised the Saints to evacuate the rural areas and move to Nauvoo. He cautioned against retaliation, hoping that sympathetic citizens would see the flagrant denial of property rights and rally support for the Saints.
Throughout the fall and early winter, Nauvoo’s blacksmiths worked at building wagons for the exodus planned for the following spring. The Saints at the October 1845 general conference heard instructions on how to prepare for the exodus. The Twelve studied maps and reports of western explorations and sought advice from western travelers. As the time approached for departure, they narrowed the selection of a place for a new city of refuge to the fertile valleys of the Wasatch Mountains.
On February 4, 1846, the ship Brooklyn sailed from New York harbor on a five-month sea voyage to San Francisco Bay. Aboard were 238 Latter-day Saints from the eastern United States. Organized by Samuel Brannan, they were part of the general migration destined for the Mexican territory of “Upper California” which then included Utah. On that same day in Nauvoo the first refugees from that city crossed the cold Mississippi River in barges and began the wagon trek across the rolling plains of Iowa. The Saints of Illinois had not planned to leave until March or April. Threats against Church leaders and rumors of impending mob action prompted the early departure. By mid-May nearly twelve thousand Saints had crossed the river, some of them on the frozen ice of the Mississippi River in February. The exodus of modern Israel had begun.
Even as the migration commenced, work continued on the Nauvoo Temple. Joseph Young, senior president of the Council of the Seventy, remained behind to assist in the migration and complete the temple for final dedication. The Twelve had dedicated parts of the building late in 1845 and had administered the endowment to nearly 6,000 worthy members.
After workmen did the final work on the building in late April, Elders Wilford Woodruff, Orson Hyde, and Joseph Young held dedication ceremonies. Then they made immediate plans to abandon the building. Efforts to sell the temple to other religious groups had failed. In 1848 fire (probably set by arsonists) destroyed the wood portions, and two years later a windstorm toppled the limestone walls. The Saints had long since abandoned their beautiful city; the last of them had departed in September 1846 after mobs attacked the city and forced the sick and poor to leave.
Across Iowa in 1846 the exiles formed a continuous stream of migrants. Many had been able to accumulate food and supplies for the trip. Others sought temporary work in St. Louis, Missouri and northern Missouri chopping wood, building fences, or working for farmers for needed supplies. Brigham Young organized the migration parties into military-style companies common in westward travel. Each unit contained about fifty families, sometimes subdivided into groups of ten under a captain. Presidencies of each company supervised the march, maintained discipline, directed the work of those who distributed supplies, the guards, the herdsmen and other officers.
The weather that spring of 1846 was wet and cold, the trail muddy. For week after week the Saints traveled across southern Iowa toward the Missouri River, stopping periodically in temporary camps to rest and form new groups. At Garden Grove and Mt. Pisgah, Iowa, they established large farms where wheat and other grains could be grown to assist the migration. During this heroic Iowa trek, William Clayton wrote the words to “Come, Come Ye Saints,” (Hymns No. 13) a hymn set to an old English tune known to Clayton since his youth in England. Clayton had just received word of the birth of a child to his wife Diantha. Both were well and Clayton felt to rejoice: “Come, come, ye Saints,” he wrote, “no toil nor labor fear, but with joy wend your way … All is well! all is well!”
In mid-June, Brigham Young’s company reached the Missouri River. He hoped that as many as four hundred men in a select pioneering company could continue and cross the mountains to plant fall wheat in the Great Basin that year. The Twelve sought information on routes west, supplies, Indian rights, and other matters. They talked with Indian agents working along the Missouri River and gained permission for a temporary settlement for the remainder of the Saints on Indian lands in the Council Bluffs area. They began ferrying wagons across the river and crews hauled timber to an Indian sawmill nearby to get lumber. Rough roads from the bluffs down into the river bottoms eased the crossing.
At a point on the west side of the river the Saints established a temporary settlement known as Winter Quarters, now part of Omaha, Nebraska. Across the river to the east dozens of temporary camps sprung up in the general area later known as Kanesville, and now known as Council Bluffs, Iowa. The task of establishing these camps and the lateness of the season led to the decision to postpone the pioneer expedition until spring.
As the process of ferrying the wagons across the river continued, messengers arrived from the east bringing news of historic importance. Ever since the expulsion of the Saints from Missouri, representatives for the Church had sought the assistance of federal officials in Washington. Until now, the answer had been that Mormon problems were a local affair that could not concern the national government. Now the government was at war with Mexico. Border disputes and counter claims to vast territories in the West had led to an American invasion of the disputed lands.
The Church’s spokesman in Washington, D.C., James C. Little, tried to get a government contract to haul supplies to the armies or to build structures of heavy timber to protect emigrants on the Oregon Trail from marauding Indians. Any such contract would supply needed funds which would assist the Mormon migration. Government officials decided, instead, to ask for five hundred Mormon volunteers for the Army of the West. According to this plan, the Mormon Battalion would march to Santa Fe (New Mexico) and then follow General Stephen W. Kearny’s overland expedition into California.
President Young responded positively to the request and encouraged enlistment. Some of the Saints thought the government was trying to punish them by separating the men from their families and leaving the families without the funds and help needed for their journey. But finally they were convinced that their service would assist the Saints in the migration. The military pay of the Battalion would help their families get west, and after a year’s service the soldiers would be discharged in California with permission to retain their guns and military clothing.
With personal encouragement from Brigham Young and the Twelve, more than the requested five hundred volunteers enlisted. On July 20, the group left Council Bluffs under Lt. Colonel James Allen, a non-Mormon career officer, who was succeeded by Lt. Colonel Philip St. George Cooke at Santa Fe (New Mexico). Most of the other officers were Latter-day Saints selected by Church leaders. President Young promised the soldiers that if they were faithful to their religious principles they would not have to fight. This promise was literally fulfilled, for before the men reached San Diego, California, the following January, other military forces had secured the Surrender of Upper California. The only “battle” fought by the Battalion was an exciting encounter with a herd of wild cattle who attacked the foot soldiers as they crossed the sandy valley of the lower Rio Grande River.
The willingness of the Saints to enlist in military service demonstrated Mormon loyalty to constituted government. Furthermore, the 3,267 kilometer march was one of the longest in recorded history, and the Mormons helped blaze a trail used by wagon trains and, eventually, a transcontinental railroad.
Not all of those who set out for California with the U.S. Army completed the arduous march. Several died on the way and about 150 men, sick and weak, left the company to spend the winter in Pueblo, Colorado. These men and most of the wives who had accompanied the Battalion to do the laundry, moved northward to Fort Laramie Wyoming early in 1847 and followed Brigham Young’s pioneer company into the Salt Lake Valley. A company of Saints from Mississippi, who also spent the winter in Colorado, were also part of that first group to reach the new Mormon homeland.
Winter Quarters, Nebraska, on the Missouri River, was a small city of log homes and shelters dug into the sides of hills. More than seven hundred of these temporary dwellings were completed before Christmas of 1846 and around 3,500 people spent the winter in the community. During the winter, the Twelve organized the picked group of 143 men who formed the pioneer company. Three women were permitted to accompany their husbands, and one of these brought two children. This group of 148 persons traveled in 73 wagons and carried seeds and ample supplies to help them through the winter of 1847–48.
The pattern by which this and all subsequent emigrant parties were to be organized was set forth by Brigham Young in a revelation on January 14, 1847. This document, now part of the Doctrine and Covenants (D&C 136), became a constitution governing the westward trek. It reaffirmed the organizational scheme already tested in the march across Iowa and reminded the Saints of their responsibility to care for the poor and widows and orphans. In the migration of modern Israel the Saints would assist one another to reach the Promised Land.
The advance company commenced its trek in April. Eight members of the Twelve joined the company, and two others followed at the head of subsequent emigrant groups that year. The pioneers were well equipped with small boats, maps, scientific instruments, and farm implements. To avoid the possibility of conflicts with emigrants along the Oregon Trail on the south side of the Platte River, the Latter-day Saints established a separate road on the prairies north of the river. Because they had prepared so well, the 1600-kilometer journey from Winter Quarters to the Salt Lake Valley was relatively uneventful. They had no serious problems with Indians, no major accidents, no internal disputes that could not be handled in the strictly organized company. On the way the Twelve talked with frontiersmen and travelers going east gathering fresh information about their intended destination.
In July, as the party approached the final section of the journey, Brigham Young and some others were stricken with mountain fever and left temporarily weakened. They lagged behind to regain their strength, while the main group pushed onward along a trail blazed the previous summer by the Reed-Donner party of California emigrants. That trail through the mountains into Salt Lake Valley was overgrown with brush and required long hours of work to clear. The advance party finally reached the mouth of the canyon. On July 21, Elders Orson Pratt and Erastus Snow, scouting the route, were first to catch a glimpse of the valley and the broad waters of the Great Salt Lake. Others followed them into the valley the following day. On that day, Orson Pratt dedicated the land to the Lord and instructed his men to begin plowing and planting in order to preserve the seed. After planting, they turned out the water of City Creek to irrigate the dry soil.
On July 24, Brigham Young and the small sick detachment reached the canyon mouth. “We gazed with wonder and admiration upon the vast rich fertile valley,” Wilford Woodruff wrote in his diary. “President Young expressed his full satisfaction in the appearance of the valley as a resting place for the Saints and felt amply repayed for his journey.” In later years Elder Woodruff recalled that as the two looked out over the valley from Woodruff’s wagon, President Young declared, “This is the right place, drive on.”
This was the beginning of the task of conveying thousands of Saints to the new place of refuge. By December, 1847, more than two thousand had completed the arduous journey. President Young and several hundred returned east that same year to bring their families and assist others. William Clayton, who had carefully measured the distances travelled by the pioneer camp, remeasured the trail with a new odometer and in 1848 published his Latter-day Saints’ Emigrants’ Guide. This booklet listed exact distances between campsites and greatly assisted the thousands who followed in the footsteps of the pioneers of 1847.