New Signs Mark Trail of Kirtland Camp

  By Christine Zernzach, Church News contributor

  • 27 August 2013

Three children in pioneer-type clothing are among hundreds of people attending the unveiling and dedication of the Mormon Migration, Kirtland Camp marker on July 27 in Huffman Five Rivers Metropark at Dayton, Ohio.  Photo courtesy George and Melanie Cross.

Article Highlights

  • The Historical Marker Program enables Ohioans to commemorate and celebrate local history and to learn more about the state.
  • On July 6, 1838, Kirtland Camp, comprised of 500 Mormons, commenced its exodus from Kirtland, Ohio, to trek nearly 1,000 miles to Far West, Missouri.
  • The successful trek of Kirtland Camp was the beginning of the Mormon wagon train migration westward.

“Our hope is that this marker will serve to further the knowledge and understanding of these early pioneers by chronicling the first organized migration of more than 500 Saints in one group by the leaders of the Church, and mark for posterity the historical importance of this site.”
—Christine Zernzach

DAYTON, OHIO

As if to remind people of the hardships that the early pioneers endured, rain poured down during the dedication of an official Ohio historical marker. The event commemorated the 175th anniversary of the Kirtland Camp’s 30-day encampment along the Mad River and their contributions to the city of Dayton, Ohio.

Several hundred people, including city officials, members, and friends attended the dedication and participated in the unveiling of the Mormon Migration, Kirtland Camp marker placed in the Huffman Five Rivers Metropark on Saturday, July 27. Included in that crowd were members of the Dayton Ohio East Stake and more than 25 descendants of members of the Kirtland Camp including William Draper, Joel Hill Johnson, John Tanner, Benjamin Franklin Johnson, Arnold Stevens, and Zera Pulsipher.

Fairborn’s mayor, Tom H. Nagel; Huber Heights mayor Ron Fisher; Amy Rohmiller of the Ohio Historical Society; and Michael W. Stevens, president of the Dayton Ohio East Stake, each delivered dedicatory remarks. Mayor Nagel and Mayor Fisher issued proclamations recognizing the sacrifices and contributions of the early Mormon pioneers who were members of the Kirtland Camp.

In his dedicatory remarks, President Stevens, a descendent of Kirtland Camp member Arnold Stevens, shared how the camp represented a united group.

“Likewise, as Americans, we pledge our civic duty to care and serve one another. These faithful pioneers are an example to us of the importance of faith in God to weather any storm. We are their legacy, and we must not fail to hold the torch high in defense of religious freedom, prosperity, and the pursuit of happiness and peace.” 

A descendant of camp member Joe Hill Johnson, Martha Blake traveled from Columbus, Ohio, and assisted in the unveiling of the marker. “I am very honored to be a part of this and represent the faith of our pioneer ancestors,” she said.

As part of the ceremony, a moment of silence was given to remember the five children buried along the river. Afterward, descendants of Joel Hill Johnson (1802–1882), who wrote “High on the Mountain Top,” were invited to join with a 50-member choir in singing the hymn.

Administered by the Ohio Historical Society, the Historical Marker Program enables Ohioans to commemorate and celebrate local history and to learn more about the state. Designed to be highly visible and permanent, the historical markers are large cast-aluminum signs that tell stories about aspects of Ohio’s history. Markers were awarded based on historical significance, geographic diversity, and historical periods.

“When Saints talk about the migration west, little if anything is mentioned about Kirtland Camp and its significance in Mormon history,” said Christine Zernzach, who began the research on Kirtland Camp and application process for the marker nearly three years ago.

“Our hope is that this marker will serve to further the knowledge and understanding of these early pioneers by chronicling the first organized migration of more than 500 Saints in one group by the leaders of the Church, and mark for posterity the historical importance of this site.”

Kirtland Camp’s historical statement of significance was presented by Rob Young: “On July 6, 1838, the first and largest organized camp of more than 500 Mormons, otherwise known as Kirtland Camp, commenced its exodus from Kirtland, Ohio, to trek nearly 1,000 miles to Far West, Missouri. Fleeing from religious persecution, this was the first organized movement of a large body of Saints by ecclesiastical leaders of the Church. It was said by one leader to be ‘the greatest thing ever accomplished since the organization of the Church or even since the exodus of Israel from Egypt, if the Saints in Kirtland, considering their poverty, should succeed in going from that place [Kirtland, Ohio] in a body.’ ” 

Their trek through Dayton, Ohio, and their 30-day encampment there served to be essential in their success by replenishing their spirits and much-needed provisions. The hospitality of the Daytonians, including W. Huffman, who allowed the Saints to make their encampment on his farm, and J. Harshman, who employed members of the camp to build levees, contributed greatly to the success of their trek. Members of the Kirtland Camp were also employed to work on the Dayton-Springfield Turnpike.

The obstacles they faced on their first organized trek west—the formidable conditions under which they traveled, the extreme poverty of the majority of those belonging to the camp, and the opposition they faced from dissenters and persecutors—underscore the significance of Kirtland Camp’s success. 

On October 4, 1838, when Kirtland Camp reached its final destination in Far West, their long and tedious journey was said to be complete. Five miles from Far West, they were met and escorted into the public square by the Prophet Joseph Smith and his counselors, Sidney Rigdon and Hyrum Smith. The Prophet wrote of their remarkable journey, “This is a day long to be remembered.”  

The successful trek of Kirtland Camp in one large organized company with its governing camp constitution was the beginnings of the Mormon wagon train migration westward. 

Daytonians’ contributions and civility to these early Mormon pioneers who were members of Kirtland Camp and deemed poor, sick, lame, blind, wounded, diseased, homeless, and starved is remembered and recognized.