The Real Florence

Concerning your misplacement of Florence, Nebraska, on the map in “Down and Back Wagon Trains” (September 1985, page 30), even eminent historians confuse the early-day locations of Council Bluffs, Kanesville, Winter Quarters, Florence, and Omaha on the Iowa and Nebraska sides of the Missouri River. Each year, hundreds of tourists drive to the Iowa side of the river looking for Winter Quarters. Highly respected historians confuse the 1804–1852 district of Council Bluffs with the 1853–present city of Council Bluffs. Many people insist that Florence, which was annexed in 1916, is north of “big brother” Omaha. Even the introductory note to section 136 of the Doctrine and Covenants refers to “Winter Quarters of the Camp of Israel, Omaha Nation, West Bank of the Missouri River, near Council Bluffs, Iowa, January 14, 1847.” It is understandable that Florence would be misplaced in the Ensign.

Proper time frame is the key to understanding the different historical names. In 1804, Captain Meriwether Lewis and Lieutenant William Clark met with representatives of the Oto and Missouri Indians about ten miles north of present-day Omaha. They called the meeting site “Council Bluff”—without the final “s.” Fur trappers and traders soon referred to both sides of the Missouri River from that point south to the Platte River as “Council Bluffs”—with a final “s.” In 1853, the name of Kanesville, Iowa, was changed to Council Bluffs in order to capture more mail and upriver commercial shipments generally addressed to “Council Bluffs.”

Family journals, letters, and historical comments made before January 1853 using the name “Council Bluffs” refer to the entire district on both sides of the Missouri River. Almost without exception, any use of the name “Council Bluffs” after mid-January 1853 refers to the city once named Kanesville.

Winter Quarters, established in September 1846, occupied the high ground where the Omaha Water Works now overlooks the Missouri River. Today Winter Quarters may be referred to loosely as Florence of North Omaha; but it is, in fact, Omaha. In 1847, Winter Quarters had expanded westward just beyond what is now Florence. A picket fence hemmed the city to the Missouri River, separating what belonged to the Saints and what belonged to the Omaha, Oto, and Missouri Indians.

Although in the 1860s Florence played host to one session of the Nebraska Territorial Legislature and competed with Omaha and Bellevue to be the site of the new territorial capitol, it likely never quite reached the size of Winter Quarters. By the spring of 1847, the population of Winter Quarters must have reached almost five thousand. According to treaty terms with the Omaha Indians, it was abandoned about June 1848. Those who were not yet prepared to go west to Salt Lake City crossed back over the Missouri River into Iowa.

The Latter-day Saints settled between fifty-five and sixty towns in southwest Iowa and the eastern fringe of Nebraska while staging wagon trains of refugees west to the Great Salt Lake Valley between 1846 and 1853. However, until 1985, most history-book accounts have not acknowledged the Mormons’ founding of these settlements. Council Bluffs, county seat of Pottawattamie County; Glenwood, county seat of Mills; Macedonia; and Honey Creek are some of the towns that were originally established by Latter-day Saints.

Much research still remains to be done. Most of the work is being promoted by the Old Council Bluff(s) Historical Recovery and Development (HRD) Group. To continue research, the group needs photocopies of parts of family journals telling about the camps and towns in southwest Iowa and the eastern fringe of Nebraska from 1846 to 1865. Such information may be mailed to HRD Group Advisor Gail Holmes, 1601 Leavenworth, Omaha, NE 68102.

Gail George Holmes Omaha, Nebraska

Florence, Nebraska(click to view larger)

This is an updated map, with Florence in its correct location.—Ed.