Mention of the exodus of the Latter-day Saints from Nauvoo and their subsequent trek to the Rocky Mountains often evokes images of persecution, injustice, and suffering, of Brigham Young leading a people driven westward by hostile neighbors. But such images preserve only a portion of the story. Traveling with firm purpose and only after lengthy planning, the pioneers also saw themselves fulfilling a prophesied destiny. “You may think you have driven us,” Brigham Young told a government official in 1857, and “so you have.” But only “through the will and pleasure of him who dictates the nations of the earth.”1
Before leaving Nauvoo, Latter-day Saint leaders saw the proposed trek westward as the beginning of fulfillment of a prophecy uttered by Isaiah: “And it shall come to pass in the last days that the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established in the tops of the mountains … and all nations shall flow unto it.” (Isa. 2:2; see also Micah 4:1–2.) The blessings promised the posterity of Joseph by his father Jacob had included “the utmost bound of the everlasting hills” (Gen. 49:26; Deut. 33:13–15), and so it was to the Rocky Mountains that the Lord directed their feet.
They had not forgotten that the center stake of Zion would one day be located in Jackson County, Missouri. (See D&C 57:1–3.) But the persecutions and tragedies of Missouri in the 1830s had made it plain that this center stake would not be established immediately. In fact, for the time being, the Lord had excused them from the commandment to build a temple there (see D&C 124:45–55) and had counseled them that Zion “shall be redeemed in mine own due time.” (D&C 136:18.) Until then, they would have to find another home.
For those who shared the unfolding vision of a promised refuge in the American West, the exodus represented both hardship and long-awaited opportunity. It was also the end of a quest. Brigham Young told the first Latter-day Saints in the Salt Lake Valley that Joseph Smith had for years longed to be there. Finally “we are here, thank the Almighty God,” he said, “for here is the place of beginning.”2
From the earliest days of the Church, Joseph Smith claimed that the destiny of the Saints involved much more than a confined area in the eastern United States. His vision of the Church’s place there may have been but a glimpse at first, but as the Church moved from place to place, his view became clearer. Even before leaving New York for Kirtland, Ohio, in 1831, the Prophet privately asserted to close associates that the Latter-day Saints’ promised land, as revealed by God, extended clear to the Pacific Ocean. Wilford Woodruff later testified that in Kirtland, in 1834, Joseph Smith shared his conviction that “this Church will fill North and South America—it will fill the world. … It will fill the Rocky Mountains.”3
No doubt Book of Mormon prophecies about the redemption and future power of the Lamanites fed nascent expectations involving the West. Brigham Young reported that from the first time Joseph Smith stood on the banks of the Missouri River and looked westward into “Indian country” (in the summer of 1831), he desired to extend the Church farther west among the native Americans.4 He could not do so from Missouri, where government Indian agents regulated all interactions and prohibited settlement. But as soon as the Saints had access to the Indians and the West through Iowa, in 1839, the Prophet Joseph Smith authorized expanded contact with the western tribes. As subsequent events make clear, he had more than proselyting in mind.
The 1838 difficulties between Latter-day Saints and their neighbors in northern Missouri reawakened an intense interest among Church leaders in the West as a place of refuge. Only the unsettled far West promised a haven where the Saints would enjoy the freedom, in the words of Brigham Young, to “gain a foothold, a strength, power, influence, and ability to walk by themselves.” But he knew that governmental obstacles associated with the Indian frontier, along with practical considerations, barred the way west for the present.5
The violent expulsion of LDS citizens from Missouri in 1838–39, however, created the need for an immediate home, a place to regroup. When Joseph Smith was released from Liberty Jail, he found lands available on reasonable terms in the areas of Illinois and Iowa where the Saints had momentarily settled. He confirmed the decision to gather there. But Nauvoo was never designated as a “permanent” gathering place. In May of 1839, Heber C. Kimball, a member of the Council of the Twelve, commented that the spot, though beautiful, was “not a long abiding place for the Saints.” Elder Kimball was not alone in these expectations.6
It is likely, however, that as Nauvoo grew, many of the Latter-day Saints who gathered there expected to stay. Adding to a sense of permanence was the Lord’s instruction to build a temple there. (D&C 124:55.) As the city developed and the Saints prospered, many members undoubtedly hoped and believed things could remain as they were. But the first thrust to the West was already underway.
Less than a year after founding Nauvoo, the Prophet sent missionaries among the Indians west of the Missouri River. Immediately after the Prophet’s death, the Council of the Twelve confirmed that this action involved settlement as well as missionary work. They dispatched missionaries, including Jonathan Dunham (who had been sent previously by the Prophet among the western tribes in 1839–40), to “fill Joseph’s original measures” by “proceeding from tribe to tribe, to unite the Lamanites and find a home for the Saints.” Even in 1840, Dunham understood; he spoke of great things “in the west, in fulfillment of prophecy,” including “a place of safety preparing … away towards the Rocky Mountains.”7
By 1842 the Prophet apparently discussed these plans more broadly. That year, dissident Oliver Olney boasted of what he supposed were Mormon plans to unite with the Indians and become a powerful people in the Rocky Mountains.8 The famous “Rocky Mountain Prophecy” in the History of the Church, inserted by Church Historians based on later affidavits, also dates from this period. In Utah, Brigham Young characterized the prophecy that the Latter-day Saints would be “planted in the midst of the Rocky Mountains” as “not a new thing” and not hid up or “locked in a drawer, but … declared to the people long before we left Nauvoo.” Among those listening to him, he asserted, were hundreds who had heard the Prophet proclaim it.9
But in 1842, Joseph Smith’s attention and resources were diverted from the far West. Not until 1844 was he ready to move forward. On 20 February 1844, he met with the Twelve and instructed them “to send out a delegation & investigate the locations of Callifornia & oregon & find a good location where we can remove after the Temple is completed. & build a city in a day—and have a government of our own.” (The original spelling has been retained in all quotations.) Twice more in February the Prophet made it clear that he desired “an exposition of all that country,” the sooner the better.10
Conditions in Illinois underscored the practical urgency for a retreat in the Rocky Mountains. Orson Hyde remembered in 1846 that the Prophet had declared it “the will & mind of God to go West,” adding that they should finish the temple if possible, but “if your enemies come upon you flee to the West.” Later, in Utah, Brigham Young recalled how Joseph had sat for hours “conversing about this very country,” and how the Prophet had often said, “If I were only in the Rocky Mountains with a hundred faithful men, I would then be happy, and ask no odds of mobocrats.”11
In 1844, however, the Prophet postponed further consideration of western exploration until he set up an organization to oversee such matters. The organization, called the Council of Fifty, consisted of both members and nonmembers. Once it was formed, the Prophet and the new council decided to focus first on other projects, especially the upcoming elections. In the meantime, members of the council, including several Apostles, would petition the United States Congress for assistance in launching a major western expedition.
By 1844, Nauvoo boasted more people, resources, power, and promise than any earlier Latter-day Saint settlement. Leaders who once saw it as a way station now hoped they could maintain Nauvoo as a temple city, even as they moved the headquarters elsewhere. “Their will be some place ordained for the redeeming of the dead,” said the Prophet at April conference. “I think this place will be the one”—and, indeed, baptisms for the dead were performed in Nauvoo. Even so, another conference participant, speaking at the Prophet’s urging, emphasized the expected establishment of a Zion “at the tops of the mountains and all nations shall flow unto it,”12 an obvious reference to Isaiah’s and Micah’s prophecies.
A literal Zion in the Rocky Mountains was not the only possibility for new LDS settlement. In the spring of 1844, Joseph Smith emphasized increasingly what he had taught before: all of North and South America is Zion. With this in mind, in March, the Council of Fifty authorized negotiations with the government of the Republic of Texas to found a settlement there that might serve as a “place of gathering for all the South.” Once the Nauvoo Temple was finished “and the Elders endowed,” the Prophet told the Saints in April conference, they could build up churches throughout the continent until “all Zion is built up.”13 As the Prophet had foreseen, eventually Zion would fill all of North and South America.14
Had not death intervened, Joseph Smith likely would have implemented plans for the LDS exodus from Illinois, perhaps even in 1844. Brigham Young later insisted that had the Prophet lived, the Saints would have been in the Rocky Mountains sooner. Instead, the murders at Carthage (and temperate Mormon response) deflated mounting pressures that might otherwise have forced an early departure. The Twelve used the resulting interlude to focus every energy on completion of the temple. In January 1845, they announced that the temple ordinances would begin the following December.
That same month, January 1845, Brigham Young learned that enemies, convinced the Saints would fight to defend a completed temple, intended to drive them from Nauvoo before it could be finished. Fearing possible bloodshed, President Young “inquired of the Lord whether we should stay here and finish the temple.” The answer, he noted in his diary, was that “we should.”15 Ironically, enemies misunderstood the connection between the temple and Latter-day Saint willingness to leave Nauvoo. Once the temple had fulfilled its purpose, however briefly, the Latter-day Saints could be “driven” relatively easily—but not before.
Still, to outsiders—indeed, to all but a few of the Saints—it appeared in the spring of 1845 that Brigham Young had no intention of leading a migration from Nauvoo. In April, Governor Thomas Ford wrote to nudge him: “I was informed by Gen Joseph Smith last summer that he contemplated a removal west; and … I think if he had lived he would have begun to move in the matter before this time.”16 Only the LDS leaders and a few of the other Saints knew that the wheels were already in motion.
Pleased at the progress of the temple, Brigham Young had counseled with his brethren in January “on the subject of settling a new country.” The Council of Fifty spent March discussing “Joseph’s measures”—that is, “going West to seek out a location … where the Saints can dwell in peace and health.” The council assigned men, including Jonathan Dunham, the Indian missionary of 1840, to labor among the western tribes in continuation of earlier efforts “to unite the Lamanites and find a home for the Saints.”17
In Utah later, Brigham Young would say that he and Joseph had “sat many hours at a time conversing about this very country.”18 But now that the mantle of prophet had fallen on Brigham, he sought his own divine confirmation on where in the vast West the Saints should go. He weighed all the information available and pondered the Prophet Joseph Smith’s earlier instructions.
His people required “a country that the Gentiles do not desire,” he decided. That ruled out the Pacific Coast, with its enthusiastic boosters and increasing settlement. Only the interior mountain country offered a secure “place apart.” Perhaps the Latter-day Saints would plant settlements in Texas or on the western coast. They might retain Nauvoo as a temple city, the eastern rim of a great wheel. Someday the center stake of Zion, in Missouri, would be set in its proper place. But for now, President Young concluded, the hub of the great wheel clearly had to be in the Rocky Mountains.19
Church leaders focused on that portion of the Great Basin around the Utah Lake on the south, the Great Salt Lake on the north, and the Bear River Valley. Inspiration indicated that within that expanse was one particular place for their headquarters city, a specific location preserved for them by God.
Brigham Young felt personally responsible to lead the Saints to the place prepared. He told the Seventies in early March of a dream of searching with the Prophet Joseph for the right location. As they came to a mountain with multiple trails, Brigham spotted a route that Joseph had overlooked and arrived at the destination first. “I thought we had found a most beautiful place for a city,” he recounted.20
Church leaders obtained and studied information from explorer John C. Fremont and other experts on the target area in the Rockies. But even this information was insufficient to quiet Brigham Young’s concern about finding the precise spot. Elder George A. Smith later reported that Brigham fasted and prayed in the Nauvoo Temple daily until he received a vision in which the Prophet Joseph, pointing out a specific mountaintop with an ensign, or flag, flying above it, decreed: “Build under the point where the colors fall and you will prosper and have peace.”21
Evidence from the Nauvoo period confirms that before he left the city, Brigham Young ceased to worry about the exact location. Only a month before departing for the West, President Young reminded his associates that it was essential that “the House of the Lord should be reared in the Tops of the Mountains” and the “Banner of liberty wave” over the valleys within. “I know where the spot is,” he added, and “I [k]no[w] how to make the flag.” To help him recognize the precise location when he saw it, he now had a key, a mental image. Joseph “sent out” the colors, he explained, and said “wherever the coulours settle there would be the spot.”22 The later significance of such an ensign, or banner, in the Salt Lake Valley demonstrates that this was no idle comment.
In September 1845, the Council of Fifty began quietly to prepare for removal; on the ninth, they agreed that President Young should select a vanguard to head west in the spring. Two days later, anti-Mormons commenced hostilities against outlying settlements. To the mobbers’ astonishment, Church leaders “capitulated” quickly, announcing they would leave Nauvoo in the spring.
The short-lived violence had an impact, of course. To use Brigham Young’s phrase, no doubt mob activity “put the gathering spirit into the hearts of the brethren,” encouraging some to leave on the trek who might have been less willing in more peaceful times.23 The violence also influenced the decision to focus all resources on the exodus, except those necessary to complete the temple for ordinance work. Hope of maintaining Nauvoo as a temple city was abandoned. Instead of the long-planned exploring and colonizing expedition followed by departure in stages, the Saints prepared for a mass exodus which, some months later, mob pressure helped to complete.
Although Brigham Young publicly announced in September 1845 the decision to depart, he pointedly refrained from revealing a destination. He would not proclaim a precise location before personally examining the land and receiving a confirmation that he had found the chosen spot. He was also shielding the Saints’ true destination from enemies who might wish to preempt their intended lands. Even the official proclamation to the Church on the eve of the exodus left open the possibility that “the neighborhood of the Rocky Mountains” would serve only as a halfway station.24
In the Church’s October 1845 general conference, Brigham Young and the Quorum of the Twelve presented the exodus as a “glorious emergency,” stressing that “we are going cheerfully.” John Taylor emphasized the opportunity to be free from oppression, and Parley Pratt compared their removal to the transplantation of young fruit trees from a small nursery to a field large enough for mature trees to bear fruit. “The Lord designs to lead us to a wider field of action,” to a country “where we shall have room to expand,” he explained. After the conference, Brigham Young issued a circular announcing to Latter-day Saints everywhere the intended spring departure. They would leave for “a far distant region of the West,” it said, where they would begin “a new epoch … in the history of the Church.”25
The enthusiasm and optimism of the leaders proved contagious. During the winter, nearly six thousand members received temple ordinances, and “the spirit of removal” took such deep root in the Nauvoo Saints that the “great majority,” according to Brigham Young, “could not have been hired to stay even under the most favorable circumstances.” Convinced that the time had fully come for the Church to be “transplanted into a far distant country in order to carry out the designs of our heavenly father,” President Young ordered the crossing of the Mississippi River to begin in February rather than awaiting spring.26
“Nauvoo is no place for the Saints,” he told his brother soon after departing. “Do not think … I hate to leave my house and home. No! far from that. I am so free from bondage at this time, that Nauvoo looks like a prison to me. It looks pleasant ahead, but dark to look back.”27
Minutes, diaries, and letters written between the Mississippi crossing in February 1846 and entrance into the Salt Lake Valley in July 1847 document that Brigham Young did not—and perhaps could not—declare a precise destination until after he saw the actual place he had seen in vision months earlier. Letters from Winter Quarters described the expected destination as “west of the Rocky Mountains, and within the basin of the Great Salt Lake or Bear River Valley,” or as “the country east of the Utah and Salt Lakes and West of the Rocky Mountains.”28
President Young remained unwilling to proclaim a specific destination without a spiritual confirmation that they had reached the “place prepared.” Because he had been guarded about their destination when they left Nauvoo, many of the Saints had only a hazy idea where they might be headed. Erastus Snow, later a member of the Twelve, recalled that when those who had followed in faith asked their destination, President Young replied, “I will show you when we come to it … I have seen it in vision, and when my natural eyes behold it, I shall know it.”29
As the pioneers approached the mountains, their leaders learned, from Jim Bridger and others, important details that served to narrow their focus. Settlers had already arrived in the northern Bear River Valley, near the main Oregon and California emigrant trail. The valley near Utah Lake was a prime Indian stronghold. It appeared that the area north of Utah Lake and south of Bear River offered, as President Young wrote on July 3, the best prospects “for the present at least.”30
Because of illness, Brigham Young did not accompany the pioneers’ advance party into the Salt Lake Valley. A letter of instruction he prepared told them to “bear toward the region of the Salt Lake” and there select a camp “regardless of a future location.” Because of the lateness of the season, the object was to find a spot and begin planting immediately.31 Accordingly, the advance party under the direction of Orson Pratt explored the valley before selecting, on July 22, a place to camp and plant.
The vanguard chose well. When he first gazed upon the valley, Brigham Young recorded, the “Spirit of Light rested on me and hovered over the valley, and I felt that there the Saints would find protection and safety.” Years later, Wilford Woodruff elaborated: “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, President Young said, “It is enough. This is the right place. Drive on.”32
Once in the valley, Brigham Young did not immediately designate a site for a city. “It is contemplated to commence a location here,” noted Heber Kimball in his diary, “although we design looking round further.” Specifically, President Young was interested in a hill from which a banner could fly above the future temple and city. On July 26, though still weak, he insisted on climbing “a high Peak in the edge of the mountain which was considered a good place to raise an ensign.”33 From on top of what was soon called Ensign Peak, or Ensign Hill, Brigham Young duplicated to his satisfaction the view he had seen in vision before. All hesitancy gone, he was now ready to formally designate the site. The next day the Twelve moved their wagons from the camp “to the intended site of the City,” and on July 28 they met in council to confirm the location. That evening, Brigham convened a meeting of all the camp “on the spot intended for a temple lot.”
“I know,” he testified, that this “is the spot, and we have come here according to the suggestion and direction of Joseph Smith. … The word of the Lord, was, ‘go to that valley and the best place you can find in it is the spot.’ Well, I prayed that he would lead us directly to the best spot, which he has done, for after searching we can find no better.”34
Before he arrived, Brigham Young had appeared tentative and flexible. Once upon the ground, however, he repeatedly affirmed that they had found the place prepared. “This is the Spot that I [h]av[e] anticipated,” he repeated to the pioneers before returning to Winter Quarters for his family. “J[oseph] S[mith] and myself [h]ad both seen this place years ago,” he testified during the first Pioneer Day celebration in 1849, “& that is why we [a]r[e] here.”35
In the isolation of these mountains they found a stronghold that met their expectations. The quest was over. It was, declared President Young, “a first-rate place to raise Saints.” Furthermore, he insisted, if they lived worthily, the Lord would never allow them to be driven from this promised land.36
Never would the Saints forget that they had come to the Rocky Mountains to escape violence and persecution. Never would they forget that their exodus here was not by chance. They had, in Orson Pratt’s words, “been driven by our enemies to the very spot that Jehovah wanted us to be.”37