March was the final preparation month for an advance, exploratory company (also known as the Camp of Israel) of some 150 Latter-day Saint pioneers who would journey from Winter Quarters in present-day Omaha, Nebraska, to the Rocky Mountains. In doing so they would prepare the way for subsequent emigrant companies. At the same time, plans were refined for a second company, a much larger one of about 1,500 pioneers, to leave some weeks later. Men assigned to both companies met during March to finalize organizational details and make progress reports about their readiness.
Hosea Stout described the organizing meeting held on 15 March: “At six o’clock this evening there was a Council held of the Twelve, most of [the] High Council & the captains of 100’s & 50’s of the two Emegrating divisions of the Camp of Israel, at the Council house[.] Here many questions were proposed and decided as the best policy for this people to pursue after the Twelve & pioneers are gone. … No one is to start in the camp without 300 [l]bs of bread stuff to each individual in his family[.]”1
On 22 March, Brother Stout went to a meeting of the officers of the two emigrating companies: “Here President Young gave notice that it was his intention & also of the 12 [Apostles] to proceede on [to] the great Basin without stoping if they can … and that he intended to locate a Stake of Zion and this fall come back after his family.”2
President Young wanted the Winter Quarters settlement remodeled a little while the two 1847 pioneer companies were journeying west. The settlement would be stockaded to provide better security. On 22 March, Brother Stout recorded, President Young instructed residents to “move the houses West of Second Main Street and there form a line of Stockade with houses & bring up the south line to my house which is one block North.”3
Members of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles also labored to be certain the Saints at Winter Quarters had proper food and supplies during the spring and summer. On 31 March a council of the officers of the emigrating companies met and made arrangements to put in spring crops before leaving Nebraska.4 By then, as it turned out, President Brigham Young’s advance, exploratory company was but one week away from starting its historic journey westward.
Saints at Winter Quarters urgently needed a gristmill to grind their wheat and corn into flour. During March community members pooled their labor to complete the mill and the dam that they had started in October 1846 on Turkey Creek, Nebraska. Diarist Hosea Stout wrote on 6 March that the dam water was rising due to melting snow and “was like to brake … so all hands turned out to the dam.”5 Part of the mill dam did break away. John D. Lee wrote of the event that “if [we] could get about 100 men on the morrow I think the dam might be secured and that the mill will start by morning.”6 On 20 March, Hosea Stout wrote with obvious satisfaction: “Today the mill started and promises well. It runs beautifully grand and does a good business.”7
The mill ground 10 or 11 bushels per hour, a higher rate than the average for mills of that day. Customer demand was so great initially that people had to wait hours and sometimes days to have their corn and wheat milled into flour.
Most of the Saints camped by the Missouri River had been homeless for 10 months, some up to 13 months. Summer season had brought malaria and various mosquito-borne diseases to the ill-sheltered refugees. Chilling spring rains, summer heat, and autumn cold had taken heavy tolls on the hundreds of tired, strained, and improperly fed travelers. Winter had brought new diseases among the camps, including scurvy and consumption (pulmonary pneumonia).
John R. Young, nephew of President Brigham Young, then but a boy in Winter Quarters, later recalled that “our house was near to the burying ground, and I can recall the small, mournful trains that so often passed our door. … The scurvy was making such inroads among us that it looked as if all might be sleeping on the hill before spring.”8
Elder Wilford Woodruff of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, accompanied by Abraham O. Smoot, spent a good part of Sunday, 7 March, blessing and taking food to the sick. On this and other occasions, the Saints found comfort and healing in priesthood blessings.
On 17 March, John Smith, the Prophet Joseph Smith’s uncle, wrote in his diary, “We have had and still have considerable sickness among the Saints, who suffer with a disease called the black scurvy, said to come in consequence of people not having sufficient vegetables to eat; many have died among us.”9
John D. Lee received word that a brother across the river had purchased potatoes and would sell them to him. President Young told Brother Lee to “secure them by all means.” So from Nebraska he crossed the river and at the Sarpy trading post (about 15 miles downriver in Iowa) bought 45 bushels of seed potatoes. Brother Lee returned to Winter Quarters on the 20th with two wagonloads of potatoes. “Pres. B. Young came along while I was measuring up the potatoes, said that was the word circulated that the sick … must have the potatoes”; so Brother Lee distributed them.10
Today’s Winter Quarters Cemetery, located on the west side of the Missouri River at the site of present-day Florence, Nebraska, a part of Omaha, contains memorials and monuments dedicated to the many Latter-day Saints who died that deadly winter of 1846–47 and later. A sexton’s list of burials identifies 286 deceased into 1847, a high toll. Counting the other LDS encampments on both sides of the Missouri River, the death toll by May 1847 could have exceeded 500. More than half of the deaths were infants or children.