This year we celebrate the 150th anniversary of the great Mormon pioneer trek of 1847. But the work of latter-day pioneering actually began many years before 1847. Indeed, the first Latter-day Saint pioneer was the Prophet Joseph Smith, who opened the way for the restoration of the gospel of Jesus Christ when he knelt in a grove of trees in 1820, seeking eternal truth.
Those who believed his testimony that the Father and the Son had visited him were also pioneers. They laid the foundations of the Church in the state of New York in the United States—and when persecution drove them out, they established the Church again in Ohio. Then again in Missouri. And once more in Illinois.
By the time the Prophet Joseph Smith was martyred in 1844, the foundation of the Church was well established. But it lacked a permanent, central place to grow—away from persecution. And so, when persecution rose again, the Saints left their homes once more, this time on their epic journey to the Rocky Mountains.
The following pages celebrate the success of that journey, begun so many years before in a grove of trees in New York. The photos were taken during the filming of Legacy, a Church film shown to visitors at Salt Lake City’s Joseph Smith Memorial Building. Accompanying the photos are words from original pioneers who actually lived the scenes portrayed in the film. We hope that, together, the words and the photos will help us all remember the legacy those pioneers left us. And as we acknowledge our debt to them, may we renew our commitment to follow in their footsteps—to do, as they did, whatever we are called upon to do to build the kingdom of God throughout the earth.
In the film Legacy, young Eliza Williams joins the Church in 1830 in upstate New York, when she reads a Book of Mormon given her by Joseph Smith.
It was in Fayette, New York, that the Church was organized on 6 April 1830. Among the 56 friends and believers who gathered at the meeting was David Lewis, an 11-year-old boy. David said later: “[After the meeting] I went home and asked my mother if she was willing that I join the Church.”
She asked, “What church?” When he told her it was The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, she said, “Yes, David, you can do so if you please, but David, the whole world is against them, including all the good ministers.”
Only 29 days after the Church was organized, David Lewis was baptized on his 12th birthday by the Prophet Joseph Smith (David Lewis, reminiscence dictated to Andrew Jenson, 10 September 1908, LDS Church Archives; cited in Ensign, September 1978, 26).
In the film, Eliza and her family leave New York when intense persecution forces the fledgling Church west. Eventually, Eliza meets and marries a new convert from the British Isles.
For the Saints leaving New York, their first place of refuge was Kirtland, Ohio. When they arrived, they found many people ready to receive the restored gospel.
Among those who had been prepared were Newel K. Whitney and his wife, Elizabeth Ann. The two embraced the gospel in 1830 after missionaries brought the Book of Mormon to their home. Over the next two decades, the Whitneys moved with the Saints from Kirtland to Missouri to Illinois, sacrificing time, talents, family relationships, and prosperity to help build up the Church.
Active in Church leadership, Newel was often away from Elizabeth Ann. “During all these absences and separations from my husband,” she wrote, “I never felt to murmur or complain in the least. … I was more than satisfied to have him give all, time, talents and ability into the service of the Kingdom of God; and the change in our circumstances and associations which were consequent upon our embracing the Gospel, never caused me a moment’s sorrow” (“A Leaf from an Autobiography,” Woman’s Exponent, 1 October 1878, 71).
A revelation to the Prophet Joseph Smith sent groups of Latter-day Saints to Missouri to lay the foundation of Zion. It wasn’t long, however, before mobs confronted them. In scenes from Legacy, families arrive in Missouri (1); soon mobs tar and feather some of the Saints (2), storm the printing office (3), attack the Haun’s Mill settlement (4), and finally force the Saints to leave (5).
James and Drusilla Hendricks came to Missouri in 1836. In 1838, James was paralyzed by a bullet. For the next year, Drusilla nursed him, held off the mobs, and did what she could to keep her family alive.
The day came when they ate the last of their food. Then “the conflict began in my mind,” Drusilla wrote. Recalling her parents’ warning that her husband would be killed, she asked herself, “Are you not sorry you did not listen to them?” Answering her own question, she replied, “No I am not. I did what was right. If I die I am glad I was baptized for the remission of my sins, for I have an answer of a good conscience.” Then she heard a still small voice saying, “‘Hold on, for the Lord will provide.’ I said I would, for I would trust in Him and not grumble.”
James survived, though still an invalid, and the family made it to Utah, united in faith and hope (in Kenneth W. Godfrey and others, Women’s Voices: An Untold History of the Latter-day Saints , 96).
The next place of gathering for the Saints was Nauvoo, a city they built on land reclaimed from an Illinois swamp. Newcomers came seeking refuge (1) and to help build the new temple (2, 3).
One group of Latter-day Saints who gathered to Nauvoo was led by a free black woman who had embraced the gospel in Connecticut and shared it with her relatives. When the Saints in that area prepared to leave for Nauvoo in 1843, Jane Manning and eight members of her family joined them. Unfortunately, when the group boarded a boat in Buffalo, New York, authorities denied the Manning family passage. Rather than turn back, the party began walking toward Nauvoo, 1,300 kilometers away. It was October, and the weather was turning cold.
“We walked until our shoes were worn out,” Jane said, “and our feet became sore and cracked open and bled until you could see the whole print of our feet with blood on the ground. We stopped and united in prayer to the Lord. We asked God the Eternal Father to heal our feet and our prayers were answered and our feet were healed.”
The group arrived in Nauvoo late in the year, and the Prophet received them with gladness. “You are among friends now,” he told them, “and you will be protected.” “You mustn’t cry,” he told Jane specifically, “we dry up all tears here” (“Biography of Jane E. Manning James,” LDS Church Archives, 2, 3–4).
After the Prophet’s death, the Saints left their comfortable homes in Nauvoo, crossed the Mississippi River (4), and traveled 500 kilometers to western Iowa, where they camped for the winter.
In 1846, just as the Saints were preparing to move west from their encampment in Iowa, word came that the U.S. government wanted 500 Latter-day Saint men mustered into a battalion because of the United States’ war with Mexico. Many balked at the idea; the government had done nothing to support the Saints in their trials. However, Brigham Young and other leaders felt that the Saints could prove their loyalty by going—and by so doing also support the exodus. Battalion pay could help the Saints move to the Rocky Mountains.
Still, members of the “Mormon Battalion” found it difficult to leave their loved ones alone in a difficult situation. Wrote William Hyde: “The thoughts of leaving my family at this critical time are indescribable. They were far from the land of their nativity, situated upon a lonely prairie with no dwelling but a wagon, the scorching sun beating upon them, with the prospect of the cold winds of December finding them in the same bleak, dreary place. … Most of the Battalion left families. … When we were to meet with them again, God only knew. Nevertheless, we did not feel to murmur” (in William E. Berrett and Alma P. Burton, Readings in LDS Church History: From Original Manuscripts, 3 volumes , 2:221).
Their 3300-kilometer march to San Diego and Los Angeles, then in Mexican territory, became the longest in U.S. military history.
In the film, Eliza Williams Walker watches her husband, David, leave with the Mormon Battalion.
While most of the pioneers made the exodus west on land, some took a sea route. In 1846, one group boarded the ship Brooklyn and sailed from New York City around South America to the west coast of what was then northern Mexico. The trip took six months and covered more than 27,000 kilometers. Part of the group stayed there and founded a colony called New Hope. Others moved on to Salt Lake City.
A sea journey was the only option for converts in Europe who heeded the call to gather with the Saints in America. Jane Rio Griffiths Baker revealed something of ship life during her emigration from England:
“Sometimes a few musical ones get together and have a few tunes, sometimes [we] get together and gossip, and so … the days pass along. When we have rough weather, we have enough to do to keep on our feet, and [we] laugh at those who are not so clever as ourselves.”
The days of mirth, however, were balanced by days of distress. Jane recorded her grief at the death from illness of one of her young sons. “I did not think his death was so near, though when witnessing his sufferings I prayed that the Lord would shorten them. He has done so, and my much loved child is now in the world of spirits, awaiting the morning of the Resurrection” (Diary, LDS Church Archives, 3–4, 5; spelling and punctuation modernized).
Perhaps the event that best symbolizes the faith of the pioneers is their exodus from Nauvoo west across 2,000 kilometers of American wilderness. “Do not expect me to describe our road, as they call it,” Jane Rio Griffiths Baker wrote. “It is a perfect succession of hills, valleys, bogs, mud-holes, log bridges, quagmires with stumps of trees a foot above the … watery mud, so that without the utmost care, the wagons would be overturned ten times a day. Oh! For the tram roads of Old England! I each day hope that we shall have better traveling on the next, but as yet our changes have only been from bad to worse” (Diary, LDS Church Archives, 22; spelling and punctuation modernized).
From Iowa to Winter Quarters and across the great American plains, the road was largely one they carved for themselves.
In spite of every obstacle, the pioneers endured. And because they endured, the Church endured. From the valley of the Great Salt Lake, pioneer companies settled other parts of the American West, and missionaries established footholds for the Church in lands as diverse as the islands of the Pacific, Great Britain, Europe, Central and South America, the Middle East, Asia, and Africa.
Today, the legacy of faith those first pioneers left us continues to pass from generation to generation, from pioneer to pioneer. It is as the Prophet Joseph Smith said it would be: “No unhallowed hand can stop the work from progressing; persecution may rage, mobs may combine, armies may assemble, calumny may defame, but the truth of God will go forth boldly, nobly, and independent, till it has penetrated every continent, visited every clime, swept every country, and sounded in every ear, till the purposes of God shall be accomplished, and the Great Jehovah shall say the work is done” (History of the Church, 4:540).