Information and quotes are from Church History in the Fulness of Times, 305–23.
On 4 February 1846, the Latter-day Saints began leaving Nauvoo. They had planned to leave in April, but threats from the mobs forced their early departure. Loading their wagons onto the ferry, they crossed the Mississippi River, leaving their homes behind—again! Traveling west about 14 kilometers, they made camp at Sugar Creek, Iowa.
The first days of February were mild, but by the middle of the month snow began to fall. Brigham Young had instructed the Saints to bring a year’s supply of food as well as shelter and other supplies, but many didn’t have the necessary provisions. Some had no tents, and others had unfinished tents that did little to protect them from the cold. After the snowstorms, the temperatures dropped and the Mississippi River froze. This was a blessing for those waiting for the ferry, because they could cross on the ice. But it was a trial for those in Sugar Creek. Many fell ill, and several babies were born in the damp and cold.
The main body of Saints waited in Sugar Creek until 1 March. During this time, additional wagons joined them daily, and Brigham Young organized the Camp of Israel into groups of hundreds, fifties, and tens, with leaders appointed over each group.
The trek across the Iowa territory was a nightmare. Spring thaws and heavy rains turned roads into mud holes. Wagons would sink into the mud and have to be pulled out. During one week in April, the Saints could travel less than one kilometer a day. Food supplies ran out, and men had to stop and work for local residents to earn money to purchase more. William Pitt’s brass band even presented concerts in towns along the way to raise funds.
The march was also slowed by families traveling with small children and by sick people who needed special care. As the Saints crossed Iowa, they established camping places where they planted crops to assist those who would follow.
The main group reached the Missouri River on 14 June. The trip across Iowa had taken 131 days and covered some 485 kilometers. The next year the first company of pioneers traveled 1,690 kilometers to the Salt Lake Valley in only 111 days.
Brigham Young had hoped to send an advance company all the way west that year, but crossing Iowa took so long that it was too late in the year to continue. He ordered a settlement built on the west side of the Missouri River where the Saints could spend the winter. Streets were laid out and cabins built in what became known as Winter Quarters. Until the cabins were ready, the Saints lived in tents, dugouts, or caves.
Even after the cabins were completed, living conditions were poor. There were few pieces of furniture. Cabins were furnished with planks, barrels, and anything else people could find. They were also very crowded. Because not enough cabins could be built, many homes had to house more than one family. By December 1846, Winter Quarters consisted of 538 log cabins, 83 sod houses, and 3,483 people.
Although most of the Saints had left Nauvoo by summer, some remained because of poverty or sickness. This made anti-Mormons very angry. On 10 September 1846, about 800 men with six cannons began to fire on the Saints still in Nauvoo. The attack continued for several days until an agreement was reached that every Mormon would leave except five men and their families, who would stay to sell the remaining property.
Five or six hundred of these remaining Saints crossed the Mississippi and camped on the riverbank in Iowa. They had only blankets and brush bowers for shelter. None of them had food for more than a few days, and many were very sick.
On 9 October, a miracle occurred. Flocks of quail flew into their camps, landing on the ground and even on the tables. The hungry Saints were able to catch the birds. The meat saved many people from starvation and stirred their hearts as they realized that the Lord was caring for them.
Their fellow Saints had not forgotten them, either. Many came back from the Missouri River to help. Others went into neighboring cities to seek money to aid the poor and sick. In the end, the refugees were rescued and divided among the various camps in Iowa, a few even reaching Winter Quarters.
Because of sickness and poverty, it was important that the Saints living in the wilderness do things to encourage and uplift each other. They often held dances and musical events. On other occasions, people gathered to hear singers or instrumental groups.
Still, the people often suffered from hunger and the elements. Many died of scurvy, malaria, pneumonia, tuberculosis, and other diseases. In all the history of the Church, the years between 1846 and 1848 may have been the most difficult. But it was also a time of great faith. It is fitting for us to remember those who suffered so much in living and defending the gospel of Jesus Christ.