The Trek West (1845-47): What Can We Learn from the Early Pioneers?

Doctrine and Covenants and Church History Student Study Guide, (2005), 159


President Gordon B. Hinckley taught: “It is good to look to the past to gain appreciation for the present and perspective for the future. It is good to look upon the virtues of those who have gone before, to gain strength for whatever lies ahead. It is good to reflect upon the work of those who labored so hard and gained so little in this world, but out of whose dreams and early plans, so well nurtured, has come a great harvest of which we are the beneficiaries” (“The Faith of the Pioneers,”Ensign,July 1984, 3).The story of the Saints’ move from Illinois to the Great Salt Lake is one of the impressive stories of all religious history. President Brigham Young’s directing of over 15,000 Saints from Nauvoo to the Salt Lake Valley is the greatest mass exodus in the history of the United States. It is a story of persecution, hardship, and suffering. But it is also a story of inspiration, miracles, deliverance, and the love of God, country, and fellowmen. As you study what happened during 1845–47, ask yourself what you might have done in these situations.

Preparing to Leave Nauvoo

1. “Leaders of the Church had talked since at least 1834 about moving the Saints west to the Rocky Mountains, where they could live in peace. As the years went by, leaders discussed actual sites with explorers and studied maps to find the right place to settle. By the end of 1845, Church leaders possessed the most up-to-date information available about the West.

2. “As persecutions in Nauvoo intensified, it became apparent that the Saints would have to leave. By November 1845, Nauvoo was bustling with the activities of preparation. Captains of hundreds, fifties, and tens were called to lead the Saints on their exodus. Each group of 100 established one or more wagon shops. Wheelwrights, carpenters, and cabinetmakers worked far into the night preparing timber and constructing wagons. Members were sent east to purchase iron, and blacksmiths constructed materials needed for the journey and farm equipment necessary to colonize a new Zion. Families collected food and housekeeping items and filled storage containers with dried fruits, flour, rice, and medicines. Working together for the common good, the Saints accomplished more than med possible in so short a time” (Our Heritage,69).

Understanding the Reading

Preparing to Leave Nauvoo

Rocky Mountains(par. 1)A mountain range in the western part of North America 
Exodus(par. 2)Mass departure or emigration 
Wheelwrights(par. 2)People who make and repair wagon wheels 
Colonize(par. 2)Settle or establish an area 

The Trials of a Winter Trek

3. “The evacuation of Nauvoo was originally planned to take place in April 1846. But as a result of threats that the state militia intended to prevent the Saints from going west, the Twelve Apostles and other leading citizens hurriedly met in council on 2 February 1846. They agreed that it was imperative to start west immediately, and the exodus began on 4 February. Under thedirection of Brigham Young, the first group of Saints eagerly began their journey. However, that eagerness faced a great test, for there were many miles to be covered before permanent camps gave them respite from late winter weather and an exceptionally rainy spring.

4. “To k safety from their persecutors, thousands of Saints first had to cross the wide Mississippi River to Iowa territory. The perils of their journey began early when an ox kicked a hole in a boat carrying a number of Saints and the boat sank. One observer saw the unfortunate passengers hanging on to feather beds, sticks of wood, ‘lumber or any thing they could get hold of and were tossed and sported on the water at the mercy of the cold and unrelenting waves. … Some climbed on the top of the wagon which did not go quite under and were more comfortable while the cows and oxen on board were n swimming to the shore from whence they came’ [Juanita Brooks, ed.,On the Mormon Frontier: The Diary of Hosea Stout,2 vols. (1964) 1:114; spelling and punctuation modernized; also 1:117]. Finally all the people were pulled onto boats and brought to the other side.

5. “Two weeks after the first crossing, the river froze over for a time. Though the ice was slippery, it supported wagons and teams and made the crossing easier. But the cold weather caused much suffering as the Saints plodded through the snow. In the encampment at Sugar Creek on the other side of the river, a steady wind blew snow that fell to a depth of almost eight inches. Then a thaw caused the ground to become muddy. Around, above, and below, the elements combined to produce a miserable environment for the 2,000 Saints huddled in tents, wagons, and hastily erected shelters while they waited for the command to continue on.

6. “The most difficult part of the journey was this early stage through Iowa. Hosea Stout recorded that he ‘prepared for the night by erecting a temporary tent out of bed clothes. At this time my wife was hardly able to sit up and my little son was sick with a very high fever and would not even notice any thing that was going on’ [Juanita Brooks,On the Mormon Frontier,1:117; spelling and punctuation modernized]. Many other Saints also suffered greatly” (Our Heritage,69–70).

Understanding the Reading

The Trials of a Winter Trek

The evacuation of(par. 3)Moving the Saints from 
Militia(par. 3)Soldiers 
Imperative(par. 3)Absolutely necessary, required 
Respite(par. 3)Rest 
Sported(par. 4)Driven about 
Unrelenting(par. 4)Harsh, cruel 
Plodded(par. 5)Walked slowly and with great effort 
Hastily erected(par. 5)Quickly built 

All Is Well

William Clayton

William Clayton wrote the words to the hymn “Come, Come, Ye Saints.”

7. “The faith, courage, and determination of these Saints carried them through cold, hunger, and the deaths of loved ones. William Clayton was called to be in one of the first groups to leave Nauvoo and left his wife, Diantha, with her parents, only a month away from delivering her first child. Slogging through muddy roads and camping in cold tents wore his nerves thin as he worried about Diantha’s well-being. Two months later, he still did not know if she had delivered safely but finally received the joyful word that a ‘fine fat boy’ had been born. Almost as soon as he heard the news, William sat down and wrote a song that not only had special meaning to him but would become an anthem of inspiration and gratitude to Church members for generations. The song was ‘Come, Come, Ye Saints,’ and the famous lines expressed his faith and the faith of the thousands of Saints who sang in the midst of adversity: ‘All is well! All is well!’ [ James B. Allen,Trials of Discipleship: The Story of William Clayton, a Mormon(1987), 202.] They, like the members who have followed them, found the joy and peace that are the rewards of sacrifice and obedience in the kingdom of God” (Our Heritage,71).

Understanding the Reading

All is Well

Slogging(par. 7)Walking or hiking with much difficulty 
Wore his nerves thin(par. 7)Worried and frustrated him 
Anthem(par. 7)Hymn or song of praise or gladness 
Adversity(par. 7)Misery and trials 

Winter Quarters

8. “It took the Saints 131 days to travel the 310 miles from Nauvoo to the settlements in western Iowa where they would pass the winter of 1846–47 and prepare for their trek to the Rocky Mountains. This experience taught them many things about travel that would help them more quickly cross the 1,000 miles of the great American plains, which was done the following year in about 111 days.

9. “A number of settlements of Saints stretched along both sides of the Missouri River. The largest settlement, Winter Quarters, was on the west side, in Nebraska. It quickly became home to approximately 3,500 Church members, who lived in houses of logs and in dugouts of willows and dirt. As many as 2,500 Saints also lived in and around what was called Kanesville on the Iowa side of the Missouri River. Life in these settlements was almost as challenging as it had been on the trail. In the summer they suffered from malarial fever. When winter came and fresh food was no longer available, they suffered from cholera epidemics, scurvy, toothaches, night blindness, and severe diarrhea. Hundreds of people died.

10. “Yet life went on. The women spent their days cleaning, ironing, washing, quilting, writing letters, preparing their few provisions for meals, and caring for their families, according to Mary Richards, whose husband, Samuel, was on a mission in Scotland. She cheerfully recorded the comings and goings of the Saints at Winter Quarters, including such activities as theological discussions, dances, Church meetings, parties, and frontier revivals.

Winter Quarters

Winter Quarters, Nebraska

11. “The men worked together and met often to discuss travel plans and the future site for the settlement of the Saints. They regularly cooperated in rounding up the herds that foraged on the prairie at the outskirts of the camp. They worked in the fields, guarded the perimeters of the settlement, constructed and operated a flour mill, and readied wagons for travel, often suffering from exhaustion and illness. Some of their work was an unselfish labor of love as they prepared fields and planted crops to be harvested by the Saints who would follow them.

12. “[Lorenzo] Young’s son John called Winter Quarters ‘the Valley Forge of Mormondom.’ He lived near the burial grounds there and witnessed the ‘small mournful-looking trains that so often passed our door.’ He recalled ‘how poor and same-like’ his family’s diet of corn bread, salt bacon, and a little milk med. He said mush and bacon became so nauseating that eating was like taking medicine and he had difficulty swallowing. [ Russell R. Rich,Ensign to the Nations(1972), 92.] Only the faith and dedication of the Saints carried them through this trying time” (Our Heritage,71–72).

Understanding the Reading

Winter Quarters

Dugouts(par. 9)A home made of a hole dug in the side of a hill and covered with branches and dried mud 
Epidemics(par. 9)The rapid spreading of a disease 
Scurvy(par. 9)A disease caused from a lack of vitamin C 
Theological(par. 10)Religious 
Revivals(par. 10)A period of renewed religious interest 
Foraged(par. 11)Searched for food 
Perimeters(par. 11)The outside edges 
“The Valley Forge of Mormondom”(par. 12)A place where many Mormons suffered and died, similar to United States soldiers at Valley Forge during the Revolutionary War 
Trains(par. 12)Processions of people 
Nauseating(par. 12)Loathsome, detestable 

Mormon Battalion

13. “While the Saints were in Iowa, United States army recruiters asked Church leaders to provide a contingent of men to serve in the Mexican War, which had begun in May 1846. The men, who came to be called the Mormon Battalion, were to march across the southern part of the nation to California and would receive pay, clothing, and rations. Brigham Young encouraged men to participate as a way to raise money to gather the poor from Nauvoo and to aid individual soldiers’ families. Cooperating with the government in this endeavor would also show the loyalty of Church members to their country and give them a justifiable reason to camp temporarily on public and Indian lands. Eventually, 541 men accepted their leaders’ counsel and joined the battalion. They were accompanied by 33 women and 42 children.

14. “The ordeal of going to war was compounded for battalion members by the sorrow of leaving their wives and children alone at a difficult time. William Hyde reflected:

15. “‘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.

16. “‘My family consisted of a wife and two small children, who were left in company with an aged father and mother and a brother. The most of the Battalion left families. … When we were to meet with them again, God only knew. Nevertheless, we did not feel to murmur’ [inReadings in LDS Church History: From Original Manuscripts,ed. William E. Berrett and Alma P. Burton, 3 vols. (1965), 2:221].

Mormon Battalion

17. “The battalion marched 2,030 miles southwest to California, suffering from lack of food and water, insufficient rest and medical care, and the rapid pace of the march. They served as occupation troops in San Diego, San Luis Rey, and Los Angeles. At the end oftheir year’s enlistment, they were discharged and allowed to rejoin their families. Their efforts and loyalty to the United States government gained the respect of those who led them.

18. “After their discharge, many of the battalion members remained in California to work for a season. A number of them found their way north to the American River and were employed at John Sutter’s sawmill when gold was discovered there in 1848, precipitating the famous California Gold Rush. But the Latter-day Saint brethren did not stay in California to capitalize on this opportunity for fortune. Their hearts were with their brothers and sisters struggling westward across the American plains to the Rocky Mountains. One of their number, James S. Brown, explained:

19. “‘I have never n that rich spot of earth since; nor do I regret it, for there always has been a higher object before me than gold. … Some may think we were blind to our own interests; but after more than forty years we look back without regrets, although we did fortunes in the land, and had many inducements to stay. People said, “Here is gold on the bedrock, gold on the hills, gold in the rills, gold everywhere, … and soon you can make an independent fortune.” We could realize all that. Still duty called, our honor was at stake, we had covenanted with each other, there was a principle involved; for with us it was God and His kingdom first. We had friends and relatives in the wilderness, yea, in an untried, desert land, and who knew their condition? We did not. So it was duty before pleasure, before wealth, and with this prompting we rolled out’ [James S. Brown,Giant of the Lord: Life of a Pioneer(1960), 120]. These brethren knew clearly that the kingdom of God was of far greater worth than any material things of this world and chose their course accordingly” (Our Heritage,72–74).

Understanding the Reading

Mormon Battalion

Battalion(subtitle)A large group of soldiers, troops 
Contingent of men(par. 13)Number of men to fill a quota 
Endeavor(par. 13)Effort 
Ordeal(par. 14)Difficult experience 
Nativity(par. 15)Birth 
Occupation troops(par. 17)Soldiers who protect a conquered area 
Discharge(par. 18)Release, being sent home 
Precipitating(par. 18)Bringing about 
Capitalize(par. 18)Take advantage of 
Inducements(par. 19)Encouraging reasons 

The Brooklyn Saints

20. “While most Saints moved to the Rocky Mountains by traveling overland from Nauvoo, a group of Saints from the eastern United States traveled a sea route. On 4 February 1846, 70 men, 68 women, and 100 children boarded the shipBrooklynand sailed from New York harbor on a 17,000-mile journey to the coast of California. During their voyage two children were born, named Atlantic and Pacific, and 12 people died.

The Brooklyn Saints

21. “The six-month trip was very difficult. The passengers were closely crowded in the heat of the tropics, and they had only bad food and water. After rounding Cape Horn, they stopped on the island of Juan Fernandez to rest for five days. Caroline Augusta Perkins recalled that ‘the sight of and tread upon terra firma once more was such a relief from the ship life, that we gratefully realized and enjoyed it.’ They bathed and washed their clothing in the fresh water, gathered fruit and potatoes, caught fish and eels, and rambled about the island exploring a ‘Robinson Crusoe cave’ [Caroline Augusta Perkins, quoted in “The Ship Brooklyn Saints,”Our Pioneer Heritage(1960), 506].

22. “On 31 July 1846, after a voyage marked by severe storms, dwindling food, and long days of sailing, they arrived at San Francisco. Some stayed and established a colony called New Hope, while others traveled east over the mountains to join with the Saints in the Great Basin” (Our Heritage,74–75).

Understanding the Reading

The Brooklyn Saints

Tropics(par. 21)Lands near the earth’s equator 
Terra firma(par. 21)Dry land 
Great Basin(par. 22)The geographic area that comprises most of Utah and Nevada 

The Gathering Continues

23. “From all parts of America and from many nations, by many kinds of conveyances, on horseback or on foot, faithful converts left their homes and birthplaces to join with the Saints and begin the long journey to the Rocky Mountains.

24. “In January 1847, President Brigham Young issued the inspired ‘Word and Will of the Lord concerning the Camp of Israel’ (D&C 136:1), which became the constitution governing the pioneers’ westward movement. Companies were organized and charged to care for the widows and fatherless in their midst. Relations with other people were to be free from evil, covetousness, and contention. The people were to be happy and show their gratitude in music, prayer, and dance. Through President Young, the Lord told the Saints, ‘Go thy way and do as I have told you, and fear not thine enemies’ (D&C 136:17).

25. “As the first pioneer company prepared to leave Winter Quarters, Parley P. Pratt returned from his mission to England and reported that John Taylor was following with a gift from the English Saints. The next day Brother Taylor arrived with tithing money sent by these members to aid the travelers, an evidence of their love and faith. He also brought scientific instruments that proved invaluable in charting the pioneers’ journey and helping them learn about their surroundings. On 15 April 1847 the first company, led by Brigham Young, moved out. Over the next two decades, approximately 62,000 Saints would follow them across the prairies in wagons and handcarts to gather to Zion.

Trek west - map

26. “Wonderful sights as well as hardships awaited these travelers on their journey. Joseph Moenor recalled having ‘a hard time’ in getting to the Salt Lake Valley. But he saw things he had never before n—great herds of buffalo and big cedar trees on the hills. [ Utah Semi-Centennial Commission,The Book of the Pioneers(1897), 2 vols., 2:54; in LDS Church Archives.] Others remembered ing vast expanses of sunflowers in bloom.

27. “The Saints also had faith-promoting experiences that lightened the physical demands on their bodies. After a long day of travel and a meal cooked over open fires, men and women gathered in groups to discuss the day’s activities. They talked about gospel principles, sang songs, danced, and prayed together.

28. “Death frequently visited the Saints as they slowly made their way west. On 23 June 1850 the Crandall family numbered fifteen. By the week’s end seven had died of the dreaded plague of cholera. In the next few days five more family members died. Then on 30 June Sister Crandall died in childbirth along with her newborn baby.

29. “Although the Saints suffered much on their journey to the Salt Lake Valley, a spirit of unity, cooperation, and optimism prevailed. Bound together by their faith and commitment to the Lord, they found joy in the midst of their trials” (Our Heritage,75–76).

Understanding the Reading

The Gathering Continues

Kinds of conveyances(par. 23)Types of vehicles used to travel 
Constitution(par. 24)Written law 
Covetousness(par. 24)Selfishness, greed 
Dreaded plague(par. 28)Terrifying disease 
Prevailed(par. 29)Overcame all other things 

This Is the Right Place

30. “On 21 July 1847, Orson Pratt and Erastus Snow of the first pioneer company preceded the emigrants into the Salt Lake Valley. They saw grass so deep that a person could wade through it, promising land for farming, and several creeks that wandered through the valley. Three days later, President Brigham Young, who was ill with mountain fever, was driven in his carriage to the mouth of a canyon that opened onto the valley. As President Young looked over the scene, he gave his prophetic benediction to their travels: ‘It is enough. This is the right place.’

31. “As the Saints who followed emerged from the mountains, they, too, gazed at their promised land! This valley with its salty lake gleaming in the western sun was the object of vision and prophecy, the land of which they and thousands after them dreamed. This was their land of refuge, where they would become a mighty people in the midst of the Rocky Mountains.

32. “Several years later, a convert from England, Jean Rio Griffiths Baker, recorded her feelings as she viewed Salt Lake City for the first time. ‘The city … is laid out in squares or blocks as they call them here; each containing ten acres and divided into eight lots, each lot having one house. I stood and looked, I can hardly analyze my feelings, but I think my prevailing ones were joy and gratitude for the protecting care had over me and mine during our long and perilous journey’ [“Jean Rio Griffiths Baker Diary,” 29 Sept. 1851; in LDS Church Archives]” (Our Heritage,76–77).

Understanding the Reading

This Is the Right Place

Preceded the emigrants(par. 30)Arrived before the other travelers 
Refuge(par. 31)Peace and protection 
Analyze(par. 32)Examine closely 
Prevailing(par. 32)Most common, most powerful 

Can a Person Follow the Mormon Pioneer Trail Today?

Much of the Mormon Trail can be followed today, and there are guidebooks available with maps to help interested travelers. Some of the trail property belongs to the Church, and visitors’ centers have been built to help travelers find their way. However, most of the trail belongs to state and local governments or private citizens, some of whom allow visitors on their property. Those who follow the trail must obey the laws of the local governments and respect the rights of property owners.

Studying the Reading

Do two of the following activities (A–C) as you study “The Trek West (1845–47).”

Activity A iconWrite Yourself into the Story

Using the information and stories you have read, write a short story of your life as if you had been among the pioneers who traveled from Nauvoo to the Salt Lake Valley. An outline for your story might include leaving Nauvoo, crossing Iowa, life at Winter Quarters, crossing the Plains, and arriving at the Valley of the Great Salt Lake. Write about experiences that you and your family had, people you met, and places you saw as you journeyed.

Activity B iconEasier Now Than Then?

  1. 1.

    List the dates mentioned in the reading material for “The Trek West (1845–47)” chronologically. Next to each date, list what happened then.

  2. 2.

    Do you think it is easier to live the gospel today than it was in the 1840s? Write a short paragraph explaining why or why not.

Activity C iconCompare the Paths

  1. 1.

    In your notebook, draw a simple map of North and South America. Using the information in your reading and using the maps in the appendix of your scriptures, draw on your map the approximate routes taken by the main body of the Saints, the Mormon Battalion, and theBrooklynSaints.

  2. 2.

    Which of those three groups of Saints would you like to have traveled with if you had lived back then? Explain why.