The exodus of the Saints from Nauvoo, Illinois, in February 1846, stands as one of the epic events in the pioneer history of the United States. In severe winter weather, they crossed the Mississippi River, their wagons loaded with the few possessions they could take with them. Behind them were the homes they had constructed from the swamps of Commerce during the seven years they had been permitted to live in Illinois. Before them was the wilderness, largely unknown and uncharted.
Because this march was much like the exodus of the Israelites from their homes in Egypt to a promised land they had not seen, the Saints named their movement “The Camp of Israel.”
Brigham Young and the first company ferried across the river on February 4. A few days later the river froze sufficiently to support teams and wagons. Although this weather proved a boon in expediting the movement, it also brought intense suffering. Of the conditions in which these exiles found themselves, one of their group, Eliza R. Snow, wrote:
“I was informed that on the first night of the encampment nine children were born into the world, and from that time, as we journeyed onward, mothers gave birth to offspring under almost every variety of circumstances imaginable, except those to which they had been accustomed; some in tents, others in wagons—in rain-storms and in snow-storms. …
“Let it be remembered that the mothers of these wilderness-born babes were not savages, accustomed to roam the forest and brave the storm and tempest. … Most of them were born and educated in the Eastern States—had there embraced the gospel as taught by Jesus and his apostles, and, for the sake of their religion, had gathered with the saints, and under trying circumstances had assisted, by their faith, patience and energies, in making Nauvoo what its name indicates, ‘the beautiful.’ There they had lovely homes, decorated with flowers and enriched with choice fruit trees, just beginning to yield plentifully.
“To these homes, without lease or sale, they had just bade a final adieu, and with what little of their substance could be packed into one, two, and in some instances, three wagons, had started out, desertward, for—where? To this question the only response at that time was, God knows.” 1
Brigham Young presided over this pilgrim band. They accepted him as prophet and leader, the inspired successor to their beloved Joseph. He, they believed, would direct them to a place of refuge “in the midst of the Rocky Mountains,” where Joseph had predicted they would become “a mighty people.”
Planting for Other Reapers
After the exiles reached the Iowa side of the Mississippi River, they were organized into companies of hundreds, and standards of conduct were set up. The companies were subdivided into fifties and tens, with officers over each group. Brigham Young was sustained as “president over the whole Camp of Israel.” 2
They traveled in a northwesterly direction, over the territory of Iowa, through a sparsely settled region between the Mississippi and Missouri rivers. In the early days of their movement, snow lay on the ground to a depth of six or eight inches, and their canvas wagon covers offered little protection against the cold north winds.
With the coming of spring, the snow melted, making travel even more difficult. There were no roads in the direction the Saints traveled; they had to build their own. At times the mud was so deep that three yoke of oxen were required to pull a load of five hundred pounds. Exhausted by a day of pushing and pulling, chopping wood for bridges, loading and unloading wagons, the travelers would find they had moved only a half dozen miles. Slush and rain made their camps veritable quagmires. Exposure to such conditions, together with improper nourishment, took a heavy toll of life.
Burials along the way were frequent. Crude coffins were fashioned from cottonwood trees, brief services were held, and the loved ones of the deceased turned their faces and their teams westward, realizing they would never pass this way again. One wonders why these people did not become bitter and vindictive, particularly when they remembered their comfortable homes now ravaged and burned by the Illinois mob.
But they lightened their sorrows with self-made pleasures. They had their own brass band, and they made good use of it. The settlers of Iowa were often amazed to see these pioneers clear a piece of land about their campfires, and then dance and sing until the bugler sounded taps.
It was while traveling under these circumstances that one of their number, William Clayton, composed that epic hymn of the prairie, “Come, Come, Ye Saints.” Set to an old English air, this song became an anthem of hope and faith for all the thousands of Mormon pioneers. Nothing, perhaps, expresses so well the spirit of this movement.
When food became scarce, the pioneers found it necessary to trade precious possessions—dishes, silverware, lace—brought from the East or across the sea, for a little corn and salt pork. In this way the homes of many Iowa settlers were made more attractive and the pioneers were able to replenish their scant food supplies. Occasionally the brass band traveled out of its way a considerable distance to give a concert in a frontier settlement in order to add to the commissary.
One of the remarkable features of this movement was the building of temporary settlements along the way. The pioneer company occasionally stopped long enough to clear, fence, plow, and plant large sections of ground. The leaders called for volunteers—some to split rails for fences and bridges, others to remove trees, and others to plow and sow. A few cabins were built, and several families were detailed to remain and care for the crops. Then the pioneer company moved forward, leaving the crops for later companies to harvest.
This spirit of mutual service and cooperation characterized the entire movement. Without this, the migration of twenty thousand people through the wilderness could have ended in disaster.
Approximately three and a half months after leaving Sugar Creek, their camp on the west shore of the Mississippi, the pioneer company reached Council Bluffs on the Missouri. Following them, across the entire territory of Iowa, was a slow-moving train of hundreds of wagons. They were to continue to filter out of Nauvoo and move over the rolling Iowa hills all of that summer and late into the year. Here was modern Israel seeking a new promised land!
The Mormon Battalion
On a June morning in 1846, at one of the temporary camps along the trail, the pioneers were surprised by the approach of a platoon of United States soldiers. Captain James Allen had come with a call for five hundred able young men to fight in the war with Mexico.
He was directed on to Council Bluffs to see Brigham Young and other authorities of the Church. It is not surprising that the leaders remarked on the irony of the situation—their country, which had stood by while they, its citizens, had been dispossessed of their homes by unconstitutional mobs, now called upon them for military volunteers.
It is true that the Saints had petitioned the government for assistance in the form of contracts to build blockhouses along the westward trail. They believed that this would be a service to the thousands of emigrants, Mormon and non-Mormon, who would move west in the years to come. Such blockhouses would afford protection against the Indians and other dangers of the prairie. But a military call for five hundred urgently needed men was hardly the answer they expected. Moreover, the call was highly disproportionate in terms of numbers when compared with the population of the nation as a whole.
Nevertheless, they responded. Brigham Young and others went from camp to camp, hoisting the national flag at each recruiting place. And though this meant leaving families fatherless on the plains, the men enlisted when President Young assured them that their families should have food so long as his own had any.
Captain Allen expressed amazement at the music and dancing on the eve of departure. The recruits were to go to Mexico. Their families now of necessity would be compelled to establish winter quarters and wait until the following year to go to the Rocky Mountains. When or where they would meet again was an open question. Perhaps it was a statement from Brigham Young that eased the sorrow of departure. He promised the men that “if they would perform their duties faithfully, without murmuring and go in the name of the Lord, be humble and pray every morning and evening” they would not have to fight and would return home safely. 3
From Council Bluffs the Mormon Battalion marched to Fort Leavenworth. There they received advance pay for clothing, and a large part of this money they sent back for the relief of their families.
From Leavenworth they marched southwest to the old Spanish town of Santa Fe. Here they were saluted by the gar-rison under the command of Colonel Alexander W. Doniphan, the man who had saved Joseph Smith’s life in Missouri.
From Santa Fe they marched south down the valley of the Rio Grande, but before reaching El Paso they turned to the west, following the San Pedro River.
They then crossed the Gila River, marched to Tucson, followed the Gila to the Colorado, and made their way over the mountains to San Diego, California. Much of the road they made was later followed by the Southern Pacific Railroad.
The story of their historic march is one of suffering from insufficient rations, of killing thirst and desperate attempts to secure water, of exhausting travel through heavy desert sand, and of cutting a road over forbidding mountains. They had left their families in June 1846. They reached San Diego January 29, 1847. The war was over when they reached their post, and they were not obliged to do any fighting. Brigham Young’s prophetic promise had been fulfilled.
Upon reaching the Pacific Coast, their commander, Colonel Philip St. George Cooke of the United States Army, congratulated them with a citation, which reads in part as follows:
“The lieutenant colonel commanding, congratulates the battalion on their safe arrival on the shore of the Pacific Ocean, and the conclusion of their march of over two thousand miles.
“History may be searched in vain for an equal march of infantry. Half of it has been through a wilderness, … or deserts where, for want of water, there is no living creature. There, with almost hopeless labor, we have dug deep wells, which the future traveler will enjoy. Without a guide who had traversed them we have ventured into trackless tablelands where water was not found for several marches. With crowbar and pick and axe in hand, we have worked our way over mountains, which seemed to defy aught save the wild goat, and hewed a pass through a chasm of living rock more narrow than our wagons.” 4
But while the members of the Battalion had been serving under their country’s flag, those of their people who had re-mained in Nauvoo were being driven by mobs in defiance of every constitutional guarantee.
The Fall of a City
Although most members of the Church had succeeded in getting out of Nauvoo before May 1, 1846, the date set by the mob for their complete departure, some of their number had not been so fortunate. By August there remained about one thousand, many of them sick and aged. It was thought that the mob would spare these, at least.
But history bears somber witness of the fact that those who had indulged in such wishful thinking were mistaken.
When it became apparent that the mob would not wait, the people of Nauvoo appealed to the governor for aid. He responded by sending a Major Parker with ten men to represent the militia of the state of Illinois. Major Parker was later succeeded by a Major Clifford.
The mob answered the major’s appeals for a peaceful settlement of the difficulty by attacking him and the Mormons who had volunteered to serve under him. Though greatly outnumbered, the defenders of the city fashioned five old steamboat shafts into cannons and constructed improvised breastworks. In the name of the people of Illinois, Major Clifford requested the mobbers to disperse.
Their answer was an assault on the city. The defenders were able to hold them off for a time, but they were so seriously outnumbered that the Mormons had no choice but to agree to evacuate the city as quickly as they could gather together a few of their possessions.
Even this did not satisfy the mob. While the Saints were leaving, they were set upon and abused, and their wagons were ransacked for anything of value. Crossing to the Iowa side of the river, they set up a temporary camp. Colonel Thomas L. Kane of Philadelphia, who chanced to see them at this time, later described their situation before the Historical Society of Pennsylvania:
“Dreadful, indeed, was the suffering of these forsaken beings. Cowed and cramped by cold and sunburn, alternating as each weary day and night dragged on, they were, almost all of them, the crippled victims of disease. They were there because they had no homes, nor hospital nor poor-house nor friends to offer them any. They could not satisfy the feeble cravings of their sick: they had not bread to quiet the fractious hunger cries of their children. …
“These were Mormons, famishing, in Lee county, Iowa, in the fourth week of the month of September, in the year of our Lord 1846. The city [which he had just visited],—it was Nauvoo, Illinois. The Mormons were the owners of that city, and the smiling country round. And those who had stopped their ploughs, who had silenced their hammers, their axes, their shuttles and their workshop wheels; those who had put out their fires, who had eaten their food, spoiled their orchards, and trampled under foot their thousands of acres of unharvested bread; these,—were the keepers of their dwellings, the carousers in their Temple,—whose drunken riot insulted the ears of their dying.” 5
In these straitened conditions, many would doubtless have starved but for thousands of quail which flew into their camp, and which they were able to catch with their hands. These they regarded as manna from heaven, an answer to prayer.
Fortunately, they were not left in this condition for long. Their brethren, who had gone on ahead, sent back relief wagons and divided with them their own meager stores. Their last picture of Nauvoo, as they tediously made their way over the Iowa hills, was of the tower of their sacred temple, now spoiled and desecrated.
1. In Edward W. Tullidge, The Women of Mormondom (New York: Tullidge and Crandall, 1877), pp. 307–8.
2. CHC 3:52.
3. Journal History, 13 and 18 July 1846.
4. CHC 3:119–20.
5. The Mormons, pp. 9–10.