It was cold—the kind of cold that makes packed snow squeak beneath your feet; the kind of cold that freezes the hairs of your nose as you breathe. And as the sun went down, it turned into a calm, dark night that could easily claim the life of one left unprotected.
One boy, his hands wrapped in long strips of cloth that served as gloves, crossed his arms and tucked his numb fingers tightly against his body for warmth. He was a Mormon, and he was on his way to a special meeting at Winter Quarters, not far from the border of Iowa and Nebraska.
But the time was not the 1840s when thousands of refugee Saints gathered to prepare for the trek west. It was the 1980s, and the group gathering at the Winter Quarters cemetery were all from the Bellevue Nebraska Stake. Their purpose was to experience, in part, what the early pioneers did as they struggled to survive at Winter Quarters after being driven from their homes in Nauvoo. The Bellevue Stake LDS youth were studying Church history as their seminary course of study, and because they lived near the spots where these events took place, they took advantage of the opportunity to learn on location.
Visiting Winter Quarters in the cold of December was a challenge presented to the seminary council by their stake seminary coordinator, Jenee F. Ferguson. They would organize themselves in the same manner as the early Saints with captains of 100 and captains of 10. However, since the seminary enrollment didn’t reach 200, they chose instead to have captains of 50. Eric Bendorf, seminary president, explained, “This was one way for everybody to learn a little bit about how things were run. Everybody knew that if the captains didn’t get the message down the line, then someone was going to suffer neglect.”
The captains of 50 were responsible for supplying the lanterns, providing maps for the drivers, and instructing the captains of 10. The captains of 10 were to arrange for drivers and assign students to cars. They were also to inform everyone of the types of warm clothing they would need and to bring tarps and blankets for their groups to sit on. To add to the spirit of the event, the classes decided to make it a day of fasting, remembering that the pioneers often felt hunger pangs.
I’ll never forget the first time I saw a meal made of sea biscuit broken into milk. I had called at Uncle Brigham’s tent—I had always addressed him by that title—where he was just taking some for dinner, and he invited me to have a bowl; but I declined, with thanks, and a feeling of wonder how he could relish it. When it came to sitting down daily to milk and water porridge and crackers in it, it became so nauseous that hunger could not tempt me to eat it. —from the writings of Helen Mar Whitney
From 1846 to 1852, nearly 20,000 Saints abandoned their homes and took temporary refuge on the banks of the Missouri River. Fifty-five to sixty separate camps were established, plotted as towns with streets, although the shelter against the bitter cold was often little more than wooden or sod walls.
For six years, the camps in this vicinity saw the Saints organize into wagon trains and prepare for the trek west. Because they were not established to raise their own crops, the people lacked fresh fruits and vegetables and suffered from scurvy.
The scurvy laid hold of me, commencing at the tips of the fingers of my left hand with black streaks running up the nails, with inflammation and the most intense pain, and which increased till it had reached my shoulder.—Helen Mar Whitney
Besides poor food and disease, pioneers had to contend with the wind and cold. The Bellevue seminary students began to understand the enormous difficulty of camping out during the winter months; the temperature reached -5° F. before the group had made the drive from the stake house. Bundled to their ears with no more than the tips of their noses showing, the seminary students settled down to hear about the history of Winter Quarters from their guest speaker. At their feet was a bronze plaque. One student held a lantern high so that they could read the names and ages of those who died there: Frederick Flake, 1 day; Genet Gardner, 4 mos.; Patty C. Hakes, 17; Barbary Heath, 52; Wm. Thadeus Kelly, 3 mos. …
As the names continued to be read, the group fell silent. The deaths that occurred more than a hundred years ago started to mean something.
I was delivered of a beautiful and healthy girl baby, which died at the birth. Thus the only bright star, to which my doting heart had clung, was snatched away, and, though it seemed a needless bereavement, and most cruel in the eyes of all who beheld it, their sympathies were such that by their united faith and prayers, they seemed to buoy me up to that degree that death was shorn of its sting, till I could say,“Thy will not mine, be done.”—Helen Mar Whitney
With hunger and cold gnawing at them, the group of modern Latter-day Saints came to appreciate the extremes to which their ancestors went for their religion. “My great-great-grandparents came through here, and they lost some of their children,” said Jon-Paul McFarland of the Logan Branch. “I thought about that while we were there.”
The young people were grateful that they had a warm car to carry them to their warm homes with refrigerators full of fresh food. Jamie Sneddon, Lincoln First Ward, said, “When I was thawing out my toes in the car, they started to hurt more as they got warm. I started to understand just a little bit what it must have been like when they suffered frostbite.”
For those seminary students who did not come fully prepared, the others shared what they had. It was the same type of unselfish sharing that took place in the pioneer camps.
This has sometimes been called the Tragedy of Winter Quarters. But there was no tragedy here, for tragedy spells defeat and disaster; this was the Victory of Winter Quarters, for here was faith and hope and charity raised to their loftiest pinnacle, while greed and selfishness were brought low. —President Heber J. Grant
The Bellevue seminary went to Winter Quarters with enthusiasm for an adventure, but following the meeting, the mood changed. They felt respect for those thousands of Saints who struggled for survival. “I knew it was going to be cold,” said Nancy Flack, Lincoln Third Ward, “but I never realized the extent of what they went through. I could barely stand it, and I was bundled up. I would have just died.”
As the meeting ended, one lone violin accompanied the youthful voices as they sang a hymn, the same hymn sung many times before as the pioneers prepared for their journeys.
We’ll find the place which God for us prepared, Far away, in the West, Where none shall come to hurt or make afraid; There the Saints will be blessed. We’ll make the air with music ring, Shout praises to our God and King; Above the rest, these words we’ll tell All is well! all is well! —Come, Come Ye Saints, Hymns, No. 13