Zion's Camp: Story of endurance

One hundred fifty-nine years ago, Joseph Smith led a group of some 150 volunteers through east central Illinois on their way to relieve their threatened fellow Saints in Missouri. The exact number with Joseph at that time is not clear since he led a large group while Hyrum led another contingent on a more southerly route. The total number who made the trek was 204 men, 11 women and 7 children.

In late May 1834, Zion's Camp had been on the march for more than three weeks. During that time the volunteers led by Joseph Smith had made good time. They crossed Ohio and Indiana at a brisk pace and forded the Wabash River into east central Illinois on Saturday, May 24, 1834. They spent the sabbath in an oak grove in Edgar County, near the county seat of Paris, Ill. Early Monday morning (May 26) they pressed on to the west again.On that date the Prophet noted in his journal: "A very hot day. We travelled through Paris and across a sixteen mile prairie; at noon we stopped [to batheT at a slough, about six miles from the timber."1

Decent drinking water was unavailable and the travellers were faint from the heat and lack of fluids. Intense thirst moved the camp members to drink from the slough, even though the water was stagnant, of questionable purity, and filled with "wigglers." These "wigglers" were actually polliwogs, and, Joseph continued, "as we did not like to swallow them, we strained the

water before using it."2 The straining process was a crude one, for the camp members sucked up the water through their clenched teeth to keep the polliwogs out of their mouths. This made for a very unappealing drink, but, as Wilford Woodruff pointed out, the straining process "saved the life of many a poor [polliwogT."3

Such was the Saints' initiation to east central Illinois. They likely drank very little of the slough water for fear that it was polluted, and were suffering for want of good water as they marched out of Edgar County and into the neighboring county of Coles.

The Prophet's account continues: "We continued our march, pulling our wagons through a small creek with ropes, and came to the house of Mr. [WilliamT Wayne, the only settler in the vicinity, where we found a well of water, which was one of the greatest comforts we could have received, as we were almost famished, and it was a long time before we could, or dared to satisfy our thirst."4

Blessed with fresh water, the company pressed on. They crossed the Embarras River and "encamped on a small branch of the same about one mile west." There they camped for the night. "In pitching my tent," the Prophet calmly noted, "we found three massassaugas or prairie rattlesnakes which the brethren were about to kill, but I said, `let them alone - don't hurt them! How will the serpent ever lose his venom while the servants of God possess the same disposition, and continue to make war upon it? Men must become harmless before the brute creation; and when men lose their vicious dispositions and cease to destroy the animal race, the lion and lamb can dwell together, and the sucking child can play with the serpent in safety." At this, his chastened followers "took the serpents carefully on sticks and carried them across the creek."5

This was not their only encounter with rattlers. The following day the Prophet recorded: "This afternoon, Elder Solomon Humphreys, an aged brother of the camp, having become exceedingly weary, lay down on the prairie to rest himself and fell asleep. When he awoke he saw, coiled up within a foot of his head, a rattlesnake lying between him and his hat, which he had in his hand when he fell asleep. The brethren gathered around him, saying, It is a rattlesnake, let us kill it;' but brother Humphreys said,No, I'll protect him; you shan't hurt him, for he and I had a good nap together."6

The abundance of snakes in the area was attested to by a number of other early observers. The History of Coles County contains this account: "Snakes innumerable are here. The largest and most [venemousT is the rattlesnake. Specimens were found here at first, six inches or more in diameter and six or seven feet long. Other venemous species, in smaller numbers, were the spreading vipers and red vipers (or `copperheads')."7

The permanent settlers in Coles County did not have the same charitable attitude toward rattlesnakes that Joseph Smith did. They were much more inclined to kill them on the spot. Snakes played an interesting role in the journey of Zion's Camp across central Illinois.

The noble band was well-supported by divine help. Just as the angel of the Lord protected Moses and the Israelites (see Ex. 14:19), so heavenly messengers prompted and protected Zion's Camp members in their hazardous journey. On May 27, 1834, the Prophet made the following entry: "Notwithstanding our enemies were breathing threats of violence, we did not fear, neither did we hesitate to prosecute our journey, for God was with us, and his angels were before us, and the faith of our little band was unwavering."8

Parley P. Pratt was one who could testify of direct divine help. It was his job to seek out new recruits for the camp so there were times when he was alone and far from the main body of Saints. On one such occasion he traveled all night, not stopping until noon of the following day. He unhitched his horse from the carriage so the tired animal could feed and rest.

Thoroughly spent himself, Parley laid down and immediately fell into deep slumber; so deep he might have slept on into the night. But after only a few moments, "a voice, more loud and shrill than I had ever before heard, fell on my ear and thrilled every part of my system; it said, `Parley, it is time to be up and on your journey.' In a twinkling of an eye I was perfectly roused; I sprang to my feet so suddenly that I could not recollect where I was or what was before me to perform. I related the circumstances afterward to Brother Joseph Smith, and he bore testimony that it was the angel of the Lord who went before the camp who found me overpowered with sleep, and thus awoke me."9

The divine help angels provided Zion's Camp is reminiscent of the guidance and protection the Lord and His angel provided the Israelites during their sojourn in the wilderness. Both were afflicted with serpents. But while many of Moses' followers were bitten and died before Moses made the brass replica of a serpent and mounted it on a pole (see Num. 21:6-9,), none of Zion's Camp were killed by snakes. The members of Zion's Camp were likely protected from venemous serpents because they were willing to follow Joseph's inspired advice to leave them alone.10

Thus, in both ancient and modern times, the chastening signs of the serpent and the guiding power of the Lord combined to lead the children of promise through wilderness peril to their divinely appointed destination.


1Joseph Smith, History of the Church, Vol. II, Salt Lake City: Deseret News Press, Third Ed., 1961, p. 71. This work will hereafter be cited as HC 2.


3Cited in James L. Bradley, Zion's Camp in 1834: Prelude to the Civil War, Salt Lake City: Publishers Press, 1990, p. 83.

4HC 2:71. Coles County, records show that in 1834 William Wayne owned a quarter section of land which was intersected by the old Springfield Road, the route Zion's Camp was following.


6HC 2:73-74.

7Newton Bateman and Paul Selby, Eds., Historical Encyclopedia of Illinois and History of Coles County, Chicago: Munsell Publishers, 1906, p. 621.

8HC 2:73.

9Parley P. Pratt, Autobiography of Parley P. Pratt, 1938 printing, Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, pp. 114-115.

10However, Martin Harris, "having boasted to the brethren that he could handle snakes with perfect safety, while fooling with a black snake, with his bare feet . . . received a bite on his left foot." Joseph further noted that that "fact was communicated to me, and I took occasion to reprove him, and exhort the brethren never to trifle with the promises of God." HC 2:95.

Calvin N. Smith is a professor of speech-communication at Eastern Illinois University, where Norman A. Garrett teaches in the School of Business. They are both members of the Mattoon Ward, Champaign Illinois Stake, where Brother Smith is a counselor in the bishopric and Brother Garrett is high priests group leader. They recently retraced a two-day portion of Zion's Camp route and provided this report.

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