Saints leave beloved Nauvoo

On May 15, 1846, midwife Patty Sessions, in Brigham Young's Camp of Israel wagon trains of perhaps 2,500 souls, penned an observation tinged a bit with envy:

"Some brethren from Nauvoo overtake us," she wrote in her diary two-thirds the way across Iowa; "They have been on the road but three weeks. We three months." These spring travelers from Nauvoo came in such numbers that a month later, when the Saints were encamped by the Missouri River, their population reached 10,000 - only a fourth of whom had left Nauvoo in February with Brigham Young, the other three-fourths being spring travelers.Nauvoo's peak population was just under 12,000 residents, with 3,000 to 5,000 Saints living in surrounding settlements. Best estimates are that 12,000 to 14,000 of some 17,000 Saints in that area participated in the exodus; the rest stayed behind and dropped out of Church membership.

Barely seven years after Missouri's governor ordered some 8,000 Latter-day Saints out of his state because locals could not tolerate their peculiarness, the Saints' "differentness" in politics, economics, and religious beliefs again aroused enough animosity to cause armed men to force them from Illinois, with the governor's acquiescence. Once again, the Saints' loss of property and investments was massive, and damage to health and life for the suddenly homeless people became severe as exposure, poor diet, distance from stores and doctors, and lack of money and income took their heartless tolls.

Nationally, history books show no concern about the tragedy of the Nauvoo Saints, unlike other wronged groups in America's past. But the fact remains that never in the entirety of American history has mob or vigilante action forced a major city's almost entire population to vacate, become homeless, and leave behind a substantial city of streets, houses, gardens, fences, public halls, and commercial buildings built entirely by their own hands.

Told fully, the dramatic, sprawling story of some 15,000 Latter-day Saints' exodus from Illinois has five parts.

The initial movement, the first segment, is the well-known trek of Brigham Young's Camp of Israel companies. This hurried evacuation took place during February 1846 when throngs of Saints crossed the Mississippi River, some by ferryboat, others on ice when the river froze, and assembled at Sugar Creek Camp, seven miles inland in Iowa Territory. The Twelve, with Elder Young in charge, led this initial migration of some 500 wagons and 3,000 people, including Patty Sessions and such notables as Brigham Young, William Clayton, Eliza R. Snow, Willard Richards, Hosea Stout, and John D. Lee.

The entire group, subdivided into companies of 100 wagons each, is usually termed the "Camp of Israel." They departed from the bitterly cold Sugar Creek encampment on Feb. 28 and March 1, beginning a three-and-a-half-month trek to the Missouri River, 300 miles away, by mid-June.

History books concentrate on the Camp of Israel's experiences rather than the much larger spring exodus because it was the first wave of people who left Nauvoo en masse and who pioneered routes and travel methods; it contained the Church's top leaders, including most of the Twelve; it was an organized (much of the time) caravan that shared a collective, common history; and its experiences were well-recorded. Its historic route now is the Iowa segment of what the U.S. government officially designated in the 1970s as the 1,300-mile-long Mormon Pioneer National Historic Trail.

This sesquicentennial year of the Nauvoo exodus, 1846-1996, focuses on the Camp of Israel's historic crossing of southern Iowa. To tell that saga properly would require several books. Trek highlights include the snowy Sugar Creek encampment in February, Bishop George Miller's hearty band of advance pioneers who cleared roads, built bridges, and prepared campsites; Captain Pitt's Brass Band presenting concerts for pay in Farmington and Keosauqua in March; terrible mud and snow and rains that caused snails' pace travel across soggy prairies in March and April; William Clayton writing "Come, Come, Ye Saints" in April; the temporary settlements created at Garden Grove in April and at Mt. Pisgah in May; the company's arrival at the Missouri River in mid-June; the surprise call for and enlistment of the Mormon Battalion in July; and the crossings of the Missouri River by August that led to the establishment of Winter Quarters north of present Omaha, Neb., that fall.

Four years earlier, in 1842, Joseph Smith prophesied that the Saints would become a mighty people in the Rocky Mountains. By early 1844 he announced immediate plans to send LDS companies into the Far West. His martyrdom sidetracked the westering plans, until anti-Mormon actions late in 1845 convinced the Twelve that the Saints must vacate Illinois and move beyond the Rocky Mountains. That October, LDS leaders instructed the Saints regarding a planned spring exodus and organized them into possible wagon companies. Nauvoo became a beehive of preparation that winter.

Plans for their spring departure scrambled, however, when rumors of probable federal interference caused the Twelve to jumpstart the evacuation early, beginning on Feb. 4, 1846. This rushed departure for those ready enough to go, and for too many who left unprepared, broke up the earlier assignments of people to wagon companies. History credits Charles Shumway's family with being the first to leave, followed by hundreds of others, some crossing the Mississippi River on ferry boats (the river today is twice as wide due to the Keokuk dam), others on ice late in February.

A huge encampment sprawled along Sugar Creek, eight miles from Nauvoo, jammed with tents and covered wagons and constant crackling campfires that semi-protected about 3,000 outdoor Saints. "It is very cold. The wind blows, one can hardly get to the fire for the smoke and we have no tent," Patty Session wrote Feb. 16. Discomfort came, too, from feelings of loss and hurt over unsold homes and farms and from leaving behind their unique city and temple.

Good people make the best of bad circumstances. "There being quite a number of young people in my father's family," Helen Mar Whitney wrote of Sugar Creek camp, they formed "a cotillion or French four by the big log fire . . . and danced to amuse ourselves as well as to keep our blood in proper circulation."

On March 1, 150 years ago, the parking lot/campground transformed itself into a caravan of nearly 500 canvas-topped wagons that moved up frozen Sugar Creek, initiating the historic trek west. Poet Eliza R. Snow versified the occasion:

Hark! the sound is onward, onward!

Camp of Israel! rise & go.

All at once is life in motion -

Trunks and beds & baggage fly;

Oxen yok'd & horses harness'd -

Tents roll'd up, are passing by.

Organizing this mass/mess of people, wagons, and animals was a Herculean task for the leadership council, and it took weeks of on-the-road practice to refine the process of fixing or making roads and bridges, preparing vast campgrounds, setting up tents and firepits and makeshift corrals, breaking camp, and moving the throng of wagons daily along crowded routes.

They were six weeks too early for prairie grasses. So, they skirted the Missouri border in southern Iowa, on crude existing roads part of the way, so they could send traders south into Missouri settlements for feed and food.

At Bonaparte, a tiny village on the Des Moines River, they forded that river on March 5 over a rock shelf just below the surface. While at the river, "I slung a tin cup on a string and drew some water which was a very refreshing draught," Eliza R. Snow said.

Some Saints lugged wheat to the Bonaparte mill and returned with flour. Several dropped out of the trek temporarily for a few days or weeks to work nearby. (A sign today at the old brick Mason House Inn three miles upriver in Bentonsport says that Mormon workmen built that building in 1846.) Some Saints visited the next village upriver, Keosauqua, to buy and trade. Looking like a Nauvoo brick building, the Van Buren County Courthouse, built in 1843, is still in operation. With President Young's blessing, Captain William Pitt's Nauvoo Brass Band backtrailed from their Indian Creek encampment and performed concerts in that courthouse, for hire.

At Richardson's Point Camp in mid-March, rain and mud halted the Saints for almost two weeks, allowing leaders to restructure the companies and bury heavy cannon balls, and give families time to clean and cook. "My good friend Sis. M[arkham] brought me a slice of beautiful, white light bread and butter," Eliza R. Snow said, "that would have done honor to a more convenient bakery than an out-of-door fire in the wilderness."

There, leaders chose to point the caravan west-southwest for a Missouri River crossing in Missouri above St. Joseph, a decision that determined their route for the next three weeks.

Once past Bloomfield, the Saints moved beyond Iowa Territory's towns, counties, and semi-decent roads. At Chariton Camp, a prairie mud-field overlooking the just-crossed Chariton River, the Saints halted again for March's final 10 days because of rain and roads too soggy to use. "We passed the wagon of Sister Zina D. H. Young," Helen Mar Whitney said, "which had halted upon the east bank, where she had a beautiful son born, and he was named Chariton

Henry Chariton JacobsT." "The oak ridge on which we are encamped being of a clay soil," Eliza R. Snow diaried, "the mud of our street & about our fires, in our tents &c. is indescribible."

Leaders reorganized, creating three companies of 100 families and six groups of 50, led by Brigham Young, Heber Kimball, Parley P. Pratt, Peter Haws, John Taylor and George Miller. Then, through March's rain, snow and sticky mud, the refugees inched westward. "The horses would sometimes sink to their bellies," Hosea Stout complained; "on the ridges teams stall going down hill." Brigham Young learned of a sister Stewart who, experiencing labor pains, walked two miles through the dark one night and crossed a raging creek on a log to find shelter in a vacant house where she gave birth to a son.

At Locust Creek, almost in Missouri, leaders called another halt one week into April. To that point, five weeks from Nauvoo, the camps had experienced several deaths and some widespread sickness along the way. By then, prairie grasses were sprouting, promising to provide natural browsing for the livestock. No longer needing to buy livestock feed in Missouri settlements, the Camp of Israel voted to veer northwest and aim for a Missouri River crossing at present Council Bluffs.

By then the master plan called for a vanguard of Saints, not everyone, to push ahead and reach the Rocky Mountains that summer or fall. Springtime's awakening of Iowa's prairies, meanwhile, served also to boost the Saints' sagging spirits after their difficult journey to that point. (Further details of the Camp of Israel's trek will be published in subsequent issues of the Church News).

Sources. Good accounts of the Nauvoo exodus are in Russell Rich's Ensign to the Nations; Preston Nibley's Exodus to Greatness; Wallace Stegner's The Gathering of Zion; Brigham H. Roberts' Comprehensive History of the Church, Vol. 2; Glen M. Leonard and James B. Allen's Story of the Latter-day Saints; Richard E. Bennett's Mormons at the Missouri, 1846-1852; and a special issue about Mormons in Iowa in BYU Studies 21 (Fall 1981).

Very useful is Stanley B. Kimball's Historic Resource Study: Mormon Pioneer National Historic Trail, published by the U.S. Department of Interior and available to the public.

First person accounts include the published diaries or writings of Brigham Young, Orson Pratt, Parley P. Pratt, Hosea Stout, Helen Mar and Horace K. Whitney, Eliza R. Snow, and Daniel Tyler, as well as numerous excellent unpublished diaries by such participants as Patty Sessions, Newel Knight, and Thomas Bullock. For Mormon trail routes and sites see Stanley B. Kimball, "The Iowa Trek of 1846: The Brigham Young Route from Nauvoo to Winter Quarters," The Ensign (June 1972) 36-45, and Kimball's invaluable guidebook, Historic Sites and Markers Along the Mormon and Other Great Western Trails.

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