A grand chapter: Sites retell pioneer epoch

OMAHA, Neb. — As the public open house for the new Winter Quarters Nebraska Temple concluded April 15, it had been 154 years almost to the day since Brigham Young and the advance company of pioneer saints departed from here on April 14, 1847, to continue their trek to the Rocky Mountains.

The main body of the Church stayed behind. Church members would build some 80 temporary settlements in the middle Missouri River Valley along the Nebraska-Iowa border before Church leaders issued the directive for the last of them to make their way to the gathering place in the Salt Lake Valley in 1852.

Elder D. Spencer Nilson, director of the Church's Mormon Trail Center at Historic Winter Quarters, calls this area of Nebraska and Iowa "the best historical site in the Church system," rich as it is in Church history. The new temple is just one more reason Church members and other visitors might consider the Winter Quarters-Kanesville area in their vacation planning, he said.

Elder Nilson has identified a number of events of major importance to the Church that occurred in the area.

What happened here


Stopping first on the Iowa side of the Missouri River, Church members soon moved across the river into present-day Omaha, Neb. There, they established Winter Quarters to await more favorable traveling conditions the following year and to raise crops to aid those who would come later. Among important events in Winter Quarters:

Section 136 of the Doctrine and Covenants, the "Word and Will of the Lord," was given to President Brigham Young at Winter Quarters on Jan. 14, 1847. It provided vital instruction for the organizing of the pioneer companies. But it also gave timeless counsel for all Church members, whatever might be the period of time when they live.

Mormon Trail Center recounts pioneers' migration to Salt Lake Valley.
Mormon Trail Center recounts pioneers' migration to Salt Lake Valley. | Photo by R. Scott Lloyd

Winter Quarters was the temporary camp for the saints migrating westward from Nauvoo, Ill., from the fall of 1846 to summer 1848. Maximum population ranged from 3,483 in December 1846 to nearly 5,000 by May 20, 1847, Elder Nilson said.

It was the location of Church headquarters from the fall of 1846 through April 4, 1847.

The Winter Quarters settlement in Nebraska was on Indian land. Because the Saints had obtained permission to stay on it for only two years, the settlement was abandoned in the summer 1848. Unprepared to move westward, some 3,000 Church members moved back across the Missouri River into Iowa, where they established Kanesville and some 80 other communities. Soon thereafter, though, Nebraska was opened for homesteading. It became a U.S. territory, and the former Winter Quarters area became the city of Florence in 1854. Florence was eventually annexed by the city of Omaha.

The handcart companies of emigrating saints used Florence as an outfitting post from 1856 through 1860.

Leaving from Salt Lake City, the "down-and-back" wagons shuttled emigrants from Florence to the Salt Lake Valley from 1861-1863. Thereafter, Wyoming City in Nebraska and Fort Laramie in Wyoming were points from which they were shuttled.


Though intended to be only a temporary camp for the saints, Kanesville became a semi-permanent town, including such amenities as a restaurant, bakery, hotel and schools. By 1852, in a sternly worded letter, President Brigham Young called for Church members to leave Kanesville and other Iowa settlements and come to the Salt Lake Valley. Some 5,500 left in 1852. By the following year, Kanesville was abandoned. Still in all, Kanesville was occupied by Church members for six years, nearly as long as was Nauvoo, Ill., the beautiful temple city from which they had been driven.

Maps show location of historic sites.
Maps show location of historic sites.

In the spring of 1846, before the saints had moved across the Missouri River into Nebraska and established Winter Quarters, the Grand Encampment was established about four miles southeast of what would later be Kanesville. There the Mormon Battalion, about 500 enlistees recruited from among the saints for the war with Mexico, was "mustered in." Besides demonstrating the patriotism of Church members despite the persecution they had endured, the soldiers contributed to the cause by donating their pay and uniform allowance to help finance the westward trek.

On Dec. 5, 1847, the First Presidency of the Church was reorganized by the Quorum of the Twelve at the home of Elder Orson Hyde about eight miles southeast of Kanesville. On Dec. 27 of that year, about 1,000 saints sustained the new First Presidency in a general conference at a log tabernacle in Kanesville constructed in just 18 days for that purpose.

Oliver Cowdery, who with Joseph Smith had received the priesthood in this dispensation and helped establish the Restoration of the gospel but had later become estranged from the Church, rejoined the Latter-day Saints in Kanesville. At a special conference Oct. 21, 1848, he humbly asked for rebaptism, having earlier been excommunicated from the Church. He was rebaptized by Elder Orson Hyde. He had intended to join the migration to the Salt Lake Valley but died while visiting relatives in Richmond, Mo.

Even after Kanesville was abandoned by Church members, Council Bluffs served as a major outfitting post for other Church members moving westward. Most of the 100,000 Latter-day Saints who migrated to the Salt Lake Valley by 1900 came through Council Bluffs (Kanesville) and Florence (Winter Quarters, now known as northeast Omaha).

What to do and see here

Sites of importance to Church history in and around Omaha, Neb., and Council Bluffs, Iowa, are numerous. But there are a few prominent ones that stand out.

Statue of Henry Miller stands outside replica of log tabernacle that was built in Kanesville in 1847
Statue of Henry Miller stands outside replica of log tabernacle that was built in Kanesville in 1847 under his direction. | Photo by R. Scott Lloyd


The Mormon Trail Center, dedicated by President Gordon B. Hinckley in 1997, contains elaborate displays telling the story of the pioneer migration. It is child friendly: Youngsters can dress as pioneers, pull a handcart, lie down in a simulated emigrant ship bunk, step inside a replica of a pioneer cabin, and turn a wagon wheel that moves a "roadometer" like the one designed by Elder Orson Pratt of the advance pioneer company.

The Pioneer Cemetery contains the remains of more than 350 Latter-day Saints who died in Winter Quarters in 1846, having been weakened and exposed to disease due to the hasty and forced exodus from Nauvoo, Ill., earlier in the year. Most of their graves are unmarked; what headstones do exist mark the graves of later Florence residents. The most prominent feature of the cemetery is the famous statue by Avard Fairbanks, dedicated by President Heber J. Grant in 1930, depicting a grieving father and mother standing before the open grave of their child. Already sanctified by the presence of the pioneer graves, the cemetery is further hallowed by the adjacency of the new Winter Quarters Nebraska Temple. The temple and cemetery are across the street from the Mormon Trail Center.


"Tragedy at Winter Quarters" by Avard Fairbanks is most prominent feature at Mormon Pioneer Cemetery
"Tragedy at Winter Quarters" by Avard Fairbanks is most prominent feature at Mormon Pioneer Cemetery at Winter Quarters. | Photo by R. Scott Lloyd

A replica of the log tabernacle where President Brigham Young was sustained as Joseph Smith's first successor in the presidency of the Church is the most prominent attraction in historic Kanesville. Constructed by a citizens group in the latter 1990s, it was conveyed to the Church last year. An adjacent visitors center, which once operated as a shopping lobby, now houses an exhibit that includes a painting of Christ and panels containing the names of Mormon Battalion members. The tabernacle itself contains a large painting, "Passing the Keys of Authority," showing the members of the Quorum of the Twelve present at the sustaining of Brigham Young. It contains a 150-year-old wagon from the Mormon pioneer era and two handcarts. Mushrooms grow out of the green cottonwood logs used in the tabernacle's reconstruction, which arejust like the ones used in the original.

"Henry Miller and 200 men built this tabernacle in 18 days, and it took my group of people four and a half years," reflected Monte C. Nelson, who was president of Kanesville Restoration, the group that recreated the log tabernacle.

Brother Nelson said that when he commissioned artist Bill Hill of Mendon, Utah, to do the painting, Brother Hill requested pictures of the apostles as they would have appeared in 1847, with as much information as could be gathered about their appearance and physical builds.

Exhibits around the log tabernacle replica include newly placed panels set in granite and displaying the First Presidency proclamation on the family, the First Presidency and the Apostles Testify of Christ, and an explanation of the principle of succession in the Church. Two of the panels reproduce Section 136 of the Doctrine and Covenants, the Word and Will of the Lord.

That, in fact is the overarching purpose of the log tabernacle site, Brother Nelson noted. He said the president of the Church urged him not to allow a lot of monuments to be placed around the log tabernacle grounds.

"He said it would detract from the real purpose of that tabernacle. The real purpose is to proclaim to the world the principle of apostolic succession, the fact that the priesthood is passed by the laying on hands to laying on hands, which is called the apostolic succession. And when I read those panels, I think to myself how could anybody even question for a moment that the keys of authority rested with the apostles."

Authentic 1850s wagon is displayed inside reconstructed Kanesville Tabernacle; maps show location of
Authentic 1850s wagon is displayed inside reconstructed Kanesville Tabernacle; maps show location of historic sites.

The Grand Encampment site, where the pioneers stopped after their arduous trek across Iowa, is located on the grounds of the present-day Iowa School for the Deaf. Markers and National Park Service information panels tell the story of the Mormon Trail and of the mustering in of the Mormon Battalion.

Hyde Park is the site of Elder Orson Hyde's 1847 home, where the Twelve determined the time had come when the First Presidency was to be reorganized with Brigham Young as president of the Church. Today, a plaque marks the location amidst rolling hills and fertile farmland.

The Mormon Trail Historic Site is located not far from Hyde Park and consists of a marker and information panel marking the end of the Mormon Trail through Iowa and recounting how joyful the saints were to finally catch site of the Middle Missouri Valley as a place where they could rest.

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