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Hundreds commemorate pioneers leaving Nauvoo as they retrace steps to frozen Mississippi River


NAUVOO, Illinois — Braving 10-degree Fahrenheit temperatures and subzero wind chills on Saturday, Feb. 5, more than 300 people gathered in historic Nauvoo with missionaries serving in the Illinois Historic Sites to commemorate the 1846 exodus of the Latter-day Saints from Nauvoo. 

The Mississippi River was frozen and snow-covered — just as it was in 1846. Several visitors commented on the similar weather conditions as they tried to keep warm or as they ventured out onto the river ice.

Nauvoo Historic Sites President Craig Lee Dalton, right, and Sister Sandra Dalton speak at the Exodus Memorial at the end of Parley Street during the exodus commemoration in historic Nauvoo, Illinois, on Saturday, Feb. 5, 2022. The annual commemoration on the first Saturday in February honors when members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints began leaving Nauvoo in 1846.

Nauvoo Historic Sites President Craig Lee Dalton, right, and Sister Sandra Dalton speak at the Exodus Memorial at the end of Parley Street during the exodus commemoration in historic Nauvoo, Illinois, on Saturday, Feb. 5, 2022. The annual commemoration on the first Saturday in February honors when members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints began leaving Nauvoo in 1846.

Credit: Susan Sims

Speaking from the Exodus Memorial, at the end of Parley Street near the river, Illinois Historic Sites President Craig Lee Dalton described his feelings as he and Sister Sandra Dalton drove to Nauvoo in January to begin their newest mission as site leaders. “It quickly dawned on me that we were traveling roughly along that trail that many of the people that you’re representing here today blazed,” he said.

Listing off stops in Wyoming and Iowa, he continued: “I reflected on their struggles in 1846. And then as we arrived at the Mississippi River and I saw that it was frozen over, I remembered that some of those Saints were able to pass over this great river on the ice.”

The difference in the Daltons’ journey wasn’t that it was done in reverse, more comfortably or in a much shorter time frame, but that it was done with assurance of a destination. The early Saints had no such knowledge, only faith to guide them.

President Dalton spoke about his own pioneer ancestor Abigail Mead McBride, who was an elderly widow when she entered the Salt Lake Valley in 1847. Her faith didn’t waver in the face of uncertainty and challenge. This is the pattern, said President Dalton, for any of today’s pioneers who face unknowns or are the only Church members in their extended families, such as Sister Dalton.

Rachel and Ben Hubbard, back, and daughters Audrey, Elise and Bailey of Cedar Falls, Iowa, pose for a photo during the Exodus Commemoration in historic Nauvoo, Illinois, on Saturday, Feb. 5, 2022. The annual commemoration on the first Saturday in February honor when members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints began leaving Nauvoo in 1846.

Rachel and Ben Hubbard, back, and daughters Audrey, Elise and Bailey of Cedar Falls, Iowa, pose for a photo during the Exodus Commemoration in historic Nauvoo, Illinois, on Saturday, Feb. 5, 2022. The annual commemoration on the first Saturday in February honor when members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints began leaving Nauvoo in 1846.

Credit: Susan Sims

Many participants had stories of their own to share. One young family was walking in honor of a grandfather being buried that day in California. Rachel and Ben Hubbard of Cedar Falls, Iowa, said they weren’t able to go to Rachel’s grandfather’s funeral, and so they decided to bring their three young children to the exodus commemoration to walk on behalf of his Nauvoo ancestors. 

“We thought it would be a good learning experience for them,” Rachel Hubbard said. “We love coming to Nauvoo as a family, but not usually in the winter like this.”

In contrast to the many first-time participants, Barbra Barrus has been going to the exodus commemoration for 17 years. Early on, she kept finding more and more ancestors to honor by “walking in their footsteps,” this year’s commemoration theme.

Read more and explore photos of places in historic Nauvoo, Illinois

“We have come in all kinds of weather. We come and make a family thing of it. There is a spirit here, there’s truly a spirit here, and it’s strong,” Barrus said.

The event was conducted mostly outdoors due to ongoing restrictions for indoor gatherings in Illinois. Individuals could enter the Family Living Center briefly to pick up name tags to wear for ancestors, grab a treat and bundle up for the rest of the two-hour event.

Teamsters drive wagons down Parley Street to the frozen Mississippi River during the exodus commemoration in historic Nauvoo, Illinois, on Saturday, Feb. 5, 2022. The annual commemoration on the first Saturday in February honors when members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints began leaving Nauvoo in 1846.

Teamsters drive wagons down Parley Street to the frozen Mississippi River during the exodus commemoration in historic Nauvoo, Illinois, on Saturday, Feb. 5, 2022. The annual commemoration on the first Saturday in February honors when members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints began leaving Nauvoo in 1846.

Credit: Susan Sims

Sister Dalton shared opening remarks from the steps of the Cultural Hall before the procession began. Flag-bearers representing the nationalities of people present in Nauvoo in the 1840s lined up along the crowd of marchers for the walk south along Main Street before turning west on Parley Street to walk to the river’s edge. The parade was led by local Scout flag-bearers and a cadre of men marching in honor of the Nauvoo Legion.

Bringing up the rear was a line of wagons driven by teamsters who provide Nauvoo’s horse and oxen rides around the sites. Individuals unable to walk the full distance could ride in one of the wagons. Many of the youth in attendance in the morning then spent the afternoon performing baptisms for the dead in the Nauvoo Illinois Temple.

In 2021, the commemoration turned virtual with a video marking the 175th anniversary of the exodus in English and Spanish.

Historic Nauvoo is open year-round. For more information, visit nauvoohistoricsites.org.

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