The Nauvoo exodus could be likened to a three-act play, said William G. Hartley, BYU associate professor of history, at the Iowa Mormon Trail History Symposium May 3.
Unfortunately, the middle act is the most forgotten, yet it, in Dr. Hartley's judgment, is the main one."There are really three exoduses [from Nauvoo]," he said, "the winter exodus in February and March, the spring exodus (which, I am going to try to convert you to believe, is the main exodus) and the September exodus, the last group of several hundred saints who are kicked out of Nauvoo and who set up poor camps near Montrose, Iowa."
Many people's understanding of the exodus story is a little like an incomplete picture of an elephant, he said. "What we have is the trunk, head and front legs of the elephant, and that's the winter exodus. Then, we've got the tail end, and that's the September story. What we're missing is the body and hind legs, and that is the spring exodus."
Act 2 in the exodus saga is important because it completes the story, he said. "Brigham Young's Camp of Israel had, by my calculations, no more than 3,000 people. In June, all of a sudden there are at least 10,000 of the Saints on the plains of Iowa. Where did the other 7,000 come from? The answer is, they came in the spring exodus."
At least two-thirds of the Nauvoo Saints left during the spring, yet their story is somewhat dismissed, he contended. "The 7,000-9,000 people who left in April, May and June came not in organized, Camp-of-Israel fashion, with a leader like Brigham Young and with captains of hundreds and captains of fifties. . . . What we have are individual families figuring out how to go as best they can and as they are prepared to go. The record for the spring exodus is very random, very scattered. There are no journals that describe this mass exodus in the spring. We have to pull the story out of recollections and life stories, a diary here, a diary there, try to pull the pieces of the mosaic together to see the full picture."
Understanding the spring exodus, he said, "will help us make sense of all the Iowa sites, these exodus imprints that we find across Iowa."