For the Latter-day Saints the brief period in late February 1846, when it became so bitterly cold that the Mississippi River froze, was another part of the great exodus story, equivalent to the miracle of the children of Israel crossing the Red Sea in their escape from Egypt. The first pioneers out of Nauvoo gathered on the banks of Sugar Creek, Lee County, Iowa. The next leg of the journey began officially on March 1, 1846, when groups of Saints left the site and followed an old and established territorial road which eventually led them to less developed roads and native American Indian trails across Iowa.
Brigham Young's manuscript history notes: "About noon, the Camp began to move and at 4 o'clock nearly five hundred wagons were on the way traveling in a Northwesterly direction. Beautiful day. Encamped for the night on Sugar Creek, having traveled five miles."1On the following day, the company made "ten miles and tented in a field, on the West side of Lick Creek."2 During the next few days and weeks, the pioneers encountered snow, rain and mud. Additionally, while most of the families had adequate provisions, some were quite destitute. Certainly a period of difficulty, the trek across Iowa in 1846 was long and hard - it took Brigham Young an incredible 131 days to complete the 310-mile trek from east to west (by comparison the second leg of the journey took 111 days to cover 1,050 miles from Winter Quarters to Salt Lake).
In eastern Iowa, many people found temporary employment with local farmers doing a variety of jobs including making and erecting barns, fences and houses. Others husked corn, and some made bread to sell. One farmer offered honey to the group in exchange for a concert by Pitt's Brass Band. Brigham Young notes: "Two tons of timothy hay were purchased at four dollars per ton, and brought into Camp part for cash and part for splitting rails, the day was very pleasant, the Camp very cheerful."3
By April 23, a group of pioneers made the first permanent camp in Iowa called Garden Grove about 144 miles west of Nauvoo and 120 miles east of Council Bluffs on the East (Weldon) Fork of the Grand River. Nature's bounties (wild berries, turkey and deer) began to supply the Saints much needed nourishment. Brigham Young notes: "Saturday,
AprilT 25 - Camp of Israel, Garden Grove, 10 a.m. four hunters came in bringing a turkey, two of them."4
A town site was surveyed, more than 700 acres of land cleared, crops planted, log homes erected, and rails for fencing cut. Brigham Young knew that many would follow in their footsteps and that permanent camps along the way to the new gathering place would help those coming after.
Parley P. Pratt left Garden Grove with a mission to find another site for a permanent camp further west. He wrote:
"Crossing this branch of Grand River, I now steered through the vast and fertile prairies and groves without a track or anything but a compass to guide me - the country being entirely wild and without inhabitants. Our course was west, a little north. . . . After journeying thus for several days, and while lying encamped . . . I took my horse and rode ahead some three miles in search of one of the main forks of Grand River, which we had expected to find for some time. Riding about three or four miles through beautiful prairies, I came suddenly to some round and sloping hills, grassy and crowned with beautiful groves of timber. . . . Being pleased and excited at the varied beauty before me, I cried out, `this is Mount Pisgah.' "
The rolling hills rising above the Iowa prairie reminded Elder Pratt of the biblical Pisgah (Deuteronomy 3:27), where Moses saw the Promised Land. He continues his narrative:
"I returned to my camp, with the report of having found the long sought river, and we soon moved on and encamped under the shade of these beautiful groves. It was not late in May, and we halted here to await the arrival of the President and council. In a few days they arrived and formed a general encampment here, and finally formed a settlement, and surveyed and enclosed another farm of several thousand acres."5
As the pioneers made their way to Mt. Pisgah, some were called to remain at Garden Grove and maintain the new community.
Only a few days after Parley P. Pratt discovered Mt. Pisgah, Brigham Young met with other Church leaders in a tent to transact business, which included addressing a letter to "Elder Rueben Hedlock, President of the church in England," appointing Oliver B. Huntington to missionary work in the British Isles. While looking towards the west, Church leaders never forgot their commission from Christ to proclaim the gospel to the inhabitants of the world. The letter composed at Mount Pisgah states:
"Mt. Pisgah. Indian Lands. 15 miles from the Head Quarters of the Potawatarnie Nation. May 23, 1846. To Elder Rueben Hedlock, President of the church in England. & etc. This certifies that the bearor Elder Oliver B. Huntington has been delegated by the authorities of the church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints to preach the gospel and assist you in your labors in the British Islands, under the direction of the Presidency. We remain Your brethren in the Kingdom of Jesus & long Journeyings. Brigham Young President of the
Church of Jesus ChristT of L.D.S. Willard Richards Clerk."
Rather apologetically, Elder Richards adds to the back of the letter: "The private Seal of the Twelve cannot be placed upon this paper here in the wilderness for want of a press. W. Richards, Keeper of the Seal & Recorder."6
The community became a stopover for many immigrants that followed. Between 300 and 800 Latter-day Saints were buried in the cemetery at Mount Pisgah between 1846 and 1852, before it was finally abandoned by the Saints.
President Young remained at Mount Pisgah until June 2, 1846, and then moved west across Iowa. They were now in native American territory fulfilling their desire to flee into the wilderness to begin gathering their spiritual blood-brothers to establish Zion in the western part of the North American continent.
When the first pioneer group left Mt. Pisgah they followed another Indian trail to the Missouri River Valley to a region known as Council Bluff. The region, a 50-mile radius around several trading posts, was an important gathering place of native American people. It would also become an important gathering place for westering Saints during the next several years.
For the first time on the journey, the sun began to dry the muddy roads which had bogged them down since leaving Sugar Creek. Eventually, the Saints moved their wagons to a point some three miles east of the Missouri River waiting for instruction from Brigham Young.
Church leaders still hoped to send some wagons ahead to the Rocky Mountains before winter. Those that remained behind would establish winter camps east and west of the Missouri River. On the afternoon of July 24, 1846, Church leaders met on a hill overlooking the area. By Aug. 1, the decision had been made that the Saints should winter in the Missouri River Valley - 10,000 of them.
One of the major factors in the decision was the sudden arrival of Captain James Allen of the U.S. Army at Mount Pisgah on June 26 requesting the Saints to raise a military force of 400 to 500 men to march to California. Representing Colonel Stephen W. Kearny of the U.S. Army of the West, he recruited Latter-day Saint men in the various permanent camps in Iowa. In sustaining the government's request, Church leaders diverted a significant portion of able bodied men to another mission, leaving many families in the camps of Iowa without a husband or father.
As Brigham Young made his way east across Iowa to help recruit men for the "Mormon Battalion," he made note of the number of wagons at Mount Pisgah and on the road: "We counted and reported two hundred and five wagons at Mount Pisgah, which with these on the road and at headquarters make a total of eight hundred and five wagons."7
During the whole trip across Iowa Brigham Young was concerned with those left behind in Nauvoo - even offering to sell the recently completed temple to help the poor to get away from the city. Updates on conditions in the city continued to be relayed by messengers. In September Brigham Young was informed that Nauvoo had been overrun by mobs driving the remaining Saints from their homes making several hundred men, women and children - some too sick to travel - refugees scattered along the Mississippi River banks above Montrose, Iowa. At the first Sunday services held at Winter Quarters Brother Brigham asked the Saints to help their brothers and sisters:
"Let the fire of the covenant which you made in the House of the Lord, burn in your hearts, like flame unquenchable till you, by yourselves or delegates . . .[can] rise up with his team and go straightway and bring a load of the poor from Nauvoo . . . [for] this is a day of action and not of argument."8
The task was urgent as few of the refugees had enough food or shelter to protect them from the elements. A rescue party had already been dispatched from the Missouri River Valley, but Brigham Young wanted more help - a second rescue mission. As preparation for the second group's departure was being made, the first rescue party under the direction of O.M. Allen arrived at the Mississippi River on Oct. 6, ready to help the suffering Saints. A few days later Thomas Bullock notes that a flock of quail flew into the camp:
"The boys caught about 20 alive . . . every man and woman and child had quails to eat for their dinner. After dinner the flock increased in size. Captain Allen ordered the brethren not to kill . . . not a gun was afterwards fired and the quails flew round the camp, many a lighted in it . . . this was repeated more than half a dozen times."9
The Saints felt that God had given them manna from heaven as a sign of His mercy towards modern Israel.
Since the Saints would not make an effort to reach the Rocky Mountains in 1846, Church leaders continued to scout north and south of the Grand Encampment for suitable winter camp sites for those who were continually arriving at the permanent camps in Iowa. The Grand Encampment now numbered more than 10,000 Saints, and it stretched east for some nine miles. This large group strained necessary resources in the area (grass, wood, and water supplies). Soon, the wagons pulled away from the Grand Encampment to new sites which could supply the necessary requirements for the coming winter. Eventually, some 80 communities (50 Church branches) were established in southwest Iowa. The Blockhouse Branch was one of the most important LDS branches in Iowa at the time - located at what became known as Kane, later Kanesville and is presently known as Council Bluffs, Iowa. Within a year, Church leaders presented to the Iowa State Legislature a petition requesting that a new county be formed in the area. Once granted, Pottawattamie County contained all of southwest Iowa.
For nearly a century and half, Indians, Spanish, French and Anglo-Americans had crossed western Iowa utilizing the vast water systems in the region or traveled by foot or on horseback. In 1846, the Latter-day Saints crossed on wheels, changing forever the Missouri River Valley. The permanent camps established by the pioneer vanguard companies in 1846 demonstrate one of the unique natures of the Latter-day Saint movement - unlike other westering pioneers, the Saints improved the road and planned for others to follow them, providing help along the way for their brothers and sisters who were knitted with them in a common desire to establish Zion in the last days.10
1 Manuscript History of Brigham Young 1846-1847, March 1, 1846, (Salt Lake City: Elden J. Watson, 1971), p. 58.
2 Ibid., 2 March 1846, p. 59.
3 Ibid., 3 March 1846, p. 63.
4 Ibid., p. 140.
5 Autobiography of Parley Parker Pratt (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1938), p. 342-43.
Brigham Young to Reuben Hedlock, May 23, 1846, courtesy of Rick Grunder, Syracuse, New York.
7 Manuscript History, July 7, 1846, p. 224.
8 Journal History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Sept. 28, 1846, LDSCA.
9 Thomas Bullock Journal, Oct. 9, 1846, LDSCA.
10 Additional material gleaned from Gail Geo. Holmes, "A Prophet Who Followed, Fulfilled, and Magnified," in Lion of the Lord - Essays on the Life & Service of Brigham Young (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 1995), pp. 128-53.