Winter Quarters cemetery now owned by the Church

OMAHA, Neb. — The cemetery at historic Winter Quarters, containing the remains of more than 600 Latter-day Saints from the exodus of 1846-47, is now under Church ownership.

A prominent Church historic site for more than 60 years, its most familiar feature is the Avard Fairbanks sculpture, "Tragedy at Winter Quarters," depicting a pioneer family enduring grief from the loss of a loved one. The land had been leased from the city of Omaha by the Church for $1 a year since the mid-1930s.

Following approval given unanimously by the Omaha City Council on March 30, Mayor Hal Daub on April 1 deeded the cemetery land to the Church. He met in his office with Arthur H. Taylor, Omaha Nebraska Stake president; Truman Clawson, director of the Mormon Trail Center at Historic Winter Quarters; and Chris Curzon, stake high councilor. (The Mormon Trail Center, a visitors facility dedicated by President Gordon B. Hinckley in 1997, is adjacent to the cemetery.)

With local television stations covering the event, Mayor Daub welcomed the Church officers, expressing gratitude for the heritage of the Church in the area's history and the current accomplishments of Church members in the area. He said the cemetery is a tremendous asset in the Florence area (northern Omaha) and should rightfully be owned by the Church. He also commented that the neighborhood appreciates the reverence and beauty the cemetery and center add.

The land was conveyed to the Church for the token sum of $1. President Taylor read a statement expressing the Church's gratitude for the action: "With both members of the Church and those of other faiths buried herein, the Church is pleased to accept responsibility to maintain the cemetery in a beautiful way that will permit all who come to contemplate the memory of loved ones and the meaning of life.

"We hold this ground sacred and revere the sacrifice, devotion and complete consecration of life itself that those pioneers buried here and their families demonstrated for their faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. We honor them and, in so doing, honor that for which their sacrifice stands yet today — as a beacon of faith in a living God who transcends the powers of death.

"We find it especially rewarding at this Easter season, that we as a Church should be the beneficiaries of this generous conveyance by the city. . . . In accepting this cemetery, we join with other Christians throughout the world in acknowledging the resurrected Jesus Christ as the giver of all life, hope and peace both in this life and the world to come."

Brother Curzon said much of the groundwork had been laid for goodwill between the Church and the city through the Pioneer Sesquicentennial activities of the previous few years and increased service projects in the area. Service projects initially focused on cleanup from a devastating October 1997 snowstorm, then expanded to service at shelters, community centers, food banks, Catholic buildings, and many other places. In less than a year, more than 15,500 hours of service were contributed by ward members in rotating "Service Saturdays."

In an interview later with Church News, Elder Clawson, a great-great-grandson of Brigham Young, described the historical events pertaining to Winter Quarters and the cemetery. The Saints left Nauvoo in the winter and spring of 1846, he said, but they did not do it all in one group. By year's end, there were about 12,000 strung out across Iowa in 90 to 100 temporary settlements.

The vanguard group arrived at the Missouri River, on the present-day Iowa-Nebraska border, in June 1846. Realizing they would have to spend the winter there, and needing grass and fuel, Brigham Young sought and obtained permission from the U.S. government to settle temporarily on Indian lands on the Nebraska side of the river.

The settlement came to be called Winter Quarters. It included about 500 log cabins and 100 or so sod houses laid out in five-acre blocks with 20 lots per acre. At its peak, the Winter Quarters settlement had about 4,000 inhabitants.

The winter of 1846-47, some 600 people died, about half of them children, largely from "black canker" (a form of scurvy) and "ague" (a malarial disease), stemming from malnutrition, exhaustion and cold, Elder Clawson said. Most of the deaths were on the Nebraska side of the river; the remains are in the cemetery.

The Winter Quarters settlement did not last beyond 1848. By then residents who had not yet proceeded on to the Great Salt Lake Valley were required to move to the Iowa side of the river to the settlement which was soon called Kanesville. Even after the Nebraska settlement was vacated, though, and new settlers had come in 1854 and named it Florence, many Latter-day Saints came through there en route to "Zion" in the Rocky Mountains. It was the last outfitting point, the final "jumping-off" spot before pushing on.

Early in the 20th Century, the city of Omaha annexed Florence, and thus took custody of the cemetery, which by then included the remains of some deceased Florence residents.

In 1936, the Church obtained approval from the city to lease and maintain the cemetery. It was dedicated that year by President Heber J. Grant at a ceremony attended by General Authorities, city officials and officers of Union Pacific Railroad, Elder Clawson recounted. (Omaha is the Union Pacific headquarters.)

The cemetery, shaded by many trees, is located on a rise just west of the Mormon Trail Center, with the Fairbanks monument as the dominant feature. It is approached via stone steps with stone pillars at the gate containing bronze plaques that tell the story of Winter Quarters. A large plaque on the ground bears the names of 350 Latter-day Saints who are known to have been buried in the cemetery. (Deaths occurred so rapidly the sexton did not have time to record all the names, Elder Clawson explained.) There are some grave markers, but none are from the Mormon pioneer period.

In making application to the Omaha City Council for the property conveyance, Elder Clawson wrote, "Mormons, now numbering over 10 million worldwide, view the site as a sacred place."

The Mormon Trail Center features interpretive exhibits that tell the story of the entire LDS pioneer epic, beginning with the 1846-47 exodus from Nauvoo, Ill., to the Salt Lake Valley. Elder Clawson said some 50,000 people came through the Mormon Trail Center last year, and he anticipates the numbers will grow. — Elaine Bylund and R. Scott Lloyd