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Remembering the Nauvoo pioneers on a mile-long walk to the Mississippi River

The legacy of the pioneers is one of ‘seeking God’s will and following it,’ said Sister Sandra Dalton, Illinois Historic Sites leader, during the exodus commemoration to honor when the pioneers began leaving historic Nauvoo, Illinois, in 1846

NAUVOO, Illinois — It was not an especially cold day on Saturday, Feb. 3, in Nauvoo, Illinois, but that was fine for visitors attending the annual Latter-day Saint exodus commemoration. The Mississippi River had been frozen just two weeks earlier but was now flowing freely.

This reminded some visitors how quickly the weather could and did change when members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints left Nauvoo after mobs threatened their peace. Their first wagons crossed on ferries on Feb. 4, 1846; hundreds would cross several days later over the ice. 

Aerial view of those walking past the historic buildings on Parley Street in historic Nauvoo. Men wear period uniforms following by women in period dresses holding flags followed by people and then wagons.
The exodus-commemoration parade down Parley Street in historic Nauvoo, Illinois, is led by men marching in honor of the Nauvoo Legion and people holding flags representing the nationalities of those present in Nauvoo in the 1840s. The commemoration was on Saturday, Feb. 3, 2024. 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. | The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

Commemoration participants gathered on Feb. 3 in front of the Cultural Hall in the historic sites, wearing name tags in honor of ancestors or other pioneers who had lived in Nauvoo. Welcomed by President Kurt Stringham, first counselor in the Illinois Historic Sites presidency, the crowd was then organized for the mile-long walk to the edge of the Mississippi River. Marchers honoring the Nauvoo Legion led the way, with flag bearers and then friends and families walking behind. Wagons drawn by oxen and horses brought up the rear. 

Thomas Sheeran was attending the exodus for the first time after recently moving to Nauvoo, where he served as a Nauvoo Performing Missionary in 2023.

Thomas Sheeran holds a flag and wears a black hat, blue neckerchief, black sash to hold the flag, brown jacket and a canvas bag as he prepares to walk in the exodus commemoration.
Thomas Sheeran prepares for the Nauvoo exodus commemoration in Historic Nauvoo, Illiniois, on Saturday, Feb. 3, 2024. He was part of a the group honoring the Nauvoo Legion. 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. | The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

“When I got here today, I was asked to be part of the color guard to lead everybody down to the river. It was wonderful. I felt very honored,” he said.

Kevin and Danielle Jarvis related the experience to their own lives: “We move a lot for work, but  we can load up our trailer by choice. We have more appreciation for [our ancestors’] sacrifices …. They moved for their freedoms and their religion.”

At the river’s edge, the clear view to Iowa on the other side gave context to what Latter-day Saints must have felt as they pointed their wagons westward. Speaking to the assembled crowd from the Pioneer Memorial, Sister Sandra Dalton, who leads the Illinois Historic Sites with her husband, President Craig Lee Dalton, called on listeners to remember that leaving was part of God’s plan for the Saints. 

Yes, the Saints had been forced from their homes. But “if the Lord’s plan had been to build His kingdom here at this place in that time, they would have stayed.”

But, she said, His purposes for gathering in Nauvoo had been fulfilled, and it was now time to go to a place He had prepared for His kingdom to flourish. 

Sister Dalton recounted the miracle of how the right people with the right skills were drawn to Nauvoo so they could build the temple, so they could build a community. Not only that, but the limestone needed for the temple happened to be available right there, and the river made it possible for the Saints to bring timber and other supplies to Nauvoo that were needed for the Lord’s purposes. 

Sister Sandra Dalton, with a bonnet and shawl, stands at a podium as she speaks front of Pioneer Memorial in Nauvoo, Illinois.
Sister Sandra Dalton, who serves as an Illinois Historic Sites leader with her husband President Craig Lee Dalton, speaks at the Nauvoo exodus commemoration at the Pioneer Memorial in historic Nauvoo, Illinois, on Feb. 3, 2024. 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. | The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

God brought diligent people to Nauvoo “who would go out and find other diligent people that would come and help build the temple,” she added. 

“The Lord knew the purpose of this place, and He made it happen here,” she said. And the purpose of Nauvoo at the time was the temple, where blessings could be poured out on the Saints, “blessings he knew they would need for what He knew the future would bring.” 

“And they had to start from nothing so the Lord could show them what they could accomplish with His help.” And then they were asked to do it again by leaving Nauvoo. 

Aerial view of several wagons heading down a street toward the Mississippi River in historic Nauvoo.
Teamsters drive wagons to the Mississippi River during the exodus commemoration in historic Nauvoo, Illinois, on Saturday, Feb. 3, 2024. 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. | The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

Of these pioneers, Sister Dalton said, “They would not want us to remember what they did. They want us to remember what they were able to accomplish with His help.” Their legacy is one of “seeking God’s will and following it.”

Greg and Carla Rojas were preparing to tour some of the historic homes after the program. They had moved from Santiago, Chile, to rural Iowa for employment, but this was their first time attending an Exodus Commemoration.

Greg and Carla Rojas, in sweatshirts and jackets, stand outside in historic Nauvoo.
Greg and Carla Rojas, from Santiago, Chile, and now live in Iowa, participated in the pioneer exodus commemoration in Historic Nauvoo, Illinois, on Saturday, Feb. 3, 2024.  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. | The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

“We have been members of the Church our whole lives,” Greg Rojas said, “and we grew up listening to stories of the pioneers and the people that developed this beautiful city of Nauvoo.”

Noting how hard it must have been to leave, he added, “It’s just very emotional for us.”

Carla Rojas confirmed what he was trying to express, “When you see the places where they lived, you can feel the Spirit in a powerful way.”

Historic Nauvoo is open year-round. Virtual tours are also available. For more information, visit nauvoohistoricsites.org.

The Jarvis family, including parents, an older son and three girls, wears pioneer-era clothing and modern jackets with names pinned to their clothes.
Kevin and Danielle Jarvis and their family participated in the Nauvoo exodus commemoration in historic Nauvoo, Illinois, on Saturday, Feb. 3, 2024. 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. | The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints
People in pioneer-era clothing holding flags stand by the road with the wagons behind them, next to the Mississippi River near historic Nauvoo, Iliniois.
People carrying flags representing the countries where the Nauvoo pioneers were from gather at the Mississippi River bank during the exodus commemoration in historic Nauvoo, Illinois, on Saturday, Feb. 3, 2024. 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. | The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints
People gather at the Pioneer Memorial and a statue of Joseph Smith and Brigham Young near the Mississippi River in historic Nauvoo.
People gather at the Pioneer Memorial and a statue of Joseph Smith and Brigham Young near the Mississippi River in historic Nauvoo, Illinois, during the exodus commemoration in historic Nauvoo, Illinois, on Saturday, Feb. 3, 2024.  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. | The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints
An oxen looks toward the camera while in a yoke pulling a wagon during the exodus reenactment.
Oxen pull a wagon during the pioneer exodus commemoration in historic Nauvoo, Illinois, on Saturday, Feb. 3, 2024. 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. | The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints
Teamsters drive wagons to the Mississippi River during the exodus commemoration in historic Nauvoo, Illinois/ The Nauvoo Illinois Temple is in the upper left.
Teamsters drive wagons to the Mississippi River during the exodus commemoration in historic Nauvoo, Illinois, on Saturday, Feb. 3, 2024. 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. The Nauvoo Illinois Temple is in the upper left. | The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints
The Nauvoo Illinois Temple is seen through the trees without leaves in historic Nauvoo, Illinois.
The Nauvoo Illinois Temple is seen through the trees during the exodus commemoration on Saturday, Feb. 3, 2024, in historic Nauvoo, Illinois. 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. | The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints
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