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
By Susan Sims
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
“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.”
Speaking to more than 100 gathered in the Church History Museum auditorium, Elder Kyle S. McKay, a General Authority Seventy, explored several key historic events of Church history to show a pattern of continued revelation in the restoration of the gospel.