Monday, April 5, 1847
On this day, the first wagons of the Mormon pioneer company broke camp at Winter Quarters (now Florence, Nebraska) and rolled west. They are the teams of Heber C. Kimball, a counselor in the First Presidency of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and their ultimate destination is the Valley of the Great Salt Lake--where Mormon leader, Brigham Young, has promised his followers will settle and prosper beyond the reach of the United States and the persecutions which dog this "peculiar" people.
So begins an astounding exodus of thousands from various parts of the country including converts from other nations, to establish a haven in the mountains, Great Salt Lake City, the first settlement in Utah. The how and why of the hegira has been told and retold, but essentially:
It began with the founding of the LDS Church by Joseph Smith in Fayette, Seneca County, New York, on April 6, 1830. Persecution in New York State prompted Smith and some 1,200 converts to reestablish the church in Kirtland, Ohio, and Jackson County, Missouri. But in 1833, harassed, harried and attacked for their beliefs, many of the colonists moved out, across the Missouri River north into Clay County, Missouri, and beyond.
Immigration to Missouri continued with church members scattering into several thinly populated counties. Ultimately, after a vicious but short-lived war between Mormons and Missouri militia in 1838, Ohio and Missouri saints moved still again, this time to Commerce, Illinois, on the Mississippi River. Renaming the settlement Nauvoo, it became a rallying point and for a time the Mormons lived in peace. The time was a scant five years.
Because of their religious clannishness and the Church's doctrine of plural marriage (which will not be publicly acknowledged until 1852), Mormons are derided by non-Mormons (so-called Gentiles) and the press at large. Joseph Smith became embroiled in a serious argument with a group of dissenters, until he ordered their newspaper press and type destroyed. This attack on the Nauvoo Expositor proved the proverbial last straw for an infuriated State of Illinois. Smith and his brother, Hyrum, were arrested pending trial in Carthage. But on June 27, 1844, the two were shot and killed by a painted mob that stormed Carthage Jail.
Leadership of the Church transfers to its Council of Twelve Apostles and the president of the Twelve, Brigham Young. In February 1846, the Mormons abandon Nauvoo, cross the Mississippi to Council Bluffs, Iowa, and later in the year establish Winter Quarters near Omaha, Nebraska, in preparation for a final push westward the following spring. A General Council of Fifty had been organized by Brigham Young to direct this "Great Western Movement" and when, in the summer of 1846, a call was made by the United States for volunteers in the war with Mexico, Young sees it as an opportunity to arm and equip 500 Mormon men for California at government expense; he instructs this "Mormon Battalion of Iowa Volunteers" to rendezvous with the Saints in Great Salt Lake Valley once their military service is at an end.
The stage now is set for the departure of Mormons from "the States," and their subsequent journey beyond the frontier in the search of a "Zion," where they can govern themselves without "outside" interference. But the Great Western Movement is not an aimless wandering in an unexplored wilderness. On the contrary, it is well thought out and as disciplined an immigration as possible given the circumstances. Joseph Smith and Brigham Young after him have for some time been collecting information on the territory beyond the Rockies, and, in fact, obtained a copy of Captain John C. Fremont's 1842 exploration of Oregon report.
More to the point, on April 4, as last-minute preparations are under way for the departure of the first company of pioneer Mormons, Orson Pratt notes in his journal that trek historian, Thomas Bullock, is making a sketch copy of Fremont's 1842 topographic map of the road to Oregon "for use of the pioneers." When Heber Kimball's wagons roll out early today it is in a downpour, and Wilford Woodruff grouses to his diary, "We were intending to start this morning, but shall not in consequence of the rain." Kimball's six teams worry through the mud for a half-dozen miles to camp in an area convenient as a rallying point for the pioneer company. It is a spot slightly east of Little Papillion Creek and about two and one-half miles northeast of the tiny village of Irvington in Douglas County, Nebraska Territory. (Historians believe the encampment site to be in the northeast quadrant of Sec. 13, T.16N, R.12E, 6th principal meridian.)
Eventually all the Mormons heeding the call to gather will collect at one place or another in Iowa. The pioneer company strikes out from Winter Quarters today to begin the memorable trek across the plains. The journey will continue for 111 weary days, ending in the Salt Lake Valley on July 24.
The Trek Unfolds
For the next 111 days, The Tribune will publish a day-to-day account of the Mormon pioneers' 1847 immigration to the Great Salt Lake Valley. Fifty years after the trek, The Tribune published its first chronological history of this epochal march. And in 1934, Andrew Jenson, assistant historian of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, compiled a more complete account at the request of The Tribune, from records available in church archives at the time. Now, using diaries, letters, and journals that have come to light in the ensuing years, Tribune history writer Harold Schindler has fleshed out the narrative.
The information incorporated in these articles comes from the LDS Journal History, and the original diaries of Brigham L. Young, Orson Pratt, Wilford Woodruff, George A. Smith, William Clayton, Thomas Bullock, Erastus Snow, Howard Egan, Norton Jacob and Amasa Lyman, all participants of that memorable exodus. Each day's story will be that of the corresponding day 150 years ago.