Editor's note: The following is excerpted from Chapter 4 of the book "The Mormon People: The Making of an American Faith," by Matthew Bowman, published this week by Random House. Copyright © 2012 by Matthew Bowman. All rights reserved.
If the Mormons saw themselves as a new Israel, the trek west was inevitably their Exodus. For generations of Mormons, including the one that walked across the prairies, what mattered more than the destination was the act of the journey. It was a collective rite of passage that thousands of Mormons endured, as they had learned to endure all suffering: the death of their prophet, their flight from Ohio and Missouri, and their march across the plains all were taken as divinely sent education, clarifying and refining, testing the bonds that the temple ordinances had created, and they saw God's hand in every bush of berries. Many Mormons were rebaptized upon reaching Utah; they had traveled not only from the United States to the Utah territory but also from the secular realm to God's promised land, reborn into a sacred world. The banks and courts still close in Utah on July 24, the day Brigham Young crossed into the Salt Lake Valley, and the Mormons there celebrate it still, though the number of those who have ancestors who walked across the plains is a fading minority. They have become an archetype.
The myth may sometimes obscure the daily wretchedness of life on the trail. In the spring of 1846 William Clayton, dutiful scribe to the prophet Joseph Smith and clerk to the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, sat in a tent some hundred miles out of Nauvoo, the Illinois city Smith and his followers built. Clayton bore heavy burdens, managing the records and public stores of the camp while at the same time struggling with his wagon, his arthritis, and two weary and sometimes sick wives; as he complained in May, Willard Richards "wants me to do his writing, although I have more writing to do as clerk of the camp than I can possibly do. Moreover I have to unpack the chest and wait on all of them with the public goods in my charge, which keeps me busy all of the time." But only a month before, having just discovered that his third wife, who had remained in Nauvoo with her parents, had given birth to a son, he was full of the sort of melancholic confidence that kept many of the Mormons afloat. In his tent at Locust Creek, Iowa, he wrote a poem. "We'll find the place which God for us prepared / Far away, in the West," it promised, and its first verse ran:
"Come, come, ye Saints, no toil nor labor fear; But with joy wend your way. Though hard to you this journey may appear, Grace shall be as your day. 'Tis better far for us to strive Our useless cares from us to drive; Do this, and joy your hearts will swell — All is well! All is well!"
When put to the melody of an old English folk tune, the song quickly became the anthem of the trail. It remains one of the great Mormon hymns. It evokes the myth of the Mormon trail for modern Latter-day Saints better than any relic or remembered story.
By mid-1845 the apostles had investigated possibilities for settlement in Texas, California, and even Vancouver, and some Mormons were anxious to leave Nauvoo. The apostle Lyman Wight, acting on discussions in the Council of Fifty shortly before Joseph Smith's death, led a small colony to the newly independent Republic of Texas. Similarly, a recent convert named Sam Brannan had left Nauvoo for New York with several other Mormon agents to seek federal aid for the Mormon settlers. He organized an emigrant company out of the New York branches and chartered a ship to carry them around South America to California, where a group of American settlers had invited the Mormons to join them in organizing an independent nation. Wight had gone against Brigham Young's wishes. Young, interested in California's potential, gave his blessing to Brannan's mission, but ultimately he decided against all these options. He desired for his people a place apart, and he was through attempting to build common cause with non-Mormons. The apostles studied carefully the reports of John C. Frémont, who had explored the Great Basin, and concluded that its eastern edge, the valley around the Great Salt Lake, would serve as their new Zion.