'The Mormon People: The Making of an American Faith'

By Matthew Bowman

Published: Tuesday, Jan. 24 2012 1:00 p.m. MST

The first passages out of Nauvoo came in fits and starts, and many would remember that the trials of the first three hundred miles of the trail — the trek from Nauvoo across Iowa to the Missouri River — were the hardest. Every day or every other day for a month after a few advance scouts crossed the Mississippi into Iowa on February 4, 1846, a knot of Mormon men would gather at the end of Parley Street, where the road vanished into the river. There they grappled with wagons and oxen, loading chests and carts onto rafts and flatboats and steering them uneasily across the nearly mile-wide expanse of the Mississippi River, dodging ice floes and working through the chill of the February rain. After an ox lurched on one flatboat, ripping off the side and capsizing the boat, the Nauvoo police organized a regular ferry service that ran from dawn until after nightfall. On February 9, Joseph's widows Presendia and Zina Huntington crossed with their father, William, and their brothers. On February 12, Eliza R. Snow forded the river; two days later, Parley Pratt and his family followed. A day after that, Eliza's brother Lorenzo left, in the company of two more apostles, Willard Richards and George A. Smith, and, finally, on February 15, Brigham Young himself departed.

They headed for a place called Sugar Creek, seven miles into Iowa, where those who had crossed early gathered and waited for those that followed. A blinding storm began on February 19, and the Saints huddled in tents, while Eliza Snow composed a hymn: "Altho' in woods and tents we dwell / Shout, shout, O Camp of Israel." Upon his arrival Brigham Young climbed on top of a wagon and gathered his people around him. He divided the perhaps five hundred who had crossed into tens, fifties, and hundreds, directed them to plot a trek for the Missouri River, on the other side of Iowa, organized a lost and found and feeding arrangements for the animals, warned those who had guns to be careful with them, and promised them that they would yet reach Zion. Then he headed back across the river to attend to the last matters of church business in Nauvoo. As he wound his way back, he passed more Mormons heading toward Sugar Creek, a steady flow leaving Nauvoo behind.

On March 1 the four hundred wagons of the camp of Israel gathered their strength and lurched into movement. They made five miles that day from Sugar Creek and had to scrape snow from the ground where they pitched their tents that night. Each river proved an obstacle. Men and women waded the chilly waters and hauled the wagons across with heavy ropes. To provide for those who would follow, Brigham left camps at Sugar Creek, at Richardson's Point, fifty-five miles west of Nauvoo, and at Garden Grove and Mount Pisgah, a hundred miles farther. The men left planted crops and built log cabins and dug wells and established way stations for the great stream of Mormon wagons that would continue to flow across Iowa that spring and summer, and beyond, for the continuing tide of immigrants following the Mormon trail would persist for another two decades, until the railroad reached Salt Lake City in 1869.

The chill and the rain seemed constant, and with them came whooping cough and fever, dysentery, malaria, typhoid, and diphtheria, the painful black canker. When the rain stopped, giving the travelers a chance to clean the mud from their tents, the sun-dried ground brought out swarms of rattlesnakes. A line of gravestones trailed backward to Nauvoo, and the damp and mud made the going hard. As Hosea Stout recalled, "It was up and down sloughs on spouty ridges and deep marshes, and raining all the while. The horses would sometimes sink to their bellies." Wagons rarely made more than a few miles a day. There was never enough food, and when the camp halted for Sabbath worship, Brigham sometimes preached in aggravation against stealing from the local settlers and disciplined Saints who fell to fighting for resources. Both men Brigham Young left to preside at Garden Grove and Mount Pisgah, one of them Zina's father, William Huntington, would die before the year was out. Emily Partridge, another widow of Joseph Smith's, declared the huddle of small cabins on the dirty plains of Mount Pisgah "the most like nowhere" of any place she had ever seen.

The road was so hard that by June, Brigham's camp had reached only the Missouri River, three hundred miles across Iowa from Nauvoo, and came to a stop on land belonging to the Potawatomi Indians. Brigham had hoped that this advance party would reach the Great Salt Lake before the winter, but progress was so slow that he called a halt. They would wait a year. They had to: the hard road across Iowa had been devastating, far harder than expected, and Brigham knew his people were simply not healthy enough to continue. So on either side of the Missouri, in Nebraska and in Iowa, the Mormons settled in what they called Winter Quarters, a sudden city erected on the plains, designed to outlast the winter and to gather in the ten thousand or more Mormons scattered across the Iowa prairies behind them. After the winter had passed, an advance party would be sent to the Great Salt Lake to mark the path and plant crops in preparation for those who would follow.

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