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

By Matthew Bowman

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

If the Mormons had experience in anything, it was city building, and as might be expected, the plat of Zion again rose. Eight hundred cabins, tents, and sod houses stood divided into squares with wide straight streets. But the people were sick and exhausted, underfed and tormented by the rain and mud. In the "sickly season" of late summer malaria raced through the camp; in the winter, pneumonia and famine. The food was mostly corn bread and salted bacon. Some six hundred died. In the late fall the last stragglers from Nauvoo, the poor camp of those who could not or would not leave earlier that year, arrived, many carted to Winter Quarters in wagons sent back for them. They brought with them news of the battle for Nauvoo. The growing tension between the remaining Mormons and roving vigilantes had erupted during the second week of September when shots were fired between rival militia encampments, leaving the Mormons with no option but flight. Nauvoo stood almost empty by October, and there was no turning back.

When spring finally came, Brigham Young recruited an advance camp — 143 men, including six apostles, three women (Harriet Decker, whose asthma was exacerbated by the Missouri River air, and her daughter Clara, wives of the brothers Lorenzo and Brigham Young, respectively, and Ellen Sanders, a plural wife of Heber Kimball), and two children. Brigham was a shrewd leader, and he was determined not to repeat his mistakes. Though he agreed to take Harriet and her friends, he would otherwise limit this party to a relatively small group of selected men capable of traveling light and fast. He also timed their departure strategically. They left Winter Quarters on April 5. Brigham was determined to make the Salt Lake Valley by midsummer, to plant, build, and prepare the land for the thousands who were following more slowly. He organized his company into the familiar regimental tens, fifties, and hundreds commanded by the revelation naming them the Camp of Zion. Thomas Bullock, who provided some relief to William Clayton as camp clerk, recorded the orders: "At 5 AM the Horn should be blown & every man then arise & pray, attend to their cattle" so that the wagons could roll by seven. They would travel with a gun ready, for snakes and other vermin as much as for hostile Indians, and "halt for an hour to have dinner, which must be ready cooked." At night, the wagons would be organized in a circle with the horses and live-stock inside. Prayer was at eight-thirty, sleep at nine. By the end of the month they had made two hundred miles, following the Platte River across Nebraska through a dry and chilly spring.

The Mormon migration was like few others that ventured into the American West. Though they had built Nauvoo, the Mormons were inexperienced in the rigors of cross-continental travel. Many were British immigrants for whom the American continent itself was a strange wonder. They were chronically undersupplied. But that they traveled believing themselves to be God's people gave their camp an uncommon character. Theirs was the exodus of a true community: men, women, and children, all bound to the body of the Saints by the mystical force of priesthood and covenant. Though men were often pulled from their families and sent ahead in advance companies or posted at Garden Grove or Mount Pisgah, their wives still traveled with wagons and oxen and children. Families were separated, but all experienced the trail. Eliza Snow and others organized female blessing meetings through the familial networks created by plural marriage in which they prayed and prophesied and laid hands on one another to bless.

The Mormons never forgot that they were the new Israel. This may be Brigham Young's greatest achievement. He bound even more closely than had Joseph Smith the Mormons' sense of themselves as a covenanted people, specially chosen by God, to the practical work of building a community on earth. The distance between the sacred and the secular on the trail was vanishingly small. The captains of the companies routinely celebrated the Lord's Supper as they prepared decisions about when to move and what trail to take. The Sabbath was always observed; Thomas Bullock described one as "a day of rest for meditation, prayer, & praise. All was harmony, peace & love, and a holy stillness prevailed." On another such stop Brigham rebuked the camp for light-mindedness, cardplaying, and quarrelling, announcing, "I would rather risk myself among the savages with ten men that are men of faith, men of mighty prayer, men of God than to be with this whole camp when they forget God."

Try out the new DeseretNews.com design!
try beta learn more
Get The Deseret News Everywhere