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.
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.
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."
And as they had in Nauvoo, the Mormons found refuge and identity in art: in music and song and dance, activities that gave their spiritual unity tangible form. Music, as ever, was as the Western historian Wallace Stegner later described it: "their gift and their blessing, an expression of their oneness in the hostile wilderness." They would gather together around what fires they could maintain in the chill and rain and sing hymns — their own, such as W. W. Phelps's "Redeemer of Israel" and "Come, Come, Ye Saints," and traditional Protestant hymns such as "He Died! The Great Redeemer Died!" or "O God, Our Help in Ages Past." The Nauvoo band followed Brigham across Iowa, occasionally playing for money in towns, and across the Great Plains, offering accompaniment to the Saints at worship and at dance, which was a particular diversion from the bruising trail. Helen Mar Kimball, by then married to Horace Whitney, remembered how her company dealt with the chill of nights on the plains: "Everyone danced to amuse ourselves as well as to keep our blood in proper circulation." Eliza Cheney wrote from Winter Quarters that "we have good meetings and good music, and we are all as brisk as larks." And sometimes, at night, Eliza Snow would write poems exhorting her fellow Saints to "mourn not" for those that had gone on to their eternal reward.
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Their stubborn will to rejoice and refusal to be cowed reflected their providential orientation. The West the Mormons imagined themselves in was the wilderness of scripture, divinely prepared to test and reward them. But the West they settled was not empty and waiting to be tamed. Like every other group who sought to seize it, the Mormons found its spaces crowded, and they carved out their own claim less through the awesome proclamation of God than through negotiation, cooperation, and sometimes conflict. The Mormons struggled ceaselessly to bring their vision of a holy society into being.