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On the church history trail

Published: Monday, July 15 2013 5:00 a.m. MDT

This image shows the monument marking the area where the Prophet Joseph Smith was born near Sharon, Vt., on Dec. 23, 1805. The Smith family was renting the home and some acreage on a 100-acre farm owned by the Prophets maternal grandfather, Solomon Mack.

Kenneth Mays

As marvelous as books and photos are, there is something special about visiting LDS Church historical landmarks, trails and sites in person.

That's how Kenneth Mays, a Church Educational System instructor and a church history enthusiast, feels about it.

"There are feelings that one can feel when visiting a church history site ...," Mays said. "There is a connection that never seems to happen in a book. There is a new reality that emerges. It becomes more than just a story. … It becomes so much more real."

To illustrate his point, Mays, who serves as a bishop in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, recalled visiting the Sacred Grove in Palmyra, N.Y., where Joseph Smith had the First Vision. He didn't feel anything.

Yet on another occasion, while standing in a Nebraska cornfield where pioneers would outfit their wagons for the long journey west, he had a very personal spiritual experience.

"So how do I not feel something in the Sacred Grove but I do in a Nebraska cornfield?" he said. "The point is there are feelings you feel that you don't feel in other places."

Each year countless Latter-day Saints and tourists visit church history sites all over the United States to learn about the church's rich history and create lifelong memories. The most prominent sites stretch from Sharon, Vt., to locations in New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Missouri, Illinois, Utah and beyond.

"As marvelous as books are, there is just something about being there," Mays said.

Sharon, Vt.: Joseph Smith, the future founder and prophet of the LDS Church, was born in a cabin near Sharon on Dec. 23, 1805. His parents, Joseph and Lucy Smith, were the parents of three children when they rented the Dairy Hill home from Lucy Mack Smith's father, Solomon Mack.

The Prophet Joseph Smith himself likely had no personal recollection of the site because his family moved to another home when he was young. But his nephew, President Joseph F. Smith, authorized Junius F. Wells to purchase what was once the Mack farm, including the birth site of the Prophet. In 1905, a memorial cottage and granite monument were erected at the site. Both sites were dedicated by President Smith on Dec. 23, 1905, the 100th anniversary of Joseph's birth.

Palmyra and Fayette, N.Y.: In the spring of 1820, 14-year-old Joseph Smith walked into a grove of trees near his home to pray. He was visited by God the Father and his son, Jesus Christ, initiating the restoration of the gospel. During the course of the next decade, Joseph took steps to translate and publish the Book of Mormon. On April 6, 1830, the church was officially organized in Fayette. In February 1831, Joseph and his wife, Emma Smith, along with other Latter-day Saints, departed for Kirtland, Ohio.

Harmony, Pa.: The Susquehanna River is located in the Oakland Township (formerly the town of Harmony), Pa. This is where Joseph Smith met and married Emma Hale in the late 1820s. He began translating the gold plates in their small home near the river. While translating, Joseph and Oliver Cowdery prayed near the river to learn more about baptism. Their prayer was answered when John the Baptist appeared on May 15, 1829, and conferred the Aaronic Priesthood on the two men. Joseph and Oliver then entered the river and baptized each other. Soon thereafter, Peter, James and John appeared on the banks of the river and conferred on the men the Melchizedek Priesthood.

The LDS Church is in the process of restoring buildings and monuments near the present-day town of Susquehanna.

Kirtland, Ohio: The headquarters of the LDS Church was primarily in Kirtland from 1831 to 1838. Two significant events that occurred in Kirtland were the organization of the Quorum of Twelve Apostles on Feb. 14, 1835, and the dedication of the Kirtland Temple on March 27, 1836.

Visitors can tour the Newel K. Whitney general store, now restored to its 1830 condition. Joseph Smith lived here for a time and established the School of the Prophets in one of the upper rooms.

The home of John and Alice Johnson is located in Hiram, Ohio, a 40-minute drive from Kirtland. Joseph and Emma Smith lived in the home in 1832 when Joseph and Sidney Rigdon received the revelation that became Doctrine and Covenants 76. Joseph also worked on the Joseph Smith Translation of the Bible in this home. It is also where a mob of apostates and anti-Mormons severely beat and tarred and feathered Joseph and Sidney. The landscape is still very much what it would have looked like in 1832. The home has been restored to its original beauty.

Missouri: The Lord identified Independence, Jackson County, as the center place of Zion in July 1831. But violent mobs forced the Saints out of Jackson County in November 1833. Members of the church then gathered in Clay County from 1833 to 1836. Joseph Smith and other church leaders were unjustly imprisoned in Liberty Jail from December 1838 to April 1839. From 1836-38, Far West was a gathering place for the Saints. They were later forced to flee to Illinois by 1839.

There is a visitors center at the restored Liberty Jail, where the Prophet Joseph Smith spent approximately five months and received three revelations.

Another recommended site is the Far West temple site. In the late 1830s, Far West was the home of 3,000 Saints. A temple site was dedicated and the cornerstones were laid before the people were driven out.

Adam-ondi-Ahman, a quiet, picturesque valley located near Gallatin in northwestern Missouri, is another place to visit. A historic marker indicates the valley where about 1,000 Saints settled in 1838 before being expelled.

Nauvoo, Ill.: Nauvoo was the headquarters of the church from 1839 to 1846.

In March 1842, the Relief Society was organized.

The Prophet Joseph Smith and his brother Hyrum were martyred on June 27, 1844, in the Carthage Jail. Saints began crossing the Mississippi River to travel west in February 1846.

The Nauvoo Temple was built in the 1840s and destroyed by fire in 1848. It was later rebuilt and dedicated in 2002. Today, Nauvoo is one of America’s premier historic communities. Visitors can explore more than 40 historic sites from the 1840 time period.

Council Bluffs, Iowa, and Winter Quarters, Neb.: The pioneers arrived at Council Bluffs, Iowa, in June 1846. Members of the Mormon Battalion departed on July 21 of that year to assist the U.S. military in the Mexican-American War. Across the Missouri River, Mormon pioneers built a temporary settlement at Winter Quarters with more than 800 cabins during the winter of 1846–47 while they waited for better conditions for their trek westward.

While witnessing a glimpse of the “Mormon Migration,” visit the one remaining headstone and approximately 300 unmarked pioneer graves in the cemetery. The cemetery is next to the Winter Quarters Temple and across the street from the Mormon Trail Center in Omaha, Neb.

Fort Laramie and Guernsey, Wyo.: Named for the French trapper Jacques LaRamie, the fort was a trading post before it became a U.S. military outpost in 1849. It served as a rest and re-supply stop on the trail for Saints traveling to the Salt Lake Valley.

A national historic park is located a short distance away in Guernsey, Wyo. At the park, visitors can see a half-mile of the exact trail followed by the pioneers thanks to deep ruts carved into the rocky terrain by wagons and the wheels of handcarts.

Devil’s Gate, Wyo.: Devil’s Gate was a major landmark on the trail west. Anyone coming, whether they were going to Utah, Oregon or California, walked past the deep gorge on the Sweetwater River, a few miles southwest of Independence Rock.

Martin’s Cove, Wyo.: Having started late from Iowa and suffering numerous hardships along the way, two handcart companies under the leadership of Captains Edward Martin and James G. Willie were caught in early winter snows near the Continental Divide in the winter of 1856. About 200 died of exposure and starvation before rescuers from the Salt Lake Valley found them near Martin’s Cove in early November.

Visit the Mormon Handcart Visitors' Center at Martin's Cove, pull a handcart and view exhibits recording the tragic circumstances of two handcart companies.

Rocky Ridge and Rock Creek Hollow, Wyo.: At 7,300 feet, Rocky Ridge is the highest point on the Oregon-Mormon Trail. The rocks are large and slippery. Because of extreme weather conditions, this site was perhaps the most challenging on the trail for the Willie Handcart Company of 1856.

Several miles west of Rocky Ridge was a campsite known as Rock Creek Hollow. This site is best known as the place where on Oct. 23-24, 1856, 13 members of the Willie Handcart Company died on the same night and were buried in a common grave. Several more died the next morning. There is a monument at Rock Creek Hollow dedicated to those who died after crossing Rocky Ridge.

Fort Bridger, Wyo.: Established in 1842 by famous mountain man Jim Bridger, the fort marked where the Oregon, California and Mormon trails separated.

It was obtained by the Mormons in the early 1850s, and then became a military outpost in 1858.

Sante Fe, N.M., and Pueblo, Colo.: While passing through Santa Fe, Philip Cooke assumed command of the Mormon Battalion in October 1846. From Santa Fe, three sick detachments of the battalion were ordered to Pueblo, Colo., to recuperate, where they spent the winter of 1846-47 with Saints from Mississippi. These parties entered the Salt Lake Valley in July 1847. The rest of the battalion marched on to California.

As they marched the streets of Santa Fe, the battalion would have passed the Chapel of San Miguel, originally built in 1626. The chapel's sculpture of San Miguel, the church's patron, was carved in Mexico in 1709. In 1710, the chapel was completely rebuilt. Later, in 1859, it became a part of Saint Michael's College.

San Diego, Los Angeles and Sacramento, Calif.: The Mormon Battalion completed its 2,000-mile march in San Diego on Jan. 29, 1847. Today, visitors can tour an LDS visitors center in Old Town San Diego State Historic Park.

The battalion was discharged from the military in Los Angeles on July 16. Today a pioneer monument can be found at Fort Moore.

Some discharged battalion members worked at Sutter’s Mill, near Sacramento, when gold was discovered in January 1848. Today, the site of the mill is located on the South Fork of the American River, where Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park is registered as a California historical landmark.

Salt Lake Valley: President Brigham Young entered the Salt Lake Valley on July 24, 1847. Salt Lake City has served as church headquarters since that time.

A granite structure near the mouth of Emigration Canyon was unveiled in 1947 to commemorate the centennial of the arrival of the Mormon pioneers into the Salt Lake Valley. Today, "This is the Place" monument also pays tribute to the trappers, Native Americans and others who played a pivotal role in the history and settlement of the stark desert valley that would become the headquarters of the church.

The towering structure is located on the south end of This Is the Place Heritage Park and is just a short walk east from the more recently dedicated Mormon Battalion Monument Plaza.

Email: ttoone@desnews.com Twitter: tbtoone

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