Sunday, January 17, 2016


In the spring of 1846, persecution-weary members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints were once again driven out of their homes, this time in Nauvoo, Illinois. It had been two years since the murder of their prophet and leader Joseph Smith and his brother Hyrum. The Saints were determined to "find the place which God for [them] prepared, Far away, in the West, Where none shall come to hurt or make afraid; There the Saints will be blessed." (From the LDS hymn "Come, Come Ye Saints.") The beginning of winter found most of them encamped on the Missouri River, either in a town on the east bank that the Mormons called Kanesville until 1852 (after which time it was called Council Bluffs), or in Indian territory on the west bank.

The east-side town was named for this American attorney, military officer, and abolitionist, Thomas L. Kane, who had met Jesse C. Little, a member of the LDS Church, in May 1846. Brigham Young had sent Little to Washington, D.C., to seek governmental help for the Mormon exodus, and Little had stopped at an LDS conference in Philadelphia. Kane, who was a new lawyer serving as a clerk in his father's court, had read about the exiled Mormons in the newspaper. His curiosity prompted him to attend the conference, where he was moved by the terrible plight of the Mormon refugees. Kane offered Little some legal advice and arranged a meeting for him with President Polk. Later, Kane encouraged President Polk to call up a Mormon militia to fight in the Mexican-American War, providing some much needed income to the poor travelers. This group became known as the Mormon Battalion. Kane also got President Polk to designate some Indian land along the western side of Missouri River for the Saints' use for two years. 

The Mormons were so grateful for Kane's intervention in their behalf that they renamed their settlement on the eastern side of the Missouri River, which had originally been dubbed Miller's Hollow, "Kanesville." (For more about Kane's ongoing relationship with the Mormons, see this article.) By the way, Iowa was given statehood on December 28, 1846, not long after the Mormons established their settlement there, making President Polk's intervention giving them legal rights to live in "Indian territory" on the other side of the river that much more important.

The Mormons spent the winter of 1846-1847 in Kanesville and across the river in the Nebraska Territory. After the martyrdom of Joseph Smith in 1844, a struggle for the Presidency of the Church had ensued, and by 1846 Brigham Young had emerged as the new Prophet and President. He directed the Saints in Kanesville to build a "tabernacle" that could hold as many people as possible for a conference in December 1847 at which the presidency of the church would be formally reorganized. About 200 men set to work cutting down trees, hauling lumber, and building the tabernacle, completing the structure in less than three weeks.
In the LDS Church, a tabernacle is a large building that serves multiple congregations in a geographic area. They were the precursors to today's stake centers, but were generally larger and more ornate. The Church continued to build tabernacles through the 1950s, about eighty in all, the most famous of which is the Mormon Tabernacle on Temple Square in Salt Lake City. 
Photo from Wikipedia
Most of the tabernacles have been destroyed or remodeled for different uses, including one in Provo built in 1898 that was being used as a cultural arts center. When it was gutted by fire in 2010, the decision was made to rebuild it as an LDS Temple, and it will be dedicated in March 2016. For more information, see this article.
Photo from here

Back to the Kanesville Tabernacle. At the time of its construction, it is thought to have been the largest log structure in the world. Upon its completion, about 1,000 members of the Church crowded inside on December 27, 1847, to sustain Brigham Young (who had already been to the Great Salt Lake Valley that summer to establish the Mormons' new home) as the Prophet and President of the Church:

It is hard to imagine 1,000 people fitting inside the tabernacle, which doesn't appear to be even as big as my house:

The original structure was damaged by spring run-offs in 1849 and was actually dismantled, but this reproduction was built during the Presidency of Gordon B. Hinckley and dedicated as a Visitors' Center by him in 1996:

This statue shows Heber C. Kimball, Brigham Young, and Willard Richards, the newly sustained First Presidency, "studying a map while contemplating the migration of thousands of Latter-day Saints to a new home in the West."
Sculpted by Stan Watts, 2003

Another statue on the grounds shows a pioneer family praying. Notes at the site point out that the viewer's attention is drawn by the mother's upturned face, which emphasizes her central role in both the family unit and in a spiritually strong society.
The Family, an Everlasting Heritage by Bill L. Hill

Nearby, important documents relevant to both the westward migration and the modern church are posted on plaques for visitors to read:
L to R: 1. "The Family: A Proclamation to the World"; 2. Information on how the First Presidency is reorganized; 3. "The Living Christ: The Testimony of the Apostles"; 4-5. "A Revelation for the
Pioneer Trek," Section  136 of the Doctrine and Covenants

It looks like the inside of the tabernacle is still being used for meetings, or perhaps for tour groups. I'm guessing these padded chairs are way more comfortable than the benches or standing-room-only that was part of the original meeting here:

That's Brigham at the pulpit. I'd like to see a current General Authority with this haircut:

About 70,000 Mormon pioneers migrated to the Salt Lake Valley. Most of them crossed the plains by covered wagon:

However, ten companies comprising 3,000 pioneers (about 5% of the total number) made the journey between 1856 and 1860 with only a handcart like the one below to hold their possessions:

During the winter of 1846-1847, many of the pioneers crossed the Missouri River to await spring on the western side. They called that settlement "Winter Quarters." Today there is a very nice bridge at the spot where they crossed that has been named for them:

I always thought the Mississippi River was the longest river in North America, but the Missouri is longer by twenty-one miles. For sheer volume, however, the Mississippi drenches the Missouri, discharging 593,000 cubic feet of water/second compared the Missouri's 86,340 cubic feet of water/second. Still, this river must have been very intimidating to the pioneers, even with the ferry they used to get across. Maybe that is why so many crossed in the winter when the ice was frozen:
The Missouri River

Now there is a Mormon Trail Visitors' Center on the Nebraska side of the river:

We could tell we were in the right place:

A very nice sculpture of a handcart-pulling pioneer family marks the entrance:
The sculptor was Kenneth W. Packer, son of Mormon Apostle Boyd K. Packer:

Another bronze by Kenneth Packer is inside, this time showing horses dragging a covered wagon through the snow. (Or is it a river?):

Various photos and artifacts tell the story of the trek, which began when the Mormons were forced out of Nauvoo between February and September of 1846:

Not all of the houses at Winter Quarters were as nice as this one, made from logs rather than sod:

The first group of settlers arrived on June 14, 1846, and during the winter of 1846-1847, 4,000 Latter-day Saints gathered on the western side of the river. True to form, although they knew their stay would be only temporary, the Mormons soon built an organized city and prepared fields for planting. A model shows a finished city that was abandoned by the end of 1848:

In spite of their industry, however, 359 people died from disease and malnutrition during the eighteen months the Mormons lived there, nearly half of them children under age three.
Infant Ezra Woodruff, Wilford and Phoebe Woodruff's other son, died just four weeks after his older brother Joseph.

A beautiful doorway leads to a large window that looks out over the adjacent Pioneer Cemetery. It's a peaceful, thought-provoking space:
Inside the little room above is a poignant painting by J. Leo Fairbanks, older brother of the better-known sculptor Avard Fairbanks. A mother kneels in the snow next to the mound of dirt covering her child while another child looks on. The grieving father props himself up against a tree, unable to view the scene. Shadows in the snow in the foreground show more graves being dug on the hillside:

Much more familiar is this small copy of Avard Fairbanks's Death at Winter Quarters. The father's arm around his wife still holds the shovel he has used to bury their child:

The pioneers were already weak as a result of their difficult trek across Iowa, and so they were especially vulnerable to fever and malnutrition. There was almost no fresh food, and the settlers lived mostly on corn bread. During the first year at Winter Quarters, about one in twelve Latter-day Saints died. Others were sick with scurvy, "black leg," and "canker." Accidents, childbirth-related deaths, and childhood diseases were also common.

Their trials notwithstanding, the Saints were anxious to get on the road, and by early summer of 1848, most of them had left Winter Quarters. The Museum has a lot of information about the trek to the Utah Territory. I like the display about the odometer invented by William Clayton and designed by Orson Pratt. It was attached to the wheel of one of the wagons. It was sized so that 360 revolutions of the wheel equaled a mile traveled. Gears also indicated the ten-mile mark.

The earliest pioneers knew there were many more who would follow in their footsteps, so they kept extensive records. William Clayton published a record of distances and trail conditions he titled the "Emigrant Guide," and Orson Pratt used a chronometer to determine the company's exact location. Clayton's notes and Pratt's detailed reports of latitude and longitude, altitude, and temperature were invaluable to future pioneers:

The museum has a first edition of the Book of Mormon on display. (One of these was valued at $100,000 on Antiques Roadshow in 2014.)

Across the street at the Pioneer Cemetery, the story of the Winter Quarters settlement is told:

Another copy of Avard Fairbanks' sculpture is here, this time life-sized. It isn't hard to picture live figures in place of the stone ones, although we had sunny weather instead of bone-chilling cold:
These words from "Come, Come Ye Saints" are at the base of the sculpture:
Around the statue are plaques that bear the names of the dead:
The monument is placed directly over the graves of an unknown child and seven other pioneers.

The markers of the original graves in Pioneer Cemetery, if there ever were any markers, are gone, but there are some for people buried here in later years:
They are scattered about in a haphazard fashion:
This one says "Baby Banks, Dec. 12 1902":

In June 1999 the Church announced that a temple would be built in Winter Quarters, adjacent to the Pioneer Cemetery. Dedicated by President Hinckley on April 22, 2001, it was the second temple to be built at a significant church history site (following the Palmyra Temple, dedicated April 6, 2000, and preceding the Nauvoo Illinois Temple, dedicated June 27, 2002).

At the groundbreaking ceremony, Elder Truman F. Clawson, who was the Visitors' Center director, referenced the Avard Fairbanks sculpture of the father and mother burying their child. He said, "Now today, on this end of the hill, we will take shovels in our hands to dig not a grave but the foundation of a special building, a temple, to be built for the blessing of all who choose to enter that they may also bind together forever their families. And so, the magnificent view from here allows us to contemplate both the past with its dead and the future represented by the beautiful new temple which begins today."


The persecution that led up to the flight from Missouri and Illinois, the temporary settlement here on the banks of the Missouri River, the cruel winter that added to the devastation already experienced by the pioneers, the tremendous losses suffered by so many, the indomitable spirit and tremendous faith that led those who survived across the plains to a new home in the Salt Lake Valley, and the present-day perspective offered by the temple built on this site--all are part of the story of Winter Quarters.


  1. Nice job pulling together the information on these sites.

  2. Lots of very interesting history. The details of Kane's connection to the church are compelling, as are many tragic pioneer struggles. I was surprised to read that Boyd K. Packer had an artist-son.