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19th Century American History American West Latter-day Saint History

Winter Quarters: A Pioneer Legacy of Faith

The pioneers who settled Winter Quarters in 1846–48 left behind a legacy of faith that influences Latter-day Saints to this day.

Winter Quarters played a key role in the pioneer exodus of the Latter-day Saints. As many as one thousand pioneers died during the settlement’s temporary existence. It was also there that Brigham Young received his only canonized revelation. In this interview, Richard Bennett, president of the Mormon Trail Center at Winter Quarters, discusses the history and legacy of Winter Quarters.

What was the original destination of Brigham Young’s 1846 company?

The original Latter-day Saint plan of exodus, as laid out by Brigham Young and his colleagues of the Council of the Twelve Apostles, and with advice from various members of the Council of Fifty, was to locate a new “Zion” home for the Saints somewhere “over the Rocky Mountains.”

The Prophet Joseph Smith may have indicated on different occasions that the Saints would have to go west to escape mounting persecution, but he never specified a precise location. Nor did Brigham Young announce a firm destination, although he clearly felt that he would know the site when and where he laid eyes on it.

After lengthy deliberations in the Red Brick Store and much earnest prayer in the not-yet completed Nauvoo Temple, they zeroed in on some secluded “spot” in the “Upper California” (somewhere in today’s south-west United States) which could accommodate a million people but which no one else would want—a place of refuge and defense. Furthermore, they desperately wanted to find their new home “far away in the west” in 1846, not in 1847 so as to minimize criticism from apostates within and possible hindrances from without.

Their plan called for a wholesale leaving of Nauvoo beginning in the spring of 1846 and continuing thereafter, until the entire population of those willing and able to go west was on the road. If all were unable to go all the way west to their desired destination that same year, they were prepared to leave behind most of the body of the Saints at either Grand Island or Council Bluffs while a vanguard company of the Twelve pushed onward to find “the place which God for us prepared”, likely the Salt Lake Valley or, if not, some other suitable location in the Bear River country.

Why did Brigham Young establish Winter Quarters?

Brigham Young and other members of the Council of the Twelve Apostles who served under him in his capacity as “President of the Camp of Israel” had no other choice but to establish their “winter quarters” (a generic term then often used by fur traders and mountain men) in the region of Council Bluffs in the late summer of 1846.

The Latter-day Saint refugees who were among the first to struggle and slog across the mud fields of Iowa Territory did not reach the Missouri River valley until mid-June, far too late for a mass migration to the Rocky Mountains. As the ill-fated Donner Party would soon discover to their horror, crossing the Rockies too late in the fall was tempting fate.

When the vanguard company of the Twelve finally reached the Missouri River in mid-June, they found themselves in a conundrum: too late to cross over the mountains and impossible to go back east because of intensifying persecution.

Furthermore, the call of the 500-man Mormon Battalion by the United States Army of the West at Mt. Pisgah all but sealed their decision to winter at the Missouri.

How many Saints lived in Winter Quarters?

At its height, their Winter Quarters on Indian lands in what later became Nebraska counted 4,400 souls who lived the next two years in cabins, hovels, tents, and caves.

Approximately 4,000 other Nauvoo-transplants lived across the river in Miller’s Hollow, Iowa Territory, which they renamed Kanesville (after Thomas L. Kane), with as many as 2,000 others in groves and tiny hamlets up and down the Missouri River and at Richardson’s Point, Garden Grove, and Mt. Pisgah back along the Mormon Iowa Trail.

Other Saints found temporary residence in St. Louis and other river towns. By year’s end, some 12,000 Latter-day Saints had pulled up stakes and following covenants they had made earlier, were busily helping one another in a spirit of consecration and sacrifice to make their torturous way west.

What were conditions like for the Latter-day Saints in Winter Quarters during the winter of 1846–47?

As early as mid-April 1846 when William Clayton composed his memorable new hymn “All is Well” at Locust Creek, Iowa Territory (near present day Corydon), it was becoming increasingly obvious that many of the Saints would be called upon to pay their last “full measure of devotion” for the cause of reaching Zion. “And should we die before our journey’s through” became a chilling prophecy.

Utterly exhausted from their sojourn across the mud fields of Iowa, and facing an unforgiving and onrushing winter far from their warm Nauvoo homes, the Mormon Pioneers hastily built 538 log cabins and carved out numerous dugouts and caves before the winter set in. Not a few spent that first wilderness winter living in tents and wagons. Little wonder that many caught chills and fevers, while others, if not starving to death, went without fruits or vegetables eventually dying in the hundreds from scurvy, malnutrition, exhaustion, and exposure.

Faith has a price and at Winter Quarters and their other settlements, their faith was tested to the utmost. To their everlasting credit, most of them held firm to the cause of Zion and to the Restoration of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

How many Latter-day Saints are buried in the Winter Quarters Cemetery?

While at the very least 400 Latter-day Saints are buried in the Winter Quarters Cemetery in north Omaha (Florence), at least that many lie buried in Council Bluff cemeteries and in scores of other burial grounds in western Iowa.

We will never know the exact number of those who died that first winter, but it may have been as many as a thousand, half of whom were children, all of whom were buried mostly in unmarked, hastily dug graves up and down the Missouri River valley.

Why is Winter Quarters essential to understanding Doctrine and Covenants 136?

Section 136 of the Doctrine and Covenants—“The Word and Will of the Lord”—is Brigham Young’s only canonized revelation. Presented to the Saints on both sides of the Missouri River in January 1847 for their sustaining vote, it came almost a year before he was sustained formally as president of the Church. This inspired document soon became the revelation of the exodus, a message of enormous hope and encouragement.

At a time when hundreds were dying and some were quitting the Church, this revelation is critically important in Church History for at least three reasons.

First, though the Church then lacked a First Presidency (and would until December 27, 1847), the Lord reminded them that they were still called, still ordained, still on His errand even if they then did not know precisely where they were going.

Ironically, the revelation said nothing about an ultimate destination, but it did affirm that the Church still held the apostolic keys of salvation. “Now, therefore, hearken, O ye people of my church; and ye elders listen together: you have received my kingdom” (D&C 136: 41).

And the Saints understood that they would not go west under the direction of Sidney Rigdon, James Strang, Joseph Smith III or any other but “under the direction of the Twelve Apostles” (D&C 136:2). All will in due time be redeemed and like the children of Israel long before them, they will eventually find a new home and an eternal resting place. “Zion shall be redeemed in mine own due time” (D&C 136:18).

Second, although this revelation said much about the organization of the travelling companies to the west with captains over hundreds, fifties and tens which became so characteristic of the Mormon Trail exodus, the critical message was one of hope and obedience: it was not the trail but the trial that would bring meaning to all their sufferings.

Still worthy to be called God’s people, they would find their place if they followed their God:

Cease to contend one with another; cease to speak evil one of another . . . My people must be tried in all things, that they may be prepared to receive the glory that I have for them, even the glory of Zion.

Doctrine and Covenants 136:31

Finally, the recent martyrdom of their beloved leader, Joseph Smith and his faithful brother, Hyrum, that had cast such a pale of discouragement over so many, would be redeemed in the Lord’s time.

“It was needful that he should seal his testimony with his blood . . . Have I not delivered you from your enemies?” (D&C 136:39-40). In other words, the future of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was one of enormous surety and hope and they as Saints would play a great part in it.

Can the provenance of the Council of Fifty minutes be traced to Winter Quarters?

The Council of Fifty was of a Nauvoo construction and was designed to be more than a mere advisory body to the Twelve Apostles. Composed of mostly Latter-day Saints but including at least three non-members, it was meant to be the Provisional Government of the Kingdom of God upon the earth, to await Christ’s Second Coming at which time He would establish His permanent Kingdom and rule and reign throughout the Millennium.

Some members of the Council of Fifty disagreed with Brigham Young and broke from the Church at Winter Quarters—notably George Miller, James Emmett, and Alpheus Cutler—and promoted new destinations if not in the west then perhaps in Texas, Wisconsin, or Jackson County.

The Word and Will of the Lord was in many ways directed at these contenders for leadership.

What happens during a typical visit to the Mormon Trail Center at Winter Quarters?

Last year, even in a Covid-scarred time over 20,000 visitors came to the Mormon Trail Center in Omaha, Nebraska

Approximately 70% are Latter-day Saints who are taken on a tour of the Visitors Center and the Winter Quarters Pioneer cemetery across the street.

The mission of this and every other Church History site is not to proselyte or elicit referrals as it is to strengthen the faith and knowledge of the average member of the Church, particularly the rising generation, some of whom have searching questions about our history.

Our purpose is to bring the story of the “Mormon Pioneers” into full view while answering questions and confronting doubts in a household of faith and abundant knowledge. Our history is a “wonder and a marvel” as pioneer Helen Mar Kimball Whitney once wrote, “for those who will study it in all its ups and downs.”

How did you and your wife feel upon learning of your call to preside over the Mormon Trail Center in Omaha, Nebraska?

We certainly were not expecting it, nor did we seek it. But we are settled and happy in our conviction that it was inspired of God. We are thrilled to be here with wonderful fellow missionaries, young and old, who serve diligently and without remuneration.

And it doesn’t hurt to have the Winter Quarters temple just across the street!

What has your experience taught you about the Savior’s role in the lives of Winter Quarters pioneers?

The more we study the lives of the Latter-day Saint pioneers and their recurring sacrifices for the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the more we are convinced that without them, we may not have temples today. We might not even have this Church!

Little wonder that when President Gordon B. Hinckley dedicated the Winter Quarters Temple in 2001 he said that it will never be called the Omaha Temple—but always the Winter Quarters Temple in grateful acknowledgement of the faith in Christ of those remarkable men, women and children who we now all claim as our forebears in sacrifice and devotion and the cause they embraced.

Further reading

By Kurt Manwaring

Editor. History nerd. Latter-day Saint.

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