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On Winter Quarters

Sometimes called the “Valley Forge of Mormondom”, Winter Quarters was the primary (thought not exclusive) location that Latter-day Saints in the United States of America lived between their forced exodus from Nauvoo and their efforts to move westward to the Great Basin region. In a recent interview with Richard Bennett, Kurt Manwaring discussed the history and legacy of Winter Quarters with the president of the Mormon Trail Center at Winter Quarters.  What follows here is a co-post to the interview (a shorter post with quotes and some discussion), but feel free to also read the full interview here.

As the Latter-day Saints planned to leave Nauvoo due to increasing hostility from their neighbors, they had to explore options for where to go next.  Richard Bennett explained some of what their plan was when they began to evacuate Illinois in 1846:

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.

Perhaps the most famous story of Joseph Smith giving indications it the so-called “Rocky Mountain Prophecy”, which is based on a recollection by a Latter-day Saint and included in the Documentary History of the Church retroactively.  There isn’t a prophesy about this that is written by Joseph Smith or available in contemporary sources, however, which is why Bennett only said that President Smith “may have indicated on different occasions that the Saints would have to go west” (emphasis added).

In any case, this trek didn’t quite go to plan in 1846, with storms and mud in Iowa leading to significant delays.  These complications to their efforts led to the creation of 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.

They spent the winter near where Omaha, Nebraska is today, along with a constellation of smaller settlements along both sides of the Missouri River, with some remaining there for years.  Even with this approach to wintering, though, it was not an easy time the Latter-day Saints, and many died due to exhaustion, deprivation, and sickness:

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. …

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.

This aspect of the Saints’ time in Winter Quarters is what has led to it being called the “Valley Forge of Mormondom”, recalling the difficult winter encampment of the Continental Army during the U.S. War of Independence in 1777-1778.  Many of the Saints were able to make their way west to what would become Utah Territory in 1847 (including the vanguard company, but also many who left later in the year), but due to a variety of factors, some Saints weren’t able to make the trek until later on.

One aspect of this era of Church History that has received increasing attention is the role of the Council of Fifty in organizing and leading the Church (being the subject of an important publication in the Joseph Smith Papers Project).  Richard Bennett spoke briefly about this organization during the interview (even though he didn’t directly answer the question he was asked on the subject):

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.

Some of these would continue to be their own religious movements among Latter-day Saints, with the Cutlerites being the main example (though small in number, they are still around today, and have historically been concentrated in Missouri and Minnesota).  For the most part, though, the Council of Fifty continued to play a role in coordinating and leading the Church during Brigham Young’s (and even John Taylor’s) administration.

With the refugee Saints eventually moving on from Winter Quarters, what is the purpose of having a historic visitor’s center there with the pioneer cemetery and a temple?  Bennett answered that:

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.”

For more information about Winter Quarters, its history and current status, hop on over to the full interview with Richard Bennett here.

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