It is impossible to share all I’d like to about what we’ve learned and experienced this week in a single post. Monday was Labor Day and the missionaries gathered for a tin foil dinner at the “beach” that evening. Tuesday and Wednesday were business as usual. Darrel mowed both days. On Wednesday I worked on my quilt for most of the day and felt good about the progress I made.
Thursday we headed for Winter Quarter’s Nebraska. We were immersed in the Church history of the area and were so grateful. Sadly, we are retired and just beginning to understand and appreciate the middle part of the saints’ trials and journey to the Salt Lake Valley. Too often in our study we jump from Nauvoo to Immigration Canyon in just a paragraph or two. For us that will never happen again. The middle part of the story is one of sacrifice and faith equal to its beginning and end. The middle is what connected the two and made the journey to Zion possible for thousands.
We first visited Mt. Pisgah. It was the second settlement designed for saints to rest and resupply their wagons on their journey west. Due to weather and mud, they traveled for four months rather than four weeks before arriving. Supplies for the saints and their livestock were dangerously low and the incoming saints at Mt. Pisgah arrived exhausted and hungry. Many were sick. Although estimates vary, at least 80 people died within their first year of residence. The cemetery at Mount Pisgah includes the graves of 300 Latter-day Saints, although only 63 names are listed on the monument.
In time conditions changed and homes were built. 1400 acres of buckwheat, corn, turnips, potatoes, peas, beans, pumpkins, and squash were planted. Saints who followed found rest and supplies at Mt. Pisgah. Residents prospered by selling crops to the gold rushers as well as straw hats made from the prairie grass, and maple syrup from groves nearly 15 miles away. At its height, Mount Pisgah had between 2,000 and 3,000 residents.
Within six years, Mount Pisgah’s residents were all gone. The settlement had served its purpose. When Church leaders called the Saints remaining in the Midwest to come to Utah, the Saints turned their backs on their rich farmland and makeshift homes and headed west leaving loved ones buried behind.
From there we visited the birthplace of John Wayne. We toured his birth home and museum. Darrel and I took a quick side trip to Elk Horn, Iowa on our way. It is the largest rural Danish settlement in the United States with an authentic Danish Windmill, the Museum of Danish America, and a nearby sculpture of The Little Mermaid.
That evening we attend the 7:00 p.m. session of the Winter Quarter’s Temple with the rest of the AOA missionaries.
Our 2nd day was so full that I’m not sure where to begin. Bob Sharpe, a local member and historian led the tour that morning.
- Fairview Cemetery. It was called, the “Old Burial Ground”, as it was the final resting place for many native Americans before the pioneers arrived. The estimated number of saints buried there is between 400-700. Most were in the years of 1846 and 1847 when exiled saints from Nauvoo and SE Iowa arrived.
- The Narrow River Park is the location where early saints first crossed the Missouri River. Here they build a ferry with three trolleys to transport loaded wagons to the Nebraska side.
The west side of the Missouri was considered Indian territory at that time. Brigham Young visited the chiefs and explained why the saints were there and of their need to stay a year or two. He said the Church would compensate them by repairing their guns, making a farm for the tribe, and hiring some of their young men to look after the Latter-day Saints’ livestock. Brigham said, “We are your friends and friends to all mankind. We will do you good and will give you food if you need it.”
The Winter Quarter’s Nebraska settlement became an instant city on the plains. It served as Church headquarters for less than a year, until the leadership moved west in 1847. By Christmas 1846, Church members had built a large stockade and about 700 homes ranging from solid, two-story structures to simple dugouts in the bluffs. Of its 4000 population 400 deaths were recorded during the winter of 1846–47. The majority were under the age of three.
3. We stopped at the present-day Iowa School of the Deaf in Council Bluffs. A marker for the Mormon Battalion Muster area is located near the entrance. It was near here that Thomas L. Kane carried official orders for five companies of men to assist in the War against Mexico. Another memorial commemorating the Grand Encampment is nearby. The saints’ encampment spanned nine miles to the east along what is now state highway 92. It was four miles wide and covered 36 square miles. It began in June 1846 and by August, 18-20,000 saints had gathered with over 60,000 head of livestock.
On July 24, 1846, nine of the Apostles and Bishop Newel K. Whitney held a counsel there. Thousands of saints were without homes. Five hundred of their best men had been enlisted. A decision had to be made about what to do next. Through prayer and inspiration, it was unanimously decided that the journey to the Rocky Mountains be delayed. By August 1846, the vast tent and wagon city was gone. A few saints crossed the Missouri River to prepare for the trip west. Most settled temporarily in more than 60 communities scattered throughout SW Iowa, where there were new sources of wood, water, and grass to sustain them and their livestock until they could begin their journey west.
- 3. We experienced a section of untamed, high grass prairie land. The native vegetation was thick and often nine feet high! Gratefully they traveled mainly on Dragoon roads, made by mounted military units, that were 4 feet and 8 inches wide. We couldn’t help but wonder how they kept track of their children while traveling. We also couldn’t imagine the number of chiggers and ticks living therein. It alone is a tribute to the pioneer’s fortitude and faith. Many were surviving on a daily rations of jerky, cornmeal, and hard tac. One dedicated mother took the hard tac and placed it in a Dutch oven overnight, hoping to soften it making it more palatable for her young children. In one of many miracles among the saints, when they awoke a fresh loaf of warm bread had replace it.
- 4. Hyde Park was the home and property of Orson Hyde, an Apostle. It had been 2 ½ years since Joseph and Hyrum had been martyred. The Quorum of the Twelve had directed the Church during this time. It was on this property that Brigham Young was sustained by nine of the Apostles on Dec. 5, 1846, as the Prophet and President of the Church with Heber C. Kimball and Willard Richards as counselors. Knowing that a solemn assembly would need to be held for the saints to sustain them as well, a tabernacle was built in three weeks’ time for that purpose. On Dec. 27, 1846, a thousand saints gathered to sustain the new First Presidency.
This tabernacle was the location of Oliver Cowdery’s return to the Church. Orson Hyde was speaking to a congregation when a knock came at the door. Orson recognized Oliver as he entered. Oliver had conferred the priesthood upon Elder Hyde. He rushed from the stand and the men embraced. Orson invited Oliver to speak to the group, many of whom were converts who did not know him except by name. Oliver offered a powerful testimony as his final public witness to all he had seen and experienced with Joseph Smith. Oliver said, “brethren for a number of years I have been separated from you. I now desire to come back…I seek no station. I wish only to be identified with you. I wish to come in at the door. I know the door. Elder Hyde rebaptized Oliver on Nov. 12, 1848, in Mosquito Creek.
- 5. Council Point or emigration landing. During the time of the saints, this was a busy town with a port on the Missouri River. Steamboats came bringing saints and needed supplies. Many converts traveling from St. Louis joined the saints at this point. In 1854 the Missouri River flooded from days of torrential rain. When it subsided, the river followed a new channel some two miles away and the town dried up as well.
That afternoon we visited the Trail Center in Winter Quarter’s Nebraska for a tour. Against the backdrop of our experiences in Missouri, Iowa and Illinois and our tour that morning, displays charting the saints’ journey from Nauvoo to SLC meant so much more to us.
That evening we enjoyed dinner with Dawn Mckee and her grandson, Dawson. Jake served his mission in the Omaha, Nebraska Mission 18 years ago. He was instrumental in converting Dawn and we were at her baptism when we picked him up from his mission. It was a joy and a pleasure to spend the evening with this faithful, good woman.
After sunset we walked the 3000-foot-long Bob Kerry Pedestrian bridge that links Iowa and Nebraska together over the Missouri River.
Saturday morning, we visited the Pioneer Courage Park. A three-block area stands as a tribute to the bravery, courage and spirit of a generation that left its indelible impact on the area. All the sculptures are 1.25 times that of life-size.
On our way out of town, we visited the Florence Mill which is the only surviving building built by the pioneers in Winter Quarter’s, under the direction and with the help of Brigham Young. It felt good to be back at AOA. We are protected from much of the commotion and chaos in the world and we love that. The post was long and contained little of what we saw and felt. I plan to make a book to include it all. Hopefully, something has sparked an interest to learn more about the middle part of the trek from Nauvoo to Salt Lake. Faith in every footstep sums it up. Many never reached the Zion they envisioned in this life, but the legacy left for those who followed includes the foundation on which we now build. We owe so much to these blessed, honored pioneers!