Church History Lesson 35 (D&C 136)
PROMISED LAND JOURNEYS
While at Nauvoo, and before his martyrdom, the Prophet Joseph Smith said, “I prophesied that the saints would continue to suffer much affliction and would be driven to the Rocky Mountains; many would apostatize, others would be put to death by our persecutors or lose their lives in consequence of exposure or disease, and some of you will live to go and assist in making settlements and build cities and see the Saints become a mighty people in the midst of the Rocky Mountains.”1
The children of Israel made many Journeys out of the world and toward a promised land in ancient times. Abraham, Moses, Ezra, Nephi, and many other ancient prophets took the Lord’s people across challenging landscapes to permit them to live and worship in peace. The story of the Mormon pioneers in the latter days is the same, and is evidence that these were indeed the Lord’s people doing what the Lord’s people have done in every dispensation of the world.
During the Mormon pioneer period, (1847–1887), nearly 80,000 Saints crossed the plains. Men, women, and children walked over 1,000 miles to the Great Salt Lake Valley.
The Saints were not like other pioneers of the time:
—The trek west was born of a religious motivation.
—The Saints went alone, without guides, and chose not to follow the more common trails west. Instead, they blazed their own paths.
—They were mainly a destitute people without many provisions.
—Most of the pioneers were artisans, craftsmen, and so on rather than frontiersmen. They learned how to pioneer while they trekked across America.
—There were a greater percentage of women and children with the Saints than with other groups going west. They did not go west and leave their families in the east like so many others were doing.
—The Mormons were making two-way roads as they traveled. They were constantly going back toward the east as missionaries and to help emigrating Saints.
—They organized themselves into companies, called everyone together for prayers twice a day, etc.
A Temporary City of Saints
With the men of the Mormon Battalion gone on their march, energies were directed toward finding a suitable place for the Saints to spend the winter. By late July 1846 the Brethren concluded that a main encampment would be established on the west side of the Missouri River and other camps scattered throughout western Iowa.
In August, explorers located a temporary site, known as Cutler’s Park, three miles west of the river. But after negotiations with Indian tribal leaders, Church leaders established the camp closer to the river. An area near a proposed ferry site was selected and surveyed for 41 blocks, containing 820 lots within a large stockade. They built 700 log homes before Christmas of 1846, providing shelter for about 3,500 Saints.
As many as 2,500 Saints also lived in and around Kanesville on the Iowa side of the Missouri River.
The Beginning of Ecclesiastical Wards
A high council presided over the ecclesiastical, municipal, and educational needs of the community, and a police force maintained order. In early October, President Brigham Young divided Winter Quarters into 13 wards, but he soon increased the number to 22 to facilitate the care of the members of the Church. In November the high council voted for even smaller wards and “that every laboring man be tithed each tenth day to be applied for the benefit of the poor, or pay an equivalent to his bishop.” This was the first time in the history of the Church that members were divided into “wards” in order to provide for their spiritual and temporal welfare.
Life and Death at Winter Quarters
John R. Young (Brigham’s son) described Winter Quarters as “the Valley Forge of Mormondom.” Having been driven from their Nauvoo homes, many of the Saints were nearly destitute, with poor diets. He recalled his family’s diet of corn bread, salt bacon, and a little milk. He said mush and bacon became so nauseating that eating was like taking medicine and he had difficulty swallowing.
In spring and summer, their weakened condition made them susceptible to malaria.
When winter came and fresh food was no longer available, they suffered from cholera epidemics, scurvy, toothaches, night blindness, and severe diarrhea. He lived near the burial grounds there and witnessed the daily funerals that passed his door. That year, nearly 600 people died at Winter Quarters.
But all was not sorrow. Church meetings were held twice a week, and the sermons from the leaders raised the morale of the entire settlement. Many family meetings were held as well.
President Brigham Young encouraged the wards to celebrate with feasts and dancing.
Women often came together in neighborhood groups to gather food, quilt, braid straw, comb each other’s hair, knit, wash clothes, and read letters.
Men worked together in rounding up the herds that foraged on the prairie at the outskirts of the camp. They worked in the fields, guarded the perimeters of the settlement, constructed and operated a flour mill, and readied wagons for travel, often suffering from exhaustion and illness. Much of this work was an unselfish labor of love as they prepared fields and planted crops to be harvested by the Saints who would follow them. Throughout the winter of 1846–47, additional preparations were made for a continuing westward trek.
Preparing for the Trek to Utah
During the Fall of 1846 plans were laid for the westward trek. It was decided that a relatively small party should make the initial crossing of the plains to blaze a trail.
Wagons were built and outfitted, horses and oxen sturdy enough to withstand the rigorous 1,000–mile trip were procured, foodstuffs and other supplies were gathered, and sustenance and protection were arranged for those who remained behind.
Leaders sought information about the largely-uncharted regions of the West from traders and trappers. Father Pierre Jean DeSmet, a Catholic priest and missionary among the Indians of the Oregon country arrived in camp en route to St. Louis. He had visited the Great Salt Lake. The Brethren questioned him carefully.
A REVELATION TO THE PIONEERS
George Miller, a headstrong leader, argued with President Brigham Young over travel and settlement plans. Miller did not agree that the Twelve Apostles held supreme authority in the Church, and he took a small group of Saints to live among the Ponca Indians in northern Nebraska. President Young sought the will of the Lord on how to deal with Miller and his followers.
On 11 January 1847 he related a dream he had the night before where he discussed with Joseph Smith the best method of organizing the companies. Three days later he presented to the Church “the Word and Will of the Lord concerning the Camp of Israel in their journeyings to the West” (D&C 136:1). Some of those instructions included the following:
— The Lord required his people to keep his commandments and statutes (D&C 136: 1–4).
— The traveling camps of Zion were to be organized with captains of groups of 100, 50, and 10, and travel must proceed under the direction of the Twelve (D&C 136: 5). The Lord also commanded the Saints to provide for themselves food, clothing, provisions, teams, wagons, and other necessities.
— When they were organized, the Lord commanded the “captains and presidents” to decide how many Saints would go west the next spring (D&C 136: 6–7).
— Each company received its share of responsibilities to bear the burden of “the poor, the widows, the fatherless and the families” of those men who had enlisted in the army (D&C 136: 8–9).
Covenants of the Camp of Israel
The Saints were under covenant to keep the commandments and ordinances of the Lord (D&C 136: 19–42). Some of the specific requirements of their covenant were:
— Be humble—seek the counsel of the Lord. “If any man shall seek to build up himself, . . . he shall have no power” (D&C 136:19).
— Keep pledges or promises to fellow men (D&C 136:20).
— Do not covet goods or property of others (D&C 136:20).
— Keep the Lord’s name sacred (D&C 136:21).
— Love fellow men—control feelings (D&C 136:23).
— Keep the Word of Wisdom (D&C 136:24).
— Use edifying language (D&C 136:24).
— Be honest with neighbors (D&C 136:25–26).
— Be a wise steward over personal possessions (D&C 136:27).
— Praise the Lord in all activities (D&C 136:28).
Smith and Sjodahl said, “The Lord knew that the members of the Church would be weary and discouraged as they journeyed, and therefore he gave to them a remedy by which their despondency and discouragement could be overcome. They were to ‘praise the Lord with singing, and music, with dancing,’ with prayer and thanksgiving. This advice was followed, and after the camp was made for the, night, frequently someone with a violin furnished music for dancing and for singing the favorite hymns and melodies familiar to the group, and thus their spirits were revived.”2
— Seek comfort from the Lord when in sorrow (D&C 136:29).
— Have faith in the Lord (D&C 136:30).
— The need to be tested and tried in all things (D&C 136:31).
— Learn wisdom by seeking the Lord’s spirit (D&C 136:32–33).
— Regarding the martyrdom of Joseph and Hyrum Smith (D&C 136:38–40).
The Promises of the Lord
The Lord declared His portion of the covenant in the form of certain promises to the Saints:
Necessities of Life (D&C 136:10–11). Obedience to the Lord’s law would result in their having sufficient of the world’s goods to provide for their needs. Wealth was not implied, but adequacy was assured.
Enemies (D&C 136:17). He told the saints there was no need to fear their enemies. The saints were promised that the work of the Lord will prevail.
Redemption of Zion (D&C 136:18). This revelation was directing the Saints in a journey that would take them even further from the designated site of the city of Zion. Yet, the Lord reaffirmed His intention and promised the Saints He would yet redeem Zion and fulfill His word pertaining to that anticipated work.
Glory of God (D&C 136:37). People who keep their covenants with the Lord are pure in heart. Such people are promised that if they remained pure they will yet behold the glory of God.
Today, in retrospect, we see that the Lord has kept His promises. The saints are prospering; their enemies have not prevailed.
THE TREK TO UTAH
The “Camp of Israel”
Delegations went to each encampment to read the revelation and to announce the names of men President Brigham Young desired to go in the Pioneer Company and in the companies to follow.
The first or “advance” company was led by President Young. Eight of the members of this company were Apostles, and several had been with Zion’s Camp. They referred to themselves as the “Camp of Israel,” a highly symbolic name—this was the name of the Israelites in the wilderness under Moses’ direction.
The original idea was to handpick 144 men for the Pioneer Company—twelve for each of the twelve tribes of Israel—but as it turned out the original group consisted of 143 men (including three slaves of southern members), three women (wives of President Brigham Young, Heber C. Kimball, and Lorenzo D. Young), and two children.
Collectively they had a variety of pioneering talents and skills—mechanics, teamsters, hunters, frontiersmen, carpenters, sailors, soldiers, accountants, bricklayers, blacksmiths, wagon makers, lumbermen, joiners, dairymen, stockmen, millers, and engineers.
The company’s equipment included a boat, a cannon, seventy wagons and carriages, ninety-three horses, fifty-two mules, sixty-six oxen, nineteen cows, seventeen dogs, and some chickens.
The Mormon Trail to Utah
As the first pioneer company prepared to leave Winter Quarters, Parley P. Pratt returned from his mission to England and reported that President John Taylor was following with a gift from the English Saints.
The next day Brother Taylor arrived with tithing money sent by these members to aid the travelers, an evidence of their love and faith. He also brought scientific instruments that proved invaluable in charting the pioneers’ journey and helping them learn about their surroundings.
On 15 April 1847 the first company, led by President Brigham Young, moved out.
Wonderful sights as well as hardships awaited these travelers on their journey. Joseph Moenor recalled having a hard time but seeing things he had never before seen—great herds of buffalo and big cedar trees on the hills. Others remembered seeing vast expanses of sunflowers in bloom.
The Pioneer Company of 1847 traversed 1100 miles from Winter Quarters, near present-day Omaha, Nebraska, to the Salt Lake Valley.
Following the Platte River. Their route followed the broad and gentle Platte River valley for 600 miles to Fort Laramie in Wyoming. Other pioneers traveled on the south side of the river. The Mormons chose to travel on the north side.
William Clayton’s Odometer. William Clayton, the official camp historian, recorded accurate mileage for later emigrants. For the first few days this meticulous record keeper counted the monotonous revolutions of the wagon wheel to calculate the daily mileage. To relieve himself of this tedious task, he soon proposed using a mechanical odometer for the job. Scientific-minded Orson Pratt designed the device, and Appleton Harmon, an experienced woodworker, constructed it.
Chimney Rock, Wyoming. On 26 May the company passed Chimney Rock—a principal landmark in Wyoming—which was considered the halfway mark by emigrating Saints. It was near Chimney Rock that President Brigham Young and Heber C. Kimball expressed concern over the light-mindedness and profanity of some camp members who were holding mock trials and elections, gambling, and playing cards. Late one evening the two senior Apostles, moved by the Spirit, discussed calling the camp to repentance. The next day President Brigham Young spoke to the men plainly.
President Brigham Young said, “Give me the man of prayers, give me the man of faith, give me the man of meditation, a sober-minded man, and I would far rather go amongst the savages with six or eight such men than to trust myself with the whole of this camp with the spirit they now possess. . . . Do we suppose that we are going to look out a home for the Saints, a resting place, a place of peace where they can build up the kingdom and bid the nations welcome, with a low, mean, dirty, trifling, covetous, wicked spirt dwelling in our bosoms? It is vain! . . .
“If [the brethren] will not enter into a covenant to put away their iniquity and turn to the Lord and serve Him and acknowledge and honor His name, I want them to take their wagons and retreat back, for I shall go no farther under such a state of things. If we don’t repent and quit our wickedness we will have more hindrances than we have had, and worse storms to encounter.”3
The following day, Sunday, President Brigham Young convened a special meeting of the leaders. They went out on the bluffs, clothed themselves in their temple robes, and held a prayer circle. William Clayton said they “offered up prayer to God for ourselves, this camp and all pertaining to it, the brethren in the army, our families and all the Saints.” Thereafter a more saintly atmosphere prevailed in the camp.
Fort Laramie. They arrived at Fort Laramie on 1 June and halted for repairs. President Brigham Young celebrated his 46th birthday, and the camp was joined by some of the Pueblo Saints. At Fort Laramie they crossed to the south side of the Platte and followed the Oregon Trail for almost four hundred more miles to Fort Bridger.
Independence Rock. Independence Rock in Wyoming marked the beginning of the 96 mile route along Wyoming’s Sweetwater River. Today, the graffiti of emigrants from pioneer days to the present can still be seen carved in the rock. West of Independence Rock, their trail crossed the Continental Divide at South Pass. Somewhere southwest of there the Pioneers met Jim Bridger, who was not optimistic about their being able to plant crops in the Salt Lake Valley
Fort Bridger. On 7 July the pioneers reached Fort Bridger. Continuing south, they picked up the Reed-Donner trail into the Salt Lake Valley.
“This Is the Right Place”
This final phase of the trek was the roughest of the entire trip. President Brigham Young contracted mountain fever, and the company split into three groups—the vanguard, the main company, and the rear guard with President Brigham Young.
After 13 July, the third division, under the direction of Orson Pratt, moved ahead to chart the route and prepare a wagon road through what became known as Emigration Canyon.
Overall, the Camp of Israel traveled fast (3 months), arriving in the Great Basin on 21–24 July 1847. On 21 July, Orson Pratt and Erastus Snow caught the first glimpse of the Salt Lake Valley and shouted for joy at the sight. After a twelve-mile trip through the valley, the two men returned to camp. The advance company of pioneers entered the Salt Lake Valley on 22 July 1847 and immediately set up a crude irrigation system to flood the land and prepare for planting.
On 24 July, President Brigham Young and the rear company arrived at the mouth of Emigration Canyon. President Wilford Woodruff drove President Young in his carriage. When they came out of the canyon, he turned the carriage so that President Young could see the whole valley.
President Wilford Woodruff said, “While gazing upon the scene before us, he was enwrapped in vision for several minutes. He had seen the valley before in vision, and upon this occasion he saw the future glory of Zion and of Israel, as they would be, planted in the valleys of these mountains. When the vision had passed, he said, ‘It is enough. This is the right place. Drive on.”4
“Thoughts of pleasing meditations ran in rapid succession through our minds while we contemplated that not many years that the House of GOD would stand upon the top of the mountains while the valleys would be converted into orchard, vineyard, gardens and fields by the inhabitants of Zion and the standard be unfurled for the nations to gather there to.” “President Brigham Young said he was satisfied with the appearance of the valley as a resting place for the Saints and was amply repaid for his journey.”5
Settling in the Salt Lake Valley
Sunday, 25 July was a day of worship and thanksgiving. Members of the Twelve spoke at morning and afternoon meetings on the importance of industry and upright behavior.
For the first few days in the valley, there was some exploring to the north and south to determine the best place to settle. By 28 July, President Brigham Young’s decision about the location of a city was firm.
President Brigham Young and the Twelve climbed a mount-like promontory to the north which they named Ensign Peak (Isaiah 11), where they prophesied of Zion.
Expeditions were sent to investigate adjacent valleys. The Saints also discovered the enjoyment of bathing in the Great Salt Lake to the west and in some warm sulphur springs north of the city.
Between two forks of City Creek, President Brigham Young designated the lot where the temple would stand. The city would be laid out evenly and perfectly square from that point.
Within a week, a survey of the area had begun and men not engaged in farming were making adobes for a temporary fort, as protection from Indians and wild animals.
The Mississippi Saints and Pueblo “battalion boys” arrived in the valley and built a bowery for public meetings on the temple block.
The first child born in the valley was Elizabeth Steel, born to a Mormon Battalion family on 9 August.
Two days later the Saints mourned the death of the son of a Mississippi couple, three-year-old Milton Threlkill who had wandered from camp and drowned in City Creek.
Subsequent Pioneer Camps
Over the next two decades, approximately 62,000 Saints crossed the prairies in wagons and handcarts to gather to Zion.
Families made up the majority of the other ten companies that came in 1847 and in the ensuing years.
From all parts of America and from many nations, by many kinds of conveyances, on horseback or on foot, faithful converts left their homes and birthplaces to join with the Saints and begin the long journey to the Rocky Mountains.
The Saints came by the thousands, young and old. Women walked by the side of their husbands and on occasion drove their own teams.
1. History of the Church, 5:85.
2. Doctrine and Covenants Commentary, rev. ed. , 860.
3. William Clayton’s Journal, 191, 194, 197.
4. “Pioneers’ Day,” Deseret Evening News, 26 July 1880, 2.
5. Wilford Woodruff Journals, 24 July 1847.