Nauvoo is the beginning of the Mormon Pioneer National Historic Trail, which stretches 1,300 miles (2,090 kilometers) from the Mississippi River across the Great Plains and the Rocky Mountains to the Great Salt Lake Valley. A walk down Nauvoo’s Parley Street today evokes the faith, courage, and sacrifice required to follow prophetic leaders into an unknown wilderness in search of peace.
For more than five years, residents of Nauvoo were anxiously engaged in building up a city. However, in January 1845, the Illinois legislature revoked Nauvoo’s city charter, disbanding the police force, courts, and the Nauvoo Legion. All the normal legal avenues for protecting the Latter-day Saints were withdrawn. At the same time, false rumors and violence against Church members were increasing.
At first, Brigham Young called missionaries from among the Quorums of the Seventy to travel to neighboring counties and help dispel false impressions of Church members. He also entreated the state governor to intervene on behalf of the Latter-day Saints. The governor’s advice was to disperse from Nauvoo or else leave the state. Choosing to follow the Lord’s command to gather as a people meant that leaving Illinois was the only sensible alternative to mob violence. Church leaders asked for time and promised to leave Nauvoo by the summer of 1846.
Moving thousands of people would take time, money, hard work, cooperation, and plenty of inspiration. The Quorum of the Twelve met regularly over the course of 1845. They also convened a larger Council of Fifty as they sought information and divine direction about where to go and how even the poorest Latter-day Saints in Nauvoo could travel with them. Some of the council meetings took place upstairs in the Seventies Hall, where people could consult a library of books and maps as they weighed their options. By May 1845, the Council had a plan to travel to the Great Basin in the Rocky Mountains.
Chauncy, Edwin, Edward, Pardon, and Wesley Webb were brothers who had learned blacksmithing from their father. Edwin and Chauncy ran a smithy and wainwright shop next door to the Seventies Hall. Once the decision to leave Nauvoo was announced, the brothers’ skills and those of dozens of other smiths and carpenters were needed as the demand for wagons sturdy enough to cross the prairies increased. For months their forges shaped the iron tires, wheel hubs, and other metal wagon parts that were assembled within their wainwright shop. By January 1846, assembly at the Webb shop spilled over into other available spaces, including the main floor of the Seventies Hall.
With so much to coordinate as the days to departure grew nearer, Brigham Young spent much of his time away from home in counsel with others or serving in the nearly completed temple. That left his wife, Mary Ann Angell Young, to supervise preparations at home largely on her own. For weeks she and the five children at home—ages 1 to 11—gathered the suggested amounts of food, tools, clothing, and other supplies. Then on February 15, 1846, they closed the doors of their Nauvoo brick home for the last time and drove their loaded wagon down Parley Street before crossing the Mississippi River. Mary Ann did not keep a diary during those weeks, so we do not know what she felt about the sacrifices she was making. But many years later, Emmeline B. Wells recalled the positive example Sister Young had for her:
In the exodus from Nauvoo in the dead of winter with her family of small children, Sister Young was ever cheerful and buoyant; helping others in word and in deed; benevolent and hospitable in the extreme; her sympathy with the sick and suffering during that remarkable journey was in itself a blessing and a help.1
The pioneer trail of Latter-day Saints follows a similar route to others crossing North America in search of fertile soil and gold in California. But those who fled Nauvoo in 1846 were not just seeking land. They were religious refugees determined to stay on a covenant path. Those who walk down Nauvoo’s Parley Street today ponder what faith, courage, and sacrifice are required to follow a prophet’s guidance to a place where they can live the gospel of Jesus Christ and help others along the way.