On the Trail in January
January 1997

“On the Trail in January,” Ensign, Jan. 1997, 12

Faith in Every Footstep 1847–1997

On the Trail in January

The following representation of events that took place in January 1847 is provided as part of the sesquicentennial celebration of the arrival of Latter-day Saint pioneers to the Salt Lake Valley in July 1847.

In January 1847 some 12,000 Saints were waiting out the winter in hundreds of camps along the Missouri River 40 miles north and south of present-day Council Bluffs, Iowa. Unable to reach the Rocky Mountains as planned in 1846, they intended to head west as soon as spring returned. President Brigham Young, the Quorum of the Twelve, and up to 5,000 Saints were at the headquarters camp called Winter Quarters, north of today’s Omaha, Nebraska, living in log cabins, dugouts, wagons, and tents.

Description of Winter Quarters

In a diary entry dated 2 January 1847, police captain Hosea Stout described Winter Quarters and its more than 700 homes: “The place has the appearance of a log town some dirt ruffs & a number of caves or ‘dug outs’ made in the bankes sometimes called ‘Dens.’ … The town would be hard to set on fire and burnt down for there are so many dirt toped & dirt houses.

“The city is divided into 22 wards & has a Bishop over each ward. … The poor are uncommonly well seen & attended to. … The Seventies Quorum have established a factory [for] manufacturing willow baskets and are now employing some 20 or 30 hands. … This gives employment to those who have no other means of supporting themselves. … Doctor Willard Richards has a house with 8 sides and covered with dirt, & forms an oval and is called by the names of the Octagon, potato heap, apple heap, coal pit [etc.]. … Our herds and flocks are wintering well on the rushes” (On the Mormon Frontier: The Diary of Hosea Stout, 1844–1861, ed. Juanita Brooks, 2 vols. [1964], 1:222–23).

The “Word and Will of the Lord”

On 11 January, President Young met with several leading elders and told them of a dream he had wherein the Prophet Joseph Smith visited with him and “conversed freely about the best manner of organizing companies for emigration.” Three days later, on 14 January, President Young met at Heber C. Kimball’s home with Elders Kimball, Willard Richards, Orson Pratt, Wilford Woodruff, George A. Smith, Ezra T. Benson, and Hosea Stout, who acted as clerk. He then “commenced to give the Word and Will of God concerning the emigration of the Saints and those who journey with them” (Manuscript History of Brigham Young, 1846–1847, ed. Elden J. Watson [1971], 502).

That revelation, known as the “Word and Will of the Lord” (now D&C 136), instructed those going west to organize into companies, “with a covenant and promise to keep all the Commandments & Statutes of the Lord our God” (On the Mormon Frontier, 227; cf. D&C 136:2). Companies needed a president and two counselors at the head and then captains of hundreds, fifties, and tens, with the Twelve exerting overall leadership. Hosea Stout, after recording the revelation in his diary, commented that it “was to me a source of much joy and gratification to be present on such an occasion and my feeling can be better felt than described” (On the Mormon Frontier, 229).

Two days later, on the 16th, the revelation was laid before a council of Church leaders who, Stout said, “received it as a revelation with joy and gladness” (On the Mormon Frontier, 229).

In the days that followed, leaders gathered their companies together. By vote, the people covenanted to obey the revelation’s stipulations and to assist the needy (see Journal of Horace K. Whitney, Jan. 1847, LDS Church Archives).

Newel Knight and the Ponca Camp in Nebraska

Three wagon companies of some 500 Saints were encamped 120 miles up the Missouri River from Winter Quarters among the Ponca Indians. Ponca Camp, as it was called, was led by Bishop George Miller and a 12-man high council, all of whom were in constant contact with President Young and the rest of the Twelve at Winter Quarters. Newel Knight, longtime friend of the Prophet Joseph Smith since their residence in New York in the 1820s, was a high councilor at Ponca. With Newel were his wife, Lydia, and six children. When Indians set fire to the prairie in December, a dry and warm month, the fires threatened Ponca Camp’s 110 hewn-log cabins. Everyone fought off the fires and saved the fort, but the Saints lost stacks of hay and some wagons. After the fire danger passed, Newel, exhausted by the labor, became very ill. In his final diary entry, dated 4 January 1847, Newel expressed hope that “the Lord’s presence” would go before modern Israel as with ancient Israel “while we are journeying in the wilderness” (Diary of Newel Knight, 4 Jan. 1847, LDS Church Archives). He died on 11 January, probably of pneumonia, one of 23 Saints who died and were buried in the camp’s burying ground two miles west of the fort.

Widow Lydia, who trusted in her life motto that “God Rules,” gave birth to their seventh child seven months after Newel died. She brought the family west in 1850. In 1908, son Jesse Knight erected a stately monument at the Ponca Camp site just west of present Niobrara, Nebraska, to honor Newel and others buried there that winter of 1846–47. (See William G. Hartley, “They Are My Friends”: A History of the Joseph Knight Family, 1825–1850, pp. 169–180.)

Midwestern U.S. LDS Population, 31 December 1846

At the end of 1846, many members of the Church were scattered over a vast terrain stretching from Nauvoo westward to Winter Quarters. Research suggests the following distribution of midwestern U.S. membership at that time:

Winter Quarters


East Bank Missouri River

2,500 (est.)

Miller’s Ponca Settlement


Lathrop Settlement


Total at the Missouri River


St. Louis


Between the Mississippi River and Garden Grove

500 (est.)

Between the Nishnabotna River and East Fork Mosquito Creek

500 (est.)

Mormon Battalion


Mount Pisgah


Garden Grove



50 (est.)

Burlington, Galena, Alton, etc.

300 (est.)

St. Joseph, Savannah, and other northwest Missouri towns

200 (est.)

Total in Iowa and Missouri


Grand total


(Richard E. Bennett, Mormons at the Missouri, 1846–1852 [1987], 90.)

  • William G. Hartley, an associate professor of history and a research professor at the Joseph Fielding Smith Institute at BYU, teaches Sunday School in the Riverside Third Ward, Murray Utah North Stake.

Photo by Welden Andersen

Willard Richards—shown with his wife, Jenetta, and son, Heber John, in an 1845 family portrait.

[The Richards family] lived in an unusually shaped house and office while at Winter Quarters.

A Tragedy of Winter Quarters, bronze sculpture by Avard T. Fairbanks

Ponca Camp Memorial in Nebraska honors those who died here during the winter of 1846–47. (Photo courtesy of Darrell V. Knight.)

Between fall 1846 and spring 1848, Winter Quarters, Nebraska, served as a place for Latter-day Saints to regroup and prepare for the trek to the Salt Lake Valley. (Winter Quarters 1846–1847, by C. C. A. Christensen; owned by Jeanette Holmes.)

Sugar Creek, by C. C. A. Christensen