“On the Trail in January,” Ensign, Jan. 1997, 12
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.
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. , 1:222–23).
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 , 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).
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.)
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:
East Bank Missouri River
Miller’s Ponca Settlement
Total at the Missouri River
Between the Mississippi River and Garden Grove
Between the Nishnabotna River and East Fork Mosquito Creek
Burlington, Galena, Alton, etc.
St. Joseph, Savannah, and other northwest Missouri towns
Total in Iowa and Missouri
(Richard E. Bennett, Mormons at the Missouri, 1846–1852 , 90.)