Winter Quarters: Church Headquarters, 1846–1848

“Winter Quarters: Church Headquarters, 1846–1848,” Ensign, Sept. 1997, 42–53

Winter Quarters:

Church Headquarters, 1846–1848

At this Missouri River refuge site, plans for the prophesied trek west were settled, discipleship and loyalty were tested, and the First Presidency was reestablished.

The history of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints from 1846 to 1852 is a story of transition and severe hardship. It is also a story of triumph. Well known in Church history is the pioneers’ arrival in the Salt Lake Valley; lesser known, however, are several important events occurring along the way—especially at their 21-month Winter Quarters stopover on the Missouri River.

Having made the difficult decision to leave behind Nauvoo and mounting persecution, Brigham Young, President of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, led members into the western wilderness, resting for a time on the banks of the Missouri River. During this trying period much of lasting importance occurred: the 500-man Mormon Battalion was raised, new patterns of worship and charitable service were initiated, revelations were received, and the First Presidency was reestablished—all amid formidable obstacles.

For most of the more than 10,000 Latter-day Saints who congregated along the Missouri and in nearby temporary settlements in the winter of 1846–47, this difficult period was one of faith; for some others, one of falling away. Yet amid their turmoil and trials, the Lord’s guiding hand proved constant. The pioneers learned, as President Young declared in 1847, that “the Church had been led by Revelation just as much since the death of Joseph Smith as before.”1

Reaching the Missouri

The musket balls that pierced the Prophet Joseph Smith at Carthage on 27 June 1844 were also aimed at the heart of the Church. Nothing short of a mass exodus, unlike anything seen in American religious history, would answer the cry that the Saints either leave Nauvoo or risk being slaughtered on its streets. “For the salvation of the Church,” President Young and his colleagues in the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles determined to abandon their beloved “City of Joseph” in early 1846 and embark on an uncertain pilgrimage west. Brigham Young, sustained as president of the Camp of Israel, was determined to locate a new home in “the Rocky Mountains,” where Latter-day Saints could worship without persecution.2

The advance party, the “Company of the Twelve,” began crossing the Mississippi River on 4 February 1846. The early plan was to reach the Missouri River by mid-April, plant crops along the way for those coming behind, establish camps somewhere west of the Missouri River as farms or way stations, and “dispatch a swift company across the mountains with seeds … for a spring and summer crop”—all in 1846.3 But the trek across Iowa was so fraught with delays, broken plans, exhaustion, and sickness that the camp did not reach the Missouri until 14 June.

Unfortunately, problems caused by their hasty departure from Nauvoo slowed their progress, as did melting snow, heavy rains, swollen creeks, and mud everywhere—as deep as the wagon bottoms. Consequently, the camp inched its way west, establishing farms at Garden Grove and Mount Pisgah in central Iowa and constantly adjusting travel plans until the camp arrived at the Council Bluffs region of the Missouri River two months behind schedule. With encampments sprawled over high bluffs and open prairie in sight of Pottawattamie Indian villages and with the season being too late for an over-the-mountains expedition, President Young evaluated their alternatives.

Fearful that a rumored U.S. Army of the West might appear at any time to block their exodus, the Latter-day Saints were more than a little surprised—even though they had sought government work contracts—to be invited to become part of that very army. At the invitation of Captain James Allen, President Young was asked to raise a 500-man Mormon Battalion in response to a federal call for men to enlist to fight in the recently declared war against Mexico. The camp badly needed money that would come from the clothing advance and soldier pay that recruits would receive. Furthermore, raising the battalion allowed Church leaders to extract government permission for the Latter-day Saints to locate temporarily on Indian lands on both sides of the Missouri. On 21 July 1846 the Mormon Battalion marched out of camp and into military history.

By late July, with thousands of members already on the west side of the river, the Twelve concluded the main camp would winter on the west bank of the Missouri. It was not the Rockies, but for a season Zion would rest in the borders of the wilderness.

Winter Quarters

Explorations for a suitable temporary settlement intensified in August along the divide between the Missouri and the Elkhorn Rivers. After the camp settled temporarily three miles west of the Missouri River on a raised prairie between two bluffs, explorers found a more suitable site five miles north, nearer the river and closer to a newly proposed ferry site.

The favored spot, covering between 600 and 800 acres of benchland sloping toward the river, was drained on the north and south by two creeks and bounded on the north and west with high bluffs. Benefits of the new site were its natural defense, seclusion from strong prairie winds, and proximity to good streams. With official selection of the site by the Twelve Apostles on 11 September 1846, Nebraska’s first city was born.

Winter Quarters (today’s north Omaha, Nebraska) was soon divided into five-acre blocks measuring 380 feet by 660 feet. The city plat initially called for 41 blocks, 16 named streets, and 594 lots, each measuring 72 feet by 165 feet. A block could accommodate 20 houses and a population of 150 to 300 people. Houses were built on the outside of each block, with gardening areas reserved for the inside of the block. Wells were dug, wide streets laid out, bridges built across streams, and a large stockyard sectioned off south of the city for cattle.

In November, because of increasing theft by nearby Indian tribes, the city grew to the north as several southern blocks were evacuated to form a line of defense. Cabins were repositioned at the city’s south end to form a solid wall of buildings, and a tall picket fence was constructed running from this wall west to the bluffs and east to the river.

The quality of homes varied widely from large, sturdy, two-story dwellings with solid floors, oak shingles, windows, and chimneys of prairie sod or brick, to inadequate cabin shanties without doors, floors, or full roofs. Some families lived in snow-covered tents, poorly heated covered wagons, or mere dugouts or caves in nearby bluffs or riverbanks. Willard Richards’s octagon home, or “potato heap” as it was commonly called, was a unique structure, serving as post office, Church headquarters, and make-shift hospital.

Near Brigham Young’s home on Main Street, the bishops constructed a one-and-one-half-story Council House—a community center, town hall, and gathering place. Measuring 22 by 32 feet, it had log floors, fireplaces, and windows. Because of its size, it housed most social events and indoor religious gatherings.

With winter approaching, many people were forced to move into only partially completed cabins. Hosea Stout, celebrating the day his family moved into their “little shanty” on 4 November 1846, wrote, “This day was the first day that my only living child [he had lost several children by this time] … now 7 months & 2 days old ever was in a house, being born in the wild, rude and uninhabited prairies.”4

Margaret Phelps, whose husband, Alva, died while marching with the Mormon Battalion, remembered her family’s barely adequate facilities: “Winter found me bed-ridden, destitute, in a wretched hovel which was built upon a hill-side; the season was one of constant rain; the situation of the hovel and its openness, gave free access to piercing winds, and water flowed over the dirt floor, converting it into mud two or three inches deep; no wood but what my little ones picked up around the fences, so green it filled the room with smoke; the rain dropping and wetting the bed which I was powerless to leave.”5

Home furnishings were meager, even crude. Most furniture had been either left behind in Nauvoo or long since discarded or traded away. A typical household contained barrels, chests for tables, an occasional wooden chair, trunks, and homemade bedsteads.

Owing to the industry and spirit of mutual cooperation and support that characterized the endeavors of the Latter-day Saints gathered at Winter Quarters, the Camp of Israel transformed into a prairie city in barely two months. By the end of 1846, Winter Quarters consisted of 538 log cabins, 83 sod houses, and a population of 3,483, which grew to 4,000 in 1847. Eventually about 800 cabins, huts, caves, and hovels were built and occupied.6

Approximately 7,000 Latter-day Saints spent the winter of 1846–47 at the “Bluffs” (a term that can describe both of the nearby sides of the Missouri River at this locale): 4,000 at Winter Quarters, Nebraska, and another 3,000 on the east side of the Missouri. In addition, some 2,500 Latter-day Saints were scattered along the Iowa trail, while about 1,700 were in Missouri, mostly in St. Louis.

“Unite with Us”

With winter fast approaching, most of the refugees had used up their provisions, many were sick and exhausted, and death began to stalk the camp with almost indiscriminate abandon. Few crops had been planted, provisions were meager, and the amount of money forthcoming from the Mormon Battalion was unknown.

In addition, trading with downriver Missouri wholesalers, farmers, and merchants was still done with caution because of the Church’s earlier problems there, and the theft of livestock by local Indian tribes was increasing. Yet despite the thefts and what leaders believed were efforts by Indian agents to sour Native American sentiment against the Mormons in order to effect their early departure from Winter Quarters, overall relations with the Indians remained peaceful. Nevertheless, caution prevailed.

The pioneers had no choice but to band together and support one another. President Young called upon the Latter-day Saints “to unite with us in the principles of self preservation” so that the camps could be made as self-sufficient as possible.7 In the fair and equitable distribution of what little they had lay the temporal salvation of all. Many were asked to make incredible sacrifices; some wore out with giving. Occasional criticisms and grumblings notwithstanding, the Saints saw to it that the welfare of all prevailed over the interests of the individual.

By far their greatest physical resource was their massive herds of livestock. Of the 10,000 head in the area, some 1,200 were owned by the Church and the remainder by individual members. The enterprise of purchasing cattle had begun in Nauvoo as the Saints were preparing to go west. Committees were soon selected to pay herdsmen, control sales and distribution, and coordinate all livestock matters. The Winter Quarters economy was built on a general barter system, with cattle being the most popular item of exchange.

The several Quorums of Seventy built a “basket factory” that, at the height of production in January 1847, employed 30 men making willow baskets, washboards, and tables for trade in Missouri in exchange for grain and other necessities.

The Saints’ most ambitious attempt at self-sufficiency was the construction of a large flour mill in the town’s north end on Turkey Creek. Because the purchase and grinding of grain was the camp’s biggest expense, President Young and other leaders recommended that the camp build a mill large enough to meet growing needs for processed flour for both winter and spring. Though the mill did not turn a profit, it paid the wages of 150 men for much of the winter of 1846–47.

Men not employed in trade work or at the mill or basket factory, or who were not involved in livestock and other operations, were encouraged to go to Missouri to labor as hired hands for farmers. They took such jobs as fence building, threshing and cleaning wheat, painting, plowing, milking, and stump clearing.

All were encouraged to plant private gardens, and many farmed large acreages south of town. Those with trades and skills were encouraged to set up shop. Several small smithing establishments opened shop, as did tailors and shoemakers. In the fall of 1846 a carding-machine house was erected to prepare wool and other material to be made into clothing.

The best documented example of cooperative economics was the store of Newel K. Whitney, then Presiding Bishop of the Church. The “bishop’s storehouse” was open from December 1846 to March 1847 and carried foodstuffs, textiles, household and hardware goods, herbal medicines, and some books. Based on the principle of buying in bulk at wholesale prices, the store was made possible only after Mormon Battalion families had turned over to the Church several thousand dollars sent to them by battalion members. President Young considered the money a manifestation of divine providence coming at just the right time for the purchase of provisions and goods in St. Louis for their winter supply.

The need to facilitate payment and distribution of tithes and to provide better care for the needs of the poor and hungry in camp initiated a major change in Church administration: the call of local bishops to preside over relatively small numbers of people. The change allowed bishops to offer more personal care and has proved to be a blessing to the Church ever since. Winter Quarters eventually was divided into 22 wards—one per city block. Bishops and branch presidents over small congregations likewise were called on the east side of the Missouri.

Bishops were expected to keep careful records of the sick and dying, report on housing needs, list animals and other private property, report on spiritual and physical needs to the high council, hold Church councils, and collect and distribute tithing among the poor and sick in their wards. The placement of bishops at the block and ward level not only encouraged a higher percentage of tithe payers, but it also proved highly successful in creating a strong sense of community bonding and economic cooperation.

“And Should We Die”

William Clayton’s memorable hymn “Come, Come, Ye Saints,”8 written while crossing Iowa in the spring of 1846, immediately became a favorite among his fellow travelers. Though predicting eventual rest in the West, the hymn also foreshadowed the inevitable loss of life during the westward trek.

The wintry exodus, shortage of provisions, inadequate medical treatment, exposed river habitation, lack of fruits and vegetables, and general impoverishment caught up with the camp, and a deadly scourge began to ravish the Saints. Their weakened and exposed condition made many vulnerable to river-region sicknesses and to scurvy and other diseases borne of malnutrition.

Clouds of mosquitoes rising from the receding Missouri River during the summer led to repeated outbreaks of malaria. Pneumonia and tuberculosis were also rampant. Colonel Thomas L. Kane, who befriended the Church after learning of its persecutions and plight, reported seeing women sitting “in the open tents keeping the flies off their dead children” while waiting for the grave digger.9

The mortality rate declined with the arrival of colder temperatures, but sickness continued because of exposure to the elements and because of a deficient diet that consisted mainly of cornmeal, bacon, and beef. Realizing how unhealthful sod houses, open wagons, and caves were, and fearful of cave-ins from heavy spring rains and runoffs, Church leaders encouraged those who were completing cabins and who had enough room to provide shelter for the less fortunate. Special envoys traveled to St. Louis in mid-October to purchase medicine.

After losing one son to death and nearly losing another, Elder Wilford Woodruff of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles lamented, “I have never seen the Latter-day Saints in any situation where they seemed to be passing through greater tribulations or wearing out faster than at the present time.”10

In describing conditions at Mount Pisgah, Elder Lorenzo Snow of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles said, “The latter part of July and August witnessed a general and almost universal scene of sickness throughout Pisgah. Well persons could not be found to take care of the sick; it was indeed a distressing scene. A great number of deaths occurred and it was very often very difficult to get their bodies decently interred. In one or two instances bodies were put into the ground without any coffin or box. Scarcely a family escaped sickness and [there were] very few where death did not make an inroad. A general spirit of lamentation and sorrow pervaded.”11

It is difficult to determine precisely how many perished during the winter of 1846–47, but clearly they were dying in epidemic proportions. Mary Ellen Grant remembered “people dying by hundreds, principally with the scurvy.”12 Based on available records and estimates, it is estimated that a minimum of 723 died between June 1846 and May 1847 in settlements on both sides of the Missouri River and back along the Iowa trail. Nearly half the deaths were infants two years and younger. Based on the lower number of counted deaths at Winter Quarters the following year, it appears that at least 1,000 died at the camps from 1846–48.

Death and disease exacted a vicious toll on almost every family. “Some times we lay hands upon the sick and they are healed instantly,” President Young said at the funeral of a two-year-old girl. “Other times with all the faith and medicine they are a long time getting well, and others die.”13

The exodus would ever be more trial than trail. President Young attributed the pain, sorrow, affliction, and death of the people to the Lord’s wise purposes. God would have a tested people, but they would be redeemed in the fire of their wilderness afflictions.

While some left the Church during these difficult times, most remained faithful and committed to the cause of Zion. “We are willing to take our full share of trouble, trials, losses and crosses, hardships and fatigues, warning and watching, for the kingdom of heaven’s sake,” President Young boldly remarked. “And we feel to say: Come, calm or strife, turmoil or peace, life or death, in the name of Israel’s God we mean to conquer or die trying.”14

Cheerfulness amid Hardship

Yet if the air of Winter Quarters was saddened by the moans of the sick and the sound of the grave digger’s shovel, it was also brightened by choirs, music, and the voices of children. In many other ways Winter Quarters put on a happy face and an active appearance.

The chopping axe, the pounding hammer, the cutting saw, the rattling wagon, the jingling sleigh bells of winter, the crackling fire, the braying of cattle, and a thousand other sounds gave witness to a community bristling with industry and activity. Though enveloped by the wilderness, the pioneers clearly were not engulfed by it.

Makeshift schools soon sprang up all over town. Singing and dancing schools were especially popular, and concerts, musical performances, and songfests were frequently staged. As early as September 1846 a singing school had enrolled hundreds of young and old alike who regularly held choir practice. By year’s end, thanks to the efforts of Stephen H. Goddard, Winter Quarters boasted a fine large chorus, the prairie predecessor of the Tabernacle Choir.15

A dancing school that opened in February 1847 at the Council House was also popular, with 440 students enrolled at one point. Dances, hosted almost nightly, offered a diversion from the austere frontier life and “contributed much to the cheerfulness of the community, amid the hardships and privations to which they were exposed.”16

The activity most regularly attended was the Sunday worship service, which took on two forms in Winter Quarters. The large, citywide convocation was frequently held outdoors, weather permitting. After the ringing of the Nauvoo Temple bell, several hundred people crowded onto benches, sang, and prayed before listening to their leaders speak on gospel principles, their impending westward journey, the Mormon Battalion, Indian concerns, and a host of other topics.

Smaller, more intimate ward worship services were held every Sunday under the direction of ward bishops. These regular, local meetings were something new in Church history and became the precedent for today’s ward and branch sacrament meetings. Business was conducted, the sacrament blessed and passed, sermons given, and ordinances performed, including the blessing of children.

Because the women outnumbered the men at Winter Quarters, it was not unusual to see women collectively or individually involved in a variety of activities from cattle feeding to cabin building. And because of pervasive sickness, women were often found nursing, aiding, and comforting the sick and dying, and confirming the faith of both men and women.

Heading West

In November 1846, amid preparations for winter at the Missouri River, President Young related a dream “concerning the Rocky Mountains” that provided him with sufficient assurance and confidence to declare that the Latter-day Saints “should go in safety over the mountains, notwithstanding all the opposition and obstacles government officials and others might interpose.”17 A second dream followed on 11 January 1847. President Young told members of the Twelve and others about the dream and “conversed freely about the best manner of organizing companies for emigration.”18

Three days later, President Young presented a most significant revelation to the Church: “The Word and Will of the Lord concerning the Camp of Israel in their journeyings to the West.”19 Presented to the general membership on 19 January, the revelation covered many topics, including the organization of companies in the impending spring migration. At this time when some defectors were laying claim to Church leadership, the Lord declared in the revelation that the westward trek must be “under the direction of the Twelve Apostles.”20

The revelation then reminded the pioneers that their Heavenly Father had not left them alone in the wilderness and that their sufferings were for a wise purpose: “My people must be tried in all things, that they may be prepared to receive the glory that I have for them.”21

President Young told the people, “The Church has been led by Revelation just as much since the death of Joseph Smith as before.”22 Four days after announcing the revelation, President Young stated confidently that “he had no more doubts nor fears of going to the mountains.”23

The pioneers could now focus on the details of preparing for their departure. Though delayed beyond their 22 March 1847 departure deadline, the advance, exploratory company—“the Pioneer Camp”—finally rolled out of Winter Quarters on 5 April 1847. The company was then delayed at the Elkhorn River, 20 miles west of Winter Quarters. Eleven days later, on 16 April, this advance company of 143 men and boys, 3 women, and 2 children headed west after being duly organized according to the revelation received by President Young. Two months later almost to the day, Elders Parley P. Pratt and John Taylor of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles led a party of 1,553 men, women, and children—“the Emigration Camp”—in the wake of their leader.

Meanwhile, the primary objective of the thousands left behind was to plant and harvest substantial crops, gather provisions, organize themselves, and prepare for the exodus west as soon as possible. Some men went to Missouri late in the summer of 1847 to assist in the harvests there, receiving their pay in much-needed wheat. “All preparation and organization,” they had been counseled, “is for journeying and not for a permanent location at Winter Quarters.”24

Had family farms been more carefully prepared and sickness not been so prevalent, harvests would have been more abundant. Nonetheless, the fall of 1847 found the pioneers much stronger, more prepared, and better provisioned than the year before.

President Young and other members of the advance, exploratory company returned to Winter Quarters on 31 October after finding the appointed site in the valley of the Great Salt Lake. A few weeks later, in accordance with government demands that the Church vacate Indian lands, President Young announced on 14 November 1847 plans to begin abandoning Winter Quarters in the spring of 1848. Those able to go west by spring should do so, while those remaining should move east across the river.25

Reestablishment of the First Presidency at the Log Tabernacle

The matter of reestablishing the First Presidency had weighed heavily on the Twelve for several months, particularly during the trek to the Salt Lake Valley. As President of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, Brigham Young felt impressed that the time had come to reestablish the First Presidency. After several months of discussing the matter, nine of the Twelve Apostles (Elders Parley P. Pratt and John Taylor were in the Salt Lake Valley, and Elder Lyman Wight was in Texas) gathered at the home of Elder Orson Hyde near Miller’s Hollow on the Iowa side of the Missouri. There, on 5 December 1847, their deliberations culminated in the prayerful action of sustaining Brigham Young as President of the Church, with Elders Heber C. Kimball and Willard Richards, both of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, as President Young’s counselors.

To accommodate members wishing to attend a special conference where the matter would be placed before the general membership for their sustaining vote, 200 men, under the direction of Henry W. Miller, worked three weeks at Miller’s Hollow to construct a 60-by-40-foot log tabernacle. On 27 December 1847, after three days of conference sessions, Elder Orson Pratt presented the matter of business everyone had crowded into the tabernacle to hear—the reestablishment of the First Presidency. A motion was made and seconded that President Young of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles be sustained as President of the Church, with Elders Kimball and Richards as his First and Second Counselors.26 Elder Orson Hyde was then sustained as President of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. A crowd of more than 1,000 people voted their unanimous support.

In his 27 December 1847 remarks to the Saints, President Young acknowledged the Spirit of the Lord and said: “There is nothing more done this day than I knew at the death of Joseph. … Joseph told the Twelve there is not one principle or key to enter in the celestial Kingdom but I have given you. … The Kingdom is set up and you have the perfect pattern and you can lead the Kingdom in at the gate. I am going to rest.”27

Speaking four months after this conference, President Young indicated that it was “our right and privilege and was at the first conference after Joseph’s death to reorganize the Church but we were not obliged to do it. It was wisdom not to then.”28 Nor was it wisdom to do so while crossing Iowa and establishing Winter Quarters. But by the end of 1847 and after the identification of the long-reserved location in the Rockies as the Saints’ new Zion, the time had come. Like a keystone in an arch, President Young said, the reestablishment would give order and stability to Church government. In consequence it also would allow the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles to fulfill their divine role given them in 1835 as “special witnesses of the name of Christ in all the world”29 by freeing them of the numerous administrative concerns that had been their burden as a Quorum since the martyrdom of the Prophet Joseph Smith.

At the conclusion of the Kanesville, Iowa, conference the audience sang the hymn that had been sung at the dedication of the Nauvoo Temple: “Hosanna, hosanna to God and the Lamb! … Amen and amen!”30

Said Elder George A. Smith of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, “Now the thing is right.”31

Some Saints Move to Kanesville

By 3 July 1848, some 3,000 Latter-day Saints had departed for the Salt Lake Valley, including the members of the First Presidency, each of whom had left with a group of pioneers. Those not ready to go west looked forward to making the trek the following year or as soon thereafter as possible. Thus, after evacuating Winter Quarters because they had promised to leave Indian lands after two years, some 3,000 Saints moved to new surroundings eastward across the Missouri; the evacuation continued through the spring and early summer. Most settled temporarily in Iowa near Miller’s Hollow, below the east bluffs of the river, where a townsite was laid out in 1847. Latter-day Saints renamed the site “Kanesville” in April 1848 in honor of their non–Latter-day Saint friend Colonel Thomas L. Kane, who had been of such remarkable help to them in Washington’s government corridors.

Whereas Winter Quarters, Nebraska (on the river’s west side), had served as an interim Church headquarters, Kanesville, Iowa (on the river’s east side), was destined to be a major Church gathering place, fitting-out station, and springboard to the Great Basin. It became a layover town where those too poor, tired, discouraged, or unprepared could delay their journey a year or more, plant and sow crops, procure teams and outfits, and make other necessary preparations. After these pioneers left for the mountains, new arrivals from the East or from overseas would take their place and repeat the preparation cycle. Families departing for the Salt Lake Valley were often urged either to give away their farms or to sell them at low prices to incoming converts who were often penniless or destitute.32

By 1850 Kanesville counted approximately 350 houses, most of them log cabins, and by 1852 the town’s population, though ever in flux, reached 5,000. The town had stores and shops, a concert hall, and three ferries. It had its own newspaper, the Frontier Guardian, edited by Elder Orson Hyde, President of the Quorum of the Twelve and presiding authority over the Church at Kanesville, who was charged with supervising the migration of Saints to the West.

Kanesville’s most serious problem, resulting from a weak industrial and manufacturing base, was providing the rapidly overturning population of poor emigrants with food, shelter, and meaningful employment. In January 1849 the Kanesville log tabernacle was transformed into a wholesale provision store for the needy, then later in the year the tabernacle was dismantled and its wood used for other buildings. A large community farm funded by tithing provided jobs.

Fortunately things soon changed for the better. After the discovery of gold in California in January 1848, Kanesville’s economy boomed as the town was besieged by California-bound travelers. The price of land, goods, services, and livestock rose dramatically as Kanesville became a major outfitting river town for many other emigrants besides Latter-day Saints. Church members prospered by selling produce, livestock, and labor, and the unexpected infusion of gold-fever money gave many of those previously too poor an opportunity to head west.

Kanesville’s rapid economic development and bounteous harvests soon posed an attractive alternative to a western desert and mountain trek. Some found the comforts of eastern Iowa a more difficult temptation to resist than their earlier trials and sufferings. To hasten migration, in 1851 the First Presidency strongly reminded those still in Iowa that their call was to gather to Zion:

“There is no more time for Saints to hesitate. …

“What are you waiting for? Have you any good excuse for not coming? No! …

“… We wish you to evacuate Pottawatamie [County], and the [United] States, and next fall be with us.”33

In response, most Latter-day Saints in 1852 pulled out of Kanesville, the surrounding Iowa settlements, and the way stations of Garden Grove and Mount Pisgah. Approximately 5,500 Saints took to the trail in 1852, twice as many as in any other year.

While a small but significant percentage of Latter-day Saints declined to migrate and left the Church between 1846 and 1852, others returned to fellowship. After a great deal of fellowshipping by Phineas Young, Oliver Cowdery returned to the Church at the Missouri River. “I am out of the church,” said the “second elder” of the Restoration to an attentive Pottawattamie high council in the Kanesville log tabernacle in the fall of 1848. “I know the door into the church and I wish to become a member thro’ the door.”34 Elder Orson Hyde rebaptized Oliver Cowdery on 12 November 1848, ending his 11-year separation from the Church. A crowd of 2,000 people gathered to witness his rebaptism and confirmation.

Of the several thousand Latter-day Saints who had used Kanesville as their jumping-off point for the Great Basin, approximately half were British converts. With the finding of the Salt Lake Valley as the new gathering place, British immigration resumed at an accelerated rate. Elder Hyde’s departure for the Salt Lake Valley in 1852 with a large body of Latter-day Saints signaled the official departure of the Church from Iowa, whereupon the city was renamed Council Bluffs by its mainly non-Latter-day Saint citizenry in 1853.

Reasons to Remember

Winter Quarters, Nebraska, and Kanesville, Iowa, are to be remembered for many reasons, for it was there on the banks of the Missouri River that many proved their discipleship and loyalty through obedience, suffering, and death. Furthermore, it was there that a unique Latter-day Saint pattern of care was more fully developed, plans for the trek west made clear, and the First Presidency reestablished.

Perhaps the most important development for Church members was the clear demonstration of the supremacy of the principle of apostolic keys, with the logical consequence of the senior Apostle within the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles becoming the new President of the Church. What happened in relative obscurity at the log tabernacle in December 1847 with the reestablishment of the First Presidency set a precedent that continues to govern the Church to this day.

Obstacles and trials still lay ahead, but with a prophet leading them under the direction of the Lord, scores of thousands of Latter-day Saint pioneers would press forward, carry their faith across plains and mountains, and make the desert wilderness “blossom as the rose” (Isa. 35:1).

Winter Quarters–Kanesville: 1846–1853

Winter Quarters

  • 14 June 1846—Main Camp of Israel reaches the Missouri River.

  • 11 September 1846—Twelve Apostles choose site for Winter Quarters.

  • 14 January 1847—President Brigham Young receives revelation known as “The Word and Will of the Lord concerning the Camp of Israel in their journeyings to the West” (D&C 136:1).

  • 5 April 1847—Members of the advance, exploratory company head west.

  • 21–24 July 1847—Advance, exploratory company enters the Great Basin.

  • 31 October 1847—President Young and other members of the advance company return to Winter Quarters after identifying the site of the new Church headquarters near the Great Salt Lake.

  • 14 November 1847—President Young announces plans to begin abandoning Winter Quarters in the spring of 1848.


  • 27 December 1847—Presidents Brigham Young, Heber C. Kimball, and Willard Richards sustained as the First Presidency of the Church.

Winter Quarters on the Missouri
  • March 1848—Saints not yet ready to make the trek west begin moving east across the Missouri River to Miller’s Hollow, renamed Kanesville.

  • May–July 1848—Members of the First Presidency leave for the Salt Lake Valley, each leading a group of pioneers.

  • 1848—Kanesville’s economy booms as the town is besieged after the discovery of gold in California. The unexpected infusion of money gives many previously too poor to migrate an opportunity to head west.

  • 12 November 1848—Elder Orson Hyde, left in charge at Kanesville, rebaptizes Oliver Cowdery.

  • 21 September 1851—First Presidency issues a strong call for Saints still in Iowa to gather to Zion.

  • July 1852—Elder Orson Hyde’s departure for the Salt Lake Valley marks the end of Kanesville as a Latter-day Saint community.

  • December 1853—Kanesville is renamed Council Bluffs by its new citizens.


  1. Journal History of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 17 Jan. 1847.

  2. Journal History, 20 Jan. 1846.

  3. Willard Richards to Levi Richards, 9 Mar. 1846, Levi Richards Papers; see also Brigham Young to Orson Hyde, 2 Apr. 1846, Brigham Young Papers, Historical Department, Archives Division, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Salt Lake City; hereafter cited as LDS Church Archives.

  4. On the Mormon Frontier: The Diary of Hosea Stout, 1844–1861, ed. Juanita Brooks, 2 vols. [1964], 1:213.

  5. As quoted in Daniel Tyler, A Concise History of the Mormon Battalion in the Mexican War, 1846–47 [1969], 130.

  6. Manuscript History of Brigham Young, 26 Dec. 1846; see also On the Mormon Frontier, 1:219; Journal History, 1 Apr. 1848.

  7. Journal History, 23 Aug. 1846.

  8. Hymns, no. 30.

  9. The Mormons. A Discourse Delivered Before the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, March 26, 1850 [1850], 50.

  10. Wilford Woodruff Journals, 17–21 Nov. 1846; LDS Church Archives.

  11. Journal of Lorenzo Snow, summer 1846, LDS Church Archives.

  12. Journal of History, ed. Heman C. Smith, 17 vols. [1917], 10:177.

  13. As quoted in Wilford Woodruff Journals, 23 Feb. 1848.

  14. Journal History, 16 Apr. 1847.

  15. Journal of Mary Haskin Parker Richards, 27 Dec. 1846, LDS Church Archives; see also Andrew Jenson, Latter-day Saint Biographical Encyclopedia, 4 vols. [1936], 4:704–5. Soon after his arrival in the Salt Lake Valley, Stephen Goddard became the leader of the Tabernacle Choir when it sang in the Old Tabernacle.

  16. Journal History, 1 Feb. 1848; see also Journal History, 5 Feb. 1847.

  17. Journal History, 8 and 12 Nov. 1846.

  18. Journal History, 11 Jan. 1847.

  19. D&C 136:1.

  20. D&C 136:3.

  21. D&C 136:31.

  22. Journal History, 17 Jan. 1847.

  23. Journal History, 18 Jan. 1847.

  24. Journal History, 16 Apr. 1847.

  25. Journal History, 14 Nov. 1847.

  26. Journal of Norton Jacob, 27 Dec. 1847, LDS Church Archives; see also Minutes of the Conferences in the Log Tabernacle, 27 Dec. 1847, Brigham Young Papers, LDS Church Archives.

  27. Minutes of the Conferences in the Log Tabernacle, 27 Dec. 1847.

  28. Minutes of the Conferences in the Log Tabernacle, 6 Apr. 1848.

  29. D&C 107:23.

  30. “The Spirit of God,” Hymns, no. 2.

  31. Minutes of the Conferences in the Log Tabernacle, 27 Dec. 1847.

  32. See Orson Hyde, Ezra T. Benson, and George A. Smith to Brigham Young, 5 Apr. 1849, Brigham Young Papers.

  33. In James R. Clark, ed., Messages of the First Presidency, 6 vols. [1965], 2:75–76.

  34. Pottawattamie High Council Minutes, 4–5 Nov. 1848, LDS Church Archives.

  • Richard E. Bennett, regional director of public affairs for Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada, is head of the Department of Archives and Special Collections at the University of Manitoba.

Winter Quarters, by Al Rounds

Left: Crossing the Missouri River in 1846, the Saints entered Indian territory. There they built Winter Quarters with its homes of logs or sod. Some lived in dugouts. (Crossing the Missouri River, by C. C. A. Christensen; loaned by Mrs. Earl Dorius.) [photo] Above: The new Mormon Trail Visitors’ Center depicts a log house in Winter Quarters. (Photo by Welden Andersen.)

Latter-day Saints showed great industry by building an orderly city of 594 lots within a few months on the western banks of the Missouri River. The city became known as Winter Quarters. (Winter Quarters on the Missouri River, by C. C. A. Christensen; © courtesy Museum of Art, Brigham Young University, all rights reserved.)

[photo, illustration] Many members suffered while at Winter Quarters (sculpture, left; detail from The Tragedy of Winter Quarters, Nebraska, by Avard T. Fairbanks); nevertheless, the Saints remained united as they established homes in this temporary settlement (right; detail from Winter Quarters 1846–1847, by C. C. A. Christensen; owned by Jeanette Holmes). [illustration] Map, left: The Latter-day Saint settlement at Winter Quarters, Nebraska, was short-lived—1846 to 1848. Across the Missouri River in western Iowa, Kanesville and about 90 scattered settlements served as temporary homes for thousands of Latter-day Saints between 1846 and 1852. (For more information, see Ensign, Sept. 1996, p. 80.)

[illustration, photos] In 1847 Saints built the log tabernacle (below; Kanesville Tabernacle, courtesy of Leslies Illustrated Monthly) in order to hold conference, where on 27 December the general Church membership sustained the First Presidency: Heber C. Kimball, Brigham Young, and Willard Richards.

Many of the Saints settled in Miller’s Hollow in Iowa, on the east side of the Missouri River (below; Entrance to Kanesville, artist unknown). Later, they renamed it Kanesville in honor of Colonel Thomas L. Kane (oval inset).