“On the Trail in November and December,” Ensign, Dec. 1997, 50
As the winter of 1847–48 approached, activity on the Mormon Trail was focused at the starting and ending points in Iowa and the Salt Lake Valley. In the Salt Lake Valley, John Smith, president of the Salt Lake Stake, helped the Saints prepare for winter. In what would later become Kanesville, Iowa, the Saints built a large log tabernacle and the First Presidency was reorganized, with Brigham Young as President.
Because the Salt Lake Valley’s weather was relatively mild in November and December 1847, settlers took advantage by doing much outdoor work and making their cabins as pleasant as possible. People were taking up residences in what became known as the Old Fort,1 of which their cabins formed the outside walls. The settlement had some 1,600 souls in association with a high council.
Recalling that first winter, Mary Isabella Horne noted how hard it was to provide basic needs: “We could put a little grease into a dish with a rag in it to make a light, and parch a little wheat to make our [warm beverage], but when it came to making soap we were put to our wits’ end to get material to make enough to do our washing.”2
Daniel Spencer’s diary entries in November and December 1847 provide a view of everyday life in the valley during those months. The settlers’ primary concerns were housing and food. On 14 November 1847 Brother Spencer recorded that he and his associates had planted several bushels of rye and wheat and butchered three cattle, one of which belonged to the Widow Brown and weighed 636 pounds. He reported also that they had built three houses and had “the Loggs on hand for 3 more.”3 Rations at the time were “from 1/2 to 3/4 lb of Breadstuff per person pr day together with all the Beef we want.”4
On 22 November Brother Spencer gave a fellow settler a small sack of apple seeds, two quarts of peach stones, a sack of cherry seeds, and two sacks of hickory nuts “to plant for me & I am to pay him what is right.”5 In the early pioneers’ cashless society, work and goods were generally paid for with food, clothing, possessions, and services.
The nearest supply centers were in California, some 700 miles to the west. During November and December, Latter-day Saint agents went to California on buying and trading missions. Brother Spencer sent 23 yards of calico and a broadcloth vest to trade on the coast. He sent a pair of six-shooters with a man identified as Brother Richards to sell for $80.
At some point Daniel Spencer and others started building a sawmill. The facility required grinding stones, presumably to keep the saws sharp. A friend informed Brother Spencer that he “had got me a grindstone in the Canion if I would get it I might have it.”6 The next day, 23 December, Brother Spencer went to Red Butte Canyon and brought home the uncut stone, which was suitable for cutting and chiseling into a grindstone. He contracted with Beason Lewis, a stonecutter who had two stone chisels, to dress and shape the stone into a grindstone with a hole in its middle so it could be mounted and turned. Brother Lewis worked on the stone on 28 and 29 December and finished it on 30 December. On 31 December Brother Spencer wrote, “This day put up our Grindstone.”7
During these months Daniel Spencer regularly attended Sunday Church services, including one on 6 December in the “Doby Fort” in which he was one of six speakers. He recorded matter-of-factly the birth of his own child on 29 December: “At 1/2 past 8 Oclock Emily was delivoured of a Sone … Mrs Cessions Boggs & Brown attendance.”8 The baby was blessed nine days later.
Having returned to the Missouri River after the trek to Utah, on 3 and 4 December the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles convened a conference across and downriver from Winter Quarters in the Block House Branch in Miller’s Hollow (later named Kanesville, now downtown Council Bluffs, Iowa). When Brigham Young learned that many who wanted to attend the conference could not fit inside the Block House, he asked that a large meetinghouse be built nearby within three weeks. The conference was dismissed until it could resume in the new building.
Henry W. Miller led some 200 workmen to complete the project. Logs for what became the Church’s first tabernacle were cut three miles away. The building measured at least 60 feet east to west and 40 feet north to south and could seat about 1,000 people. A fireplace covered the entire west end, a recess in the north wall provided room for a pulpit and a clerk’s desk, and two doors were located in the middle of the south wall. From the 13-foot-high log walls, the roof pitched to 20 feet in height at its center.9
Meanwhile, the Twelve made a historic decision regarding Church government. After the Prophet Joseph Smith’s death, the Twelve had acted as one body in directing the Church. On 5 December 1847 at Elder Orson Hyde’s home (in the area called Hyde Park, located south of the Block House), the Quorum of the Twelve reconstituted the First Presidency. Brigham Young was “unanimously elected President,”10 and he appointed Heber C. Kimball as his First Counselor and Willard Richards as his Second Counselor.
When the conference reconvened on 27 December in the new log tabernacle, the sustaining of the new First Presidency was the main matter of business. Elder Orson Pratt of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles said: “We have been able to overcome apostates and the powers of darkness with the highest quorum taken away out of our midst. How much more shall we be able to overcome them when we have all the quorums flourishing.”11 Hosea Stout wrote that “the Spirit rested down upon the whole congregation.”12 Norton Jacob wrote that “the conference was closed by all the congregation uniting to praise the Lord with loud Hosannahs.”13
Due to water seepage underneath what later became known as the Kanesville Log Tabernacle, the structure was dismantled in fall 1849 and its logs were used in constructing other buildings. A replica of the tabernacle was erected near the original site in 1996 and dedicated by President Gordon B. Hinckley.