The epic pioneer journey of the Latter-day Saints began on the banks of the Mississippi River. Here at Nauvoo they had transformed a swamp into a thriving community of commerce and fellowship. But Nauvoo was not to be a final home, merely a brief rest for a season. The severe persecution that had driven the Saints from Missouri again threatened their lives and their city. The Prophet Joseph Smith and Hyrum were martyred at Carthage Jail on June 27, 1844. Life in Nauvoo was drawing to a close.
Sunday, February 1, 1846, the Saints worshiped together in the “City of Joseph.” The next day, Brigham Young directed families to be ready to leave with only four hours’ notice.
In the bone-chilling cold of that bitter winter, the exodus began. Many of the Saints gathered their belongings and closed the doors of their dwellings for the last time as they turned to what lay across the river—and west.
Nauvoo is peaceful now. Homes and shops have been lovingly restored. This is a place that speaks of industry and commitment. I see their courage and craftsmanship as they built a city to God.
How the Saints must have felt, leaving so much behind—the fields they had cultivated, the trees they had planted, the temple they had built. The men, women, and children walked out of their beautiful homes, climbed aboard their wagons, drove down to the river, there to cross and move slowly over the soil of Iowa, looking back now and again at what they were leaving and would never see again.
Leaving Nauvoo was a remarkable act of faith. There was much of hardship ahead for these pioneers, but they had faith in their leaders and faith in the Lord and His goodness—faith that He would once again lead His people to the promised land, faith that they would not falter or fall. So they walked out into a wilderness, their journey marked by faith in every footstep.
The way west was slow. Many were ill prepared for the grueling trek. Freezing temperatures, incessant rain, and mud up to the knees tried even the hardiest emigrant. They struggled for 131 days just to cross Iowa.
Like the army of Israel of old, they had their cloud by day and pillar of fire by night. Out of the travail of Iowa came the hymn that echoes down the generations, “Come, come, ye Saints, no toil nor labor fear; but with joy wend your way” (Hymns, no. 30).
Stopping at Garden Grove and Mount Pisgah to set up stations for those who would follow, these faithful pioneers pressed on to the banks of the Missouri and temporary respite for the winter.
Here at Winter Quarters was Zion in the wilderness. President Brigham Young organized the people and pooled their meager resources. Yet despite all they could do, sickness and death stalked the camps.
This monument is placed directly over the graves of an unknown child and seven other pioneers. My heart is deeply touched as I realize just how high a price those noble Saints paid in responding to the call of the prophet to leave their homes and journey west.
So many struggled and lost so much. Truly, these noble pioneers walked a path of pain and a trail of tears. Their journey was over, but their names live on as testaments of their love of truth and faith in the Lord.
When spring came that April of 1847, the Quorum of the Twelve, under the direction of Brigham Young, handpicked a vanguard company and left Winter Quarters with 143 men, 3 women, and 2 young boys, 72 wagons, 93 horses, 66 oxen, 52 mules, 19 cows, 17 dogs, and some chickens.
Between that refuge and the promise of Zion stood a vast plain and the fertile Platte River, their lifeline as they pushed farther into the American West. Moving across Nebraska, they marked the rolling miles and journeyed past Chimney Rock, a solitary formation jutting out of the prairie.
Into this land speckled with sage and air swirling with dust, tired oxen lumbered, wagon wheels creaked, brave men and women toiled, and occasionally wolves howled. Even today, signs of their crossing are carved into the landscape.
The pioneers left the North Platte and now followed the Sweetwater, a stream they would ford many times. Camping at the round outcropping called Independence Rock, a few of these 19th-century travelers left their names on the granite stone.
Past Independence Rock, the wagons skirted the side of Devil’s Gate, a deep gash in the hillside and often mentioned in their journals. The trail soon turned upward and increasingly rocky.
Here at Rocky Ridge is holy ground. This very spot is one of the highest points on the trail west. The pioneers who came over this ridge faced discouragement, some even death, as they inched their way up this sharp slope. I hold in my hand a square nail and a piece of metal jolted loose from a wagon or a handcart. Imagine facing this ridge in a wagon. Then imagine pulling a handcart.
For some, the punishing climb of Rocky Ridge would be fatal. The Martin and Willie Handcart Companies of 1856 were caught in early blizzards near this summit. Rescue came from Salt Lake but too late to save close to 200 souls who perished in the cold and deep snow.
Martin’s Cove sheltered many during that agonizing and poignant time. A memorial at Rock Creek honors those buried here for their faith in the face of enormous adversity.
In the heroic effort of the handcart pioneers, we learn a great truth. All must pass through a refiner’s fire, and the insignificant and unimportant in our lives can melt away like dross and make our faith bright, intact, and strong. There seems to be a full measure of anguish, sorrow, and often heartbreak for everyone, including those who earnestly seek to do right and be faithful. Yet this is part of the purging to become acquainted with God.
With the Wind River peaks to the north, the pioneer trail crossed South Pass—the only major break between mountain ranges and the most direct route to the Great Basin. Entering northeastern Utah, they worked their way slowly through Echo Canyon, a narrow passageway flanked by red, overhanging cliffs.
This final stretch would try what little strength was left. Ahead loomed a broken succession of hills piled on hills, and mountains in every direction. Hearts full of enthusiasm to be so near their journey’s end often sank as they knew there was only one way to go: up and over.
On this high summit they named Big Mountain, the pioneers gazed for the first time on their new home: a glistening mountain valley on the far horizon. What joy they must have felt! The countless sacrifices and struggles along the way were nearly over. The Salt Lake Valley was in sight. Although much hardship still lay ahead, they had endured. With feet worn and weary with fatigue, they had kept step with their faith.
Big Mountain holds a special place in my heart. A pioneer ancestor, Gibson Condie, came over this summit on his way to help rescue the stranded handcart pioneers. At the call of the prophet, he journeyed to this very spot in the bitter winter of 1856. The snow was 16 feet deep on the road. How grateful I am for this pioneer ancestor, who, leaving the comfort of home and family, risked his own safety to help those in such desperate need.
President Young arrived in the valley on a Saturday, July 24th. These pioneers had come so far and given so much, and they paused on the Sabbath to worship and give thanks for their safe arrival.
They came “one of a city, and two of a family” (Jer. 3:14) across a continent to a new life in the desert. What else but a divine restoration would prompt such an endeavor and require such a sacrifice? They had walked with faith, knowing that God lives and He knew where those steps would take them.
Now in this valley home, they took fresh courage for the tasks ahead. There were shelters to erect, land to cultivate, crops to plant, and the temple to build.
Rising above the Salt Lake Valley is a dome-shaped peak. Brigham Young saw it in a vision before the Saints left Nauvoo. He saw an ensign descend upon the hill and heard the voice of Joseph Smith say, “Build under that point … and you will prosper and have peace.”
When Brigham Young first arrived in the valley, he immediately recognized the peak. On the morning of July 26, 1847, the men who would eventually comprise the new First Presidency, along with several members of the Twelve, climbed its slopes.
This small group of priesthood leaders gazed out upon the valley below. “This is where we will plant the soles of our feet,” President Young said, “and where the Lord will place his name amongst his people.”
As I now stand at Ensign Peak and see the valley below, I marvel at the foresight of that little group. These prophets, dressed in old, travel-worn clothes, standing in boots they had worn for more than a thousand miles, spoke of a millennial vision. It was both bold and audacious. It was almost unbelievable.
Here they were, almost a thousand miles from the nearest settlement to the east and almost eight hundred miles from the Pacific coast. They were in an untried climate. They had never raised a crop here. They had not built a structure of any kind.
They were exiles, driven from their fair city on the Mississippi into this desert region of the West. But they were possessed of a vision drawn from the scriptures and words of revelation: “And he shall set up an ensign for the nations, and shall assemble the outcasts of Israel, and gather together the dispersed of Judah from the four corners of the earth” (Isa. 11:12).
This great pioneering movement of more than a century ago goes forward with latter-day pioneers. Today pioneer blood flows in our veins just as it did with those who walked west. It’s the essence of our courage to face modern-day mountains and our commitment to carry on. The faith of those early pioneers burns still, and nations are being blessed by latter-day pioneers who possess a clear vision of this work of the Lord.
The footsteps that made such a deep impression over the heartland of America make similar impressions in countries across the world—from Belgium to Brazil and France to the Philippines. Step by faithful step, we walk together toward a glorious destiny, building the kingdom of God on earth and preparing the minds and hearts of people everywhere to come unto Christ, the Redeemer and Savior of the world.