Church History
4 An Ensign to the Nations

“An Ensign to the Nations,” chapter 4 of Saints: The Story of the Church of Jesus Christ in the Latter Days, Volume 2, No Unhallowed Hand, 1846–1893 (2020)

Chapter 4: “An Ensign to the Nations”

Chapter 4

An Ensign to the Nations

men waving a banner from atop a mountain peak

In April 1847, Sam Brannan and three other men left San Francisco Bay in search of Brigham Young and the main body of the Saints. They did not know exactly where to find them, but most emigrants followed the same trail west. If Sam and his small company headed east along the trail, they would eventually cross paths with the Saints.

After stopping briefly to pick up supplies at New Hope, the men trekked northeast to the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains. People who knew the Sierras well had warned Sam not to cross them so early in the year. The mountain pass was still choked with snow, they said, which meant the journey could be a two-month ordeal.

Yet Sam was sure he could cross the mountains quickly. Urging their pack animals forward, he and his men hiked for hours up the mountains. The snow was deep but tightly packed, making it easier to find footing along the trail. The mountain streams ran high, however, forcing the men to risk dangerous swims or hazardous alternative routes.

On the far side of the mountain range, the trail led them along hulking granite crags to a view of a beautiful pine-wooded valley with a lake as blue as the sky. Descending to the valley, they found a few abandoned cabins at a campsite littered with human remains. Months earlier, a wagon train bound for California had become stranded in the snow. The emigrants had built the cabins to wait out a bad winter storm, but low on food and unprepared for the cold, many of them slowly starved or froze to death, while some resorted to cannibalism.1

Their story was a grim reminder of the dangers of overland travel, but Sam refused to let their tragedy frighten him. He was captivated by the wilderness. “A man cannot know himself,” he exulted, “until he has traveled in these wild mountains.”2

By mid-May, Brigham Young and the advance company had covered more than three hundred miles. Each morning, the bugle awoke the camp at five o’clock, and travel began at seven. Sometimes delays slowed the company’s progress, but most days they managed to travel between fifteen and twenty miles. In the evening they circled their wagons, gathered for evening prayers, and extinguished campfires.3

The dull routine was sometimes broken by buffalo sightings. The large, shaggy animals traveled in massive herds, rumbling across hills and bottomlands so fluidly that the prairie itself seemed to be moving. The men were eager to hunt the animal, but Brigham counseled them to do so only when necessary and to never waste the meat.4

The company traveled along an existing trail that other westbound settlers had blazed a few years earlier. With each passing mile, the grassy prairie slowly gave way to desert meadows and rolling hills. From the top of a bluff, the landscape looked as rough as a stormy sea. The trail followed the Platte River and crossed several creeks that provided water for drinking and cleaning. Yet the ground itself was sandy. Sometimes the company spotted a tree or a patch of green grass along the trail, but much of the land was stark and forbidding as far as the eye could see.5

Sometimes, a member of the company would ask Brigham where they were going. “I will show you when we come to it,” he would say. “I have seen it, I have seen it in vision, and when my natural eyes behold it, I shall know it.”6

Every day, William Clayton estimated the company’s mileage and corrected the sometimes imprecise maps that guided them. Not far into the journey, he and Orson Pratt worked with Appleton Harmon, a skilled craftsman, to build a “roadometer,” a wooden device that accurately measured distances through a system of cogs attached to a wagon wheel.7

Despite the company’s progress, Brigham was often frustrated when he saw the actions of some members of the company. Most of them had been in the Church for years, served missions, and received the ordinances of the temple. Yet many ignored his counsel on hunting or idled away their free time with gambling, wrestling, and dancing late into the night. Sometimes Brigham woke in the morning to the sound of men arguing over something that had happened during the night. He worried that their quarrels would soon lead to fistfights or worse.

“Do we suppose,” he asked the men on the morning of May 29, “that we are going to look out a home for the Saints, a resting place, a place of peace, where they can build up the kingdom and bid the nations welcome, with a low, mean, dirty, trifling, covetous, wicked spirit?”8 Each of them, he declared, ought to be men of faith and sober minds, given to prayer and meditation.

“Here is an opportunity,” he said, “for every man to prove himself, to know whether he will pray and remember his God, without being asked to do it every day.” He urged them to serve the Lord, remember their temple covenants, and repent of their sins.

Afterward, the men grouped themselves together in priesthood quorums and covenanted, by uplifted hand, to do right and walk humbly before God.9 The next day, when the men partook of the sacrament, a new spirit prevailed.

“I have never seen the brethren so still and sober on a Sunday,” Heber Kimball noted in his journal, “since we started on the journey.”10

While the advance company traveled west, roughly half the Saints in Winter Quarters were outfitting wagons and packing provisions for their journey. In the evenings, after finishing their preparations, they often gathered together to sing and dance to fiddle music, and on Sundays they met to hear sermons and talk about their coming trek.11

Not everyone was eager to go west, however. James Strang and other dissenters continued to lure Saints away with promises of food, shelter, and peace. Strang and his followers had started a community in Wisconsin, a sparsely settled territory some three hundred miles northeast of Nauvoo, where some dissatisfied Saints were gathering. Already several families in Winter Quarters had packed up their wagons and left to join them.12

As the presiding apostle in Winter Quarters, Parley Pratt begged the Saints to ignore apostates and follow the Lord’s authorized apostles. “The Lord has called us to gather,” he reminded them, “and not scatter all the time.” He told them he and John Taylor wanted to send companies west at the end of spring.13

Parley had to delay the departure, though. Before the advance company left, the Twelve had organized several companies according to revelation. These companies were composed mostly of families that had been sealed by adoption to Brigham Young and Heber Kimball. The apostles instructed them to pack enough provisions for the coming year and to bring with them poor Saints and the families of the men in the Mormon Battalion. If people would not keep the covenant to provide for these needy families, their wagons could be confiscated and given to those who would.14

But Parley saw problems in carrying out the quorum’s plan. Many Saints in these companies, including some company captains, were not ready to leave. Some of them lacked the resources to make the journey, and without sufficient supplies they would be a heavy burden on others in the companies who barely had enough provisions for their own families. At the same time, there were other Saints who had not been organized into companies but who were ready and eager to go, fearing they would lose more loved ones to sickness and death if they stayed another year in Winter Quarters.15

Parley and John decided to reorganize the companies, adapting the original plan to suit the roughly fifteen hundred Saints who were ready to go west. When some Saints objected to the changes, questioning Parley’s authority to modify the Twelve’s plan, the two apostles tried to reason with them.

In Brigham’s absence, John explained, the apostle with the most seniority had authority to direct Church members. Since Brigham was not in Winter Quarters, John felt it was Parley’s responsibility—and right—to make decisions for the settlement.

Parley agreed. “I think it is best to act according to our circumstances,” he said.16

As Wilford Woodruff traveled west with the advance company, he often reflected on its sacred mission. “It should be understood,” he wrote in his journal, “that we are piloting a road for the house of Israel to travel in for many years to come.”17

One night, he dreamed that the company arrived at the new gathering place. As he gazed upon the land, a glorious temple appeared before him. It appeared to be built of white and blue stone. Turning to some men standing near him in the dream, he asked if they could see it. They said they did not, but that did not diminish the joy Wilford felt in beholding it.18

By June, the weather turned hot. The short grasses that fed their cattle turned brown in the dry air, and timber was harder to find. Often, the only fuel for fires was dried buffalo dung.19 The company, however, remained diligent in keeping the commandments as Brigham instructed, and Wilford saw evidence of God’s blessings in preserving their food supplies, animals, and wagons.

“We have had peace and union in our midst,” he wrote in his journal. “Great good will grow out of this mission if we are faithful in keeping the commandments of God.”20

On June 27, the advance company encountered a well-known explorer named Moses Harris on the trail. Harris told the Saints that neither the Bear River Valley nor the Salt Lake Valley was good for settlement. He recommended that they settle in a place called Cache Valley, northeast of the Great Salt Lake.

The following day, the company encountered another explorer, Jim Bridger. Unlike Harris, Bridger spoke highly of the Bear River and Salt Lake Valleys, although he warned them that cold nights in the Bear River Valley would likely prevent them from cultivating corn. He said the Salt Lake Valley had good soil, several freshwater streams, and year-round rain. He also praised Utah Valley, south of the Great Salt Lake, yet he cautioned them about disturbing the Ute Indians who lived in that region.21

Bridger’s words about the Salt Lake Valley were encouraging. Though Brigham was unwilling to identify a stopping place until he saw it, he and other members of the company were most interested in exploring the Salt Lake Valley. And if it was not where the Lord wanted them to settle, they could at least stop there, plant crops, and create a temporary settlement until they found their permanent home in the basin.22

Two days later, as the men in the advance company were building rafts to cross a fast-moving river, Sam Brannan and his companions walked into the camp just before sunset, surprising everyone. The company listened raptly as Sam entertained them with stories of the Brooklyn, the founding of New Hope, and his own perilous journey across mountains and plains to find them. He told them the Saints in California had planted acres of wheat and potatoes to prepare for their arrival.

Sam’s enthusiasm for the climate and soil of California was infectious. He urged the company to claim the San Francisco Bay area before other settlers arrived. The land was ideal for settlement, and important men in California were friendly to the Saints’ cause and ready to welcome them.

Brigham listened to Sam, quietly skeptical of the proposal. The allure of the California coast was beyond question, but Brigham knew the Lord wanted the Saints to establish the new gathering place closer to the Rocky Mountains. “Our destination is the Great Basin,” he declared.23

Just over a week later, the company turned off the well-beaten trail they had been following to take another, fainter trail south to the Salt Lake Valley.24

That summer, Louisa Pratt moved her family into a cabin she had purchased for five dollars. It was her third home in Winter Quarters. After the chimney failed on her sod home, she had moved the family into a damp dugout, which was little more than a five-foot hole in the ground with a leaky roof.

In the new house, Louisa paid some men to install a floor of split logs. She then had a bowery built in front of her house that could seat twenty-five people, and she and her daughter Ellen opened a school for children. Her daughter Frances, meanwhile, planted and tended a garden and chopped wood for heating the home and cooking.

Louisa’s health was still poor. After recovering from her fever and shakes, she took a bad fall on the snow and ice and hurt her knee. While living in the dugout, she developed scurvy and lost her front teeth. But she and her daughters had suffered less than many of the Saints. Everyone had neighbors and friends who had died from the sicknesses that raged through camp.25

After purchasing the home and making repairs, she had little money left. When her supply of food was almost gone, she visited her neighbors and asked if they would be interested in purchasing her feather bed, but they did not have any money either. While speaking with them, Louisa mentioned that she had nothing in her house to eat.

“You do not seem troubled,” one of them said. “What do you expect to do?”

“Oh, no, I do not feel troubled,” Louisa said. “I know deliverance will come in some unexpected way.”

As she made her way home, she visited another neighbor. During the conversation, the neighbor mentioned Louisa’s old-fashioned iron crane, which was used for holding pots in a fireplace. “If you will sell it,” the neighbor said, “I will give you two bushels of cornmeal.” Louisa agreed to the bargain, recognizing the Lord was blessing her once again.

That spring, Louisa felt healthier and ventured out to worship with the Saints. The women in the settlement had begun to meet together to strengthen each other by exercising their spiritual gifts. During one meeting, the women spoke in tongues while Elizabeth Ann Whitney, who had been a spiritual leader among the Saints for many years, interpreted. Elizabeth Ann said that Louisa would have health, cross the Rocky Mountains, and there have a joyful reunion with her husband.

Louisa was startled. She had assumed that she would reunite with Addison in Winter Quarters and then make the journey west with him. Without his help, she could see no way, physically or financially, to make the journey.26

As the members of the advance company headed into the heart of the Rocky Mountains, the trail grew steeper and the men and women tired more easily. Ahead of them, clearly visible above the rolling plains, were snowcapped peaks much taller than any mountain they had seen in the eastern United States.

One night in early July, Brigham’s wife Clara awoke with a fever, a headache, and intense pain in her hips and back. Others soon complained of the same symptoms, and they struggled to keep pace with the rest of the company. Every step they took on the stony ground was agonizing for their feeble limbs.27

Clara felt better as the days passed. The strange sickness seemed to attack quickly, then subside a short time later. On July 12, however, Brigham came down with a fever. He became delirious through the night. The next day, he felt somewhat better, but he and the apostles decided to rest most of the company while Orson Pratt pressed on with a band of forty-two men.28

About a week later, Brigham instructed Willard Richards, George A. Smith, Erastus Snow, and others to continue on and catch up with Orson’s advance company. “Halt at the first suitable spot after reaching the Salt Lake Valley,” he instructed, “and put in our seed potatoes, buckwheat, and turnips, regardless of our final location.”29 Remembering Jim Bridger’s report on the region, he cautioned the company against going south into Utah Valley until they had become better acquainted with the Ute people who inhabited it.30

Clara, her two young half brothers, and her mother stayed behind with Brigham and the other sick pioneers. Once the company felt strong enough to continue, they followed a crude trail across uneven terrain choked with underbrush. In some places, the canyon walls were so high that heavy dust became trapped in the air, making it difficult to see what lay ahead.

On July 23, Clara and the sick company climbed a long, steep trail to the summit of a hill. From there they descended through a thick grove of trees, winding their way down a path riddled with stumps left by those who cut the trail. A mile down the hill, the wagon carrying Clara’s brothers overturned in a ravine and smashed against a rock. Men quickly cut a hole in the wagon cover and pulled the boys to safety.

While the company rested at the bottom of the hill, two riders from Orson’s company arrived in camp with reports that they were near the Salt Lake Valley. Exhausted, Clara and her mother pushed ahead with the rest of the company until the early evening. Above them, the sky looked ready for a storm.31

The next morning, July 24, 1847, Wilford drove his carriage for several miles down a deep ravine. Brigham lay behind him in the carriage, too feverish and weak to walk. Soon they traveled along a creek through another canyon until they arrived at a level bench of land that opened to a view of the Salt Lake Valley.

Wilford gazed with wonder at the vast country below. Fertile fields of thick green prairie grass, watered by clear mountain streams, stretched for miles before them. The streams emptied into a long narrow river that ran lengthwise down the valley floor. A rim of tall mountains, their jagged peaks high in the clouds, surrounded the valley like a fortress. To the west, glistening like a mirror in the sunlight, was the Great Salt Lake.

After a journey of more than a thousand miles through prairie, desert, and canyons, the sight was breathtaking. Wilford could imagine the Saints settling there and establishing another stake of Zion. They could build homes, cultivate orchards and fields, and gather God’s people from around the world. And before long, the Lord’s house would be established in the mountains and exalted above the hills, just as Isaiah had prophesied.32

Brigham could not see the valley clearly, so Wilford turned the carriage to give his friend a better view. Looking out across the valley, Brigham studied it for several minutes.33

“It is enough. This is the right place,” he told Wilford. “Drive on.”34

Brigham had recognized the spot as soon as he saw it. At the north end of the valley was the mountain peak from his vision. Brigham had prayed to be led directly to that place, and the Lord had answered his prayers. He saw no need to look elsewhere.35

Below, the valley floor was already alive with activity. Even before Brigham, Wilford, and Heber Kimball descended the mountain, Orson Pratt, Erastus Snow, and other men had established a base camp and begun plowing fields, planting crops, and irrigating the land. Wilford joined them as soon as he reached the camp, planting half a bushel of potatoes before eating his evening meal and settling in for the night.

The following day was the Sabbath, and the Saints gave thanks to the Lord. The company met to hear sermons and partake of the sacrament. Though feeble, Brigham spoke briefly to encourage the Saints to keep the Sabbath, take care of the land, and respect each other’s property.

On the morning of Monday, July 26, Brigham was still convalescing in Wilford’s carriage when he turned to Wilford and said, “Brother Woodruff, I want to take a walk.”

“All right,” Wilford said.36

They set out that morning with eight other men, traveling toward the mountains to the north. Brigham rode in Wilford’s carriage part of the way, his hands clutching a green cloak around his shoulders. Before they reached the foothills, the ground leveled off into a plain, and Brigham stepped out of the carriage and walked slowly over the light, rich soil.

As the men followed Brigham, admiring the land, he stopped suddenly and thrust his cane into the ground. “Here shall stand the temple of our God,” he said.37 He could already see a vision of it in front of him, its six spires rising up from the valley floor.38

Brigham’s words struck Wilford like lightning. The men were about to walk on, but Wilford asked them to wait. He broke off a branch from a nearby sagebrush and drove it into the ground to mark the spot.

The men then continued on, envisioning the city the Saints would build in the valley.39

Later that day, Brigham pointed at the mountain peak north of the valley. “I want to go up on that peak,” he said, “for I feel fully satisfied that that was the point shown me in the vision.” The round, rocky peak was easy to climb and clearly visible from all parts of the valley. It was an ideal place to raise an ensign to the nations, signaling to the world that the kingdom of God was again on the earth.

Brigham set out immediately for the summit with Wilford, Heber Kimball, Willard Richards, and others. Wilford was the first to reach the top. From the peak, he could see the valley spread out before him.40 With its high mountains and spacious plain, this valley could keep the Saints safe from their enemies as they tried to live the laws of God, gather Israel, build another temple, and establish Zion. In his meetings with the Twelve and the Council of Fifty, Joseph Smith had often expressed his desire to find such a place for the Saints.41

Wilford’s friends soon joined him. They called the place Ensign Peak, evoking Isaiah’s prophecy that the outcasts of Israel and the dispersed of Judah would assemble from the four corners of the earth under a common banner.42

Someday they wanted to fly a massive flag over the peak. But for now, they did their best to mark the occasion. What happened is uncertain, but one man recalled that Heber Kimball took out a yellow bandana, tied it to the end of Willard Richards’s cane, and waved it back and forth in the warm mountain air.43