“Gather Up a Company,” chapter 1 of Saints: The Story of the Church of Jesus Christ in the Latter Days, Volume 2, No Unhallowed Hand, 1846–1893 (2020)
Chapter 1: “Gather Up a Company”
“I want to speak about the dead.”
Thousands of Latter-day Saints hushed as Lucy Mack Smith’s voice echoed through the large assembly hall on the first floor of the nearly completed Nauvoo temple.
It was the morning of October 8, 1845, the third and final day of the fall conference of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Knowing she would not have many more opportunities to speak to the Saints—especially now that they planned to leave Nauvoo for a new home far to the west—Lucy spoke with a power beyond her feeble seventy-year-old body.
“It was eighteen years ago last twenty-second of September that Joseph took the plates out of the earth,” she testified, “and it was eighteen years last Monday since Joseph Smith, the prophet of the Lord—”1
She paused, remembering Joseph, her martyred son. The Saints in the room already knew how an angel of the Lord had led him to a set of gold plates buried in a hill called Cumorah. They knew that Joseph had translated the plates by the gift and power of God and published the record as the Book of Mormon. Yet how many Saints in the assembly hall had truly known him?
Lucy could still remember when Joseph, then only twenty-one years old, had first told her that God had entrusted him with the plates. She had been anxious all morning, afraid he would return from the hill empty-handed, as he had the four previous years. But when he arrived, he had quickly calmed her nerves. “Do not be uneasy,” he had said. “All is right.” He had then handed her the interpreters the Lord had provided for the translation of the plates, wrapped in a handkerchief, as proof that he had succeeded in getting the record.
There had been only a handful of believers then, most of them members of the Smith family. Now more than eleven thousand Saints from North America and Europe lived in Nauvoo, Illinois, where the Church had gathered for the last six years. Some of them were new to the Church and had not had a chance to meet Joseph or his brother Hyrum before a mob shot and killed the two men in June 1844.2 That was why Lucy wanted to speak about the dead. She wanted to testify of Joseph’s prophetic call and her family’s role in the Restoration of the gospel before the Saints moved away.
For more than a month, vigilante mobs had been torching the homes and businesses of Saints in nearby settlements. Fearing for their lives, many families had fled to the relative safety of Nauvoo. But the mobs had only grown stronger and more organized as the weeks passed, and soon armed skirmishes had broken out between them and the Saints. The state and national governments, meanwhile, did nothing to protect the Saints’ rights.3
Believing it was only a matter of time before the mobs attacked Nauvoo, Church leaders had negotiated a fragile peace by agreeing to evacuate the Saints from the county by spring.4
Guided by divine revelation, Brigham Young and the other members of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles were planning to move the Saints more than a thousand miles west, beyond the Rocky Mountains, just outside the border of the United States. As the presiding quorum of the Church, the Twelve had announced this decision to the Saints on the first day of the fall conference.
“The Lord designs to lead us to a wider field of action,” apostle Parley Pratt had declared, “where we can enjoy the pure principles of liberty and equal rights.”5
Lucy knew the Saints would help her make this journey if she chose to go. Revelations had commanded the Saints to gather together in one place, and the Twelve were determined to carry out the Lord’s will. But Lucy was old and believed she would not live much longer. When she died, she wanted to be buried in Nauvoo near Joseph, Hyrum, and other family members who had passed on, including her husband, Joseph Smith Sr.
Furthermore, most of her living family members were staying in Nauvoo. Her only surviving son, William, had been a member of the Quorum of the Twelve, but he had rejected their leadership and refused to go west. Her three daughters—Sophronia, Katharine, and Lucy—were also staying behind. So too was her daughter-in-law Emma, the prophet’s widow.
As Lucy spoke to the congregation, she urged her listeners not to fret about the journey ahead. “Do not be discouraged and say that you can’t get wagons and things,” she said. Despite poverty and persecution, her own family had fulfilled the Lord’s commandment to publish the Book of Mormon. She encouraged them to listen to their leaders and treat each other well.
“As Brigham says, you must be all honest or you will not get there,” she said. “If you feel cross, you will have trouble.”
Lucy spoke more about her family, the terrible persecution they had suffered in Missouri and Illinois, and the trials that lay ahead for the Saints. “I pray that the Lord may bless the heads of the Church, Brother Brigham and all,” she said. “When I go to another world, I want to meet you all.”6
A little more than a month later, Wilford Woodruff, an apostle and the president of the Church’s British mission, found a letter from Brigham Young waiting for him in his office in Liverpool, England. “We have had a good deal of sorrow and trouble here this fall,” Brigham told his friend. “It is therefore advisable for us to remove as the only condition of peace.”7
Wilford was alarmed but not surprised. He had read newspaper reports of mob attacks around Nauvoo. But he had not known how bad the situation was until now. “This is a strange age we live in,” Wilford thought after reading the letter. The United States government claimed to protect oppressed peoples and to shelter exiles, but Wilford could not remember a time when it had helped the Saints.
“The state of Illinois and the whole United States have filled up their cup of iniquity,” he wrote in his journal, “and well may the Saints go out of her midst.”8
Fortunately, most of Wilford’s family was out of harm’s way. His wife, Phebe, and their youngest children, Susan and Joseph, were with him in England. Their other daughter, Phebe Amelia, was staying with relatives in the eastern United States, more than a thousand miles away from the danger.
Their oldest son, Willy, however, was still in Nauvoo in the care of close friends. In his letter, Brigham mentioned that the boy was safe, yet Wilford still felt anxious to reunite his family.9
As quorum president, Brigham offered Wilford instructions for what to do next. “Send no more emigrants here,” he advised, “but let them wait in England till they can ship for the Pacific Ocean.” As for the American missionaries in England, he wanted those who had not received their temple ordinances to return immediately to Nauvoo to receive them.10
In the days that followed, Wilford sent letters to the American elders preaching in England, informing them of the persecution in Nauvoo. Though he and Phebe had already received their ordinances, they decided to return home as well.
“I have a portion of my family scattered some two thousand miles apart in the States,” Wilford explained in a farewell message to the British Saints. “It appears at the present time to be a duty resting upon me to return there and gather together my children that they may go out with the camp of the Saints.”
Wilford appointed Reuben Hedlock, the previous mission president, to preside again in Britain. Though Wilford did not have full confidence in Reuben, who had mismanaged Church funds in the past, no one else in England had more experience in mission leadership. And Wilford had little time to find a better replacement. After reuniting with the Quorum of the Twelve, he would recommend calling another man to take Reuben’s place.11
As Wilford and Phebe prepared to return to Nauvoo, Samuel Brannan, the presiding elder of the Church in New York City, heard a rumor that the United States government would rather disarm and exterminate the Saints than allow them to leave the country and possibly align with Mexico or Great Britain, two nations that claimed vast regions in the West. Alarmed, Sam wrote to Brigham Young immediately to report the danger.
Sam’s letter reached Nauvoo amid new perils. Brigham and other apostles had been served with legal writs falsely charging them with counterfeiting, and now lawmen were seeking to arrest them.12 After reading Sam’s letter, the apostles prayed for protection, asking the Lord to lead the Saints safely out of the city.13
A short time later, Governor Thomas Ford of Illinois seemed to confirm Sam’s report. “It is very likely that the government at Washington, DC, will interfere to prevent the Mormons from going west of the Rocky Mountains,” he warned. “Many intelligent persons sincerely believe that they will join the British if they go there and be more trouble than ever.”14
In January 1846, Brigham met often with the Quorum of the Twelve and the Council of Fifty, an organization that oversaw the temporal concerns of God’s kingdom on earth, to plan the best and quickest way to evacuate Nauvoo and establish a new gathering place for the Saints. Heber Kimball, his fellow apostle, recommended that they lead a small company of Saints west as soon as possible.
“Gather up a company who can fit themselves out,” he advised, “to be ready at any moment when called upon to go forth and prepare a place for their families and the poor.”
“If there is an advance company to go and put in crops this spring,” apostle Orson Pratt pointed out, “it will be necessary to start by the first of February.” He wondered if it would be wiser to settle somewhere closer, which would allow them to plant crops sooner.
Brigham disliked that idea. The Lord had already directed the Saints to settle near the Great Salt Lake. The lake was part of the Great Basin, a massive bowl-shaped region surrounded by mountains. Much of the basin was dry desert land and a challenge to cultivate, making it undesirable for many Americans moving west.
“If we go between the mountains to the place under consideration,” Brigham reasoned, “there will be no jealousies from any nation.” Brigham understood that the region was already inhabited by Native peoples. Yet he was hopeful that the Saints would be able to settle peacefully among them.15
Over the years, the Saints had tried to share the gospel with American Indians in the United States, and they planned to do the same with the Native peoples of the West. Like most white people in the United States, many white Saints saw their culture as superior to that of the Indians and knew little about their languages and customs. But they also viewed Indians as fellow members of the house of Israel and potential allies, and they hoped to forge friendships with the Utes, Shoshones, and other western tribes.16
On January 13, Brigham met again with the councils to learn how many Saints were ready to leave Nauvoo with six hours’ notice. He was confident that most Saints would be safe in the city until the spring deadline. To ensure speedy travel, he wanted as few families as possible to leave with the advance company.
“All those men who are in danger and who are likely to be hunted with writs,” he said, “go and take their families.” Everyone else was to wait to go west until the spring, after the advance company had reached the mountains and founded the new settlement.17
On the afternoon of February 4, 1846, sunlight danced across New York Harbor as a crowd huddled at the wharf to bid farewell to the Brooklyn, a 450-ton ship bound for San Francisco Bay on the coast of California, a sparsely settled region in northwestern Mexico. On the deck of the ship, waving to their relatives and friends below, were more than two hundred Saints, most of them too poor to travel west by wagon.18
Leading them was twenty-six-year-old Sam Brannan. After the October conference, the Twelve had instructed Sam to charter a ship and take a company of eastern Saints to California, where they would wait to rendezvous with the main body of the Church somewhere in the West.
“Flee out of Babylon!” apostle Orson Pratt had warned. “We do not want one Saint to be left in the United States.”19
Sam soon chartered the Brooklyn at an affordable price, and workers built thirty-two small bunk rooms to accommodate the passengers. He had the Saints pack plows, shovels, hoes, pitchforks, and other tools they would need to plant crops and build homes. Unsure of what lay ahead, they stowed ample food and provisions, some livestock, three grain mills, grinding stones, lathes, nails, a printing press, and firearms. A charitable society also donated enough books to the ship to form a good library.20
As Sam prepared for the voyage, a politician he knew in Washington warned him that the United States was still determined to stop the Saints from leaving Nauvoo. The politician also told Sam that he and a businessman with interests in California were willing to lobby the government on the Church’s behalf in exchange for half the land the Saints acquired in the West.
Sam knew the terms of the deal were not good, but he believed the men were his friends and could protect the Saints. A few days before he boarded the Brooklyn, Sam had a contract drawn up and sent it to Brigham, urging him to sign it. “All will go well,” he promised.21
He also informed Brigham of his plan to establish a city at San Francisco Bay, perhaps as a new gathering place for the Saints. “I shall select the most suitable spot,” he wrote. “Before you reach there, if it is the Lord’s will, I shall have everything prepared for you.”22
By the time the Brooklyn left its moorings, Sam was certain he had ensured safety for the Saints leaving Nauvoo and a smooth voyage for his company. The ship’s course would follow ocean currents around the stormy southern tip of South America and into the heart of the Pacific. When they reached California, they would found their city and start a new life in the West.
As a steamship guided the Brooklyn away from the wharf, the crowd of loved ones on the pier gave three cheers to the Saints, who responded with three cheers of their own. The vessel then made its way to the narrow mouth of the harbor, spread its topsails, and caught a breeze that carried it into the Atlantic Ocean.23
On the same day the Brooklyn sailed for California, fifteen wagons in the Saints’ advance company crossed the Mississippi River into Iowa Territory, just west of Nauvoo, and set up camp at nearby Sugar Creek.
Four days later, Brigham Young met one last time with the apostles in the Nauvoo temple.24 Though the temple as a whole remained undedicated, they had already dedicated its attic and administered the endowment there to more than five thousand eager Saints. They had also sealed approximately thirteen hundred couples for time and eternity.25 Some of these sealings were plural marriages, which a few faithful Saints had begun practicing privately in Nauvoo following a principle the Lord had revealed to Joseph Smith in the early 1830s.26
Brigham had planned to stop administering ordinances on February 3, the day before the first wagons left the city, but Saints had thronged the temple all day, anxious to receive the ordinances before their departure. At first, Brigham had dismissed them. “We shall build more temples and have further opportunities to receive the blessings of the Lord,” he had insisted. “In this temple we have been abundantly rewarded, if we receive no more.”
Expecting the crowd to disperse, Brigham had started to walk home. But he had not gone far before he returned and found the temple overflowing with people hungering and thirsting for the word of the Lord. That day, 295 more Saints had received their temple blessings.27
Now, with the ordinance work of the temple completed, the apostles knelt around the altar of the temple and prayed for a safe journey west. No one could tell what trials they might face in the weeks and months to come. Guidebooks and maps described unmarked trails for much of the way to the mountains. Rivers and streams were abundant along the way, and plenty of buffalo and game animals roamed the plains. But the terrain was still unlike anything the Saints had ever traveled before.28
Unwilling to leave anyone in danger, the Saints had covenanted together to help anyone who wanted to go west—especially the poor, sick, or widowed. “If you will be faithful to your covenant,” Brigham had promised the Saints in the temple at the October conference, “the great God will shower down means upon this people to accomplish it to the very letter.”29
On February 15, the burden of this covenant weighed heavily on Brigham as he crossed the Mississippi. That afternoon, he pushed and pulled wagons up a snowy, muddy hill four miles west of the river. When only a few hours of daylight remained before evening would darken the way ahead, Brigham remained determined not to rest until every Latter-day Saint wagon west of the river arrived safely at Sugar Creek.30
By now, the plan to send a small advance company ahead to the mountains that year was already delayed. Brigham and other Church leaders had left the city later than planned, and some Saints—ignoring counsel to stay in Nauvoo—had crossed the river and camped with the advance company at Sugar Creek. After fleeing the city so quickly, many families on the trail were disorganized, ill-equipped, and underprepared.
Brigham did not yet know what to do. These Saints would surely slow the others down. But he would not send these Saints back to the city now that they had already left. In his mind, Nauvoo had become a prison, no place for the people of God. The road west was freedom.
He and the Twelve would simply have to press forward, trusting that the Lord would help them find a solution.31