Church History
Winter Quarters
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“Winter Quarters,” Church History Topics

“Winter Quarters”

Winter Quarters

In 1846, months after departing Nauvoo, Illinois, on a painfully slow 300-mile trek across Iowa Territory, Brigham Young and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles paused the Latter-day Saints’ westward migration to prepare for winter. Young had hoped to make it all the way to the Great Basin that summer, but mud and sickness had taken a toll on the refugees.1 Because of the murder of Joseph Smith and the Saints’ subsequent expulsion from Nauvoo, many of the Saints believed they could no longer rely on American rule of law for protection.

Church leaders selected a site in Indian Territory in the Council Bluffs region by the Missouri River and worked out an agreement with the Omaha (Umonhon) and Potawatomi (Bodéwadmik) tribes and United States Indian agents to build a temporary settlement.2 The western bank of the river, a prime location for a ferry crossing, was also in Indian Territory. Approximately 7,000 Saints arrived in 1846, while nearly 3,000 remained in camps along the Iowa trail.3 While the Saints began building dugouts and log cabins, they faced a shortage of food and supplies with winter coming. Hunger, malnutrition, and crowded conditions fueled the spread of disease.4

As the Saints planned for the coming journey, an opportunity to improve their resources came with a United States Army recruitment drive. Even though the Saints felt disenchanted with the United States government and reluctant to enlist in a war against Mexico, 500 men joined the Mormon Battalion to bring salaries that could aid the Church.5 Much of the service pay was delivered to Bishop Newel K. Whitney as donations. He then purchased food and supplies in St. Louis, Missouri, for the Winter Quarters storehouse.6

Brigham Young sought guidance from the Lord and received a revelation that instructed the Saints how to organize their exodus.7 Several dreams also inspired Young with a vision of how to set the house of Israel on its covenant path. His mind was at ease when he departed Winter Quarters on April 7, 1847, to join other members of the vanguard pioneer company as they began their trek.8

The Saints remaining in Winter Quarters focused their efforts on preparing for a large-scale migration. Over the summer and fall of 1847, more refugees poured in from the Iowa trail. Additional bishops were called to help care for the poor and needy—one per city block.9 Women, who outnumbered men in the city, prayed with and blessed each other.10 As the weather improved, the Saints built sturdier homes and planted and fenced crops to pass on to future migrants.

Upon Brigham Young’s return to Winter Quarters in the fall of 1847 from his expedition to the Great Basin, he found a thriving settlement. He also anticipated abandoning it, as the lease on the Omaha tribal land would expire in a few months. The Saints began moving east across the river and back into Iowa and eventually named their new emigration headquarters Kanesville in honor of Thomas L. Kane, who had come to their aid after the Nauvoo expulsion.11

At Kanesville in December 1847, Latter-day Saints gathered in their log tabernacle to sustain a new First Presidency with Brigham Young as president. Orson Hyde became the new President of the Quorum of the Twelve.12 Young and his counselors led companies west in the spring; Hyde remained in Kanesville to oversee the arrivals, preparations, and departures of Saints coming from the eastern United States and Europe.

In Winter Quarters the Saints had struggled to outfit themselves for the westward journey, but in Kanesville, the 1849 gold rush sparked an infusion of cash.13 California-bound emigrants passing through Kanesville were willing to pay a premium for food and supplies. Brigham Young and other leaders again urged the Saints to gather to Zion, and in 1852, 21 wagon trains of some 10,000 Saints departed for Utah. Kanesville was soon renamed Council Bluffs, and Winter Quarters became Florence, Nebraska.14

Notes

  1. Richard E. Bennett, Mormons at the Missouri, 1846–1852: “And Should We Die” (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1987), 90; Edward L. Kimball and Kenneth Godfrey, “Law and Order in Winter Quarters,” Journal of Mormon History, vol. 32, no. 1 (Spring 2006), 172–218.

  2. The Potawatomi lived on land east of the Missouri River, and the Omaha were given land west of the river. The United States government imposed a two-year limit on the Omaha land; by May 1848, Winter Quarters residents had to leave. (Kimball and Godfrey, “Law and Order in Winter Quarters,” 174–75.)

  3. During the winter of 1846–47, Winter Quarters accommodated approximately 4,000 people; the camps on the east side of the river accommodated another 3,000. The 3,000 travelers still scattered along the Iowa trail encamped in places like Garden Grove and Mount Pisgah. Another 1,700 Saints spent the winter in Missouri, mostly in St. Louis. (Richard E. Bennett, “Winter Quarters: Church Headquarters, 1846–1848,” Ensign [Sept. 1997], 46–47. [See also Chad M. Orton, “‘This Shall Be Our Covenant’: D&C 136,” in Matthew McBride and James Goldberg, eds., Revelations in Context: The Stories behind the Sections of the Doctrine and Covenants (Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 2016), 307.])

  4. See Joseph B. Hinckley, “Saints and Sickness: Medicine in Nauvoo and Winter Quarters,” Religious Educator, vol. 10, no. 3 (2009), 137–49; Evan L. Ivie, “Deaths in Early Nauvoo, Illinois, 1839–46, and in Winter Quarters, Nebraska, 1846–48,” Religious Educator, vol. 10, no. 3 (2009), 163–74.

  5. See Topics: Mormon Battalion; Mexican-American War.

  6. Bennett, “Winter Quarters,” 47.

  7. See Doctrine and Covenants 136.

  8. Orton, “This Shall Be Our Covenant,” 307–14; “Exodus to Zion in the American West,” history.ChurchofJesusChrist.org.

  9. Bennett, “Winter Quarters,” 47.

  10. Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, A House Full of Females: Plural Marriage and Women’s Rights in Early Mormonism, 1835–1870 (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2017), 169–83.

  11. See Topic: Thomas L. and Elizabeth Kane; William G. Hartley, “Council Bluffs/Kanesville, Iowa: A Hub for Mormon Settlements, Operations, and Emigration, 1846–1852,” John Whitmer Historical Association Journal, vol. 26 (2006), 27–28.

  12. See Topic: Succession of Church Leadership; Aaron L. West, “Sustaining a New First Presidency in 1847: Why We Remember the Kanesville Tabernacle,” Nov. 20, 2017, history.ChurchofJesusChrist.org.

  13. See Topic: California Gold Rush.

  14. Hartley, “Council Bluffs/Kanesville,” 43–46.