Chapter 9: Exodus
by Gordon B. Hinckley
THE exodus of the Mormons from Nauvoo, Illinois in
February 1846 stands as one of the epic events in the pioneer history of the
United States. In severe winter weather they crossed the Mississippi River,
their wagons loaded with the few possessions they could take with them.
Behind them were the homes they had constructed from the swamps of Commerce
during the seven years they had been permitted to live in Illinois. Before
them was the wilderness, largely unknown and uncharted.
Because this march of thousands of homeless people was so
like the exodus of the Israelites from their homes in Egypt to a promised
land they had not seen, the Mormons named their movement "The Camp of
Brigham Young and the first company ferried across the
river on February 4. A few days later the river froze sufficiently to
support teams and wagons. But though this weather proved a boon in
expediting the movement, it also brought intense suffering. Of the
conditions in which these exiles found themselves, one of their group, Eliza
R. Snow, wrote:
I was informed that on the first night of the encampment
nine children were born into the world, and from that time, as we journeyed
onward, mothers gave birth to off-spring under almost every variety of
circumstances imaginable, except those to which they had been accustomed;
some in tents, others in wagons—in rain and in snow storms . . .
Let it be remembered that the mothers of these
wilderness-born babes were not savages, accustomed to roam the forest and
brave the storm and tempest . . . Most of them were born and educated in the
eastern states—had there embraced the gospel as taught by Jesus and his
apostles, and, for the sake of their religion had gathered with the Saints,
and under trying circumstances had assisted, by their faith, patience and
energies, in making Nauvoo what its name indicates, "the beautiful." There
they had lovely homes, decorated with flowers and enriched with choice fruit
trees, just beginning to yield plentifully.
To these homes, without lease or sale, they had just bade
a final adieu, and with what little of their substance could be packed into
one, two, and in some instances, three wagons, had started out, desertward,
for—where? To this question the only response at that time was, God knows.
Brigham Young presided over this pilgrim band. They
accepted him as prophet and leader, the inspired successor to their beloved
Joseph. He, they believed, would direct them to a place of refuge "in the
midst of the Rocky Mountains," where Joseph had predicted they would become
"a mighty people."
Planting for Other Reapers
After the exiles reached the Iowa side of the Mississippi
River, they were organized into companies of hundreds, and standards of
conduct were set up. The companies were subdivided into fifties and tens,
with officers over each group. Brigham Young was sustained as "president
over all the camps of Israel."
They traveled in a northwesterly direction, over the
territory of Iowa, through a sparsely-settled region between the Mississippi
and Missouri Rivers. In the earlier days of the movement snow lay on the
ground to a depth of six or eight inches, and their canvas wagon covers
offered little protection against cold north winds.
With the coming of spring the snow melted, making travel
even more difficult. There were no roads in the direction the Saints
traveled, and they had to build their own. At times the mud was so deep that
three yoke of oxen were required to pull a load of five hundred pounds.
Exhausted by a day of pushing and pulling, chopping wood for bridges,
loading and unloading wagons, the travelers would find they had moved only a
half dozen miles. Slush and rain made their camps veritable quagmires.
Exposure to such conditions, together with improper nourishment, took a
heavy toll of life.
Burials along the way were frequent. Crude coffins were
fashioned from cottonwood trees, brief services were held, and the loved
ones of the deceased turned their faces and their teams westward, realizing
they would never pass this way again. One wonders why these people did not
become bitter and vindictive, particularly when they remembered their
comfortable homes now ravaged and burned by the Illinois mob.
But they lightened their sorrows with self-made pleasures.
They had their own brass band, and they made good use of it. The settlers of
Iowa were amazed to see these pioneers clear a piece of land about their
camp fires, and then dance and sing until the bugler sounded taps.
It was while traveling under these circumstances that one
of their number, William Clayton, composed that epic hymn of the prairie,
"Come, Come Ye Saints." Set to an old English air, this song became an
anthem of hope and faith for all the thousands of Mormon pioneers. Nothing,
perhaps, expresses so well the spirit of this movement.
When food became scarce, they found it necessary to trade
precious possessions—dishes, silverware, lace—brought from the East or
across the sea, for a little corn and salt pork. In this way the homes of
many Iowa settlers were made more attractive and the Mormons were able to
replenish their scant food supplies. Occasionally the brass band traveled
out of its way a considerable distance to give a concert in a frontier
settlement in order to add to the commissary.
One of the remarkable features of this movement was the
building of temporary settlements along the way. The pioneer company
occasionally stopped long enough to clear, fence, plow and plant large
sections of ground. The leader called for volunteers—some to split rails for
fences and bridges, others to remove trees, and others to plow and sow. A
few cabins were built, and several families were detailed to remain and care
for the crops. Then the pioneer company moved forward, leaving the crops for
later companies to harvest.
This spirit of mutual service and cooperation
characterized the entire movement. Without this, the migration of twenty
thousand people through the wilderness doubtless would have ended in
Approximately three and a half months after leaving Sugar
Creek, their camp on the west shore of the Mississippi, the pioneer company
reached Council Bluffs on the Missouri. Following them, across the entire
territory of Iowa, was a slow-moving train of hundreds of wagons. They were
to continue to filter out of Nauvoo and move over the rolling Iowa hills for
all of that summer and late into the year. Here was modern Israel, seeking a
new promised land!
The Mormon Battalion
On a June morning in 1846 the Mormons at one of the
temporary camps along the trail were surprised by the approach of a platoon
of United States soldiers. Captain James Allen had come with a call for five
hundred able young men to fight in the war with Mexico.
He was directed on to Council Bluffs to see Brigham Young
and other authorities of the Church. It is not surprising that the leaders
remarked on the irony of the situation—their country, which had stood by
while they, its citizens, had been dispossessed of their homes by
unconstitutional mobs, now called upon them for military volunteers.
It is true that the Mormons had petitioned the government
for assistance in the form of contracts to build blockhouses along the
westward trail. They believed that this would be a service to the thousands
of emigrants, Mormon and non-Mormon, who would move west in the years to
come. Such blockhouses would afford protection against the Indians and other
dangers of the prairie. But a military call for five hundred urgently needed
men was hardly the answer they expected. Moreover, the call was highly
disproportionate in terms of their numbers.
Nevertheless, they responded. Brigham Young and others
went from camp to camp, hoisting the national flag at each recruiting place.
And though this meant leaving families fatherless on the plains, the men
enlisted when President Young assured them that their families should have
food so long as his own had any.
Captain Allen expressed amazement at the music and dancing
on the eve of departure. The recruits were to go to Mexico. Their families
now, of necessity would be compelled to establish winter quarters and wait
until the following year to go to the Rocky Mountains. When or where they
would meet again was an open question. Perhaps it was a prophetic statement
from Brigham Young that eased the sorrow of departure. He promised the men
that if they would keep the commandments of God, not one of them should die
From Council Bluffs the Mormon Battalion marched to Fort
Leavenworth. There they received advance pay for clothing, and a large part
of this money they sent back for the relief of their families.
From Leavenworth they marched southwest to the old Spanish
town of Santa Fe. Here they were saluted by the garrison under the command
of Colonel Alexander W. Doniphan, the man who had saved Joseph Smith's life
From Santa Fe they marched south down the valley of the
Rio Grande, but before reaching El Paso they turned to the west, following
the San Pedro River.
They then crossed the Gila River, marched to Tucson,
followed the Gila to the Colorado, and made their way over the mountains to
San Diego, California. Much of the road they made was later followed by the
Southern Pacific Railroad.
The story of their historic march is one of suffering from
insufficient rations, of killing thirst and desperate attempts to secure
water, of exhausting travel through heavy desert sand, and of cutting a road
over forbidding mountains. They had left their families in June of 1846.
They reached San Diego, January 29, 1847. The war was over when they reached
their post, and they were not obliged to do any fighting. Brigham Young's
prophetic promise had been fulfilled.
Upon reaching the Pacific Coast their commander, Colonel
Philip St. George Cooke of the United States Army, congratulated them with a
citation, reading in part as follows:
The lieutenant colonel commanding, congratulates the
battalion on their safe arrival on the shore of the Pacific Ocean, and the
conclusion of their march of over two thousand miles.
History may be searched in vain for an equal march of
infantry. Half of it has been through a wilderness, where nothing but
savages and wild beasts are found, or deserts where, for want of water,
there is no living creature. There, with almost hopeless labor, we have dug
deep wells, which the future traveler will enjoy. Without a guide who had
traversed them we have ventured into trackless tablelands where water was
not found for several marches. With crowbar and pick and axe in hand, we
have worked our way over mountains, which seemed to defy aught save the wild
goat, and hewed a pass through a chasm of living rock more narrow than our
But while the members of the Battalion had been serving
under their country's flag, those of their people who had remained in Nauvoo
were being driven by mobs in defiance of every constitutional guarantee.
The Fall of a City
Although most of the Mormons had succeeded in getting out
of Nauvoo before May 1, 1846, the date set by the mob for their complete
departure, some of their number had not been so fortunate. By August there
remained about one thousand, many among them being sick and aged. It was
thought that the mob would spare these, at least.
But history bears somber witness of the fact that those
who had indulged in such wishful thinking were sadly mistaken.
When it became apparent that the mob would not wait, the
people of Nauvoo appealed to the governor for aid. He responded by sending a
Major Parker with ten men representing the military of the state of
Illinois. Major Parker was later succeeded by a Major Clifford.
The mob answered the Major's appeals for peaceful
settlement of the difficulty by attacking him and the Mormons who had
volunteered to serve under him. Though greatly outnumbered, the defenders of
the city fashioned five old steamboat shafts into cannons and constructed
improvised breastworks. In the name of the people of Illinois, Major
Clifford requested the mobbers to disperse.
Their answer was an assault on the city. The defenders
were able to hold them off for a period, but they were so seriously
outnumbered that the Mormons agreed to evacuate the city as quickly as they
could gather together a few of their possessions.
Even this did not satisfy the mob. While the Mormons were
leaving, they were set upon and abused, and their wagons were ransacked for
anything of value. Crossing to the Iowa side of the river, they set up a
temporary camp. Colonel Thomas L. Kane of Philadelphia, who chanced to see
them at this time, later described their situation before the Historical
Society of Pennsylvania:
Dreadful, indeed, was the suffering of these forsaken
beings; bowed and cramped by cold and sunburn, alternating as each weary day
and night dragged on, they were, almost all of them, the crippled victims of
disease. They were there because they had no homes, nor hospital, nor
poorhouse, nor friends to offer them any. They could not satisfy the feeble
cravings of their sick, they had not bread to quiet the hunger-cries of
their children . . .
These were Mormons, famishing in Lee County, Iowa, in the
fourth week of the month of September, in the year of our Lord, 1846. The
city [which he had just visited] — it was Nauvoo, Illinois. The Mormons were
the owners of that city, and the smiling country around. And those who had
stopped their ploughs, who had silenced their hammers, their axes, their
shuttles, and their workshop wheels; those who had put out their fires, who
had eaten their food, spoiled their orchards, and trampled under foot their
thousands of acres of unharvested bread; these were the keepers of their
dwellings, the carousers in their temple, whose drunken riot insulted the
ears of their dying.
Doubtless many would have starved but for thousands of
quail which flew into their camp, and which they were able to catch with
their hands. These they regarded as manna from heaven, an answer to prayer.
Fortunately, they were not left in this condition for
long. Their brethren, who had gone on ahead, sent back relief wagons and
divided with them their own meager stores. Their last picture of Nauvoo, as
they tediously made their way over the Iowa hills, was of the tower of their
sacred temple, now spoiled and desecrated.