Trek Commences - Difficulties - Skills Learned
By the beginning of March the first group of Mormons were ready to vacate their staging ground on Sugar Creek, where they had been gathering since February 4th. No accurate record was kept of how many wagons and people were at Sugar Creek that March 1st--estimates vary from four to five hundred wagons and from three to five thousand individuals. Five hundred wagons and three thousand people is probably close to the truth.
What from the start was known as the "Camp of Israel" began to lumber out from Sugar Creek about noon to the "gee-haws" of teamsters and the yells of herdsmen and children. Thereafter, Old Testament parallels to a Zion, a Chosen People, an Exodus, a Mount Pisgah, a Jordan River, a Dead Sea, to being "in the tops of the mountains," and making the desert blossom like the rose, were noted, devised, cherished, and handed down. The Mormons resembled ancient Israel in other ways: they were divided into groups of fifties and tens (Exodus 18:21) and, at times, were fractious and whiny.
A few trail journals give a romantic cast to the exodus across Iowa, that "Mormon Mesopotamia" between the Mississippi and the Missouri rivers, but as most other trail accounts make clear, the worst part of the entire journey from Nauvoo to the Valley of the Great Salt Lake was the beginning. No part of the long trek surpasses the tragedy and triumph of this hegira across the rolling, open prairie of Iowa Territory, which then consisted of little more than bluestem prairie grass and stands of oak and hickory forests along the numerous rivers and streams and dangerous swamps and bogs. Often, when roads did exist, they were most primitive. Some Mormons may have reflected often on the frontier sarcasm that it was a middling good road when the mud did not quite reach one's boot tops--while astride a horse. Although the Mormons made some improvements along the roads and trails they followed across Iowa, they did little, if any, trail blazing.
Along the Iowa trail, the basic skills of immigrating and colonizing were practiced and permanent camps were established. This part of the westward march influenced Mormon history long afterward. The Saints had learned only the rudimentary lessons of immigration during the Zion's Camp march from Ohio to Missouri in 1834; the advanced training had to be acquired in Iowa.
Through the settled parts of eastern Iowa, the Mormons tried to earn what money they could by hiring themselves out to anyone who would pay them. From 1846 through the early 1850s, they found sporadic work plowing; planting; fencing; digging wells; cutting logs; splitting rails; husking corn; making shingles; digging coal; and building bridges, homes, barns, jails, and river locks. They also did some plastering and brick work, and Pitt's Brass Band, a group of musicians from this pioneer company, played for dances.
Although it was generally well known among the Saints that the Camp of Israel was headed beyond the Rocky Mountains and into the Great Basin, little was said about where the camp would cross the Missouri or where they would pick up the Oregon Trail. They had little intention of returning to Missouri and crossing at Independence, Weston, or St. Joseph, and the only other well-established point of crossing to the north was Council Bluffs, Iowa Territory, which was closer to Nauvoo. In August 1845, the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles (in charge of the church between the death of Smith and the presidency of Young) sent several men on a reconnaissance mission to find the best route across Iowa. They reported favorably on the Council Bluffs crossing.Source: Historic Resource Study - Mormon Pioneer National By Stanley B. Kimball, Ph.D., May 1991. (The study focuses on the history of the trail from its official beginning in Nauvoo, Illinois, to its terminus in Salt Lake City, Utah, during the period 1846-1869. During that time, thousands of Mormon emigrants used many trails and trail variants to reach Utah. This study emphasizes the "Pioneer Route" or "Brigham Young Route" of 1846-1847. The sections on Mormon beliefs and motivations for going west have been omitted. Interested persons can find ample sources for that information. The footnotes, bibliography, maps, pictures, pioneer companies by name and dates for the 22-year period, and historic sites - about 2/3 of the book - have also been left out for space considerations. Thanks to Dr. Kimball and the National Park Service for the availability of this information.)