Heritage Gateways

Official Sesquicentennial K-12 Education Project
sponsored by the Utah State Board of Education, the BYU-Public School Partnership and the Utah Education Network

General Information

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Camps West of the Missouri

With the question of a pioneer group going west that fall eliminated by the formation of the battalion, Young began in earnest to locate winter quarters and to settle the Saints. Most of their searching was on the western side of the Missouri River on Indian lands disputed by the Omaha and Oto nations. As previously noted, Chief Big Elk and the Omaha were agreeable to the Mormons settling among them.

Cold Spring and Cutler's Park
Two temporary camps were made opposite Council Bluffs. The first, called Cold Spring Camp, in what is now South Omaha, was of very short duration; the second was Cutler's Park (see Historic Site 18), after Alpheus Cutler, the father-in-law of Heber C. Kimball, who selected it that August. Cutler's Park is now considered to have been the first official town in what became Nebraska. The Mormons elected Cutler as mayor, chose a city council of twelve, and hired police and fire guards.

Winter Quarters
It was soon decided, however, that Cutler's Park was not suitable and in early September, another campsite was selected, 3 miles closer to the river. It was there, in what is now Florence (technically North Omaha), Nebraska, that the Saints finally built their Winter Quarters, the Mormon "Valley Forge." Winter Quarters soon became a city of about 800 cabins, huts, caves, and sod, or "prairie marble," hovels, and 3,483 people. At its height it had about 4,000 people. During the winter of 1846-1847 there were approximately another 11,800 Mormons in camps scattered throughout Iowa.

The Winter Quarters period in church history, 1847-1852 has, until recently, been neglected in Mormon historiography. It has now come to be considered one of the most important periods in Mormon history, "Mormonism in the raw," as one student put it. During these years Brigham Young became president of the Mormon Church (in 1847) and inaugurated many policies and practices that were later applied in the Great Basin. Particularly important were the lessons learned from being in close proximity to Indians--how to understand Indian life and customs, how to trade with Indians, and how to prevent and punish Indian thievery, for example. Equally important were the lessons learned about surviving on the frontier, and how to lead and hold together a people under adverse conditions, and how to openly implement doctrines heretofore kept generally secret--the doctrines of polygamy and adoption, for example! The doctrine of polygamy, or plural marriage as Mormons prefer to term it, needs little comment. It had been practiced secretly in Nauvoo since at least 1841 and was defended on the grounds that it had been sanctioned in the Old Testament, was not forbidden in the New, and was necessary to the Mormon concept of the "restoration of all things." It was, however, not publicly admitted until 1852, when the Mormons were safely in Utah Territory. The law of adoption permitted church leaders to graft entire families onto their families, in order to increase their own posterity and blessing in this world and the next.

The winter of 1846-1847 was grim. At least 400 died from various causes and are buried in the Winter Quarters' cemetery. These deaths added to the number already dead from malaria and other fevers. Some gave up the faith and returned to the east. Others simply stayed in the area and never went west. There was also some trouble with the Indians--mainly stealing. Young warned Big Elk, Chief of the Omaha, that any Indians caught stealing would be whipped--the same punishment meted out to white malefactors. (Since the Mormons had no jails, they found it necessary to practice corporal punishment for a few years).

Still the Mormons made the best of things. They organized concerts, dances, (even dancing lessons), songfests, feasts, festivals, and sleigh rides, and visited back and forth with the other whites on both sides of the river and downstream at Bellevue.

In Winter Quarters the Mormons received some unexpected and welcomed information regarding the mountain west. That November, as previously noted, the famous Jesuit, Father Pierre Jean de Smet, stopped and visited with the Mormons. He was en route to St. Louis after spending five years in the mountains preaching to the Flathead Indians and was one of the few white men who had visited the Great Salt Lake. Taking full advantage of this good luck, the Mormons asked him every question they could think of. De Smet took it goodnaturedly and some years later wrote a brief account of this meeting.

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.)