The history of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints between 1846 and 1852 is a story of transition and severe hardship, but also triumph. Winter Quarters and Kanesville are critical components of the transition following the martyrdom of Joseph Smith, expulsion from Nauvoo and eventual settlement in the Salt Lake Valley.
The 19th-century Mormon migration that started in 1846 was one of the most remarkable episodes in the history of the United States’ great western migration. The Missouri River refuge sites at Winter Quarters and Kanesville are where plans for the trek west were settled, discipleship and loyalty to the Church were tested and the First Presidency was reorganized.
The modern-day historic sites located in Omaha, Nebraska, and Council Bluffs, Iowa, provide visitors with an understanding of the area’s rich and sacred history.
“The Winter Quarters area is one of the hidden treasures in the Church,” said Sister Jane Hales, a senior missionary at the Mormon Trail Center at Historic Winter Quarters. “Most people think the pioneers went from Nauvoo to the Salt Lake Valley, but it is the stops in between that are filled with the wonderful stories of sacrifice, charity and dedication. Seventy thousand people passed through the Winter Quarters-Kanesville area on their way to the Salt Lake Valley. One can still feel their spirit.”
Background: Winter Quarters
With the assassination of Joseph Smith in 1844 and increasing pressure on the Mormons to abandon their city of Nauvoo on the banks of the Mississippi, it soon became obvious to Church leaders that they would need to move yet again. In September of 1846 the Saints established a refuge in what was called Winter Quarters, near present-day Omaha, Nebraska. Winter Quarters became the headquarters of the Church, with 700 homes laid out on a grid organized into 23 wards (congregations).
With winter approaching, many Latter-day Saints were sick and exhausted. Few crops had been planted, provisions were meager and the amount of money coming from the Mormon Battalion’s wages was unknown. Over 300 people died — mostly the very young and the old due to malaria, scurvy, pneumonia, tuberculosis and poor diet — and were buried in the Mormon cemetery on the bluff.
In January 1847, Brigham Young received a revelation about “the Word and Will of the Lord concerning the Camp of Israel in their journeyings to the West” (now known as Doctrine and Covenants 136). The revelation covered many topics, including the organization of companies in the impending spring migration. The Saints began abandoning Winter Quarters in the spring of 1848 because they had promised to leave Indian lands after two years. Most had gone west, and the rest moved back across the Missouri River to the Iowa settlements.
The first settlement on the banks of the Missouri River in the spring of 1846 was named Miller’s Hollow. Refugees from Nauvoo had slogged through three months of Iowa mud before arriving at the Grand Encampment. These 13,000 refugees were more than this small area could support in crops and pasture. Brigham Young, recognizing they could not move west until the following spring, encouraged them to scatter along the Missouri River Valley, creating nearly 100 small settlements to prepare for the move west. Four thousand moved to Winter Quarters.
In July 1846, the 500-man Mormon Battalion was mustered in the area and marched off to help fight in the war against Mexico. In this area near Miller’s Hollow, below the east bluffs of the river, a town site was laid out in 1847. Latter-day Saints renamed the site “Kanesville” in honor of their non-Latter-day Saint friend, Colonel Thomas L. Kane, who had assisted them in Washington’s government corridors in getting the Mormon Battalion, and then personally came west to help muster the 500 soldiers.
A significant event in Latter-day Saint history occurred in Kanesville in December 1847. Brigham Young felt impressed that the time had come to reestablish the First Presidency. After several months of discussing the matter, nine of the Twelve Apostles (Elders Parley P. Pratt and John Taylor were in the Salt Lake Valley, and Elder Lyman Wight was in Texas) gathered at the home of Elder Orson Hyde near Miller’s Hollow (later named Kanesville) on the Iowa side of the Missouri. There, on 5 December 1847, their deliberations culminated in the prayerful action of sustaining Brigham Young as president of the Church.
To accommodate members wishing to attend a special conference where the matter would be placed before the general membership for a sustaining vote, 200 men constructed a 60-by-40-foot log tabernacle in three weeks. On 27 December 1847, the First Presidency was reestablished in front of more than 1,000 Latter-day Saints.
In 1851, the First Presidency strongly urged the remaining Latter-day Saints in Iowa to gather to the Salt Lake Valley. July 1852 marked the end of Kanesville as a Latter-day Saint community, and the remaining citizens renamed the town Council Bluffs.
Winter Quarters: What to See and Do
Mormon Trail Center
The Mormon Trail Center at Historic Winter Quarters allows visitors to see glimpses of the Mormon migration. The center uses art, artifacts, maps and video and sound clips to tell a detailed story. Because little remains today of the original city of Winter Quarters, a detailed city model has special interest. Patrons also get to walk beside a covered wagon, pull a handcart, climb in the bunks on a steam ship and imagine a railroad journey. Exhibits also explore the expulsion from Nauvoo, crossing Iowa, and temporary settlements in the Middle Missouri Valley, including Winter Quarters.
One young student who recently took a tour of the trail center said, “I really enjoyed how we actually got to see the [log] house, and that 12 people could live in it!” Another student liked learning about the pioneers’ struggle. “I really enjoyed the little journey we had,” he said. “I felt like I was one of the Mormon pioneers trying to escape from the people that didn’t want me there.”
The Mormon Trail Center is open daily from 9:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m. (see also driving directions).
Winter Quarters Nebraska Temple and Pioneer Cemetery
The Winter Quarters Nebraska Temple was dedicated in 2002 along with the pioneer cemetery adjacent to the temple. (Latter-day Saint temples are not open to the public.) The cemetery contains graves of many who died in the westward migration. The cemetery has no gravestones intact from the time of the early Saints, but thanks to the sexton’s records and work from researchers, exact spots of graves have been found. Families can use maps available at the Mormon Trail Center to find graves of their ancestors who died at Winter Quarters.
Pioneer Courage Park
Pioneer Courage Park, located between 14th Street and 15th Street on Capitol Avenue in downtown Omaha, includes a series of sculptures depicting a wagon train of four pioneer families and their covered wagons departing westward. Each wagon stands approximately 12 feet high and more than 40 feet long with oxen, horses or mules placed in their hitches.
Council Bluffs (Kanesville): What to See and Do
At the tabernacle and the visitors' center, the public can learn more about the Latter-day Saints’ migration westward and the Mormon Battalion.The visitors’ center summer hours are 9:30 a.m. to 7:00 p.m. daily (see also driving directions).
Come Home to Kanesville Musical
The musical Come Home to Kanesville is performed inside the tabernacle and tells the story of love and faith among pioneers, set against a historical backdrop. The show runs July 19-23 and 26-30 at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday and 4:00 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. on Friday and Saturday. Kanesville, Inc., a nonprofit organization not affiliated with the Church, has produced the show since 2006. More information can be found by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.