Friday, February 10, 2023

On This Day in the Old West: February 10

 On February 10, 1846, the Mormons started their long march west with 3,000 families and around 2,500 wagons. They would end by traveling 1,300 miles to reach their “New Jerusalem.” Whether your characters were sympathetic to the Mormon plight or followed the more popular dislike of the sect, they would probably have heard of Joseph Smith’s group.

The Mormons had been thinking about moving out of the western borders of the United States for some time before Joseph Smith’s assassination in 1844, but this act solidified their resolve. In 1845, mob violence in Illinois resulted in the legislature revoking their charter, so they had to leave. Brigham Young, who was emerging as the new leader, conducted a census that fall, and counted 3,000 families who agreed to accompany him West. He divided the church members into smaller administrative groups of tens, fifties, and hundreds, following the pattern described in the Old Testament.


The groups planned to leave Illinois in the Spring, but further hostilities forced their hand, and they started out from Nauvoo on February 10 instead. Several thousand people crossed the frozen Mississippi River (dry-shod, as the Hebrews in the Bible crossed the Red Sea). Their suffering was intense. On one evening of the trek, nine babies were born, their parents barely able to provide shelter from the elements for them. Wagons collapsed and people died from exposure. It took 131 days for the convoy to travel 310 miles to the relative safety of the Missouri River, where it divided Nebraska and Iowa. It was now June, 1846.

The group remained in that area (near modern Omaha) for some time, and Young decided that, since the neighboring Native tribes were friendly, they would spend the winter there. However, when winter arrived, scurvy claimed as much as 15% of the camp members. Brigham Young’s son later called this settlement “The Valley Forge of Mormondom.” Even Young himself became sick in February of 1847, and began to doubt, but a vision of Joseph Smith sustained his beliefs.


In April, 1847, an advance party of 25 wagons, led by Brigham Young, left the “Winter Quarters,” headed for the Rocky Mountains. They traveled across the Platte River, creating a new route along its north bank rather than risk encounters with other travelers along the Oregon Trail. The first half of the journey, along the plains, was far easier going than the mountains looming past Laramie, Wyoming. But the Mormons kept marching, lightening their journey with evening singing and dancing around their campfires. 


Like many others in his band, Brigham Young came down with “mountain fever” along the way. On July 24, after 111 days of travel, a wagon carrying the prostrate Young reached the valley of the Great Salt Lake. As he looked out over the area, Young declared, “It is enough. This is the right place.” Even as this group was reaching their destination, another band of 1,500 people (with nearly 600 head of cattle) was leaving their “Winter Quarters” headed west. 


Over the next two decades, nearly 60,000 Mormons would journey to Utah Territory. Thousands came by wagon, but thousands more pulled simple handcarts across the forbidding terrain. Many died along the way, and survivors would find that the nation they sought to escape would soon expand its borders to encompass them. However, the Mormons had found a permanent home. Save for a brief period during the “Utah War” in 1857, the sect has called the Great Salt Lake home since their arrival. Depending on when your characters lived, they might associate the Mormons with the lake, or with the great march West.


J.E.S. Hays


  1. So interesting, JES! I'm late to the party and have not had good internet the last couple of days, but I know better than to try to comment on my phone! LOL I really enjoyed your post!

  2. I grew up in the area of Illinois where Smith was killed. Spent many a time in Nauvoo and the jail where Smith was killed. Also live near Pueblo, CO. where one set stayed over to plant and harvest before moving on to Utah. The Morman story is a long, fascinating, and complicated one. Doris