About the time the first settlements were made in Iowa, a man named Joseph Smith started a new church in the state of New York.  He named it the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, but it was soon called the Mormon Church.  Many of the members moved to Ohio and then to Missouri, where they were living when Iowa became a territory.

The people of Missouri did not like to have the Mormon people as neighbors.  They quarrelled with them and finally drove them out of the state.  Some of the Mormons then settled in southeastern Iowa.  Many more crossed the Mississippi River to the little town of Commerce.  This was just across the river from Montrose, Iowa, where Louis Honore Tesson had planted the apple orchard in 1799, forty years before.  The Mormons changed the name of Commerce to Nauvoo and began to build a beautiful temple.  In 1844 there were about fourteen thousand people living in Nauvoo, and at that time it was the largest city in Illinois.

But the people of Illinois did not like to see so many Mormons coming into the state.  At that time many people were robbed and murdered along the Mississippi River.  Some of the enemies of the Mormons said that many of these robbers lived at Nauvoo.  There were many quarrels between the Mormons and the other settlers.  Joseph Smith and his brother were arrested and while in jail both were killed by a mob.

The new leader of the Mormons was Brigham Young.  He knew that his followers would soon have to leave Nauvoo.  The Mormon leaders talked things over and promised the governor of Illinois that they would move west early in the spring of 1846.  At this time the United States extended westward only to the Rocky Mountains.  The Mormons wanted to go across the mountains into the territory which then belonged to Mexico.

Very early in the spring of 1846 the first Mormons crossed the Mississippi River.  It was February and still very cold.  Sometimes the ice was strong enough for the teams to cross on it, but usually the people with their ox teams and goods had to be ferried across the river.  They left behind them their homes and the Mormon temple just finished.

After the first party had crossed the Mississippi River and were in camp in Iowa, other groups started.  The caravans travelled westward across southern Iowa, crossing the counties of Lee, Van Buren, Davis, Appanoose, Wayne, Decatur, Clarke, Lucas, Union, Adair, Cass, and Pottawattamie.

Of course they could not go far in a day.  You know how muddy the roads and fields were likely to be in March and April.  Most of them had ox teams to haul their clothing, bedding, furniture, and machinery.  Some of them had to walk.  Eight or ten miles was a day's journey.  At night they camped around a fire, but they were often cold and wet.

The first groups built log cabins at some of the camps and here each party would stop and rest.  There were eight of these camps in Iowa.  As spring came one party would plant gardens, and when the later ones came to this place they found some vegetables to eat.  Two of these camps, called Garden Grove and Mt. Pisgah, became little villages.  The last camp in Iowa was at the Missouri River.  At first it was called Miller's Hollow.  Then it was named Kanesville in honor of Colonel Thomas L. Kane of the United States army.  In 1853 this town was renamed Council Bluffs.  Across the river was another camp called Winter Quarters.

The road made by the Mormons in southern Iowa was called the Mormon Trail.  Many thousands of Mormons crossed Iowa in 1846, it is said that there were 15,000 Mormons in camp or on the road in southern Iowa.  They had 3000 wagons to carry their goods and took with them 30,000 head of cattle, horses, and mules, besides many sheep.

The last of the Mormons left Nauvoo, Illinois, in September, 1846.  There were new groups starting across Iowa, however, for several years.  Some of these came from Europe to join the Mormon Church at Salt Lake.

Not all the Mormons left Iowa.  One branch of the church did not think that Brigham Young was a good leader.  Many of them decided to stay in Iowa and did not go west with Brigham Young.

They started a church of their own which they called the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.  Many people belonging to this church still live in southern Iowa and northern Missouri.  One of their leaders for many years was Joseph Smith, a son of the Joseph Smith who founded the Mormon Church.

While the Mormons were crossing Iowa in teh summer of 1846, the Mexican War began.  Captain James Allen was sent to the Mormon camp to get the young men to enlist to fight against Mexico.  Brigham Young urged them to enlist and about five hundred joined the United States army.  The five companies of Mormons made up what was called the Mormon Battalion.  After serving in the Mexican War, the Mormon soldiers were sent to their new home at Salt Lake City.

After leaving Iowa, the Mormons crossed the plains and the mountains until they came to Salt Lake.  Here they built new homes and a beautiful temple.  They called their settlement Salt Lake City.  At the close of the Mexican War, this territory became a part of the United States.  So the Mormons who had started out for Mexico were again in the United States.

During the next ten years, other members of the Mormon Church drove their ox teams across Iowa.  Usually they followed the old trail, but some of them took other roads.  In the spring of 1856, the Mississippi and Missouri Railroad began carrying passengers as far west as Iowa City.  After this many of the people who wanted to go to Salt Lake City came on the train as far as Iowa City.  There they bought ox teams and wagons and went on westward.

Some of the people who came from Europe to join the Mormons at Salt Lake City were too poor to buy wagons and oxen.  The Mormon leaders said they would have carts made for them at Iowa City.  They could put their clothing and food in these carts and walk all the way from Iowa City to Salt Lake City.  In the summer of 1856, thirteen hundred of these poor people reached Iowa City on the train.

For a while they camped just outside Iowa City.  Some of them did not even have a tent to keep off the rain.  But soon the carts were ready.  These carts were made by fastening a box to an axle between two wheels.  Two shafts were fastened to one end of this box with a cross piece at the ends.  The people had to pull or push the carts as they walked.

There was one cart for every five persons.  In it they had to carry their clothing, bedding, and food for the journey.  For every hundred people there was one ox wagon to carry the tents and food.  Soon they were ready to start.  The people were divided into five groups or companies, each with its own captain.  The first company started on the ninth of June, 1856; the fifth company, the last week in July.

These groups had many old people and little children with them.  It was hot and dusty.  The little folks were often tired, and their mothers and fathers had to carry them or put them in the carts.  The farmers along the way in Iowa were sorry for these poor people.  They often gave them food.  Some of the men stopped and worked for the settlers to get money to buy food for themselves and their families.

It took them about four weeks to go from Iowa City to Council Bluffs.  When the last company reached the Missouri River it was getting late in the summer.  The Iowa pioneers wanted them to wait till spring.  They told them that it would be cold before they reached Salt Lake City.  But the people from Europe did not know how far it was across the plains or how cold it got.  They decided to go on.

We cannot tell the whole story of these people and their handcarts.  It was a hard journey.  The carts broke down.  People became sick and died.  The oxen wandered away.  But still they sang around their camp fires at night.  As they came to the mountains snow fell.  Their food gave out.  The few oxen they had left died because there was no grass for them to eat.  The people did not have warm shoes or clothing.  Many of them froze their feet and some of them froze to death.  Finally, those who were left reached Salt Lake City, where they were given food and clothing.  They had walked about fifteen hundred miles, from Iowa to Utah.


Back to Stories of Iowa Index