The Great Mormon Migration

Time to Go Mormons had been considering moving west—beyond the borders of the United States—since before Joseph Smith's 1844 murder. But this made it clear that the period of relative calm they had enjoyed in Nauvoo, Illinois, was coming to an end. In 1845 mob violence against the Mormon community increased, and the Illinois legislature revoked the city's charter.

Exodus, Part One Brigham Young, emerging as the church's new leader, conducted a census that fall, counting more than 3,000 families and some 2,500 wagons. Although Young hoped to begin a migration in spring of 1846, local hostility forced the Mormons' hand. The first group of 3,000 people began to leave Nauvoo in February. They crossed the frozen Mississippi. Wagons collapsed, people died from exposure, and it took 131 days for the Mormon convoy to travel 310 miles to relative safety on the banks of the Missouri, where the river divided Nebraska and Iowa.

Winter Quarters All was well for a time in the area (near what is Omaha, Nebraska today) that the Mormons reached in June 1846. Local Native Americans were friendly, and Young decided they would remain in what became known as "Winter Quarters" until the following spring. But when winter came, scurvy claimed as many as 15 percent of the camp members. Young, himself sick in February 1847, had been plagued by self-doubt, but a vision of Joseph Smith helped him become the strong leader his followers needed for the second, portion of their journey.

Exodus, Part Two In April 1847, an advance party of 25 wagons led by Young left the Winter Quarters and headed towards the Rocky Mountains. They traveled along the Platte River, creating a new route on its north bank. The Mormons kept going. There was much sickness. On July 24, after 111 days of travel, a wagon carrying Young reached the valley of the Great Salt Lake. Looking out on the terrain, Young declared, "It is enough. This is the right place."

A Permanent Home As Young was reaching his destination, another wagon train with more than 1,500 people and nearly 600 cows, was leaving Winter Quarters and heading west. Over the next two decades more than 60,000 Mormons would journey to the Utah Territory. Many died along the way, and the survivors found the country they sought to escape would soon expand its borders to encompass them. In 1857 during the "Utah War," the Mormons abandoned their Salt Lake City homes as the U.S. Army approached, but returned to them unscathed and would never again be forced to flee.

Source: The Great Mormon Migration
Copyright © 1997-2012 WGBH Educational Foundation

Back to top