14 Facts About the Mormon Migration, A Classic Old West Exodus
On the evening of June 27, 1844, an angry mob attacked the Carthage city jail near Nauvoo, Illinois and killed two prisoners housed inside.
These were no ordinary criminals. They were Joseph Smith, the founder of the Mormon religion, and his brother, Hyrum. The towns folks were in a frenzy about Joseph Smith and his religious sect, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, their unchristian-like practices, and the group’s violent destruction of a local newspaper’s printing press.
The murder of the church’s leader, Joseph Smith, and his brother, left church members fearing for their lives. Brigham Young, a rising star in the Mormon church, offered a viable, yet potentially dangerous solution.
He proposed a mass exodus.
Under his leadership, the church members emigrated to the wild, untamed Western wilderness where they would be free of religious persecution and could practice their beliefs in peace.
In what has become known as the Mormon Migration, the members of the religious sect risked their lives to journey some 1,300 miles to their Promised Land: Utah.
Here are 14 facts about the Mormon migration and how it came to be.
1. The church started with charismatic opportunist Joseph Smith.
To understand the Mormon Migration, we must first understand the origins of the Mormon religion and a bit about the religion’s founder, Joseph Smith. Smith was born in 1805 and lived on farms in Vermont, New York, and New Hampshire during his childhood.
He did not attend school, but learned to read and write from his mother. This mother noted that he was devoted to deep study and spent hours in quiet meditation.
In 1820, when he was 14 years old and living in Manchester, New York, he witnessed a great religious revival taking place in New England. This opened his eyes to the various religions of the world.
But the young man was in a quandary. With so many religions to choose from, which one was right for him? He referred to his Bible on the matter and read James 1:5. In that passage, the Bible advised someone seeking wisdom and direction to “ask of God.”
Joseph Smith later recounted that he trekked to a secluded spot deep in the forest to meditate and pray. He intended to ask God to point him to the religion he should join.
As he prayed, so the story goes, Smith was visited by two figures. They claimed to be Jesus Christ and God the Father. They instructed Smith not to join any of the churches. Smith was more confused than ever.
2. Joseph Smith was visited by an angel.
A few years later, in 1823, Joseph Smith claims to have had an encounter with an angelic being named Moroni. Moroni instructed Smith to find an ancient text written on thin plates of gold that detailed God’s interactions with the ancient Native Americans long ago.
It took several years of searching but, in 1827, Joseph Smith claimed to have found the golden book and, with the help of Moroni, began translating the ancient writing into English. Smith referred to the golden book as a “gift from God.”
When he was finished with his translation, he published his manuscript.
The Book of Mormon by Joseph Smith was published in early 1830. A few weeks later, Smith formally organized The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. Based in Christian teachings, the Mormon religion was quite controversial when it formed, mostly thanks to one issue – polygamy.
3. Joseph Smith was polyamorous before being polyamorous was cool.
Joseph Smith wrote that God decreed that a man should have as many wives as he wanted. This practice put the followers of Mormonism at odds with established churches. To avoid persecution, Smith took his followers to the Midwest. However, it was not far enough to protect his followers.
The Mormon settlers in Ohio, Illinois, Indiana, and Missouri were often harassed by local residents for their unorthodox religious beliefs. In the town of Nauvoo, Illinois, where Smith was living, a group of locals began printing a newspaper that denounced Smith, Mormonism, and polygamy.
In anger, Joseph Smith destroyed the printing press. Violence erupted between the local residents and the Mormons. Joseph Smith and his brother, Hyrum, were arrested by the authorities on charges of treason and conspiracy and housed in the Carthage city jail to await trial. The Smith brothers never made it to court.
4. Joseph Smith was killed because of his beliefs.
On the evening of June 27, 1844, an angry mob of local residents stormed the jail. Once inside, the mob mercilessly beat both men, resulting in their deaths. The murder of Joseph Smith and his brother sent shockwaves through the Mormon community.
The followers of Joseph Smith no longer felt safe and feared that they, too, may be killed for their religious beliefs. The followers debated their next move, a young leader in the Mormon church stepped up to offer a solution. His name was Brigham Young, and his plan was to lead his people to the promised land.
Blood of the Prophets: Brigham Young and the Massacre at Mountain Meadows
“Will Bagley has produced a well-written and very fair assessment of the worst single massacre on American soil. He brings these people to life.”
– Amazon review
5. Brigham Young was the next man up.
Brigham Young was born in Vermont in 1801. When he was 16 years old, his father asked him to move out and seek his own path in life. A Methodist, Young became disillusioned by his own church and sought a religion that more closely aligned with his own views.
One of his brothers let him read The Book of Mormon, and Young became a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints on April 4, 1832. He became a preacher and helped others convert to Mormonism. He was respected and admired for his deep faith and his leadership skills.
He was setting up a mission post in Missouri when the Mormon founder and president was murdered.
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6. Young first turned down the job of church president.
Without its leader and president, the Mormon religion was in turmoil. Members feared that they would meet the same fate as Joseph Smith. Church elders appointed Brigham Young to be the second president of the Mormon church, a position he initially turned down.
Young, however, understood that, like the Israelites of the Bible, the Mormons’ only hope for survival would be to move far away from the religious persecution they were experiencing. They needed to find their promised land.
A few months after Joseph Smith’s murder, Brigham Young took stock of the assets and members of the Mormon community. By his count, there were roughly 3,000 families and about 2,500 wagons.
Relying on information from the Old Testament, Young divided the Mormon people into smaller groups of tens, fifties, and hundreds in much the same way as the Israelites were divided after crossing the Red Seas in search of the promised land.
7. They began their exodus in the cold, harsh winter.
Plans were made for the group to journey west in the spring, however with hostilities mounting in the Midwest, the first group of Mormons began their exodus just a few weeks into 1846.
This first wave of emigrants numbered 3,000. They were able to cross the Mississippi River while it was still frozen, but their luck soon ran out. People suffered from the terrible cold and some even died from exposure.
During one single night, nine babies were born to members of the group. Some of the wagons broke down and people had to walk in the freezing snow. It took the group 131 days to travel just 310 miles, but they had reached the Missouri River.
One of the church members was so filled with joy that he penned a hymn titled “Come, Come, Ye Saints” with the optimistic last line of “All is well! All is well!”. This song remains a classic Mormon hymn.
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8. They shacked up on the Missouri to endure the next winter.
Even though this first wave of Mormons reached the Missouri River in mid-June, Brigham Young made the decision for the group to winter over there and continue on their trek the following spring. The Native Americans living in the area were friendly and accommodating and there seemed to be plenty of food and other resources for the group.
The Mormons would later refer to the time at the winter quarters as the “Valley Forge of Mormondom.” Despite their best efforts, food was scarce. Worse yet, illnesses swept through the group.
It has been estimated that disease killed about 15% of the church members staying at the winter quarters. Even Brigham Young fell ill. He battled sickness in February of 1847 that left him physically weak and mentally drained. He began to doubt that the exodus was a good idea and contemplated turning back.
But Joseph Smith reportedly appeared to Young in a vision and gave him the encouragement he needed to lead his people through the next part of their journey – a much longer and harder thousand-mile trek that would take them, like the Biblical Israelites, through the desert.
9. Brigham Young blazed his own trail west.
Brigham Young led an advance party of just 25 wagons to search further west for the promised land. They pulled out of the winter quarters in April of 1847, following the Platte River.
Instead of traveling along the Oregon Trail, Young blazed his own trail along the north bank of the river. He hoped to avoid seeing other settlers during their journey. Once Young and his party moved beyond the flat prairies, they had to traverse the mountains of Wyoming.
It was treacherous going, but the group’s spirits were high. They even sang and danced around the campfire in the evenings. It was likely corny jokes were exchanged and high-pitched laughter ensued.
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10. The gang got “mountain fever.”
Once again, Brigham Young and his group were hit with illness. According to reports, several members of the group, including Young, came down with mountain fever.
During the pioneer days, mountain fever was a catch-all phrase for a variety of fever-producing illnesses. Other reported symptoms included headaches, fatigue, and weakness. Perhaps, mountain fever was nothing more than influenza, but it could also have been a tick-borne disease, like today’s Rocky Mountain spotted fever.
Regardless of the origins of mountain fever, the disease slowed the group’s travels. Brigham Young was so ill that he had to ride in a wagon so he could remain laying down.
On the 111th day of the journey, which fell on July 24, the wagons arrived at the Great Salt Lake valley. Brigham Young surveyed the surroundings from his wagon and stated, “It is enough. This is the right place.”
About the same time that Brigham Young arrived at the Great Salt Lake, another group of Mormons were setting out from their winter quarters to follow their trail. This wagon train included 1,500 settlers and about 600 cows.
Young and the Mormons hoped that they had found a place beyond the American government’s authority where they could build their community and worship in peace.
At the time, the region was under the control of Mexico, but when they lost the U.S.-Mexican War, they relinquished their claim on this region. It was, in fact, controlled by the United States.
11. Salt Lake City and other towns quickly sprang to life.
Under Brigham Young’s direction, the cities of Salt Lake City, Provo, Ogden, and other communities were planned. Young wanted the streets to run north-south and east-west so that the town was in a grid pattern.
He also wanted the streets to be wide enough so that two wagons could pass each other with ease. As more Mormon settlers arrived, Young took note of their skill sets and sent them to the towns where they were most needed. In that way, each Mormon town in the valley had its own butcher, blacksmith, weaver, and so on.
12. The church raised money with the Mormon Battalion.
What the Mormon people lacked in Utah was cash money. Many of them had abandoned their homes and landed in the Midwest when they made their exodus. Since they had settled in U.S. territory, Brigham Young appealed to the U.S. government for financial assistance.
After the U.S. entered into war with Mexico in May of 1846, President James K. Polk offered a solution. He agreed to pay the Mormons if they could recruit a battalion of volunteers to help fight in the U.S.-Mexican War. Young enlisted 500 volunteers who marched to San Diego for their orders.
They were tasked with laying out a wagon trail across the Southwest, but the Mormon Battalion never saw action. True to his word, President Polk paid the Mormons. The money helped them establish their roots in Utah.
13. A boatload of church members followed over the next 20 years.
Followers of the Mormon faith continued to migrate to Utah. It has been estimated that roughly 70,000 people made the exodus to Utah between 1847 and 1869, following what became known as the Mormon Trail.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints even helped many of its members make the journey by offering loans from its Perpetual Emigration Fund. Once settled in Utah, the members were required to work to repay their loan so that the money could be used to help another family relocate to Utah.
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14. Brigham Young went down as the Mormon Moses.
Brigham Young died in Salt Lake City on August 29, 1877. He has been called the Mormon Moses and the American Moses because he was able to successfully lead his people across the desert and into their promised land.
Although it was a dangerous and difficult journey, the Mormons, like so many other American pioneers, found what they were seeking in the Old West.
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by Karen Harris
Although Karen lives in the Midwest, she likes to put the emphasis on the "west." A freelance writer who specializes in American history, Karen has a bachelor's degree in journalism from Central Michigan University and a master's degree in English from Indiana University.