This is an excerpt from The Gathering: Mormon Pioneers on the Trail to Zion.
Midnight Attacks and a Poisoned Spring
By September, 1845, a scattered group of anti-Mormons of Lima and Green Plains, Illinois, met to devise a means of expelling Mormons from their neighborhood. As they met in one of their homes, one of their own number fired upon it. Then they announced through the neighborhood that the Mormons had fired on them—just the excuse they needed to begin a work of death and massacre. They began by burning the homes of the most vulnerable—those who lived in the outlying areas beyond the protection of Nauvoo.
The burnings were almost a ritual. The mob would arrive at a house and pull the family out, women and little children being dragged sometimes from beds of sickness. Then the family watched helplessly as their cattle were scattered, their crops destroyed, and their homes, barns, and haystacks burned to piles of smoking ashes. The roads to Nauvoo were strewn with the homeless whose living had been off the land and now had no choice but to seek shelter from the compassionate. Bathsheba Smith said, “Our house was filled with refugees.”
One night James Porter told Mary Bigelow and her family, who lived at Camp Creek near Nauvoo, that the mob was coming to burn down their house and kill every family member. Terrified they scurried to hide everything valuable, then took their bedding and camped out in their corn, near the bean patch.
“We took all of the children in bed with us, never undressing them, and having everything dark about the bed so that the mob wouldn’t see us,” she said. They prayed and then lay sleeplessly on the ground, waiting. Soon they heard firing and whooping at the house. Mary later wrote, “My husband said, “Lay still and pray children.” We all prayed silently.
“They yelled and set the bloodhounds on our track but the Lord preserved us from them. We could see them loping around and heard the mob racing through the corn field in search of us.” The mob stayed from 10:00 p.m. until 3:00 a.m., hours that stretched out endless for the Bigelows. When the daylight came, Mary’s husband got up, gesturing for the family to lie quietly while he went to see if the mob was completely gone. “He found the house still standing, but the windows were broken,” Mary wrote. “The tracks of horses’s feet were all around the house.”
Mary sent her son Asa to the beautiful, large spring under the porch of the milk house to get water for breakfast. Mary wrote, “He brought the water to the house, but said he believed the spring was poisoned as there was a glistening green scum on the water. He poked it away and got another pail full and it was the same. I felt that the child was inspired by God, and as the water stood the scum rose again.” They got their water from another source that morning and took a sample of the scum water to Dr. Willard Richards for analysis. He said it contained four ounces of arsenic and would have killed ten men.
Don’t Resist Attacks
About the same time Lewis Barney was approached by a committee of three men asking him to give up Mormonism. Of the event he wrote, “They said, ‘We know you are an honest man and we feel sorry for you and if you will give up Mormonism and the Book of Mormon, you are welcome to stay with us and we will protect you. The determination is to drive all the Mormons into Nauvoo then surround it and then burn the city and drive the Mormons into the river.”
The Twelve advised the people not to resist the attacks nor to defend themselves but, according to John Taylor, “to keep all things as quiet as possible not resent anything.” Sheriff J.B. Backenstos of Hancock County told the people, “The Mormon community had acted with more than ordinary forbearance, remaining perfectly quiet and offering no resistance when their dwellings, their buildings, stacks of grains, etc. were set on fire in their presence. They had forborne until forbearance was no longer a virtue.”
Forbearance wasn’t enough. While the smoke rose from charred homes, the citizens of Quincy, the same town who had greeted the driven Saints from Missouri with open arms just six years before, met on September 22, 1845 and demanded the removal of the Saints from Illinois. “It is a settled thing,” reported the Quincy Whig, “that the public sentiment of the state is against the Mormons and it will be in vain for them to contend against it.”
The State Will Not Protect You
Governor Ford confessed to the Saints that “while the state has no power to insist upon their removal…[and] it is a great hardship on them to remove from their comfortable homes and the property which they have accumulated by years of toil,” yet the state of Illinois could and would do nothing to protect them. If they decided to stay, they would be living in a state of “continual war.”
Two days after the Quincy convention, the Twelve issued a proclamation they hoped would bring a truce. They would move out of their homes they said, “for some point so remote that there [would] need to be no difficulty with the people and ourselves” but they wanted an agreement in return—and end to lawsuits and persecution so that they would have time to prepare. They would go the following spring, when the grass grew and the water ran.
The Twelve had already begun gathering information on possible sites for relocation. In that October 1845 conference they also unanimously covenanted, “We [will] take all the saints with us, to the extent of our ability, that is, our influence and property.” The poor would not be left behind at the mercy of their persecutors.
Two Conflicting Goals
Two thrusts busied the Saints that fall in Nauvoo—finish the temple and become prepared to leave according to an orderly plan designed by Brigham and the Twelve. The plan called for twenty-five companies, each comprised of one hundred families and headed by a company captain. Parley P. Pratt estimated that a family of five would need one wagon, three yoke of oxen, two cows, two beef cattle, three sheep, a thousand pounds of flour, twenty pounds of sugar, one rifle with ammunition, and one tent with poles—a total weight of 2,700 pounds. Immediately Nauvoo became a hive of activity as men wore themselves out cutting and drying oak and hickory for wagons and sweating over hot forges to pound out chains and wheels. The women dried fruit and stitched bats for flour and salt, then wore callouses sewing wagon covers.
A reporter from the Daily Missouri Republican gave this account of a city in preparation: “Nearly ever workshop in the city has been converted into a wagon maker’s shop. Even an unfinished portion of the Temple is thus used, and every mechanic appears to be employed in making, repairing or finishing wagons, or other articles necessary for the trip. Generally, they are providing themselves with light wagons, with strong, wide bodies, covered with cotton cloth—in some instances painted, but mostly white. These are to be met with in every direction, and contribute greatly to the singular and mournful appearance of the country.”
Though Brigham intended the exodus to be well-provisioned and orderly, not everyone was adequately prepared, which the reporter noted: “Many of them are going with poor teams, and an amount of provisions insufficient for their subsistence for two months, if so long…If they should fail to make a good crop this year, at the stopping place, it cannot be otherwise than that many of the, especially the women and children, and the aged and decrepit, must be sorely pressed by starvation, if many them do not literally perish from famine on the plains…Of those whose condition is calculated to arouse sympathy are a number of women, many of whom have large families of children, inadequately provided with provisions, and without the assistance of protection of any male person. How they expect to get through the journey, we cannot conceive.”
Gathering the Means to Go
The problem for many, of course, was gathering the means to go. Speculators knew that property was in abundance in Nauvoo and that buyers were few. The Saints, forced to sell, were selling cheap, and since little money was in circulation, they took most of their pay in trade. “As a stranger passes through,” the reporter observed, “he will find himself frequently beset mostly by women and children with inquiries, ‘Do you wish to purchased a house and lot? Do you wish to buy a farm?’” Then the stranger would “be pressed and entreated to go and examine, and all the advantages [and] cheapness” of the property would “be fully explained.”
“We have sold our place for a trifle to a Baptist minister,” Martha Haven wrote to her mother. “All we got was a cow and two pairs of steers, worth about sixty dollars in trade.” The problem was that such a trifle was not enough to secure an outfit and provisions. Heber C. Kimball was one of the fortunate whose lovely brick home brought six hundred dollars, mostly in goods, but as time wore on buyers were rare. “The frequency and earnestness manifested everywhere, in the city and country, indicate that great anxiety which they entertain to get off,” observed the newspaper reporter. “In the city, houses and lots are selling at from two to five and ten hundred dollars, which must have cost the owners double that sum. They are willing to sell for cash, or oxen or cattle, or to exchange for such articles of merchandise as they can barter or carry away with them.”
Like Priddy Meeks, many abandoned their possessions: “I had a small flock of sheep which I had not time to sell. These I left, together with my house and lot, the former containing my furniture and books.” They packed and repacked wagons, trying to make room for keepsakes that would give them some sense of civilization in a new land. Some, in an optimistic gesture, hid their china in the bottom of privies, hoping that they might someday come back to reclaim it. They never did. The white and gold temple, with its inscription “Holiness to the Lord,” was the symbol of their faith and their sacrifice, the sorrow of their abandonings. When the rooms were opened on December 10, 1845, they flocked to the temple for the sacred ordinances that would sanctify their loss.
In January Brigham Young wrote, “Such has been the anxiety manifested by the saints to receive the ordinances, and such the anxiety on our part to administer to them, that I have given myself up entirely to the work of the Lord in the Temple night and day, not taking more than four hours sleep, upon an average, per day and going home but once a week.”
Moving up the Date of Departure
Their enemies continued their relentless pressure, and the thought of leaving in the spring became a pipe dream. Governor Ford warned that federal troops in St. Louis planned to intercept the Saints and destroy them. An indictment was filed against Brigham and eight others of the Twelve, charging them with counterfeiting, and in February they knew it was time to go. Brigham had planned to stop the ordinance work on February 3 to make final preparations for the trip west, but so many still clamored for their endowments, he delayed his trip two more weeks. In all, 5,615 would receive their endowments before they shut the temple doors behind them and turned their faces west.
They left their beautiful Nauvoo with feelings like those of Bathsheba Smith, who said, “My last act in that precious spot was to tidy the rooms, sweep up the floor and set the broom in its accustomed place behind the door. Then with emotions in my heart which I could not now pen and which I then strove with success to conceal, I gently closed the door and faced an unknown future, faced a new life, a greater destiny as I well knew, but I faced it with faith in God and with no less assurance of the ultimate establishment of the Gospel in the West and of its true, enduring principles, then I had felt in those trying scenes in Missouri.”
It was a miserable day, February 4, 1846, when Charles Shumway led the first group of refugees with their sagging wagon loads down to the Mississippi River. Soon, in a miracle that Saints would always remember and recount, the river would freeze to let a wave of refugees across, but most, like Charles, would stand at the river and watch dangerous ice floes drift by, waiting for that moment when they would clump together and leave a momentary opening so the immigrants could get to the other side.
Between February 8 and February 16, nearly five hundred families would leave, their rickety wagons waiting in line down Parley Street for their turn at the ferry. Among these was eight-year-old John Young, a nephew of Brigham Young. When his father’s wagon stood before the door of the home and his father was packing their household goods into the wagon, he looked up to see the ashen face of his mother. “Mother,” he asked, “what is the matter?” “We are going to leave our home,” she answered, “and we will never see it again.”
They were resolute and hopeful but only partly successful in hiding their sadness. Parley’s Street where the wagons lined up that February waiting for their turn to cross the river, became known as the Trail of Tears. The pangs continued on the western shore where, at the last prominence where Nauvoo could still be seen, the Saints turned for a wistful, parting glance. “The top of this hill, I was aware,” wrote Priddy Meeks, “was the last point from which I could see the Nauvoo temple. I have no words with which to convey a proper conception of my feelings when taking a last look at this sacred monument…After the lapse of thirty-six years, I can scarcely restrain my feelings when I wrote of it.”
After their final departure, most of them, including Brigham Young, who lived thirty-one more years, would never see Nauvoo again. “By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion.”