Sunday, September 5, 2010

Winter Quarters

The Mormons were forced out of Nauvoo, Illinois beginning in February 1846. At first they crossed the Mississippi River to Montrose, Iowa on ice. The Mississippi was frozen solid enough to support teams and wagons. As the ice melted they crossed with the aid of ferries(see previous post of August 27 2010). You can follow their route across Iowa by car. Road maps show the highways closest to their route and the highways have Mormon trail signs on the side of the road. The route was very slow going, with deep mud, snow, cold, hills and streams to cross. It took them about 4 and 1/2 months to go from Nauvoo to what they called Winter Quarters, on the Iowa side of the Missouri River, at what is now Council Bluffs. It only took three months to go from Winter Quarters to the Salt Lake Valley, at least 3 times the distance.

Below is a photo of some original Mormon trail ruts still visible in the Iowa sod.

At Winter Quarters they gathered together, built shelters and outfitted themselves for the long trek to the Salt Lake valley. Some 600 people are buried in unmarked graves in what was the Winter Quarters cemetery.

This whole site is now known as the Mormon Trail Center and includes a visitors' center, a Temple, several memorials and the old Winter Quarters Cemetery.

There are no markers in what was the cemetery but a memorial is there, designed by the sculptor Avard Fairbanks.

The plaque at the bottom of the photo contains the names of the 600 pioneers who are buried here. Included on the plaque are a great aunt of mine and at least one of her babies.

There were many small settlements around Winter Quarters where the Mormons stayed while they outfitted themselves to go west. My great-great grandmother and four of her children stayed at a place called Pigeon Creek or Pigeon Hollow. She was 52 years old, had buried her husband in New York and came to Nauvoo only to be thrown out of there. Her brother, Warren Foote, and his family were also there. She told Warren she was too tired to go on and died a few days later, along with a son who was about 20, I believe. My great grandfather, Darius Salem Clement, was 12 years old and the oldest of the three remaining children. Betsy and Albert are buried in unmarked graves in what is now the Branson Cemetery on a hill overlooking the Missouri River. Darius and the two other younger children walked to Salt Lake in 1848.

There were at least 6000 Mormon pioneers who died on the trail to the Salt Lake valley between 1846 and 1869, which is when the transcontinental railroad was completed. Below is the Avard Fairbanks sculpture at the Winter Quarters Cemetery memorial. This shows a man and wife who have just finished digging a grave and laying their child in it. It is one of the most moving pieces of art I have ever seen.


  1. Stirring post. Avard Fairbanks lived two streets away from where I grew up. I went to a party as a child where he sculpted Abraham Lincoln in front of us. It was fascinating.

    For some reason, the father is especially wrenching in that last monument.

    Mom and I watched "Legacy" yesterday (she gets desperate for things to watch on Saturdays and Sundays) so I turn to DVDs). She kept saying (of the Saints travels and travails), "when does it get happy?" I guess she's had it with the suffering motif. Looks like you have your own "legacy" of faith.

  2. Just found your blog and thought I'd take a look around. Found this post very interesting. I've never been to Winter Quarters, but only live about 20 miles North of Salt Lake City and know of their story very well. I'll be back to see your other exciting adventures.

  3. I am updating the Early LDS Database website at and would very much like to use your photo of the trail ruts. May I have permission to do so?