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Bill Thayer

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This webpage reproduces an article in
The Quarterly of the Oregon Historical Society
Vol. 8 No. 3 (Sep. 1907), pp276‑289

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
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 p276  The Mormon Settlements
in the Missouri Valley

By Clyde B. Aitchison

In the spring of 1846, what is now Southeastern Nebraska and Southwestern Iowa, was almost devoid of white settlers. Stretching back to the Sacs and Foxes, the eastern slope of the Missouri Valley was occupied only by Pottawattamie Indians, some two or three thousand in number. A dozen years before, the Pottawattamies, "The Makers of Fire," some of the Ottawas and Chippewas, had surrendered their Illinois lands to the general government, and been removed to a reservation of five million acres in Southwest Iowa. Except a few small settlements of whites near the Missouri State line, the sub-agency opposite Bellevue, and scattering posts of the American Fur Company, the Missouri Valley, east of the river, was in the sole use and occupation of the Pottawattamies and their Ottawa and Chippewa allies.

By another treaty made with the government, June 5, 1846, the Indians again disposed of their lands, but reserved the right of occupancy two years. That year, and 1847, most of the Pottawattamies withdrew from the Iowa reservation to their new home on the Kaw, a few returning to hunt each year.

Across the Missouri, west of the Pottawattamies, the agency at Bellevue cared for four tribes, the Omahas, Otoes, Poncas and Pawnees, beside attending to the Pottawattamies, Ottawas and Chippewas through the sub-agency on the east side of the river. The Omaha tribe was to the north of the Platte, and the Otoes south of it, with a strip between them still occasionally disputed — the ridiculous warfare of poor remnants of once mightier tribes. The Omahas were particularly miserable. Unprotected from their old foes, the Sioux, yet forbidden to enter into a defensive alliance, they were reduced to a pitiable handful of scarcely more than a hundred families,  p277 the prey of disease, poverty stricken, too cowardly to venture out from the shadow of their tepees to gather their scanty crops, unlucky in the hunt, and too dispirited to be daring or successful thieves.

Further north, between the Niobrara or L'eau qui Court and White Earth rivers, were five or six hundred almost equally abject Poncas. The Pawnees had their villages south of the Platte and west of the Otoes, and the country to the north was yet the scene of frequent conflicts with their hereditary enemies, the Sioux.

All west of the river was Indian country. A white man not specially licensed was a trespasser. The country was unorganized, practically unexplored, and to the world little else but a name. Sarpy had a trading post or so; the Presbyterians had established a mission; and a few troops were stationed at old Fort Kearney, now in the limits of Nebraska City. With these exceptions, the prairie sod of the Indian country was still unbroken by the plow of the white settler.

A religious sect calling themselves Mormons, or Latter Day Saints, was founded in New York, in 1830, some sixteen years before the time mentioned. Its members increased rapidly. Successive vain attempts were made to secure a home, isolated from mankind, in Jackson, Clay and Caldwell counties, Missouri; and when finally driven from Missouri, in 1840, the Mormons gathered on the banks of the Mississippi in Illinois. They were welcomed for their voting power, and easily obtained a charter for the town of Nauvoo, so favorable it practically made them an independent state within a state. But soon the surrounding inhabitants combined to drive them out. Five years of constant riot culminated in the assassination of the founder of their religion, Joseph Smith, the revocation of the charter of Nauvoo, and the complete overthrow of the Saints by superior physical force.

After the election of Brigham Young as president of the Twelve Apostles, the Mormons promised to leave Illinois "as soon as grass grew and water ran," in the spring of 1846, provided meantime, they were permitted to dispose of their  p278 property and make preparations for departure without further molestation. September 9, 1845, the Mormon authorities determined to send an advance party of fifteen hundred to the valley of the Great Salt Lake. In January, 1846, a council of the church ordered this company to start at once, and announced in a circular to the Saints throughout the world the intention to secure a home beyond the Rockies, a safe haven from the annoyances of their enemies.

Through all the winter of 1845‑6, the Mormons made every effort to dispose of property they could not easily move and to secure equipment for the march. Houses and farms and all immovable chattels were sacrificed to the best terms available, and the community for a hundred miles around was bartered out of wagons and cattle.

The pioneers hastened their departure from motives of prudence. The first detachment, sixteen hundred men, women and children, including the high officials of the church, crossed the river early in February and pushed forward on the march. The main body of Mormons began crossing the day after, and followed the pioneers in large bodies, at frequent intervals, though some little distance behind the first party. By the middle of May or first of June, probably sixteen thousand persons with two thousand wagons had been ferry across the Mississippi, and were on their way to the West.

The sufferings of the pioneers (though the hardiest of the whole Mormon host), and of the earlier bands following, is almost beyond description. Hastily and inadequately equipped, without sufficient shelter or fuel, weakened by rheumatism and catarrh, short of food for both man and beast, exposed to every blast of an unusually severe winter, they plodded westward and wished for spring. Spring came, and found them not half way to the Missouri. The excessive snows of the winter and the heavy spring rains turned the rich prairie soil to pasty mud, and raised the streams so that in many instances the emigrants had to wait patiently for the waters to go down.

The pioneers laid out a road, and established huge farms in  p279 the lands of the Sacs and Foxes. Two of these settlements, or farms, called Garden Grove and Mt. Pisgah, included upwards of two miles of fenced land, well tilled, with comfortable log buildings; intended as permanent camps for those to follow, and to accumulate reserve provisions for the coming winter. In addition more or less permanent camps were established at intervals along the trail from the Mississippi to the Missouri, at Sugar Creek, Richardson Point, on the Chariton, Lost Camp, Locust Creek, and at Indiantown, the "Little Miami" village of the Pottawattamies.

Several thousand did not reach the Missouri in 1846. Many returned to eastern States; others remained at Garden Grove and Mt. Pisgah, because of a lack of wagons to transport them further west, and in order to cultivate the huge farms to provision the camps the following winter. The van of the main body of Mormons reached the Missouri, near the present city of Council Bluffs, June 14, 1846, and then moved back into the hills while a ferry boat was being built. The boat was launched the 29th, and the next day the pioneers began pushing across the river. The next few weeks the companies of emigrants as they arrived temporarily camped on the bluffs and bottoms of the Missouri, at Mynster Springs, at Rushville, at Council Point and Traders' Point. The pioneers at the same time advanced into the Indian country, building bridges over the Papillion and Elkhorn, and constructing roads. In July, it was resolved to establish a fort on Grand Island, but the pioneers did not reach that far west that year. Some reached the Pawnee villages, and then finding the season too far advanced to continue westward, turned north and wintered on the banks of the Missouri at the mouth of the Niobrara, among the Poncas.

The Pottawattamies and Omahas received the refugees kindly. A solemn council was held by the Pottawattamies in the yard of one of Sarpy's trading houses, and the assembled chiefs welcomed the wanderers in aboriginal manner. Pied Riche, surnamed Le Clerc, the scholar, told them:

 p280  "The Pottawattamie came sad and tired into this inhospitable Missouri bottom, not many years back, when he was taken from his beautiful country beyond the Mississippi, which had abundant game, and timber, and clear water everywhere. Now you are driven from your lodges and lands there, and the graves of your people. We must help one another, and the Great Spirit will help us both. You are now free to cut and use all the wood you may wish. You can make all your improvements, and live on any part of our land not actually occupied by us. Because one suffers and does not deserve, is no reason he shall always suffer, I say. We may live to see all right yet. However, if we do not, our children will. Bon Jour."

The Pottawattamies had within the month ceded their lands to the United States, reserving two years' right of occupation, and with becoming dignity signed articles of convention with the Mormons.

A large number of emigrants remained among the Pottawattamies during the winter of 1846‑7, living in shacks of cottonwood, in caves in the bluffs, in log cabins in the groves and glens — wherever there was shelter, fuel, and water. The greater number of Mormons, however, crossed into the Indian country at the ferry established opposite the present site of Florence,​a or else at Sarpy's Ferry below, making their first large camp at Cutler Park, a few miles northwest of the ferry, where they built a mill. Here the chiefs of the Omaha tribe held a grand council with the Mormon leaders, and Big Elk, the principal chief of the tribe, gave permission to remain two years, invited reciprocal trade, and promised warning of danger from other Indians.

The Mexican War was now in progress. About the time the exodus began, the Mormons applied to Washington for some form of work, to assist them in getting further west. Their tender of military services was accepted, and under orders from General Kearney, Captain Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.James Allen raised a battalion of five companies in the Missouri camps, in two weeks, himself assuming command. After a farewell ball, the recruits marched away, accompanied as far as Fort Leavenworth by eighty women and children. There each man received  p281 a bounty of $40.00, most of which was taken back to the families left behind at the Missouri River camps. While the withdrawal of five hundred able-bodied men left few but the sick in the camps, the bounty received was considerable and much needed, and the enlistment of the battalion induced Captain Allen to promise, for the government, to allow the Mormons to pass through the Pottawattamie and Omaha lands, and to remain while necessary. Subsequent letters from Washington showed that the Federal authorities expected the Mormons to leave in the spring of 1847.

Some six hundred and fifty Saints had been left in Nauvoo after the emigration ceased in June, consisting of the sick the poor, and those unable to sell their property. The Gentile Whigs renewed the old quarrel, fearing the vote of the Mormon element would control the August congressional election. The Saints finally agreed to not attempt to vote. But in fact, says Governor Ford, all voted the Democratic ticket, some three and four times, being induced by the considerations of the President allowing their settlement on the Indian reservations on the Missouri, and the enlistment of the Mormon battalion. Nauvoo fell, and the last of the Mormons fled from the city in extreme distress.

By the close of the summer of 1846, some twelve or thirteen thousand Mormons were in camp in the Missouri Valley, at Rushville, Council Point, Traders' Point, Mynster Springs, Indiantown, in the groves along the creeks, and in the glens in the hills; and on the west side of the river, at Cutler Park, on the Elkhorn and Papillion crossings, and as far as the Pawnee villages.

During the summer and autumn of 1846, particularly in August and September, the various camps were seized with a plague of scrofulous nature, which the Mormons called the black canker. The Indians had lost one-ninth of their number from this strange disease, the year before, and the mortality among the whites was fully as great in 1846. In one camp 37 per cent were down with the fever at one time. The pestilence was attributed to the rank vegetation and the decaying  p282 organic matter on the bottoms of the Missouri and of its sluggish tributaries; to the foul slime left by the rapid subsidence of a flood; and to the turning of the virgin soil by the settlers. There were often not enough well to attend to the sick or bury the dead. Six hundred deaths occurred on the site of the present town of Florence. The plague raged several successive years, and from 1848 to 1851, on the Iowa side of the river, hundreds of Mormons died of it.

During the autumn months, preparations were made to winter on the site of the present town of Florence, until the spring of 1847. They enclosed several miles of land, and planted all obtainable seed, and erected farm cabins and cattle shelters. They built a town on a plateau over­looking the river, their "Winter Quarters," and thirty-five hundred Saints lived there during the hard winter of 1846‑7.

Winter Quarters was a town of some size, consisting, in December, of five hundred thirty-eight log houses and eighty-three sod houses. The numerous and skillful craftsmen of the emigrants had worked all the summer and fall, under the incessant and energetic direction of Brigham Young. The houses they built were comfortable enough, but not calculated to stand the first sudden thaw or drenching rain.

"The buildings were generally of logs," says the manuscript history of Young, "from twelve to eighteen feet long; a few were split, and made from linn and cottonwood timber; many roofs were made by splitting oak timber into boards, called shakes, about three feet long and six inches wide, and kept in place by weights and poles; others were made of willows, straw and earth, about a foot thick; some of puncheon. Many cabins had no floors; there were a few dug-outs on the side hills — the fire place was cut out at the upper end. The ridge pole was supported by two uprights in the center and roofed with straw and earth, with chimneys of prairie sod. The doors were made of shakes with wooden hinges and a string latch; the inside of the log houses was daubed with clay; a few had stoves."

In October, the camp at Cutler Park was moved to Winter  p283 Quarters. Schools were instituted, churches established, and the whole mechanism so rudely shattered at Nauvoo, was once more running as smoothly and powerfully as ever. Eight thousand dollars were spent for machinery and stones for the water flouring mill Young was constructing. Several loads of willow baskets were made by the women. The winter was passed in endeavoring to keep alive, and in preparation for resuming the march in the spring, by those who were strong and had provisions for a year and a half; others made ready to plant and gather the crops of the coming summer. Thousands of cattle were driven across the Missouri and up into Harrison and Monona counties, in Iowa, to winter on the "rush bottoms," where a now extinct species of rush formerly grew in profusion, and remained green all winter, though covered by snow and ice.

Polygamy was practiced to a limited extent. Young, for instance, confesses to meeting, one afternoon, sixty-six of his family, including his adopted children.

In the octagon council house, "resembling a New England potato heap in time of frost," and which called for a load of fuel a day, the scheme of organization and exploration was perfected, and Young published most minute directions as to the manner of march, pursuant to a revelation made January 14, 1847. In response to a call for volunteers, what was called the pioneer company, moved out from Winter Quarters April 14, 1847, to the rendezvous on the Elkhorn and organized the 16th under Brigham Young, with a force of 143 persons, including three women. Seventy-three wagons were taken, loaded with provisions and farm machinery. About this time the camp on the Niobrara returned to the Missouri River settlements.

The pioneers followed the north side of the Platte to Fort Laramie, crossing the Loup April 24th, in a leather boat, "The Revenue Cutter," made for this purpose. They reached the Ancient Bluff ruins May 22d, and Fort Laramie, June 1st, halting while the animals rested and ferry boats were built. Captain Grover was left behind to ferry other companies  p284 arriving from Winter Quarters, but his services were not needed. After the pioneers had crossed to the south bank of the North Platte, they recrossed 124 miles further on, and subsequent immigration kept to the north bank of the river.

The pioneers travelled more than a thousand miles, and laid out roads suitable for artillery, reaching the valley of Great Salt Lake the 23d and 24th of July. Having laid out the city of Great Salt Lake in a month, Young and his party started back to Winter Quarters, arriving at the Missouri October 31st.

After the pioneers left Winter Quarters in April, all others who were able to go organized another company, known as the first immigration, with Parley P. Pratt and John Taylor in command, consisting of 1,553 persons, in about 580 wagons, with cattle, horses, swine and poultry. It reached the Salt Lake Valley in sections, in the autumn of 1847.

This, and the strong expeditions later on, were divided into companies of a hundred, subdivided into companies of fifty and of ten, each under a captain, and all under a member of the high council of the church. Videttes selected the next day's camp, and acted as skirmishers. The wagons traveled in a double column, where possible. Upon halting, they were arranged in the form of two convex parts, with openings at the points of intersection, the tongues of the wagons outward, one front wheel lapping the hind wheel of the wagon in front. The cattle corraled inside, were watched by guards stationed at the opening at the ends, and were safe from stampede or depredations. The tents were pitched outside. When practicable, the Mormons arranged the wagons in a single curve, with the river forming a natural defense on one side. Their wagons were widened to six feet by extensions on the sides. Each was loaded to the canvas top with farm implements, grains, machinery of all sorts, with a coop of chickens lashed on behind. But all the wagons were not of this size or description. They ranged from the heavy prairie schooner drawn by six or eight oxen to the crazy vehicle described by Colonel Kane as loaded with a baby, and drawn by a dry,  p285 dogged little heifer. Each man marched with a loaded, but uncapped musket, and so perfect was their discipline and organization that frequently hostile Indians passed by small bodies of Mormons to attack much stronger bands of other immigrants.

During the year 1847, the Indians on the west side of the river complained that the Mormons were killing too much game and cutting too much timber, and the Saints were thereupon ordered to leave. They obtained permission to occupy the Pottawattamie lands for five years, and accordingly the main body moved to the south side of the Missouri. Bishop Miller had settled in the valley of Indian Creek in the center of the old part of the present city of Council Bluffs, a little earlier. After the complaint had been made by the Indians, the great part of the Mormons settled around the old government block house there. "Miller's Hollow" became Kanesville, in honor of the Gentile friend of the Mormons, Colonel Thomas L. Kane, who was a brother of Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Elisha Kent Kane, the explorer. The headquarters of the church were transferred to a huge log tabernacle on the flats. A postoffice was established in Kanesville that year, but mails were received very irregularly until the great influx of Gentiles in 1852‑3. Orson Hyde, the apostle and lawyer, became editor as well, and published "The Frontier Guardian" three years, commencing in February, 1849. The population of Pottawattamie County at that time was about 4,000, mainly of the Mormon faith.

The crops of 1847 were bountiful, and a series of strong immigrant trains were organized at the Elkhorn rendezvous. The three men composing the Quorum of the presidency of the church left for Salt Lake early in the summer, at the head of strong bands; Brigham Young in May, with 397 wagons and 1,229 persons, Heber C. Kimball in July, with 226 wagons and 662 persons, and Willard Richard soon after with 169 wagons and 526 persons, 2,417 immigrants in all, with 892 wagons.​b Richards' departure left Winter Quarters quite deserted.

 p286  These companies took what was called the North Platte route, ferrying the Elkhorn (whose bridge had disappeared), and Loup, and keeping on the north bank of the Platte the whole distance to the Sweet Water. All the later Mormon trains were governed by the same strict discipline as the pioneers and first immigration, and their travels present no features of special interest.

The Salt Lake immigration continued with diminishing volume from 1848 to 1852, until scarcely distinguishable from the general rush to the West. The perpetual emigration fund was established in 1849, and the attention of the church was directed to gathering its communicants from Great Britain to Salt Lake Valley. The immigration was to New Orleans and St. Louis by steamboat, and then by boat to Independence, St. Joseph, Kanesville, or neighboring Missouri River settlements.

The Independence and St. Joseph trails soon joined in the well-known government and stage road of later years, running to Fort Kearney. Bethlehem, opposite the mouth of the Platte, was a favorable crossing place for those landing at Council Point, near Kanesville, but preferring the South Platte route. Many started from Nebraska City, or Old Fort Kearney, and after 1856, from Wyoming, in Otoe County. The South Platte route followed the southerly bank of the river until it joined the Fort Kearney road. The trail officially recognized and counseled was along the north bank of the Platte, leaving Kanesville by way of Crescent, making a rendezvous at Boyer Lake or Ferryville, crossing the river to the abandoned Winter Quarters, then to the Elkhorn rendezvous, with ferries over the Elkhorn and Loup. All the sunflower trails converged into one at Fort Laramie. For some reason the North Platte route was the most healthy, and was the one constantly urged and counselled by the church authorities at Kanesville. Orson Hyde counted 500 graves along the trail south of the Platte, and but three graves north of the river, from the Missouri to Fort Laramie.

Many Mormons did not start for Salt Lake at once, and  p287 several thousand who were disaffected or too poor to go on, never left the valley of the Missouri. These scattered over all Southwestern Iowa. A year after the last company left Winter Quarters for Utah, the church had thirty-eight branches in Pottawattamie and Mills counties. The census from 1849 to 1853 gives Pottawattamie County a population varying from 5,758 to 7,828, reaching the maximum in 1850 and showing a loss of 2,500 from 1852 to 1854, the years of final Mormon exodus. Every governmental function was controlled by the Mormons up to 1853. They elected Mormon representatives to the General Assembly, and Mormon juries sat in the courts of Mormon judges. The Gentile vote and influence was small.

Kanesville, of course, was the principal settlement. Its population was as unstable as might be expected of a frontier outfitting camp. September, 1850, it contained 1,100; in November, 1851, 2,500 to 3,500; and the census of 1852 showed 5,057. It was at first hardly of the dignity of a village. Its inhabitants all looked forward to an early departure; the buildings they erected were temporary make-shifts, and their home-made furniture was rude and not intended for permanent use. With the rush of the gold-seekers following 1849, the resting place of the well-behaved Saints gradually changed to a roistering mining camp, too lively and wicked for the Mormons — by the way, the original prohibitionists of Iowa. Little attention was paid to life or property in the crush and confusion of outfitting from the first of March to the first of July, while the westward immigration was in its height. After June the population dwindled to scarcely 500, and the village again became sedate and orderly.

There were only two or three other settlements of any size. Council Point, three or four miles south of Kanesville, was a favorite steamboat landing. Traders or Trading Point, or St. Francis was made a postoffice in the summer of 1849 under the name "Nebraska." A year later this postoffice was given the vagrant name, "Council Bluffs," and was credited with a population of 125. California City was opposite the mouth  p288 of the Platte, and a little south of it was Bethlehem Ferry. Carterville was three miles southwest of Kanesville, and was a thriving village of some hundreds. Indiantown, at the crossing of the Nishnabotna, on the Mt. Pisgah road, west of the present Lewis, in Cass County, was the center of quite a large trade. Coonville became Glenwood.

We have the names of some forty or fifty other settlements in Southwestern Iowa. Little remains of these, but their names and memory, and a half-rotted squared log occasionally plowed up. Strictly, they were not villages, nor even hamlets; merely the collection within easy distance of a handful of farm houses, in a grove on a creek, with a school or church, and perhaps a mill or trader's stock. They resembled rather the ideal farm communities or settlements of some modern sociologists.

The greater part of the Saints, who acknowledged the leader­ship of Young, left Iowa in 1852, and with the legislative change of the name of Kanesville to Council Bluffs City, in January, 1853, the history of the early Mormon settlements in the Missouri Valley may be considered closed. Council Bluffs remained an outfitting station for Mormon, as well as other immigration, for years, but there was little to distinguish Salt Lake travelers from any others preparing to cross the Rockies. Such immigration continued in considerable number until the Civil War, as witness the ill-fated hand-cart and wheelbarrow expedition of 1856.

Turning now to a few settlements made in Nebraska in later years, a hundred families from St. Louis, under the direction of H. J. Hudson, formed three communistic colonies at Genoa in 1857, called Alton, Florence, and St. Louis. An attempt had been made by them to settle in Platte County. They construct dug-outs and cabins in the fall of 1857, and the next spring surveyed the lands on which they had located and partitioned each man his share. They enclosed two thousand acres with fences and ditches, and turned the sod of two square miles of prairie. The Genoa postoffice was established with Mr. Hudson, now of Columbus, as postmaster.

 p289  The first years of their occupancy were marked by great privations, gradually changing to comfort and prosperity. After the colony had been maintained seven years, the Pawnees arrived to take possession of their new reservation on the same ground. The settlers held their claim three years, but being in constant danger from the continually conflicting Sioux and Pawnees, abandoned further effort in 1863, and dispersed, some to Salt Lake, and others to Iowa, and some to Platte County.

Quite a settlement or relay station was made at Wood River, in Buffalo County, in 1858, by Joseph E. Johnson. Johnson published a paper, "The Huntsman's Echo," for two years, and grew "The largest and finest flower garden" then west of the Mississippi. The settlement was broken up in 1863, by the removal of Johnson and his companions to Salt Lake Valley.

Thayer's Notes:

a Now part of Omaha.

[decorative delimiter]

b Sic: but the number of wagons doesn't tally. Since the numbers of persons per wagon as given in the printed text are 3.10, 2.93 and 3.11, and the total number of persons per wagon is 2.71, the most reasonable correction is that the total number of wagons was not 892, but 792.

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