An instant city on the plains, Winter Quarters served as the headquarters of the Church for less than a year, until the leadership moved west in 1847. By Christmas 1846, Church members had constructed a large stockade and about 700 homes ranging from solid two-story structures to simple dugouts in the bluffs. For many, however, the rigors of the Iowa crossing, exposure, and poor nutrition and sanitation proved too much, and several hundred saints died during the winter of 1846–1847.
Iowa: Bitter Beginning
Of the entire trek to the Valley of the Great Salt Lake, it was the first 300 miles across Iowa that most tried the stamina, courage and equipment of the Latter-day Saint pioneers. Mere weeks into the journey—through sleet, blizzard, and mud—it became apparent to Brigham Young that his people would never reach the Rocky Mountains in the time or in the manner that most had hoped for. So throughout the spring of 1846, thousands of refugees trudged across the windswept Iowa prairies, preparing the way for those yet to come: building bridges, erecting cabins, planting and fencing crops. By mid-June, nearly 12,000 Saints were still scattered across Iowa. The Rocky Mountain entry would be postponed.
The Vanguard Pioneer Company
Brigham Young, as the presiding Elder of the Church following Joseph Smith's death, set out for the West from Winter Quarters with an advance company of 143 men, 3 women, and 2 children on 5 April 1847. Traveling in pleasant, if not too warm, summer weather, their journey of 1,050 miles was a relatively easy one, considering the trails they had already traveled. Crossing the Wasatch mountain range, however, Brigham became sick with mountain fever and entered the Salt Lake Valley on 24 July, three days behind the advance party. From his supine position in the back of a wagon, he surveyed the valley for only moments before announcing, "This is the right place. Drive on." By October of that year, another 2,000 pioneers had reached their new mountain refuge.
Trail a Two-Way Road
Brigham Young had been in the Great Salt Lake Valley only 32 days when he and a number of companions turned and headed back to aid the Saints in Winter Quarters. Thus was inaugurated the most prominent two-way road in nineteenth century western America. Within weeks of the valley arrival, missionaries were on their way back to the Eastern states and Europe, and a constant stream of wagons was moving both directions on the trail. Following two handcart tragedies in 1856, Brigham Young sought to revive interest in that option by sending a group of 70 missionaries back to the East pulling the rigs. They literally trotted into Florence 48 days later.