As the Latter-day Saints fled Missouri during the winter of 1838–1839, having been threatened by the governor of that state with extermination, they crossed into Illinois and settled in a swampy area along the Mississippi River that they named Nauvoo. Over the next few years, an estimated 16,000 Latter-day Saints took up residence in the city and its surrounding communities. It became one of the largest cities in Illinois at the time and an important commercial center on the upper Mississippi.
Many in the surrounding communities continued to harass the Latter-day Saints, and on 27 June 1844, a painted mob shot to death the Latter-day prophet, Joseph Smith, and his brother Hyrum. Despite the rapidly escalating tension in the area, the Latter-day Saints continued at great sacrifice to complete a temple in the city, even while they prepared for a mass exodus to the West. Between February and September 1846, most of the Latter-day Saints took up their march to the West, leaving their homes, their city, and their temple to the hands of those who had not built and the hearts of those who did not care.
Today Nauvoo is a significant historic district, with many of the buildings in the original townsite rebuilt or restored and open for the public to visit.
In all of United States history, few people have suffered for their religious convictions as did the early Latter-day Saints. Because of the rapid growth of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and what many contemporary religionists viewed as the heretical doctrine of living prophets and modern revelation, many outsiders viewed Latter-day Saints with suspicion and contempt. During the first two decades of the Church's existence, Latter-day Saints repeatedly experienced the cycle of migration, settlement (including purchasing the lands they settled in), and expulsion. Within the span of 17 years, the fast-growing body of Latter-day Saints moved en masse from the Finger Lakes region of western New York state (1830-1831), to Kirtland, Ohio (1831-1838), Jackson County, Missouri (1831-1839) and Commerce/Nauvoo, Illinois (1839-1848), where their prophet, Joseph Smith, was murdered by a mob. In the dead of winter 1846, the Latter-day Saints once again abandoned their homes and began the long, hard trek to the Rocky Mountains, where they would at last find welcome refuge.
Following eight years of convergence and settlement by thousands of Latter-day Saint converts in northern Missouri, tensions with neighboring communities reached a climax. On 27 October 1838, Missouri Governor Lilburn W. Boggs signed one of the most heinous documents in American history, his Mormon "extermination order," declaring, "The Mormons must be treated as enemies, and must be exterminated, or driven from the State, if necessary for the public peace" (quoted in History of the Church, 3:175). This military directive called for the forced mid-winter exodus from Missouri of approximately 10,000 men, women and children from their own farms, homes, and lands.
On 25 June 1976, Missouri Governor Christopher S. Bond issued an executive order rescinding the Extermination Order, noting its legal invalidity and formally apologizing in behalf of the state of Missouri for the suffering it had caused the Latter-day Saints.
Nauvoo, Illinois: From Ecstasy to Exodus
In all of Church history, perhaps nothing symbolizes the pragmatic nature of Latter-day Saint religion as does the city of Nauvoo. On the very hem of the western frontier, the Latter-day Saints drained the swamps, wrote an ambitious city charter, established a university, mounted a city militia, and built a temple.
To Nauvoo and its vicinity came the great majority of all Latter-day Saint converts for the next seven years, swelling the population to about 20,000 by 1846. At its height it rivaled Chicago as the largest city in the state. A vibrant, culturally eclectic place, it came to be known as "Nauvoo, the Beautiful."
Death of Joseph Smith
The relative peace and prosperity of the Nauvoo period was short-lived. Political maneuvering for the "Mormon vote" at the state level had granted the municipality perhaps the most liberal city charter in the state, and Nauvoo was seen as both a political and economic threat by many in the older, neighboring communities. At the height of tensions, a local opposition newspaper called for mob action against the Saints, to which the city council responded by destroying the offending printing press. Amidst growing regional clamor for, once again, the Saints' extermination, Joseph Smith and his brother Hyrum were jailed. On 27 June 1844, a mob stormed Carthage jail and shot the brothers to death in their prison cell.
The American Exodus
Following the death of Joseph Smith in 1844, ire against the Saints rose rapidly. In 1845, the repeal of the Nauvoo City charter, which among other things granted the Latter-day Saints the right to keep a standing militia for their own protection, signaled the effective end of their sojourn in Illinois. These events, however, merely catalyzed a move contemplated by Church leaders for a number of years. As early as 1840 Joseph Smith had taught there was "a place of safety preparing for [the Saints] away towards the Rocky Mountains" (quoted in Ronald K. Esplin, "'A Place Prepared': Joseph, Brigham and the Quest for Promised Refuge in the West," Journal of Mormon History vol.9 , 90). By the fall of 1845, preparations for the exodus were well under way; the proposed departure date would be, in the words of Brigham Young, "as soon as the grass grows" (quoted in Wallace Stegner, The Gathering of Zion: The Story of the Mormon Trail, , 38) in the following spring. But the mobs wouldn't rest. On 4 February 1846, in the heart of a Midwestern winter so cold and bitter the Mississippi River froze over, the Latter-day Saints were driven from their homes and lands down a street which came to be known as the "Street of Tears" and into the unknown mystery of the western frontier.
Although the body of Latter-day Saints grew rapidly, swelling the population of a number of frontier communities, the Saints were no theocratic usurpers: "We claim the privilege of worshiping Almighty God according to the dictates of our own conscience, and allow all men the same privilege, let them worship how, where, or what they may" (Articles of Faith 1:11). But as they gathered converts, they gathered enemies, leaving themselves, ultimately, no choice but departure. In a letter addressed to U.S. President James K. Polk in 1846, Brigham Young gave notice of the farewell:
"We would esteem a territorial government of our own as one of the richest boons of earth, and while we appreciate the Constitution of the United States as the most precious among the nations, we feel that we had rather retreat to the deserts, islands or mountain caves than consent to be ruled by governors and judges whose hands are drenched in the blood of innocence and virtue, who delight in injustice and oppression." Thus, they walked (quoted in B.H. Roberts, A Comprehensive History of the Church, 3:89-90).
Value of the Exodus
"For Brigham Young and his associates, the 1846 exodus from Nauvoo, far from being a disaster imposed by enemies, was foretold and foreordained—a key to understanding LDS history and a necessary prelude for greater things to come. From a later perspective too, scholars of the Mormon experience have come to see the exodus and colonization of the Great Basin as the single most important influence in molding the Latter-day Saints into a distinctive people" (Reed C. Durham Jr., "Westward Migration, Planning and Prophecy," in Daniel H. Ludlow, ed., Encyclopedia of Mormonism, 5 vols. , 4:1563).
Mississippi River Crossing
From February through September of 1846, thousands of Latter-day Saints abandoned Nauvoo, fleeing to the West in barges and ferries across the Mississippi River. Some of those who crossed in late February did so on ice, as the wide river froze solid in sub-zero temperatures. A number of diarists refer to the freezing as a miracle, even though, notes one commentator, "it was a miracle that nearly froze a couple of thousand Saints" (Wallace Stegner, The Gathering of Zion, 44). The majority, some 7,000 or more, left between March and May. By September only six or seven hundred remained in Nauvoo. Known as the "poor Saints," they were either physically or financially incapable of traveling west by themselves to join the main body of the Saints now near the western edge of Iowa. Mobs forced this last group from the city in mid-September, 1846, in what came to be known as "the battle of Nauvoo."
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 and courage 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.