An instant city on the plains, Winter Quarters served as Church headquarters for less than a year, until the leadership moved west in 1847. By Christmas 1846, Church members had built 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 1846–47.
Iowa: Bitter Beginning
Of the entire trek to the Salt Lake Valley, 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. 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, and planting and fencing crops. By mid-June, nearly 12,000 Saints were still scattered across Iowa. The Rocky Mountain entry would be postponed.
“[I] went through the City—where, nine weeks ago there was not a foot path, or a Cow track, now may be seen hundreds of houses, and hundreds in different stages of completion—impossible to distinguish the rich from the poor. The Streets are wide and regular and every prospect of a large City being raised up here.”
Thomas Bullock, in Richard E. Bennett, Mormons at the Missouri, 1846–1852: “And Should We Die” (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1987), 80–81.
November 25, 1846
“The whole Camp of Winter Quarters was divided into two Bishoprics under the direction of the High Council for the purpose of taking care of the poor, which included the wives of those men who volunteered and went into the army last July—about 500 men. This was a measure that seemed to be necessary in order to turn away the jealousy of the general government and secure its protection in some degree to the Saints.”
The Record of Norton Jacob, ed. C. Edward Jacob and Ruth S. Jacob, [n.d.], 29, Church History Library, Salt Lake City.
Lucy Meserve Smith
“We moved down to Winter Quarters when my babe was two weeks old. There we lived in a cloth tent until December, then we moved into a log cabin, ten feet square with sod roof, chimney and only the soft ground for a floor and poor worn cattle beef and corn cracked on a hand mill, for our food. Here I got scurvy, not having any vegetables to eat. I got so low I had to wean my baby and he had to be fed on that coarse cracked corn bread when he was only five months old.”
“Winter [1846–47] found me bed-ridden, destitute, in a wretched hovel which was built upon a hillside; the season was one of constant rain; the situation of the hovel and its openness, gave free access to piercing winds and water flowed over the dirt floor, converting it into mud two or three inches deep; no wood but what my little ones picked up around the fences, so green it filled the room with smoke; the rain dropping and wetting the bed which I was powerless to leave.”
Margaret Phelps, in Bennett, Mormons at the Missouri, 79–80.