After four hours of travel from Hannibal, Missouri toward De Smet, South Dakota we found ourselves in Council Bluffs, Iowa. This was an significant stop on the Mormon pioneers westward trek.
We arrived early, before the visitor center opened and let Tyler burn off some energy, before we asked him to be still and reverent for the next hour, with a game of football in the parking lot.
When the senior missionaries assigned to this historical site arrived they walked us through the history of this site:
“In the Kanesville Tabernacle, built by 200 pioneers in just two and a half weeks, Brigham Young was sustained as the second president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The present log tabernacle is a replica of the original meeting hall. The tabernacle now serves as a visitors’ center, where you can learn more about the epic history of the Latter-day Saints’ migration westward.”
The kids were even invited to play the 150 year old organ. Linda Neeley, you would have been proud!
Then we drove 15 minutes away, across the Missouri River, to Winter Quarters in Omaha, .Nebraska.
“Winter Quarters encompassed the area of North Omaha near State and 33rd Streets. Historic sites include the Mormon Pioneer Memorial Bridge, Florence Mill, Florence Park, Mormon Pioneer Cemetery, Cutler’s Park, and the first Mormon pioneer camp after leaving Winter Quarters. A major interpretive center was built by the L.D.S. Church at Winter Quarters Historical Site in 1997.
Witness glimpses of the great “Mormon Migration” as you walk beside a covered wagon, pull a handcart, climb in the bunks on a steam ship, and imagine a railroad journey. Exhibits also explore the expulsion from Nauvoo, the crossing of Iowa, and temporary settlements in the Middle Missouri Valley, including Winter Quarters, where the center is located.”
Winter Quarters Complex – Omaha, Nebraska
“Built on Indian land with permission from the U.S. Army, Winter Quarters served as the main settlement of the Mormons on the Missouri River until they moved the fitting-out site to Kanesville in Iowa.”
“The winter of 1846-47 was devastating, and with inadequate shelter and food they died by the hundreds of malaria, scurvy, dysentery, and a host of other unidentified ailments. Louisa Barnes Pratt recalled in her memoirs, “I hired a man to build me a sod cave. He took turf from the earth, laid it up, covered it with willow brush and sods. Built a chimney of the same. . . . I paid a five dollar gold piece for building my sod house, 10 x 12. . . . A long cold rain storm brought more severely again the chills and fever. These with scurvy made me helpless indeed! . . . Many of my friends sickened and died in that place, when I was not able to leave my room, could not go to their bedside to administer comfort to them in the last trying hours, not even to bid them farewell. Neither could I go to see their remains carried to their final resting place where it was thought I would shortly have to be conveyed.”
As we walked around the visitor center we really got a feel for the stories and sacrifices made by those who found themselves wintering over in Western Iowa and eastern Nebraska. Their losses were great but their faith was even greater.
December 1846- Diary of 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. We had no milk for a while till we could send to the herd and then he did very well till I got better. My husband took me in his arms and held me till my bed was made nearly every day for nine weeks. I could not move an inch. Then on the 9th of February I was 30 years old. I had nothing to eat but a little corn meal gruel. I told the folks I would remember my birthday dinner when I was 30 years old. My dear baby used to cry till It seemed as tho I would jump off my bed when it came night. I would get so nervous, but I could not even speak to him. I was so helpless I could not move myself in bed or speak out loud. . . . When I got better I had not a morsel in the house I could eat, as my mouth was so sore. I could not eat corn bread and I have cried hours for a morsel to put in my mouth. Then my companion would take a plate and go around among the neighbors and find some one cooking maybe a calf’s pluck. He would beg a bit to keep me from starving. I would taste it and then I would say oh do feed my baby. My appetite would leave me when I would think of my dear child. My stomach was hardening from the want of food.
The next July my darling boy took sick and on the 22nd, the same day that his father and Orson Pratt came into the valley of the great Salt lake my only child died. I felt so overcome in my feelings. I was afraid I would loose my mind, as I had not fully recovered from my sickness the previous winter” (“Original Historical Narrative of Lucy Meserve Smith: 14 Aug. 1884–1889)”
I can’t imagine packing up my family and heading to an unknown land with minimal provision, propelled forward only by a hope of a better life and a faith in God.
In the visitor’s center there was a display showing the provisions allowed for each wagon headed west. These are the provisions for a family of 5. Handcart pioneers were more limited in the weight they could pack because of the fact they would be pulling their carts across the country without the help of oxen.
The boys got to try out their Tetris skills as they attempted to get all their supplies to fit in the toy wagon.
On one display we were able to see the means used to track the pioneer’s mileage west. By tying a rag to the wagon wheel, and by measuring the size of the wheel, one person was assigned the task of counting each rotation of the rag, recording the daily number, and calculating the mileage for the day. Can you imagine having that job?!
We left with a better appreciation for our pioneer heritage and gratitude that we are trekking west in an air conditioned bus with running water rather than a handcart!