116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
This year marks the 175th anniversary of one of the gravest tragedies in American history … and much of it took place right here in Iowa.
Tradition in the faith of the Latter-day Saints, the denomination of Christianity more commonly known as the Mormons, says that Joseph Smith, the 18-year-old son of a farmer from Palmyra, New York, was visited by an angel named Moroni and told of the burial of a series of golden tablets on a nearby hill which contained the true word of God.
Those tablets had, according to the angel, been placed there by the righteous leader of an ancient people known as the Nephites who occupied the North American continent more than a thousand years before.
That leader, known as Mormon, had carved the tablets to preserve the faith, knowing that his race of people would soon be conquered.
Smith, it is said, ultimately unearthed the tablets and spent many months deciphering them until, in 1830, he released a transcript, in 588 pages, which came to be titled The Book of Mormon.
In it, his people, called the Latter-day Saints, were brought together to follow the teachings of Jesus, but were allowed multiple wives (a practice discontinued in 1890) and believed in baptism by proxy, or absolution of one’s transgressions after death. To assure their survival as a religion this time, Smith also organized the practitioners of the faith as a collective society, adopting practices of helping others similar to the later concepts of what came to be known, in principle, as communism.
This concept became an economic threat to the surrounding communities, and, combined with their differences in religious beliefs, Smith and his devotees left New York state under pressure, ultimately settling at Nauvoo, Illinois, between Keokuk and Fort Madison, in 1839.
The city of Nauvoo grew to include an estimated 15,000 practitioners, and, again, began to be seen by others as an economic and liturgical imposition. Five years after founding the thriving community, in 1844, Smith was murdered after being placed in jail in nearby Carthage. The faith’s governing body, the Council of Apostles, then appointed Brigham Young, the senior member of its elders, as their new president. This would rile others who believed that only the son of a prophet- which Smith had been designated- could next lead the faith. It was a rift which, down the line, created a splinter of the Latter-day Saints denomination, which would be headquartered at the home of Joseph Smith III in Lamoni, Iowa.
Young, himself, though, before the formal split, was the subject of death threats, and decided that the faithful would have to move on to a promised land which he would find for them. Although they did not know it at the time, “Deseret,” that promised land, would lay more than 1,100 miles away in the Great Basin on the fringe of a salty lake in northwest Utah.
Organizing the trip proved a logistical nightmare. The number of wooden carts, animals, food and clothing necessary for each family, along with an unusually wet spring, delayed departure until the summer of 1846. To regroup and restock them, two villages were established in Iowa near today’s Lamoni and Creston. The result of these stops and provisioning meant that the pilgrimage did not reach the Missouri River until the onset of autumn.
Young, and his adjutant, Orson Hyde, chose to set up a winter encampment, Young in the heights on the west side of the river, and Hyde, in Kanesville (Council Bluffs) on the east. A tabernacle and nearly 400 log cabins were quickly erected, making it the largest settlement in Western Iowa. Members of the faithful continued to arrive daily, however, and the number of cabins was inadequate.
When winter did strike, it proved to be one of the coldest on record. The immigrants, and their children, sat shivering, with snow piling up that both reduced the capacity to hunt and inhibited the selection of firewood.
Christmas was celebrated as best possible, then an even more frigid Arctic blast enveloped the community. On Jan. 17, a new low temperature of -18 degrees immobilized the village. By the end of the winter, along with the inhabitants of the encampment of the west side of the river, seven hundred of the residents had died from exposure. It was the single deadliest winter, in terms of weather, in Iowa (and Nebraska) history.
As the land thawed in the Spring of 1847, a cemetery was consecrated on a high bluff overlooking the encampment on the west side of the river. As there were limited resources and the migration had to resume as soon as temperatures rose, most of the graves went unmarked.
A few of the migrants remained behind to retain parishes of their faith in Omaha and Council Bluffs. An Interpretive Center and Museum was built next to the cemetery, and, in 2001, a temple was dedicated at the foot of the burial ground as a tribute to all who suffered and perished that winter of ’46-47.
Across the river, a replica of the original Tabernacle at Kanesville stands in memory of those who lived and died on the Iowa side. The Tabernacle, and its accompanying museum, are located just outside of downtown Council Bluffs.
In Cedar Rapids, if you would like to learn more about this harrowing chapter in American history, or if you would like to learn more about your own heritage- whatever your faith may or may not be — you can visit the Cedar Rapids Family History Center, at 4300 Trailridge Road SE, where the LDS church offers the largest collection of genealogical records to everyone in Eastern Iowa.