Mormon Pioneer
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In the Council Bluffs area the Mormons were not yet in the wilderness. The general area, up and down both sides of the river, had been discovered by French and Spanish explorer-trappers in the 1700s and had been an Indian trading site since at least 1804, when Lewis and Clark met with Indians north of there. Military forts, such as Fort Lisa and Fort Atkinson, had been built nearby as early as 1812, steamboats from St. Louis reached there as early as 1819, and it was an established point of departure for Oregon and California. Francois Guittau founded the first white settlement there at Trader's Point in 1824. In 1846 there was a village and a steamboat landing on each side of the river, with service to Fort Leavenworth, Independence, and St. Louis, and regular mail service. Indian agents were located on one, sometimes both, sides of the Missouri, and a Presbyterian Indian mission was on the west bank. Many goods and services, including some medical aid, were available. [1]

When the Mormons arrived in 1846 they first called the area Miller's Hollow, then Kanesville (after a non-Mormon friend, Colonel Thomas L. Kane). By special charter in 1853 the State Legislature changed the name to Council Bluffs. The name derived from a council held by Lewis and Clark with the Indians in 1804 on the west side of the river about 12 miles upstream.


Here in southern Iowa and eastern Nebraska between 1846 and 1853 the Mormons built at least fifty-five temporary and widely separated communities, farmed as much as 15,000 acres of land, and established three ferries. They eventually occupied five successive headquarters sites named Grand Encampment, Cold Spring Camp, Cutler's Park, Winter Quarters, and Kanesville (Council Bluffs). [2] These numerous communities were established primarily to accommodate the thousands of Mormon emigrants, while they were either waiting to cross the Missouri River, or resting and preparing financially and physically to continue westward to Utah. Most of these communities, some named Barney's Grove, Davis Camp, or Little Pigeon, were close to the Missouri River and disappeared after the Mormons went west.

Initially the pioneers settled temporarily in camps along the bluffs near Mosquito Creek (near what is now the Iowa School for the Deaf), on the flats near the Missouri River, and near Trading Point (or Indian Town) located today just east of Bellevue, Nebraska—almost on the present Pottawattamie-Mills County, Iowa line. In July the Mormons established a third, more permanent camp on the Iowa shore, a camp that became known as Kanesville, the origin of modern Council Bluffs.


In the Council Bluffs vicinity the Mormons in general had their first real and sustained contacts with Indians. Across Iowa the Mormons had been on Potawatomi lands since they left Mount Pisgah. At Council Bluffs they met the Potawatomi chief, Pied Riche, called "the clerk" by the French because of his education. The chief, who had been driven from his ancestral lands in Michigan by the Indian Removal policy of the 1830s, felt some kinship with the Mormons. [3] The Indian agent in Council Bluffs, Major Robert B. Mitchell, was also friendly to the Mormons. He reported, for example, to the Superintendent of Indian Affairs in St. Louis, "I am gratified to say that since their arrival I have seen nothing to which exception could be taken... .They complain that they have been badly treated, but declare their intention to bear the American Flag to whatever country they cast their lot." [4] And across the river at what became Winter Quarters, the Mormons were in close contact with the Oto and the Omaha.

The Omaha were a small tribe of only about 1,500 and where known for their consistent friendliness to the whites. The Oto, on the other hand, were considered by both Indians and whites to be a thieving people. They numbered about 1,000. Both tribes were basically farmers living in permanent earthen lodge villages.

Chief Big Elk and the Omahas were agreeable to the Mormons settling among them: the Indians might benefit from Mormon expertise and what the Saints would leave behind, and the whites might afford them some help against their ancient enemy, the warlike Sioux, who frequently raided Omaha villages.


After the Kanesville camp was made, Mormon leaders were immediately concerned over two major problems: sending an advance company to the Rocky Mountains, and locating a place for the main portion of the camp to build winter quarters until they, too, could go west in the spring.

On July 1st, the first problem was solved by the process of elimination. On that day, Captain James Allen of the U.S. Army's First Regiment of Dragoons of Fort Leavenworth rode into the Mosquito Creek camp with a request from President James K. Polk for a battalion of 500 Mormon men to fight in the Mexican War. Part of the agreement was that the Mormons would be permitted officially to camp on Potawatomi lands and, unofficially, allowed to move across the Missouri River and settle temporarily on Omaha lands, which had previously been closed to whites. (It was important to the Mormons to put one more river between them and the "anti-Mormons.")

The battalion of about 489 men, some 20 wives who went as laundresses, four to a company, and perhaps a dozen boys as officers' aids, (because of imperfect records the exact number of men, women, and children in the battalion is not known and estimates vary) was eventually raised. They mustered in a little south of what became Council Bluffs, near what is now the Iowa School for the Deaf and on July 20th, the new recruits started off for Fort Leavenworth, 150 miles down the Missouri.

There is still, as there was then, a widespread belief among Mormons that raising the Mormon Battalion was a great sacrifice on the part of the church to an undeserving government. Actually, the government was responding to the requests of Mormon leaders for any kind of help in their move to the west. [5] The Mormon leaders provided the men because it would help demonstrate their loyalty to their country (during wartimes Americans, including Mormons, generally work together), and because the church would benefit materially from the military pay, from the arms that the men could keep, from the uniform money allotments (since Mormons were allowed to wear their own clothes), and from the fact that many men would be transported west at government expense. (This last point was only partly realized, because, after being discharged, members of the battalion had to transport themselves back from California to either Salt Lake City or Winter Quarters to pick up or meet with their families.)


With the question of a pioneer group going west that fall eliminated by the formation of the battalion, Young began in earnest to locate winter quarters and to settle the Saints. Most of their searching was on the western side of the Missouri River on Indian lands disputed by the Omaha and Oto nations. As previously noted, Chief Big Elk and the Omaha were agreeable to the Mormons settling among them.

Cold Spring and Cutler's Park

Two temporary camps were made opposite Council Bluffs. The first, called Cold Spring Camp, in what is now South Omaha, was of very short duration; the second was Cutler's Park (see Historic Site 18), after Alpheus Cutler, the father-in-law of Heber C. Kimball, who selected it that August. (See Appendix D, Illustration 14.) Cutler's Park is now considered to have been the first official town in what became Nebraska. The Mormons elected Cutler as mayor, chose a city council of twelve, and hired police and fire guards.

Winter Quarters

It was soon decided, however, that Cutler's Park was not suitable and in early September, another campsite was selected, 3 miles closer to the river. It was there, in what is now Florence (technically North Omaha), Nebraska, that the Saints finally built their Winter Quarters, the Mormon "Valley Forge." Winter Quarters (see Historic Sites 19 and 20) soon became a city of about 800 cabins, huts, caves, and sod, or "prairie marble," hovels, and 3,483 people. At its height it had about 4,000 people. (See Appendix A, Map 14.) During the winter of 1846-1847 there were approximately another 11,800 Mormons in camps scattered throughout Iowa. [6]

The Winter Quarters period in church history, 1847-1852 has, until recently, been neglected in Mormon historiography. It has now come to be considered one of the most important periods in Mormon history, "Mormonism in the raw," as one student put it. [7] During these years Brigham Young became president of the Mormon Church (in 1847) and inaugurated many policies and practices that were later applied in the Great Basin. Particularly important were the lessons learned from being in close proximity to Indians—how to understand Indian life and customs, how to trade with Indians, and how to prevent and punish Indian thievery, for example. Equally important were the lessons learned about surviving on the frontier, and how to lead and hold together a people under adverse conditions, and how to openly implement doctrines heretofore kept generally secret—the doctrines of polygamy and adoption, for example. [8] The doctrine of polygamy, or plural marriage as Mormons prefer to term it, needs little comment. It had been practiced secretly in Nauvoo since at least 1841 and was defended on the grounds that it had been sanctioned in the Old Testament, was not forbidden in the New, and was necessary to the Mormon concept of the "restoration of all things." It was, however, not publicly admitted until 1852, when the Mormons were safely in Utah Territory. The law of adoption permitted church leaders to graft entire families onto their families, in order to increase their own posterity and blessing in this world and the next.

The winter of 1846-1847 was grim. At least 400 died from various causes and are buried in the Winter Quarters' cemetery (REC, see Historic Site 20, and Appendix D, Illustration 15). These deaths added to the number already dead from malaria and other fevers. Some gave up the faith and returned to the east. Others simply stayed in the area and never went west. There was also some trouble with the Indians—mainly stealing. Young warned Big Elk, Chief of the Omaha, that any Indians caught stealing would be whipped—the same punishment meted out to white malefactors. (Since the Mormons had no jails, they found it necessary to practice corporal punishment for a few years.) [9]

Still the Mormons made the best of things. They organized concerts, dances, (even dancing lessons), songfests, feasts, festivals, and sleigh rides, and visited back and forth with the other whites on both sides of the river and downstream at Bellevue. [10]

In Winter Quarters the Mormons received some unexpected and welcomed information regarding the mountain west. That November, as previously noted, the famous Jesuit, Father Pierre Jean de Smet, stopped and visited with the Mormons. He was en route to St._Louis after spending five years in the mountains preaching to the Flathead Indians and was one of the few white men who had visited the Great Salt Lake. Taking full advantage of this good luck, the Mormons asked him every question they could think of. De Smet took it goodnaturedly and some years later wrote a brief account of this meeting. [11]


During that winter, and throughout the next several years, until at least 1852, Mormons on both sides of the Missouri tried to make money offering what we might call trail-side services, such as blacksmithing, ferrying, cooking, baking, sewing, and selling hay, corn, and wheat. They even provided some warehousing services. In addition, they handcrafted items such as baskets, flour sacks, chairs, washboards, tables, and hats to the many hundreds of non-Mormon emigrants who also jumped-off for the Far West from that area. The area was a very popular point of departure for non-Mormons. [12] Some did a little "doctoring" and pulled and cleaned teeth. Others made wine from elderberries and sold it. Some of the sisters also taught school, did washings, sewed, cooked, baby-sat, spun yarn, made clothing, and worked in restaurants and boarding houses. Some men went south into Missouri to seek work for short periods.

Throughout their emigrating period, to 1869, Mormons took every opportunity to make money by offering such services. West of the Missouri River they continued to offer blacksmithing services; they established ferries on the Elkhorn and Loup rivers (one was near what became Genoa) and did some contract bridging across the Green River (in what is now Wyoming) and down Echo Canyon (in what is now Utah), for example.

Over the years Mormon emigrants also used trail-side services provided by "Gentiles," or non-Mormons. West of the Missouri River, in what is now Nebraska, Mormons could have obtained supplies at settlements such as Fremont, North Bend, Columbus, Buchanan (near Shell Creek, which no longer exists), Cleveland (west of Columbus, which no longer exists), Monroe, Grand Island, Fort Kearny, Fort McPherson, (these two forts were on the Oregon Trail) and at scattered trading posts, such as Robidoux's near Scotts Bluff, and at various "road ranches."

Across what is now Wyoming, there was an ever-increasing number of trading posts and forts useful to the Mormons located at Dripps Trading Post, the Bordeaux Station, Fort Laramie, Ward and Guerrier's Trading Post, Horseshoe Station, Labonte Station, Deer Creek Station, Fort Caspar, Devil's Gate Station and fort, and St. Mary's Station, among others.


After the dreary winter of 1846-1847 passed, the Mormon Pioneer advance party readied to continue west during the spring of 1847. And after they successfully planted a colony in what is now Utah, Young and other leaders returned to Winter Quarters to lead a much bigger group west in 1848. Thereafter, Winter Quarters was quickly abandoned. The Mormons who did not go west at that time tended to congregate near what was to become Council Bluffs, Iowa, until such time as they could continue on west. Some Mormons remained in western Iowa until at least 1853. They founded a newspaper, the Frontier Guardian (1849-1852) and made money helping with church migration and, as previously noted, also catering to the needs of thousands of other Americans traveling to Oregon and California.

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Last Updated: 08-Oct-2003