From The Encyclopedia of Mormonism
Author: Bennett, Richard E.
Brigham Young's original plan for the LDS exodus from Nauvoo, Illinois, envisioned a quick journey across Iowa in the spring of 1846 and, at least for some, a journey "over the mountains" by fall. That plan called for small winter camps in Iowa, at the Missouri River, and at Grand Island, whence later encampments could depart in the spring of 1847 for their mountain home. As the first wagons took over three months just to cross windblown and storm-drenched Iowa, this plan could not be carried out. By the time advance companies had reached the Missouri River, it was mid-June and too late for them or the 12,000 following to attempt a mountain crossing that season. A layover place had to be found.
The term "winter quarters," often used by trappers and explorers to describe a place of refuge from the hazards of winter, took on special significance in Mormon pioneer history. Built on Indian lands on the west bank of the Missouri River-now Florence, a suburb of Omaha, Nebraska-their Winter Quarters became a vital new center for planning, regrouping, preparing, and religious renewal. Surveyed in October 1846 and subsequently laid out in a grid with 14 streets, 38 blocks, and over 760 lots and stockyards, and with houses ranging from two-story brick homes to sod huts, Winter Quarters housed almost 4,000 Latter-day Saints by December 1846. For the next two years, the name was also loosely applied to scores of much smaller settlements on the river's east side, home for another 8,000 LDS immigrants.
After the establishment of Salt Lake City in 1847 and upon orders from government officials concerned about settlement on Indian lands, the Saints vacated Winter Quarters in 1848 to go either to the Salt Lake Valley or back east across the river, where they created the city of Kanesville, Iowa (see Council Bluffs (Kanesville), Iowa).
Winter Quarters was more than a resting spot on the way to the West: It became a place of implementation and experimentation in Church practice and government. It was there, for example, that the Law of Adoption and plural marriage were first openly practiced, though they had been taught in Nauvoo. Also at Winter Quarters Brigham Young and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles deliberated at length about leadership and Church government before reorganizing the First Presidency at Kanesville, December 1847. The role of bishop was also refined. Because of the needs created by the July 1846 departure of 500 able-bodied men to serve in the Mormon Battalion, Winter Quarters became the first community divided into small wards (congregations) of 300 to 500 people, with a bishop responsible for each.
Winter Quarters also represents the tragic side of Mormon history: Some 2,000 Latter-day Saints died there and across the river between June 1846 and October 1848. This high death rate is attributable to excessive fatigue, heavy spring storms, generally inadequate provisions, the malaria then common along the river lowlands, improvised shelters, and the weakened condition of the "poor camp" refugees driven out of Nauvoo in the fall of 1846.
Winter Quarters tested Brigham Young's remarkable leadership abilities and the faith of thousands who followed him through sickness and wilderness to their eventual mountain refuge. In Latter-day Saint chronicles, Winter Quarters will be forever remembered as a place of suffering and of faith.
Bennett, Richard E. Mormons at the Missouri, 1846-1852. Norman, Okla., 1987.
Brooks, Juanita, ed. On the Mormon Frontier: The Diary of Hosea Stout, 1844-1861, 2 vols. Salt Lake City, 1964.
Bryson, Conrey. Winter Quarters. Salt Lake City, 1986.
Stegner, Wallace. The Gathering of Zion: The Story of the Mormon Trail. New York, 1964.
RICHARD E. BENNETT