A Tragic Winter on the Mormon Pioneer National Historic Trail

By Frank Norris

Florence, Nebraska, is a leafy suburb on the north side of Omaha. Today, the suburb is quiet and not particularly remarkable, and what passes for history to most passers-by is a series of historic buildings dating from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

The present town site, however, is a personal witness to one of the great tragedies in the decades-long history of America’s western migrations, because it was in present-day Florence where those who led of the Mormon migration suffered – and in many cases died – along the Mormon Pioneer National Historic Trail during the winter of 1846-1847.

Why Florence? During the 1820s, Joseph Smith witnessed remarkable events while living in a rural area east of Rochester, New York, and in 1830 he founded a church whose adherents were called Latter Day Saints, or Mormons. Popular antipathy against Smith and his followers, however, forced church members to flee the area – first to Kirtland, Ohio, and later in Nauvoo, Illinois, with an outpost at Independence, Missouri. In 1844, however, Smith was killed by a mob in Carthage, Illinois (near Nauvoo), and soon afterward, church leaders concluded that the only way to provide the flock safety and breathing room was to relocate them farther west, beyond where most Americans were living at that time. Based on what they learned from explorer John Fremont’s maps and reports, the church’s new leader – Brigham Young – decided to head some 1,300 miles west to the valley of the Great Salt Lake.

 The Florence Mill

The Florence Mill

In February 1846, the first elements of the Mormon migration left Nauvoo and headed west across Iowa on what is now known as the Mormon Pioneer National Historic Trail. The church’s leaders had initially hoped to make it all the way to their destination in one year. But rain, mud, swollen rivers, and poor preparation slowed things down considerably, and by mid-June the decision was made to overwinter along the Missouri River. Three settlements were eventually established there: Kanesville (initially called Miller’s Hollow), which later became Council Bluffs, Iowa; Cutler’s Park, a short-lived settlement founded in August 1846 perhaps 1.5 miles west of present-day Florence; and Winter Quarters, founded in September near the Missouri River’s west bank.

Recognizing that winter would soon be upon them, the emigrants quickly set to work laying out streets – three blocks from east to west and seven blocks from north to south. Within that rectangular grid they constructed some 800 buildings, made from either logs or sod. Some 2,500 Mormons spent the winter here. The industrious assemblage immediately set to work building a nearby mill, and enterprising church members quickly fanned out into adjacent areas and began trading what additional supplies they had for hogs, grain, and vegetables. Despite those efforts, however, most emigrants subsisted on corn bread, “salt bacon” (salt-cured pork) and a little milk, with occasional fresh game or domestic meat.

Even so, the population suffered. The lack of fresh vegetables soon resulted in a prevalence of scurvy, and others got consumption (tuberculosis), malaria, and a host of other diseases. Church documents – not at all complete – show that by the spring of 1847, 359 members had died, or more than one-seventh of those that had arrived at Winter Quarters seven months earlier.

This vanguard of Mormon settlement left Winter Quarters in April 1847, headed west, crossed the Continental Divide, and arrived in Salt Lake Valley in late July along the western end of today’s Mormon Pioneer National Historic Trail. Thereafter, Winter Quarters continued to be used by later migrants until the site was abandoned in 1848. Just six years later, the new town of Florence was platted at the site, and by the late 1850s it was community once again. But what still remained of the old Winter Quarters site was quickly subsumed within the town of Florence. Today, all that remains from that era is a cemetery that pays silent witness to the Mormon pioneers who died there, along with the nearby Florence Mill. To tell the story of what took place here during Winter Quarters’ remarkable two-year existence, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints operates a visitor center adjacent to the cemetery.

Frank Norris is a historian for the National Park Service.