Re-enacting the Exodus on the Mormon Pioneer National Historic Trail

By Susan Sims

On February 3, 2018, a few hundred enthusiastic friends embarked on a relatively short "hike" of less than a mile along Parley Street in Nauvoo, IL. That street has been dubbed the "Trail of Hope" in memory of those who traveled it for the last time in 1846 as part of a forced exodus across the Mississippi River into Iowa to embark on what became the Mormon Pioneer National Historic Trail.

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Parley Street is now the trailhead for the Mormon Pioneer Trail, but then it was just a street that led to a river crossing point. On February 4, 1846, it was full of families walking next to wagons toward a frozen river. Hundreds crossed into Iowa that day, and thousands would follow in one of America’s greatest migrations.

The Mormon Pioneer Historic Trail hosted some 70,000 pioneers who helped to colonize the western United States beginning in 1847. Mormons who followed the trail in the mid-1800s were looking for relief from religious persecution, but they joined the many other Americans who ventured West along the Oregon Trail and other routes in search of a new life and economic opportunities.

The 2018 “hike” was part of an annual celebration that brings descendants of the original Mormon pioneers and many of their friends together to remember the courage and sacrifice of their ancestors. Participants gathered for a continental breakfast and short remarks from event organizers before forming a procession that included a mock “Mormon Legion” and flag bearers in period costume. Waving robustly in a brisk wind, the flags represented the many nationalities of the early pioneers living in Nauvoo from 1839-1846.

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Horse drawn wagons and an ox cart also joined the parade as everyone walked first along Main Street in Historic Nauvoo and then turned west on Parley Street. Forming around a statue of Mormon leaders Joseph Smith and Brigham Young, the crowd participated in a flag ceremony and listened to commentary from Mormon historian, Dr. Benjamin Pykles, about the purpose of Nauvoo as a settlement and the journey the Mormons took westward. Pykles explained that the Mormons knew Nauvoo would be a temporary home, and yet they built it up as if they would be there for many years. “They sacrificed so much to build up Nauvoo, but that tells us how significant their time here was,” he explained.

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After the brief program, many participants visited some of the historic buildings in Nauvoo to round out their morning. Many participants walked wearing a name tag of an ancestor or someone who had lived in Nauvoo and left with the Mormon Exodus. Most expressed their satisfaction in being able to feel a connection to those who braved the unknown for the good of all who would follow. “I want my sons with me today to understand our heritage because of the sacrifices their ancestors made,” commented Jana Bailey of Cedar Falls, IA.

Some event participants took time to read journal entries from pioneers that are posted on the Trail of Hope markers to gain additional insight on how the Mormons faced their journey. David Moore, of Golden, IL, attended with his wife, Theresa. Mr. Moore explained that their ancestors arrived in Illinois in the mid-1800s to “start a new life seeking economic and religious freedom,” although they were not part of the Mormon settlement in Nauvoo. “Today gave us an appreciation for their sacrifices, and the wind helped us feel a hint of the adversity the Mormons faced as they left their beloved Nauvoo and turned their hearts to the West.”

Nauvoo was, in 1845, the second largest city in Illinois; Chicago was the largest. Today, Nauvoo is home to fewer than 1,200 residents. Historic Nauvoo, owned and operated by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, is open year-round to visitors free of charge. The adjacent Joseph Smith Historic Site is operated by the Community of Christ and is also open year-round. Both sites help visitors understand the story of the early Mormons and also teach visitors about frontier life in the 1840s. Travelers who participate in the National Park Service Passport program can have their passports stamped in the visitor centers at both historic sites in Nauvoo.

Susan Sims is the Iowa Regional Public Affairs Director for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.