As the Latter-day Saints fled Missouri during the winter of 1838–39, having been threatened with extermination by the governor of the state, they crossed into Illinois and settled in a swampy area along the Mississippi River. They named the city Nauvoo. Over the next few years, an estimated 16,000 Latter-day Saints took up residence in the city and its surrounding communities. It became one of the largest cities in Illinois at the time and an important commercial center on the upper Mississippi.
Many in the surrounding communities continued to harass the Latter-day Saints, and on June 27, 1844, a painted mob shot and killed the Prophet Joseph Smith and his brother Hyrum. Despite the rapidly escalating tension in the area, the Latter-day Saints continued at great sacrifice to complete a temple in the city, even while they prepared for a mass exodus to the West. Between February and September 1846, most of the Latter-day Saints took up their march to the West, leaving their homes, their city, and their temple in the hands of those who had not built and to the hearts of those who did not care.
Today Nauvoo is a significant historic district, with many of the buildings in the original townsite rebuilt or restored and open for the public to visit.
“The place was literally a wilderness. The land was mostly covered with trees and bushes, and much of it was so wet that it was with the utmost difficulty that a footman could get through, and totally impossible for teams. Commerce was unhealthy, very few could live there; but believing that it might become a healthy place by the blessing of heaven to the saints, and no more eligible place presenting itself, I considered it wisdom to make an attempt to build up a city.”
Joseph Smith, in B. H. Roberts, A Comprehensive History of the Church, 2:9.
In a letter addressed to U.S. president James K. Polk, Brigham Young gave notice of the Latter-day Saints’ farewell:
“We would esteem a territorial government of our own as one of the richest boons of earth, and while we appreciate the Constitution of the United States as the most precious among the nations, we feel that we had rather retreat to the deserts, islands or mountain caves than consent to be ruled by governors and judges whose hands are drenched in the blood of innocence and virtue, who delight in injustice and oppression.”
Brigham Young, in B. H. Roberts, A Comprehensive History of the Church, 3:89–90.
Thomas L. Kane
“Here, among the docks and rushes, sheltered only by the darkness, without roof between them and the sky, I came upon a crowd of several hundred human creatures, whom my movements roused from uneasy slumber upon the ground. . . .
“Dreadful, indeed, was the suffering of these forsaken beings. Bowed and cramped by cold and sunburn, alternating as each weary day and night dragged on, they were, almost all of them, the crippled victims of disease. They were there because they had no homes, nor hospital, nor poor-house nor friends to offer them any.”
“The western shore of the Mississippi was covered with the canvass of the Saints, drawn over a wagon and well formed tent or the thread bare sheet stretched over a few poles covering the invalid form of the more unfortunate.
“Many is the time while keeping the watchmans post in the darkness of night when the rains descended as if the windows of heaven were open, have I wept over the distressed situation of the Saints. Towards the dim light of many and flickering lamps has directed my eyes to the crying of children, the restless movements of the aged and infirm, the mournfull groan of many a fevered brain, had made an impression on my mind that can never be forgotten.”
“Dear Father, I have been shaking every day for the last month and can scarce write any—I received yours of Aug. 14 while shaking at ten or twelve knots an hour—and as you told me not to perform any impossibilities—I have hitherto found it an impossibility to sell my house and lot—but the very next morning I wrought [a] miracle, in giving it away for one hundred dollars. The only obstacle in the successful termination of my miracle is, I have not yet got the hay—you may rest assured I have done, and will do my best to come I have a very kind neighbor, who, as quick as he heard I had bargained for the disposal of my place, began to run it down, and has caused Mr. Bolander to waver about completing his purchase. May the Lord reward him for it, and a few other vagaries.”
“I have been at Nauvoo, on the Mississippi, in Hancock county, Illinois, and have seen the manner in which things are conducted among the Mormons. In the first place, I cannot help noticing the plain hospitality of the Prophet Smith, to all strangers visiting the town, aided as he is, in making the stranger comfortable by his excellent wife, a woman of superior ability. The people of the town appear to be honest and industrious, engaged in their usual vocations of building up a town, and making all things around them comfortable.”
The Odd Fellow Newspaper
“One of the most interesting, and it may be, remarkable events of our day, is the proposed removal of the Mormons from their city of Nauvoo, across the continent, to the Pacific. They will go, not as ordinary emigrants, but as a distinct people. . . . [Mormonism] has grown as no other sect has in the history of the world, and, so far from dying out, as it was predicted it would, with the death of the Smiths, it has grown more vigorously. . . . Next spring will witness their flitting. The Mormons propose going in bodies as large as can find sustenance, and the broad prairies of the West will be covered with their long processions of men, women, and children, their flocks, [and] their herds.”
“The Mormon Heritage,” Odd Fellow, Dec. 31, 1845, 108.
Times and Seasons
“To see such a large body of men, women and children, compelled by the inefficiency of the law, and potency of mobocracy, to leave a great city in the month of February, for the sake of the enjoyment of pure religion, fills the soul with astonishment, and gives the world a sample of fidelity and faith, brilliant as the sun, and forcible as a tempest, and as enduring as eternity.
“May God continue the spirit of fleeing from false freedom, and false dignity, till every Saint is removed to where he ‘can sit under his own vine and fig tree’ without having any to molest or make afraid. Let us go—let us go.”
“February,” Times and Seasons, Feb. 1, 1846, 1114.