Far off the beaten path in south-central Iowa, a 12-foot-high monument rises from the prairie, marking the site of a temporary Latter-day Saint settlement. This monument represents the Church’s first effort to memorialize its history at the actual places where events unfolded. Like the ancient Israelites, who raised stone markers to remember God’s blessings in delivering them to their promised land (see Joshua 4:19–24), the Latter-day Saints have commemorated their sacrifices and God’s blessings on the journey to their own promised land.
Mount Pisgah Settlement
In the spring of 1846, Latter-day Saint exiles from Nauvoo, Illinois, were headed west. For months, wagon companies had been struggling to make progress across eastern Iowa amid rain, hail, snow, and wind through what Brigham Young characterized as a “great mud hole.”1 Although the plan had been to travel all the way to the Rocky Mountains in 1846, by May it was clear that was going to be impossible. Church leaders began looking for camping spots where the Saints could rest and prepare for the journey to come.
After the pioneers established one stopping place at a spot they named Garden Grove, Apostle Parley P. Pratt and an advance company were sent ahead to scout out another potential location.2 They found a seemingly ideal prospect, with tall grass blanketing rolling hills “crowned with beautiful groves of timber.” In the plain below, the main branch of the Grand River meandered through trees and prairie grass. Struck by the site’s beauty, Elder Pratt christened the place Mount Pisgah, after the biblical height from which Moses surveyed the promised land.3 Here the Saints built homes and two log meetinghouses on a hillside overlooking a thousand acres of buckwheat, corn, turnips, potatoes, peas, beans, pumpkins, and squash they had planted in the plain below.4 At its height, Mount Pisgah had between 2,000 and 3,000 residents.5
A Cemetery on the Hill
Within six years, Mount Pisgah’s residents were all gone; the settlement had served its purpose. When Church leaders called the Saints remaining in the Midwest to come to Utah, the Saints turned their backs on their rich farmland and makeshift homes and headed west. More poignantly, they left behind the graves of their loved ones.
The community had been beset by illness. Many Saints, in their weakened condition following months of rigorous travel, died while at Mount Pisgah. Although estimates vary, at least 80 people died within their first year of residence. The cemetery at the top of the hill likely includes the graves of about 150 Latter-day Saints, although only 63 names are listed on the monument.6 William Huntington, the community’s first branch president, is among those buried there, as is Joseph Knight, a close associate and early supporter of Joseph Smith. Children were particularly vulnerable. The infant children of two future Apostles were laid to rest in the cemetery: Leonora Charlotte Snow, six-month-old daughter of Lorenzo and Charlotte Squires Snow, and Isaac Phineas Richards, son of Franklin D. and Jane Snyder Richards, who died the same day he was born.7 While friends and family continued to mourn their loved ones, most people forgot the cemetery as Latter-day Saints abandoned the wagon road across Iowa in favor of other routes.
In a bit of serendipity almost 40 years later, the little cemetery on the hill once again came to the attention of the Latter-day Saints. English immigrant and handcart pioneer Hannah Settle Lapish was visiting family in Montana in late summer 1885. While browsing a bookshelf at the home of her daughter’s neighbor, she leafed through a book on the geography of Union County, Iowa, and stumbled across a reference to Mount Pisgah, Iowa, a name she recognized from Church history. She was astonished to learn that the neighbor’s widowed mother and brother, who lived in Iowa, owned the land on which the Mount Pisgah cemetery was located. Although Sister Lapish, who had come to America in 1860, had never visited Mount Pisgah, she felt that others might have an interest. She suggested that the family notify Church leaders that they owned the cemetery.8
Albert C. White, one of the owners of the land, soon wrote to President John Taylor. He noted that while he had long cultivated the fields surrounding the old burying ground, he had made sure that the graves were undisturbed. He wondered if the Latter-day Saints might wish to “in some way mark the place.”9 President Taylor asked Oliver B. Huntington, son of William Huntington, to contact relatives of the deceased to see how they felt about the idea.10 The desire to remember and honor their loved ones was strong. Acting on President Taylor’s instructions, Huntington responded to White with an offer to purchase one acre of ground. The purchase was finalized on May 3, 1886.11
With the land in Church ownership, Huntington and White entered into a remarkable partnership. From Utah, Huntington wrote dozens of letters and placed notices in newspapers to solicit donations from friends and relatives of the dead.12 In Iowa, White coordinated landscaping, identified fencing options, and designed a monument. Huntington then drafted the text to be engraved on the marble shaft, and White oversaw its installation.13 Although the two men never met, they became good friends.14
Donations trickled in from children and grandchildren, brothers and sisters, parents and friends. Among those making donations were Elders Lorenzo Snow and Franklin D. Richards, whose infants’ names were to be inscribed on the monument. The Quorum of the Twelve, most of whom had passed through Mount Pisgah on their way west, authorized a major donation from Church funds.15 By the fall of 1888, 42 years after the first burial at Mount Pisgah, a monument was in place.16
While the monument memorializes those who lost their lives at Mount Pisgah, it also reminds us of the sacrifices of all Latter-day Saint pioneers and of the blessings of God that sustained them on their journey to Zion.
It would be another two decades before Church leaders again turned their attention to the acquisition of sites important to Church history. Places like Joseph Smith’s birthplace in Vermont, the Sacred Grove in New York, and Carthage Jail in Illinois would be acquired in the coming decades. But it all began with this little pioneer cemetery on a windswept hill on the prairie.