Mormon Pioneer Cemetery Monument, “Tragedy of Winter Quarters”
Backstory and Context
The two years after the murder of the founder and prophet of the Mormon Church Joseph Smith Nauvoo, Illinois was a dangerous place for the Mormons, full of violence and hostilities against them. The events that followed the assassination lead to greater conflict between the Mormons and the anti-Mormons. After assuming the leadership role and taking account of the growing anti-Mormon sentiment, Brigham Young decided the Mormons need to settle where no one else wanted to claim and decided to travel out to current-day Utah, which back then laid outside U.S. territory. In 1846 the Mormons were essentially driven out and forced to abandon their lives in Nauvoo Illinois with little to no preparation. And by late 1846 about 16 thousand Mormons had been expelled from Nauvoo Illinois and had begun their long journey towards West.
Having left Illinois in late summer conditions was difficult to continue it’s too late to continue the journey and had to spend the winter in camps, most of them in Iowa and Nebraska near the Missouri River. This is where they got permission from the U.S. government to camp in Nebraska what was back then Indian Territory. Young’s party stopped just after crossing the Missouri river and set camp overlooking the river in what they called Winter Quarters. Winter Quarter served as a temporary headquarters for Brigham Young and many other pioneers as they prepared for the journey ahead and waited out the approaching winter. This is where Young received the revelations that became Doctrine and Covenants 136. This revelation helped them prepare to continue their journey westward in their difficult circumstances. Although Winter Quarter was a temporary settlement they constructed numerous buildings for use during their stay among them the Florence Mill, which was used to grind their mill and is one of the original buildings that can be found still standing today.
Conditions in the camp were dire and soon many fell ill from exposure to illness and malnutrition alike. Many of those who were ill and or died of diseases like malaria, scurvy, and a variety of others. From the recorded 1,910 who died on the Mormon trail, 600 died at Winter Quarters between the years 1846-88. The account from those who survived the harsh winter at Winter Quarter shows the grim reality of it all. General Thomas L Kane who spent some time with the Mormons and stayed in Winters Quarter writes about his experience during his stay. Kane himself was ill at some point and in his writing, describes the effect rapid illness and death had on the encampment.
The following excerpt from a discourse Kane delivered in front of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania in 1850 paints a grim picture.
“The Few who were able to keep their feet, went about among the tents and wagons with food and water, like nurses through the wards of an Infirmary. Here at one time the digging got behind hand: burials were slow; and you might see women sit in the open tents keeping the flies off their dead children, sometime after decomposition had set in.”
By 1848 Winters Quarter was abandoned and later on becomes the city of Florence which, later on, was annexed into the city of Omaha.
The sculptor Fairbanks himself is a Mormon, from Salt Lake City Utah, and is a descendent of a survivor from Winter Quarter and has a few ancestors buried there. It is when visiting the cemetery, he was inspired to make the striking sculpture of the two parents mourning as they laid their child in the ground. On the foot of the monument, a plaque reads “This monument itself is placed directly over the grave of an unknown child & seven other pioneers.” And a few feet away from monument lays a bronze tablet holding the known names of those who died and are buried at Winter Quarters.
Bashore, Melvin L. et _ al. “Mortality on the Mormon Trail, 1847–1868 | BYU Studies.” Accessed April 28, 2020. https://byustudies.byu.edu/content/mortality-mormon-trail-1847-1868#footnote-021.
“An Excerpt from a Report from Illinois Governor Thomas Ford Reporting on ‘Mormon Difficulties,’ December 1846.” Digital Public Library of America. Accessed April 28, 2020. https://dp.la/primary-source-sets/mormon-migration/sources/1593.
“A Plan of Winter Quarters, Nebraska, during the Winter of 1846 to 1847.” Accessed April 29, 2020. Digital Public Library of America. https://dp.la/primary-source-sets/mormon-migration/sources/1595.
History Nebraska. “Omaha’s ‘Tragedy of Winter Quarters’ Monument.” Accessed May 9, 2020. https://history.nebraska.gov/blog/omahas-tragedy-winter-quarters-monument.
Kane, Thomas Leiper. The Mormons: A Discourse Delivered before the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, March 26, 1850. Philadelphia: King & Baird, printers, 1850. http://archive.org/details/mormonsdiscourse00kanerich.
“Mormon Trail Center.” Accessed May 8, 2020. /subsection/nebraska/omaha/mormon-trails-center-at-winter-quarters.
“Omaha World-Herald.” Omaha World-Herald, 1936, p. 1. Access World News – Historical and Current, infoweb-newsbank-com.leo.lib.unomaha.edu/apps/news/document-view?p=WORLDNEWS&docref=image/v2%3A1106B5BBD4B623A8%40EANX-13697DDE64901248%402428433-1360887848FD782F%400-1360887848FD782F%40. Accessed 9 May 2020.
Omaha World-Herald (Omaha, Nebraska), April 28, 1936: 7. NewsBank: Access World News – Historical and Current. https://infoweb-newsbank-com.leo.lib.unomaha.edu/apps/news/document-view?p=WORLDNEWS&docref=image/v2%3A1106B5BBD4B623A8%40EANX-136BBEFB007E58CA%402428287- 13647AAAE8E47631%406-13647AAAE8E47631%40.