In the late winter of 1846, a religious sect, the Mormons became the first white settlers in the area that would become Union County, Iowa. They had been living in Nauvoo, Illinois when they were forced to leave and travel west. The journey under the most favorable circumstances was full of hardship and danger but undertaken in mid-winter, with only slight preparation, through unsettled county, it proved most hazardous. The weather was severe with rain, snow and even the strong hardy men became victims to the terrible exposure. Hundreds of graves marked the line of march of the unfortunate travelers.
It was finally decided to abandon the journey for a time and camp when they could find a suitable place to rest and to raise a crop to replenish their food supply. Their line of travel was across the Mississippi, then by way of the Chariton River through Lucas into Decatur County. At Garden Grove some of the members stayed while others continued their journey until they arrived at what is now Union County late in May of 1848, where they again divided. Those remaining encamped on the prairie east of Grand River (now Jones Township) near where Stephen and Isaac White would later settle.
P. P. Pratt, in his autobiography says, “We called the place Garden Grove. It is in Iowa, perhaps one hundred and fifty miles from Nauvoo. After assisting to fence this farm and build some log cabins, I was dispatched ahead by the Presidency with a small company to try to find another location. Crossing this branch of Grand River, I now steered through the vast and fertile prairies and groves without a track or anything but a compass to guide me---the country was entirely wild and without inhabitants.
Our course was west, a little north. We crossed small streams daily, which, on account of deep beds and miry banks, as well as on account of their being swollen by the rains, we had to bridge. After journeying thus for several days, and while lying encamped on a small stream which we had bridged. I took my horse and rode ahead some three miles in search of one of the main branches of Grand River, which we had expected to find for some time. Riding about three or four miles through beautiful prairies, I came suddenly to some round and sloping hills, grassy, and covered with beautiful groves of timber, while alternate open groves and forests seemed blended in all the beauty and harmony of an English park while beneath and beyond on the west rolled a main branch of Grand River, with its rich bottoms of alternate forest and prairie. As I approached this lovely scenery several deer and wolves being startled at the sight of me, abandoned the place and bounded away till lost from sight amid the groves. Being pleased and excited at the varied beauty before me, I cried out, “this is Mount Pisgah.” I returned to my camp, with the report of having found the long-sought river, and we soon moved on and encamped under the shade of those beautiful groves. It was now late May, and we halted here to await the arrival of the President and council. In a few days, they arrived and formed a general encampment here, and finally formed a settlement, and surveyed and enclosed another farm of several thousand acres.
Brigham Young claimed that he had a divine revelation that their “promised land” lay beyond the Rocky Mountains. From this elevated plateau which they made their camping ground, they believed that their promised land was almost in view. The name given the settlement was Pisgah. About three thousand formed the colony here, while the remainder of the company journeyed westward locating at various points between Pisgah and Kanesville (Council Bluffs). In 1846, while the Saints were scattered from Garden Grove to Kanesville , under very unfortunate conditions a requisition was made on them by the United States government for a battalion of five hundred men for the Mexican-American War. It drew heavily on the strength of the camps as every man who could be spared was enlisted, and many families were left in destitution and distress.
The ridge at Mt. Pisgah slopes on the west into the bottom lands of Grand River, and around it south and east, runs a creek known as Pisgah Branch. On the hillside is an excellent spring, which was a great luxury and convenience in those days. The large timber along the Grand River furnished logs for cabin building as the location seemed to meet the demands of a settlement.
Elder William Huntington presided over Pisgah, all difficulties being referred to him as ruling bishop for the settlement, his judgment being final. He died soon after the settlement was made and was the first white man as far as known to have died in Union County. He was succeeded by Coleman Boran. Owing to the late arrival of the company in the season, they were ill-provided to withstand the ravages of the severe winter which followed. Many of them were sheltered only by tents and wagons, and there were one hundred and sixty deaths during the first six months of their stay. The following season brought them better conditions, and good crops added materially to their means.
They were unable with their light cattle and crude implements to till the prairie sod, so they were forced to cultivate and plant in the mellow timber land, where it is said, they killed hundreds of acres of the best timber along Grand River, by girdling the trees. They built two log churches where they held regular services. Three miles south of Pisgah on the river, a water mill was erected by Canfield and Stephens, which later was known as Peters Mill, and was probably the most important single industry in the county. The burrs used in their mills were made from common boulders occasionally found in the county. These stones were rudely dressed, but answered a good purpose in preparing food for a large number of people. They were twenty-four inches in diameter and twelve inches thick.
During the six years stay of these people, their only communication with the outside world was with Fort Des Moines and the few scattered settlers who began moving into the county. Their immediate neighbors were the Pottawattamie and Meskwaki tribes of Indians, whose hunting grounds were along the Grand River.
By the year of 1850, some of the Mormos were able to resume their journey. The settlements in the western part of the state made their headquarters at Kanesville, near where Council Bluffs now stands. Elder Orson Hyde was their leader. There they erected a large tabernacle of logs for religious services and another for school purposes. The farmers opened farms to supply provisions for the colony, and each year companies would leave to join the colony at Salt Lake where Brigham Young had selected a location for their future home. In 1852, an imperative order was issued for all to immigrate to Utah and under the leadership of Elder Orson Hyde they crossed the Great Plains. There were among them some who were opposed to polygamy and who remained in Iowa and reorganized the Church of the Latter Day Saints.
Some of their cabins at Pisgah remained for many years, but one by one were torn down by settlers and put to various uses. The burying place of these Mormon settlers is still hallowed ground to the Utah church and in 1888, two acres were purchased and a monument erected with the Inscription: “This monument erected 1888 AD, in memory of those members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, who died in 1846, 1847, 1848, during their exodus to seek a home beyond the Rocky Mountains. Interred here is William Huntington, the first Presiding Elder of the temporary settlement called Pisgah.” In addition to the above, the names of sixty-four other saints known to have been buried there are inscribed on the monument, also “a stranger, not in the church” appears among them.
Other trances of the Mormons’ habitation are found in the frequent depressions in the surface of the ground where cabins and fireplaces were located. The land marks of this one important spot are very interesting, the spring-nature’s monument, is inseparably linked with the history of the Mormon settlement and still retains its name “Pisgah Spring.” Its waters are just as cold and sparkling and as abundant as they were years ago.
While these Mormon settlers from the very few years of their residence here can be looked upon as only transient, their community has considerable significance upon the latter settlement. At this place was tillable land, here were buildings, here were advantages desirable to new settlers. The saints were ready and anxious to leave and those who came in at that time profited by these improvements.
Significant 1846 Dates in the Mormon’s Trek Across Iowa
February 4 First wagons left Nauvoo, Illinois, camped at Sugar Creek, 6 miles west of Misssissippi River.
February 14-19 Eight inches of snow, high winds, Mississippi River froze over.
March 1 Camp of Israel" left Sugar Creek camp.
March 26 Camp reorganized at Chariton River.
April 15 Camped at Locust Creek (near Corydon, Wayne County, IA Willliam Clayton wrote poem which
became hymn "Come, Come, Ye Saints"
April 24 Temporary settlement of Garden Grove founded
April 30 Nauvoo Temple dedicated
May 15 Mt. Pisgah, 2nd temporary settlement, founded (near Thayer, Union County, IA
June 14 Advance company reached Missouri River
July 1-20 Mormon Battalion recruited to fight in Mexican-American War; left on march to present day
San Diego, CA
September Winter Quarters established on both sides of Missouri River
September "Battle of Nauvoo"---last Mormons forced to leave Nauvoo
October 9 Flocks of quail flew into the camp near Montrose, IA; served as food for starving refugees.
Winter of 1846-47
4000 at Winter Quarters (west side of Missouri River)
2500 on east side of Missouri River on Pottawattamie Indian lands
700 at Mt. Pisgah
600 at Garden Grove
1000 at camps scattered across southern Iowa
. 500 in the Mormon Battalion
1500 in St. Louis
600 approximate number of Saints who died in Iowa/Nebraska.
Several hundred scattered in Mississippi River towns
Some Excerpts from Mormon Journals
Journal of John Lyman Smith, 8 February 1846 - "We crossed the river and camped on the bank among the many others. It rained most of the time during the night although we were without homes and knew not where we were going we felt cheerful and happy."
Journal of John Lyman Smith, 11 February 1846 - "Today commenced to move, roads very bad, about 6 miles."
Day By Day of Patty Sessions, 13 February 1846 - "It was very cold. The wind blows. We can hardly get to the fire for the smoke, and we have not tent but our wagon."
Diary of George A Smith, 18 February 1846 - "The snow began to fall early this morning in great quantities and lasted all day. Everything looked gloomy...The wind blew so strong from the northwest that it uncovered our tent."
Trail Diary of Eliza Snow, 19 February 1846 - "Snow storm commenced in the night and continued thro' the day---it was so disagreeable out that I did not leave the buggy. Suffered considerable from a severe cold."
Diary of Brigham Young, 24 February 1846 - The cold has been severe the past night; a snow storm this morning, which continued during the forenoon, blowing from the northwest...Seven p.m., thermometer 12 degrees below zero, Fahrenheit. Mississippi River is frozen over above Montrose."
Diary of Lorenzo Snow, 1 March 1846 - "On the first of March, the ground covered with snow, we broke encampment about noon, and soon nearly four hundred wagons were moving to--we know not where."