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Dean Hughes

July 18, 2012

What did Nauvoo look like in the 1840s? 

What time of year was it when the Saints were forced out of Nauvoo? 

And how did the pioneers cross the river?

Everyone thinks they know the answers to these questions about the Saints’ exodus from Nauvoo. The only problem is that much of what we “know” about Church history is not entirely accurate. History is never quite as simple as the stories we like to tell. Actual events are always more complicated, more nuanced, and more troubling than the accounts passed down from one generation to another. 

To begin with, Nauvoo wasn’t the clean, shining city we often imagine it was. Though Nauvoo was established in a beautiful horseshoe bend of the river, by modern standards it was actually a muddy, rustic place—mostly a log cabin town. For example, one daguerreotype picture of Nauvoo shows the temple in the background and lots of ugly outhouses, fences, and sheds in the foreground. 
The flight from the little town called Nauvoo began when a number of wagons crossed the Mississippi River on February 4, 1846. But only about three thousand of the Saints left during the winter months, not the whole mass of Saints, like we tend to imagine. Around ten thousand waited until spring, and some didn’t leave until September. 

Late in February ice formed on the Mississippi, later than it did most years. When we describe this part of the story, we sometimes forget a few important details. First, some of the exiles did cross on the ice, but only a small percentage of the total number. In addition, the cold that froze the ice also froze the pioneers, so even though it helped hundreds get across, it made for a trying experience and dozens of deaths in the camp at Sugar Creek.

The vision of the place the early Saints held in their memories—the one we inherited—is not really wrong. But the real story, in my mind, is not the ice bridge that formed. It’s the story of a dispossessed people facing trials and hardships and triumphing over them. There were plenty of backsliders, but we have every reason to honor those who made their way across the plains to the Great Basin. We have a noble heritage—whether we’re direct descendants or not.

We like to turn the exodus into a miracle play, with faultless Saints marching toward Zion, their chins always held high and their children always singing and singing and singing. But after spending two years in Nauvoo and spending more years reading and writing about that era, the lesson I have learned is that they were ordinary people, with typical weaknesses and failings, doing what they had to do.

I often heard visitors to Nauvoo say, “We just couldn’t do what they did.” But I prefer the opposite lesson: we have inherited the strength of our forebears. We are also ordinary people with all the foolish tendencies and frailties that humans possess, but we’re facing huge challenges, and we’re doing well. We aren’t wandering through a wilderness, but we’re slogging our way through some deep spiritual and cultural muck—a kind of hindrance to our progress no one in 1846 ever could have imagined. 

Maybe the ice on the Mississippi helped for a time, but most of the triumph came from putting one foot in front of the other every day. And we’re as strong as they were. We face a culture gone crazy, and the trail ahead is not always well defined. But we’re moving forward, too, and we’re doing our level best to lead our children in the same direction. If our kids sing as they walk, they’re probably lip-syncing to the music on their iPods, but you know what? They’re doing all right. I think the generations are getting stronger, not weaker.