While Douglas had, rather nonchalantly projected his Pacific railroad from Chicago over the virgin plains of Iowa, following Asa Whitney’s recent exploration of a route through Iowa and northern Missouri to the mouth of the Kansas River, overland travel through virgin prairie, with minimum water supplies (i.e., rivers) was not as simple as drawing a line from here (Chicago) to there (Caldwell’s Camp).  When Ogden revealed his plan to build a line to Rock Island in his 1848 annual report, an overland route west across the Mississippi and through Iowa to the junction of the Missouri and Platte Rivers, however, had just recently been forged by Brigham Young and his followers, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, better known as the Mormons.  The Mormons had been led by their prophet, Joseph Smith, to settle in Northwest Missouri in 1831.  Although they had been forced by local authorities to move to adjacent counties for a variety of reasons. Primarily, they were quite successful as an autonomus community as their numbers had grown to the point where they could control the outcome of a local election.  The Panic of 1837, however, had taken its toll on them as well, leading to an internecine split among the group’s leaders.  This fracture further fueled the hate and jealousy of their neighbors that ultimately resulted in the Missouri-Mormon War of 1838, during which the state’s Governor, Lilburn Boggs had issued Missouri Executive Order 44 on Oct. 27, 1838, that stated “the Mormons must be treated as enemies, and must be exterminated or driven from the State if necessary for the public peace.”  

Map of Iowa and Illinois, the Land bridge from Chicago to the Pacific. The Mormons had blazed a trail from Nauvoo across Iowa. Ogden first had to lay tracks through northern Illinois to the Mississippi, before he could contemplate continuing into Iowa. (Online)

Over 8,000 followers evacuated back across the Mississippi River to Quincy, IL, where they were welcomed by the local authorities.  In essence, the Mormons were a significant demographic force wandering in search of a hometown (Chicago’s population in 1839 was a mere 4200).  The sect soon purchased the town of Commerce, IL, some 50 miles upriver and changed its name to Nauvoo, that Smith said in ancient Hebrew meant “How beautiful upon the mountains.”  The state legislature approved its city charter on April 25, 1839, that among other provisions, allowed it to maintain its own militia.  By 1844, the sect was so successful and prosperous that it had grown in size to over 14,000, the largest town in the state (in 1845 Galena’s size was 14,000 while Chicago’s population in 1844 was 8,000).  Internecine bickering, however, eventually broke out again in 1844, this time over the practice of plural marriage, which led to the arrest and assassination of Joseph Smith while he was incarcerated in Carthage, IL, on June 27, 1844.  Local authorities believed the sect would disintegrate following Smith’s death, but the group’s discipline held and Brigham Young was elevated to be its new leader.  In frustration, Illinois revoked Nauvoo’s charter on Jan. 29, 1845, and demanded that the Mormons leave the state by the end of the year.  In September, Hancock County authorities also demanded that they leave and Young made the fateful decision that he would lead his people to where Smith had prophesized their ultimate home would be, in Utah, a place that he felt no one wanted that was also, at the time, outside of the U.S. where no one would ever bother them again.  

Route of the Mormons to Utah, 1847-8. (Online)

Unfortunately, the conventional route to the west down the Mississippi to St. Louis and up the Missouri to Independence to begin the Oregon Trail, was closed off to Young and his followers because it was, of course, located in Missouri, the state that had issued the Mormon extermination decree.  Young had no alternative but to lead his 14,000 people in a 265-mile overland trek through Iowa’s virgin territory.  Rumors were heard that local militias were planning an attack during the coming spring that made Young push the time of departure that he had hoped could wait for the warmer temperatures of spring up to February 4, 1846, when Young’s pathfinder group walked across the iced-over Mississippi River into the freezing darkness of a midwestern February.  One hundred and twenty days later, they arrived on the outskirts of Caldwell’s Camp on the Missouri River on June 13, along the way, having cut a trail through the southern half of uninhabited Iowa that included erecting housing and planting crops for the Mormon parties that were following.   As the following Mormon parties arrived at the Missouri River, they changed the name of the area to Kanesville, in honor of Thomas L. Kane, a young Philadelphian lawyer who had used his political connections to gain Federal permission for the Mormons to occupy the lands that the Natives were residing upon at the time.  Young spent the remainder of the year establishing “Winter Quarters,” across the river and away from the disgruntled Natives, in what is now northern Omaha (that would be founded in 1854), where the majority of the group resided, waiting for the coming spring’s march to Utah.  They would reach it on July 24, 1847, some 22 years before the transcontinental railroad would.  Brigham Young had proved that an overland route from Chicago to the Pacific, that completely bypassed St. Louis, Missouri, was quite feasible.


William Weeks, The Nauvoo Mormon Temple, 1841. Bottom right: the reconstruction. (Online)

Soon after moving to Navoo, Joseph Smith began preparations to build the second Mormon Temple, the first one in Kirtland, OH still stands today although it has had a checkered history.  Smith laid the cornerstone on April 6, 1841. The architect was William Weeks.  Its total height was 165,’ easily the tallest building west of the Appalachian Mountains; Baltimore’s shot tower was the tallest in the U.S. at 234,’ soon to be surpassed by Manhattan’s Trinity Church at 279.’ (The tallest building in Chicago at this time was the First Methodist Church at 148.’)  Although Brigham Young had begun the Mormon evacuation in February 1846, he ordered that its construction be completed so that it could still be dedicated.  This occured on April 30; the last of the Mormons left some four months later, leaving the building vacant. They tried to find a buyer to no avail, and eventually sold the $200,000 structure for $5000.  Vigilantes set fire to the vacant building on October 8, 1848.  In 1999 the Mormons decide to rebuild a copy as close as possible to the original building.


Howe, Daniel Walker.  What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007.


(If you have any questions or suggestions, please feel free to eMail me at: thearchitectureprofessor@gmail.com)

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