October 20, 2012 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

The “Tragedy at Winter Quarters” Monument depicts a pioneer mother and father, comforting each other at the grave of a young child. It stands as a tribute to the nearly 370 pioneers who are buried at the historic Mormon Trail Cemetery, more than half of those who perished were under the age of 3.

While the image is heartbreaking, it also is a tribute to the strength, determination, and faith in God that allowed the Mormon pioneers to survive the journey from Nauvoo, Ill., through Omaha, and ultimately to their final destination of Salt Lake City, Utah.

Across from the Mormon Trail Cemetery, The Mormon Trail Center, also known as Winter Quarters, is located at 32nd and State streets. It is the site where over 3,000 Mormon pioneers settled in 1846 through 1848 as they made their way west to avoid religious persecution. Inside the Center, guests can learn about the rich history of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints through guided tours, videos, or by simply touring the museum at their leisure. Visitors will find paintings, maps, scale models, and life-sized replicas of log cabins and covered wagons. All of which tell the captivating story of the pioneers who left their homes and their way of life to avoid further persecution and to follow the word of God.

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“I love this painting,” says Sister Arnold, a missionary guiding a tour of the Center. The painting illustrates the journey of the pioneers as they crossed the frozen Mississippi River, their sacred Temple in Nauvoo, Ill., visible in the background. It was the winter of 1846, and it was the one and only time in history that the Mississippi River was frozen enough to allow the pilgrims to cross on foot. “They kept the thought that God would always provide a way,” she explains.

Guided by their leader Brigham Young, who succeeded the religion’s founder, Prophet Joseph Smith, the pioneers only knew two things for sure: they were heading west to settle the spot Young had seen in a vision, and that God would never let them fail.

After the Mormons proved their loyalty to the country by forming a regiment to fight in the Mexican-American War, the U.S. Government gave them a 1.5 square-mile plot of land along the Missouri River in what is now North Omaha. There, they could create a settlement for the next two years. In the years to follow, it would also serve as a resting place and trading post for future pioneers making their way west.

Those who settled in Winter Quarters were resourceful and dedicated to making the journey easier for those who would follow. Within three months, shares Sister Proctor, another LDS missionary, the Mormons had built over 500 log cabins, created a small town, and invented the odometer, which allowed them to provide extremely detailed accounts of their travels, resulting in the LDS immigrants guide for future pilgrims making their way west.

Between 1840 and 1890, over 85,000 LDS pilgrims came from all parts of the world to make their way along the Mormon Trail to Salt Lake City.

A bust of the founder of the Church of Latter-Day Saints,  Prophet Joseph Smith, is displayed with honor.

Bust of Church of Latter-Day Saints founder Prophet Joseph Smith.

Elder John Watson, director of the Mormon Trail Center, shared that in addition to Winter Quarters in North Omaha and the Kanesville Tabernacle in Council Bluffs, a piece of history was recently discovered.

“We just located and identified a cemetery in Council Bluffs that had 300 burials there in the early 1850s,” Elder Watson says. “We just keep finding little things like this that keep popping up. It’s almost a renaissance time [for us]; finding things that happened 150 to 160 years ago.”

In addition to learning about the faith, visitors can also discover what 19th century Omaha was like, as well as how the pioneers lived, dressed, and traveled across the Plains. An ideal family excursion, the Mormon Trail Center offers several annual events that are both educational and entertaining.

Display featuring items from Mormon newspaper, Frontier Guardian.

Display featuring items from Mormon newspaper, Frontier Guardian.

Every third Saturday, January through June, The Greater Omaha Genealogical Society offers free classes for anyone wanting to learn more about their family tree.

Each September, the Annual Quilt Show brings in hundreds of visitors and showcases the intricate craftsmanship of quilters from all over the region.

Beginning November 17th through December 29th, the 27th Annual Gingerbread Festival will be held at the Center. “We get gingerbread houses that range from graham crackers with frosting and candy to [ones that] look like palaces,” Sister Arnold says. “It’s just immaculate.”

“There’s a scavenger hunt…the kids just really, really love it. It’s a fun holiday tradition for families,” says Sister Proctor. “And it smells so good!”

To help ring in the holidays, the missionary sisters will be performing original songs at the Gingerbread Festival, as well as at Oakview and Westroads Malls on selected days throughout the season.

The Mormon Trail Center is open daily, 9am to 9pm, and is free to the public. It is located at 3215 State St. For more information, visit lds.org/locations/mormon-trail-center-at-historic-winter-quarters or call 402-453-9372