Country Facts and Folklore
By Andy Reddick


One of the greatest pilgrimages by a single group of people in recorded history took place through Van Buren County, Iowa in the late 1840s. Some lasting changes in the landscape resulted from their brief visit, and they left behind an indelible impression. This was Van Burenís first opportunity to play host to throngs of "tourists." Persecution in Illinois was so strong that the Mormons were driven out of numerous communities. In spite of this, they continued attracting many new converts, particularly from among those of English descent. In 1839, they began to settle in large numbers along the Mississippi River in a town they renamed Nauvoo, as they began to plan a trek to Utah where they could practice their religion unmolested.

The Mormons had many unorthodox teachings, totally controlled their congregations financially and socially, and practiced polygamy. Thus, they were scorned and feared by many. Hostility continued to grow until their leader was killed outside of the jail in Carthage, Illinois in 1844. By this time, Nauvoo had swelled to about 11,000 in number.

The new leaders of the Mormon community were intent on moving as many followers as possible to Utah, and Nauvoo served as a focal point as Mormons gathered from all over Illinois to funnel across the Mississippi River to begin this unprecedented trek. In preparation for the pilgrimage, "emissaries" went ahead and stationed themselves along the way to ensure that the travelers had warm hospitality. These ambassadors, as you might call them, built large brick homes and structures including many still standing today in the river towns of Bonaparte, Bentonsport, and Keosauqua, which would serve as places the pilgrims could lodge. Some of them farmed large plots of ground so that they could store up grain and provide food for the masses that would follow. In addition, some of the pilgrims themselves spent days, weeks, months, and even years in the county before continuing westward.

An estimated 10,000 to 15,000 Mormons left Illinois in waves, beginning in 1847 and lasting until about 1853, most funneling through Nauvoo. The river towns in Van Buren County served as supply stations, thus businesses thrived while the caravans were crossing. Not all that left Nauvoo crossed through Van Buren County, as some of them took a longer, more northerly route across Iowa. However, thousands did cross through the county. Some traveled along what is now Highway 16, then followed along what is now Highway 1 into Keosauqua, crossing the Des Moines River at Elyís Ford or at Pearsonís Ford near Pittsburg. Others followed the river from Farmington to Bonaparte and crossed near the mills. An interesting detail on this trek can be seen on the tourist information sign in the park west of the Bonaparte Retreat Restaurant. It says that a large number of Mormons crossed the Mississippi River from Nauvoo on the ice in February, 1847. When the crowd reached Bonaparte, warmer weather had set in and they were unable to cross the Des Moines River because of high water and ice jams. Some 2,000 sojourners camped along the Des Moines River at Bonaparte until they could cross the river safely.

The 2,000 campers were scattered from Reedís Creek to the eastern edge of Bonaparte, thus the idea suggests that perhaps Bonaparteís population surged to well over 2,000 for several months while the extra visitors were in the vicinity. Keosauqua may have also hosted a large camp of Mormon visitors. Left behind are trails that these hardy Mormons used while crossing the county. They also left behind somewhat of a legacy, as the many magnificent brick homes and structures built by Mormons have stood as landmarks for 15 decades. They were efficient builders, strong pioneers with a spirit of survival, and they used their talents to help one another. The work ethic employed and some of their craftsmanship were models for residents of Van Buren County to follow, as many lessons were learned from this first batch of tourists.

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Contributed to the Van Buren Co. IAGenWeb Project by Andy Reddick