After the Latter-day Saints were driven from Nauvoo, Ill., in February 1846, they spent the rest of that winter and most of the following summer struggling to cross Iowa. Because it was too late to travel to the Rocky Mountains by the time they reached the Missouri River, they stopped there and established several temporary settlements. In August, approximately 2,500 saints set up camp at a place called Cutler’s Park on the west side of the Missouri in what is now Nebraska. This settlement lasted only a few months until the camp moved to the higher ground nearby that became known as Winter Quarters. Approximately 8,000 Latter-day Saints settled there between the fall of 1846 and the spring of 1848, when those who were not yet ready to go west moved back across the river to Kanesville, Iowa, and Winter Quarters reverted to the Omaha tribe.
Another temporary settlement was established in northern Nebraska when a group of saints led by Newell Knight spent the winter with the Ponca tribe near the mouth of the Niobrara River. Knight and some others died during the winter and were buried at Niobrara. The survivors remained with the Poncas through the winter of 1846-47 and then returned to Winter Quarters to prepare for the westward trek.
In April 1847, the first pioneer company, led by Brigham Young and several of the apostles, started for the Great Basin, traveling across Nebraska along the Platte River. During the summer of 1847, another larger company followed. Brigham Young and several others returned in the fall of 1847 for their families who had remained at Winter Quarters.
During 1853 and 1854 the Florence Land Company was organized by a group of businessmen in nearby Council Bluffs to re-establish a settlement on the site of Winter Quarters. When Nebraska was opened for settlement in 1854, Florence began to grow and during the latter years of the decade and on into the 1860s, it served as a major outfitting post for Mormon emigrating companies. In order to provide provisions for migrating companies as they traveled, Genoa, Neb., also known as the Nebraska Mission, one of several planned provisioning settlements, was established along the trail in 1857. Two years later, when the Pawnee Reservation was defined, it included the settlement, and the Genoa residents had to abandon the improvements they had made, including crops in the field. This effectively ended the attempt to establish such settlements on the Nebraska portion of the trail.
In 1864, because of opposition in the major river ports, the Church moved its outfitting post for emigrants to the hamlet of Wyoming, Nebraska, a few miles upriver from Nebraska City. This place served for two years until the Union Pacific Railroad pushed beyond the Missouri in 1866. During 1867, migrating saints traveled across Nebraska by train to the station at North Platte before beginning their trek. By the spring of 1868 the railroad was completed into Wyoming and the Mormon Trail through Nebraska fell into disuse.
After 1868, there was little or no Church activity in Nebraska until 1876, when James Little served a short-term mission there. He had the specific intention of finding a family that had converted to the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints and convincing them to return to the Utah Church. With his success and the family’s emigration, he left the state and continued his mission elsewhere. The following spring, Ferdinand Hintze and Anders Frandsen reported 11 baptisms and the establishment of a branch in Fremont. At that time, Nebraska was part of the Northwestern States Mission. It was later renamed the Northern States Mission. Missionaries continued to work in Nebraska with little success, as only sporadic reports were entered in mission logs during the 1880s. Finally, by July 1896, the Church had grown sufficiently for the Nebraska Conference to be organized. Three years later, on 20 August 1899, Elder Matthias F. Cowley of the Quorum of the Twelve visited the conference and spoke to the members and missionaries in a meeting at Omaha. By 1900, a branch had been established in Omaha. In November of that year, Nebraska was transferred to the Colorado Mission. In 1907, that mission became the Western States Mission.
In 1908, descendants of Newell Knight erected a monument near the mouth of the Niobrara River to memorialize their ancestor and the others in the Ponca camp who perished during the winter of 1846-47.
The Church continued to grow slowly in Nebraska during the first half of the 20th century. In 1916, a Sunday School was established in Lincoln, then expanded to a branch on 9 May 1925. In April 1931, another Sunday School was started at Alliance in the western part of the state. In 1935, President Heber J. Grant visited Omaha to negotiate a 50-year lease on the Winter Quarters cemetery. The same year, the Eastern Nebraska District was divided and the Lincoln District was created. In December 1950, the Winter Quarters District, which presided over the other districts in the eastern half of Nebraska, was transferred to the Northern States Mission. By this time, branches existed in Omaha, Lincoln, North Platte, Bridgeport, Scottsbluff, and Grand Island, with Sunday Schools in several other towns.
A large contingent of General Authorities, including the First Presidency, visited Omaha in May 1953 to dedicate the new Mormon Pioneer Memorial Bridge. During the 1950s, growth in the Church in eastern Nebraska made possible the creation of the Winter Quarters Stake, the first in the state, on 11 December 1960. The stake included wards and branches in Omaha, Bellevue, Lincoln, Fremont, Grand Island, Kearney and Hastings. It was later renamed the Omaha Nebraska Stake. Additional units established since then are the Lincoln Nebraska (1974), Omaha Nebraska Papillion (1986), and Kearney Nebraska (1991) stakes. On 1 July 1993, Nebraska was removed from the Missouri Independence Mission and the Nebraska Omaha Mission was established.
On 18 April 1997, the Mormon Trail Center at Historic Winter Quarters was dedicated by President Gordon B. Hinckley. The following day he bade goodbye to the sesquicentennial commemorative wagon train. It left Omaha on the 21 April to re-enact the 1847 pioneer trek from that place to the Salt Lake Valley. On 1 April 1999, the city of Omaha deeded the old Winter Quarters Cemetery to the Church.
One of the most important events for the Nebraska saints took place on 22 April 2001, when the new Winter Quarters Temple was dedicated on property adjacent to the cemetery. At the same time, the cemetery property was rededicated as part of the temple grounds.
Work to commemorate Nebraska’s place in the westward migration continued into 2004, as the first of 11 roadside exhibits across the state describing the Mormon Pioneer Trail were dedicated early in the summer. The finished project included the exhibits, plus 16 generic trail markers, thus completing the marking of the Mormon Trail from Nauvoo to Salt Lake City.
In 2002, membership reached 19,762. In 2005, membership reached 21,405.
Sources: Andrew Jenson, Encyclopedic History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1941; “Early Nebraska Settlement Memorialized,” Ensign, October 1997; Edwin Fry, “The Mormon Winter Camp on the Niobrara,” Nebraska History, Vol. 5 No. 1, January-March 1922; William G. Hartley, “On the Trail in January,” Ensign, January 1997; Richard E. Bennett, “Winter Quarters: Church Headquarters, 1846-1848,” Ensign, September 1997; William G. Cutler, History of the State of Nebraska, 1882; Walter H. Rowley, Omaha’s First Century, 1954; Andrew Jenson, “Latter-day Saints Emigration from Wyoming, Nebraska–1864-1866,” Nebraska History, vol. 17, 1936; Henry James Hudson, “Henry James Hudson and the Genoa Settlement,” Nebraska History, September 1960; James A. Little, Diaries and autobiography, BYU, L. Tom Perry Special Collections; Northern States Mission, Manuscript history and historical reports, Church Archives; Nebraska Conference, Manuscript history and historical reports, Church Archives; Colorado Mission, Manuscript history and historical reports, Church Archives; Edwin Fry, “The Mormon Winter Camp on the Niobrara,” Nebraska History, Vol. 5 No. 1, January- March 1922; Ellen Elizabeth McKinnon, Lincoln Legacy, 1979; Western States Mission, Manuscript history and historical reports, Church Archives; Winter Quarters District, Manuscript history and historical reports, Church Archives; Fontenelle Branch, Manuscript history and historical reports, Church Archives; Fremont Branch, Manuscript history and historical reports, Church Archives; Nebraska Game and Parks Commission, Mormon Island State Recreation Area; “Nauvoo, Illinois and Omaha, Nebraska,” Ensign, July 1997; LaRene Gaunt and Jennifer Ballard, “Letting the World Know,” Ensign, October 1997; “Winter Quarters Cemetery now Owned by the Church,” Church News, 19 April 1999; “Newest Temple Stands on Sanctified Soil,” Church News, 28 April 2001; “Wayside Exhibits Installed Along Historic Pioneer Trail,” Church News, 31 July 2004.