Tuesday, October 04, 2011

Autumn arrives at Mt. Pisgah

If I'd known earlier what was discovered later, some of the hickory nuts scattered around the old monument at Mt. Pisgah would have come home with me Thursday --- the fact that they were falling here a sure sign of fall.

I was a tour guide in a previous incarnation, so Betty, Marilyn and I stopped late in the afternoon while headed home from the Montgomery County History Center in Red Oak. I think everyone should see this beautiful and evocative place, but surprisingly few Iowans are aware of it. Now the grande dames of the Lucas County Historical Society have visited it, and are.

Untold thousands of Mormons have, however, visited here and continue to do so, descendants of pioneers who passed this way between 1846 and 1852 en route to Utah.

Brigham Young and that first party of refugees from Nauvoo arrived in these southern hills during April of 1846. Young established the Saints' first way station at Garden Grove just southwest of here on April 24, then sent scouts, led by Parley Pratt, farther west to find a site for another.

Pratt named this beautiful ridge overlooking the Grand River valley Mt. Pisgah, referring  to a verse in Deuteronomy (3:27) describing the place that Moses was directed to in order to view the promise land that he would not enter: "Get thee up into the top of Pisgah, and lift up thine eyes westward, and northward, and southward, and eastward, and behold it with thine eyes: for thou shalt not go over this Jordan."

When Young sent Pratt west, he also sent messengers east to meet other parties of refugees and tell them not to follow the rough and treacherous trail that first party had blazed to Garden Grove, but instead to follow the high ridge along the north bank of the Chariton River, a path now called the Mormon Trace, a route that would take them to Chariton Point and through what now is Chariton on the trail west.

Mt. Pisgah became the principal stopping and resupply place for Saints between 1846 and 1852. Hundreds of cabins were built for those who could go no farther at present and for those who needed to winter over. The rich Grand River bottoms were broken and planted to corn and beans, buckwheat, potatoes, pumpkin and squash so that those who stopped here could eat.

Mt. Pisgah's population averaged 700 during those years, at times reaching a high of 2,000. Iowa this far west was not yet open to EuroAmerican settlers, but the beleagured Potawatomi had been resettled here. They would be pushed out and farther southwest after the Saints had moved on.

No one knows how many of the Saints died here of disease, old age, in infancy or of other causes. Estimates range from 300 to 800. But everyone agrees that those who did were buried on this hillside, in an area that extends far beyond the bounds of the current neatly-mown and fenced memorial area.

During 1888, a delegation of Saints returned from Utah to purchase an acre of land for a memorial at the cemetery site and erected this monument, containing the names of 80 of the known dead. The precise locations of all graves have long since been lost.

Today, an area maintained by the Union County Conservation Board has expanded the memorial along the ridge and the family that owns surrounding land has developed its own cemetery at the extreme south end of the area.

If you'd like to visit, turn north off U.S. 34 onto Highway 169 just west of Thayer and drive north a couple of miles to the first gravel road headed west (the route is well signed), drive gravel west to a "T," turn south and then where the main road curves west and descends into the valley, turn off to the southeast and follow the meandering road to the memorial site.

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