History Nebraska Blog

Omaha's "Tragedy of Winter Quarters" Monument

More than 600 Mormon pioneers died in their Nebraska encampment during the winters of 1846-47 and 1847-48. The camp, called Winter Quarters, is the site of a monument in the Florence neighborhood of Omaha, commemorating their deaths through the sculpture of Avard T. Fairbanks. In the Fall 2014 issue of Nebraska History, you can read about the unfortunate camp and the efforts to remember what happened there.

Nebraska was only one stop along the way for the travelers. Seeking religious freedom out West, several thousand members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints left Illinois in February of 1846, led by Brigham Young.

But disease, supply troubles, and bad weather dogged the pioneers every step of the way. By the time they reached the Missouri River in June, they were exhausted and in need of supplies. Rather than venture into more unknown territory farther west, the group got permission from the U.S. government to camp in Nebraska (designated Indian territory) for the winter.

Even though there was some trade with Native Americans, the pioneers’ diet still consisted of mostly corn bread and salt bacon. The camp was overrun with fevers, scurvy, malaria, and a host of other ailments. Eventually the site was abandoned, leaving hundreds of men, women, and children buried behind.

More than sixty years later, Avard Fairbanks took an interest in the Winter Quarters site. As a descendant of a Winter Quarters survivor, Fairbanks had heard about the place from family tradition. But when he actually visited the cemetery, he was moved enough to begin work on a sculpture of a mother and father burying their child.

Fairbanks’ models got the attention of the Mormon church, and after being authorized by the president of the church and Omaha city commissioners, Fairbanks proceeded with the official statue. The project would eventually involve a number of markers, engravings, and bronze works on the site.

[[{"type":"media","view_mode":"media_large","fid":"3884","attributes":{"class":"media-image wp-image-1897 size-full","typeof":"foaf:Image","style":"","width":"600","height":"465","alt":"East Gate Entrance"}}]] Fairbanks and J. Leo Fairbanks. Entrance Gate, Winter Quarters Monument. 1936. Omaha, Nebraska. Photo courtesy of Dr. Eugene F. Fairbanks.
[[{"type":"media","view_mode":"media_large","fid":"3885","attributes":{"class":"media-image wp-image-1898","typeof":"foaf:Image","style":"","width":"400","height":"658","alt":"Entrance Panel - Pioneer Mormon Cemetery"}}]] Fairbanks and J. Leo Fairbanks. Sorrowing Figure, Entrance Gate, Winter Quarters Monument. 1936. Omaha, Nebraska. Photo courtesy of Dr. Eugene F. Fairbanks.

Two special night trains brought Mormon church members from Utah to Omaha in order to attend the dedication. The monument was dedicated on September 20, 1936, giving Omaha a dramatic sculpture to remember a tragic loss.

- Joy Carey, Editorial Assistant, Publications

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