We are the pioneers of this country (DBY, 474).
70,000. That’s how many people Brigham Young had to help cross the barren plains over the years to get to their new safe haven in the mountains. Let it not be underestimated just how difficult a task was laid out before President Young, all while having to protect the Saints from hostile mobs and governments, but he was able to fulfill his overwhelming task to the utmost and help the Saints find their new home where they could be free to worship God in their own way and live as they desired.
Brigham Young had been prepared by the Lord for this immense undertaking. In Zion’s Camp, he had been able to see Joseph Smith as he led them through difficult conditions (see HC 2:61–134, 183–85). He was also in charge of moving the persecuted Saints from Missouri to Nauvoo where they would be safer (see HC 3:250–52, 261). Thus when Brigham was called by God to be a new Moses (D&C 103:16), he was ready to do so.
Through inspiration from the Lord, Brigham Young organized the Saints so that they would be ready to travel. As outlined in D&C 136, he organized them in companies of hundreds, fifties, and tens similar to Moses of old. Each company had a president and two counselors and everyone was under the direction of the Twelve Apostles. Each company also needed to provide their own necessities and decide who would go and who would wait. In addition, each company would take an equal portion of poor, orphaned, and widowed to make sure they were provided for as was keeping in character with Brigham Young and his concern for the vulnerable.
Brigham Young promised the Saints that the Lord would bless and preserve them on their trek so long as they obeyed the Lord. The Saints were told not to argue and gossip, not to be drunk, to uplift each other, to return what you borrow, to return lost items to their owners, and to be wise with your belongings. All this is of course still good advice for us today. Perhaps somewhat surprisingly, President Young also counseled them to praise the Lord with singing, music, dancing, and prayer if they felt happy. Likewise, they could turn to the Lord in prayer if they felt sorrowful, especially given the harsh conditions they were under. Brigham Young wanted the Saints to know that the Lord was watching over them and would hear their prayers whether of joy and sadness. This would have been powerful in helping the Saints not feel abandoned and depressed as they made the long journey.
The journey was not easy. The pioneers had to get up at 5:00 AM and be ready to move out by 7:00 AM. Each day they had to find grazing land for cattle as well as good water. Advance companies had to try and level the trail to make it easier for later companies. Sickness was rampant with even Brigham Young contracting mountain fever. Many people including infants died and had to be buried and left as the pioneers continued on. Despite all these hardships, they persevered.
Just as Moses led the children of Israel from Egypt to Mount Sinai in about three months, Brigham Young led the Saints across America from Winter Quarters to the Rocky Mountains in about three months. Brigham Young reached the top of Big Mountain and looked down at what at the time was the untamed wilds of the Salt Lake Valley and declared: “This is the right place. Drive on.” It must have looked like an inhospitable place to stop, but Brigham trusted the Lord and the Saints trusted their leader. Just as the children of Israel were told the promised land was flowing with milk and honey, Brigham Young and the pioneers eventually turned the wilderness of the mountains into a fruitful field and made the desert blossom as a rose, as had been foretold millennia ago by Isaiah (see Isaiah 32:15–16, 35:1).
Brigham Young had done the seemingly impossible in helping the Saints cross the plains into an uninhabited wasteland that eventually became a thriving community. He would continue to guide people there for decades and eventually helped settle the West for the Saints and later for all. His determination, faith, and wise leadership made it all possible.