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Historic Winter Quarters now site for temple

OMAHA, Neb. -- In the middle-1800s, it was a resting and preparation point for LDS pioneers on their way to the Salt Lake Valley; today it is an announced site for one of the Church's newest temples.

Historic Winter Quarters in the Florence area of Omaha -- an area rich in Church history -- is the site for the just-announced Omaha Nebraska Temple. "It represents the realization of our fondest desires," said Pres. Arthur Taylor of the Omaha stake. "We believe the temple will be a blessing to Omaha as many will make this area a place of preference. We're thrilled that plans are being finalized to build the temple in Florence. Our faith, sacrifice and sacred remains are part of the Florence soil. We love this area of Omaha and are grateful that the Savior has here chosen to place His house."

Winter Quarters, which later became Florence, was part of a 50-mile circle on the Nebraska and Iowa sides of the Middle Missouri River Valley, where a total of about 30,000 Latter-day Saints rested and outfitted themselves for the trek to the Salt Lake Valley.

The LDS presence in this area began in June 1846, when Brigham Young and his followers, who had abandoned their city of Nauvoo, Ill., under mob threat, reached the district known later as Council Bluffs on the Iowa side of the river. They had intended to push all the way through to the Rocky Mountains, but the muddy Iowa plains that spring had hindered their travel. Prudence dictated that they "winter over" at the Missouri River before continuing on the next year.

It was at these bluffs overlooking the river where 500 men from the "Camp of Israel" were mustered into the U.S. Army and comprised what history has come to call the Mormon Battalion. Thereafter, most of the Saints moved across the river into Nebraska, where they established Winter Quarters on a high plateau.

Before Brigham Young and the vanguard group departed for the West in April of the following year, Winter Quarters was laid out into 41 blocks of dwellings, schools, mills and shops, with a city government and mail service.

By the time President Young returned from the Salt Lake Valley in November 1847, the U.S. government required the Mormons to move off the Indian Territory in Nebraska on which Winter Quarters was situated. Those who were unprepared to go west moved back across the river into Iowa and developed the bluffs area into the town of Kanesville. There, they constructed a log tabernacle in time for a new First Presidency to be sustained at a conference in December 1847, with Brigham Young as president, Heber C. Kimball as first counselor and Willard Richards as second counselor.

By 1853, most of the Latter-day Saints had left Kanesville, and the settlement was renamed Council Bluffs. Meanwhile, the former Winter Quarters settlement in Nebraska had been renamed Florence and was a thoroughfare where many wagon companies and three handcart companies began their westward trek. Today, the mark of the early LDS presence remains.

In fact, pending local government approval, the new temple will be constructed adjacent to the Mormon Pioneer Cemetery, which contains the remains of 600 Latter-day Saints who died during the exodus of 1846-47. The cemetery, which recently was transferred by the city of Omaha to Church ownership, has been a prominent Church site for more than 60 years. Today, it is connected with the Church's Mormon Trail Center at Historic Winter Quarters, which was dedicated by President Gordon B. Hinckley in 1997.

"If the approvals are granted, the temple will be south of the cemetery but on the same hill as the cemetery, and it will be absolutely beautiful," said Elder Truman F. Clawson, director of the Mormon Trail Center. "If you think about it, the dead are buried here, and work for the dead will be going on right next door."

In a telephone interview June 21, Elder Clawson said immediate local reaction to the temple announcement had been positive. He added that a local television news program had carried an interview with a neighbor of the proposed temple site who said it was wonderful.

Within the immediate area of Omaha are approximately 3,000 Latter-day Saints in three stakes: Omaha Nebraska, Omaha Nebraska Papillion and the recently formed Council Bluffs Iowa Stake headquartered across the Missouri River on the former Kanesville site. The state of Nebraska has about 16,000 Church members.