Sugar Creek, Lee County, Iowa

Sugar Creek
Sugar Creek. Photo by Kenneth Mays

Located about eight miles west of Nauvoo, Illinois, Sugar Creek in Lee County, Iowa is a site on the Iowa Mormon Trail. It was the first place where Brigham Young and the Latter-day Saints with him camped after crossing the Mississippi River heading west to the Great Basin. It was essentially the first staging ground for the Saints who left Nauvoo in this first of three major waves of the exodus from Illinois and the United States.

Sugar Creek
The Sugar Creek site in winter. Photo by Kenneth Mays.

They arrived in February 1846 in most unfavorable circumstances. The temperature was reported to be well below 0°. Some 2,000 people gathered there for a number of weeks while preparations were made to continue westward. Many who wanted to go with Brigham Young and his company were not prepared. This required that those already at the site had to wait for them and for trail conditions to improve. The adverse conditions became somewhat frustrating for many as they waited in the cold while they were yet so close to their homes.

Sugar Creek where County Road J72 crosses it.
County Road J72 where it crosses Sugar Creek. Photo by Kenneth Mays.

Saints camped along the east side of the creek at sites both north and south of the present-day highway. William G. Hartley notes: “Wagon by wagon, this first wave of refugees camped together at the ever-expanding campground along Sugar Creek . . . braving snowstorms and plummeting temperatures. Campfires burned constantly. . . . ‘It was impossible to keep warm without exercise.'” Hartley also writes that it was at Sugar Creek that “Brigham Young organized the people into units of 100 wagons, companies of 50, and sub-companies of 10, each with a captain.” Moreover, President Young sent an advanced company of about 100 pioneers to scout ahead, build bridges, collect firewood, and locate campsites.

NPS sign marking the crossing of the Mormon Pioneer Trail near Sugar Creek. Photo (2020) by Kenneth Mays.

In 2020, the Ensign Peak Foundation contributed funding to a project adding new signage marking the Mormon Pioneer Trail in Lee County, Iowa. The project was sponsored by by the National Park Service. This sign marks the trail near Sugar Creek, which runs through the trees seen in the background.

Map and Directions

According to the National Historic Trails AutoTour Route Interpretive Guide: The Mormon Pioneer Trail Across Iowa in 1846 published by the National Park Service, directions to the Sugar Creek site are as follows: From Montrose, Iowa [directly across the Mississippi River from Nauvoo, Illinois], proceed southwest to the intersection of US-61 and US-218. Drive northwest on US-218 to County Road J-72 which is also 300th Street. Turn west (left) and continue for 2.9 miles to the bridge as it crosses Sugar Creek. Traditionally, the creek has not been marked. As one approaches the crossing, however, there is a sign noting the coming of a site on the Iowa Mormon Pioneer Trail. Shortly thereafter is the creek flowing under the bridge. The gps coordinates are: 40°31’27.16″ N; 91°30’49.18″ W.


Sugar Creek. Photo by Kenneth Mays.
Sugar Creek. Photo by Kenneth Mays.
Sugar Creek. Photo by Kenneth Mays.

Articles & Resources

Articles and Resources

National Park Service, National Historic Trails AutoTour Route Interpretive Guide: The Mormon Pioneer Trail Across Iowa in 1846, 21.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, The Mormon Pioneer Trail: Church Pioneer Sesquicentennial (150th) Celebration–A Highway and Trail Etiquette Guide, 5.

William G. Hartley, in Susan Easton Black and William G. Hartley, eds., The Iowa Mormon Trail, xvi.