Skirmishes involving the burning of Mormon homes and farmland escalated in the outskirts of Nauvoo and, by the summer of 1845, the Mormons knew that they were no longer safe or welcome in Hancock County. Brigham Young entreated Illinois Governor Thomas Ford to permit the Mormons to remain in Nauvoo through the winter season; however, when Ford warned Young of a rumored militia advance to be made in early February, 1846, the Mormons began their untimely exodus across a frozen Mississippi River. Taking whatever possessions could be carried by oxcart, the Mormons left behind their homes and remaining possessions to be sold at desperately low prices. Waves of Mormon refugees pushed across Iowa while those who remained in Illinois were subject to increasing violence. Emma Smith and her children fled the city northward to Fulton, Illinois where they remained for six months. By the fall of 1846, Nauvoo was a virtual ghost town.
Leaving Nauvoo, Young and his counsel were unsure about where the Mormons would ultimately settle. Several options were discussed including California, Oregon, Vancouver Island, and the Great Basin. Young favored the Great Basin because of its relative isolation and undesirability outside of U.S. borders. Plans had been made to begin trekking west during the summer of 1846, but the move was curtailed due to lack of adequate provisions. Thomas L. Kane, a politically-connected sympathizer, aided the Mormons in securing temporary refuge on tribal land on the eastern side of the Missouri River; however, a dispute between two tribes over the land compelled the Mormons to find another settlement that they named Winter Quarters.