St. Louis • With the Mississippi River flowing outside and the Gateway Arch towering above him, Bob Moore walked onto a U.S. map.
The floor map highlights St. Louis and its spot on the trails that reshaped a continent. The map shows how one of those trails started north of St. Louis and wound past it before going west to Salt Lake City. It’s the Mormon Trail.
“For about 10 years,” said Moore, a historian for the National Park Service, which operates the Gateway Arch and its museum, “St. Louis was the focal point for migration to Salt Lake.”
When the Gateway Arch’s museum reopened in July 2018 as part of a $380 million renovation of the arch’s plaza, the new exhibits emphasized St. Louis’ role in American expansion. Part of that history includes the city’s relationship with 19th-century members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The Utah-based faith’s association with St. Louis is told in videos, photographs, replica coins and an 1840 copy of the Book of Mormon, the church’s signature scripture.
It’s a different tale than the one most people know about Missouri and Latter-day Saints — the war fought in the western part of the state between Mormons and other early 19th-century settlers and Missouri Gov. Lilburn Boggs’ infamous 1838 Extermination Order.
“That was supposed to be statewide,” Moore said of the order. “but in St. Louis, they didn’t heed that at all.”
St. Louis was a “cosmopolitan city,” said Tom Farmer, a Latter-day Saint in St. Louis who has co-written a history of Mormons there. It didn’t like the hostility shown to church members in Illinois and Missouri. From about 1846 to 1857, there were 1,000 to 4,000 Latter-day Saints in St. Louis at any one time. Many of them labored in the city until they had enough money to travel to Utah.
St. Louis had just one of two Mormon stakes (a regional collection of congregations) outside the Mountain West. The other was in San Bernardino, Calif.
While the Mormon references and artifacts comprise a fraction of the Museum at the Gateway Arch, it’s enough to explain the symbiosis St. Louis and Latter-day Saints had in frontier days.
“The church was as hungry to get things in the museum,” Farmer said, “as the park service was to get things from the church.”
The first Latter-day Saint reference can be found just past the entrance. A floor map shows the Mormon Trail starting at Nauvoo, Ill., running south to St. Louis and then joining the Oregon and California trails for much of their meandering west.
Next, a series of movie-theater-size television screens show scenes reenacting journeys west and encounters with Native Americans. One montage depicts a Mormon handcart trek.
Inside, at the “Manifest Destiny” exhibit, sits a third edition, 1840 copy of the Book of Mormon. Moore said the copy is on loan from the church’s archives.
Next to the text are some less-authentic items — coins like those from the State of Deseret, the Mormons’ original settlement centered around Salt Lake City. Farmer said he bought some metal replicas of the coins for $3 each and donated them to the museum.
There’s also a wall with 23 photos of 19th-century Western settlers. The LDS Church provided three portraits for the collection, Moore said.
On another projection screen in the exhibit is a map showing the Mormon Trail with a picture of church President Brigham Young inset. Moore said the museum staff plan to add audio with a verse or two from the Mormon pioneering hymn “Come, Come, Ye Saints.”
There are a few other Latter-day Saint references and artifacts, including a copy of a journal from a Danish convert, a copy of a U.S. Army report on the Grattan Massacre — a fight in present-day Wyoming between the U.S. Army and Native Americans that started over a Mormon migrant’s cow — and more handcart depictions.
The previous iteration of the museum more generally discussed the American West, Moore said. Farmer recalls that Mormon references were confined to a few dots on timelines.
As the National Park Service was preparing the renovations, it held a scholars conference in June 2013. Farmer was asked to participate. He says he became a go-between for the National Park Service and the LDS Church.
“It was one of the best callings I’ve ever had in the church,” Farmer said.
The park service wanted the church to have a presence in the museum and to have it be in the correct context, Farmer said. All the Mormon references were completed with the input and approval of the church’s history department, Farmer said.
For the video depicting handcart pioneers, Moore and a film crew traveled in August 2015 to Martin’s Cove in Wyoming, where a reenactment was underway.
“We could not have produced these videos without the church,” Moore said. “It would have been cost prohibitive.”
Farmer has taken local friends and out-of-town visitors to the museum since it reopened. He said they’ve been impressed.
“Compared to the previous museum, it’s like [Latter-day Saints are] on a pedestal,” Farmer said. “And we’re on equal billing with the Oregon and California trails. That’s kind of remarkable.”