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Hundreds gather to remember start of Mormon pioneers’ journey

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On February 1, 1846, 1,600 Mormon pioneers made the decision to leave Nauvoo, Illinois, to start a journey west to a place they could practice their faith freely.

Exactly 174 years later, hundreds gathered on the banks of the Mississippi to remember the important moment in America's history of religious freedom.

"We're from Cedar Falls, Iowa, it's about three hours," said Latter-Day Saint Jeff Gabel, "it's an important event, to sort of commemorate the expulsion or leaving of the pioneers because of the persecution they were facing down here."

Hundreds of members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, including Gabel and his family, spent the morning tracing the steps of Mormon pioneers.

The pioneers left from Parlay Street and traversed the frozen river to search for a place to live where they didn't face religious persecution.

"I think it means a lot to us, it's great we can be in a place where we can worship how we want to and not have to face the persecution that the pioneers had to as well," Gabel said.

Steve Rizley works to maintain the historic sites in Nauvoo.

He said it's an important part of not just the church's history, but American history.

"They were seeking safety and religious freedom, they ended up colonizing many places in the west, and Nauvoo is a monument to that," Nauvoo Historic Sites president Steve Rizley said.

Joseph Johnstun is a historian who studies the Mormon pioneers.

He said while things are better for the Latter-Day Saints today, there's still progress that can be made in accepting people of all faiths.

"My ancestors were amongst those who headed out 174 years ago and they've just always been with me," Johnstun said.

Gabel said it's important his kids understand the past.

"It's a five minute walk versus a year and a half walk, but just a little bit of an idea of what people had to go through just to practice religion how they wanted to," he said.

Members of the church said the first pioneers who left were able to cross the Mississippi because it was frozen solid at the time, while later pioneers left via ferry when the ice began to thaw.

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