On February 4, 1846, two groups of Latter-day Saints in the United States began their emigration out of the United States. The main body of the Church was leaving from Nauvoo, Illinois, under the leadership of Brigham Young, going overland to the West. The same day, also under instruction from Brigham Young, Samuel Brannan led a group from New York aboard the ship Brooklyn, going by sea around Cape Horn to San Francisco Bay.
At a social the night before the Brooklyn Saints left, Joshua M. Van Cott, a Brooklyn attorney and president of the local Hamilton Literary Society, presented the voyagers with 179 volumes of the Harper's Family Library (HFL). When the Brooklyn pioneers reached the Juan Fernandez Islands off the coast of Chile, three months into a six-month voyage, one of them sent a letter back to New York on another ship indicating that "every book in the little library has been read through" (see sidebar). The gift of the HFL is a testament to the generosity of Van Cott, but that at least one person had read each of the books during the voyage is an indication of the literacy levels and the interests of the passengers.