Charles Coulson Rich was born in northwestern Kentucky to Joseph and Nancy O'Neil Rich on 21 August 1809. Pioneers of the early agricultural frontier, the Rich family moved to southern Indiana in 1810 and on to Tazewell County, Illinois, in 1829. Charles received a basic education and training as a cooper, but spent most of his early life working on the family farm. In 1831 he heard about the Mormon Church and was baptized the next year. Between 1832 and 1838, Rich continued farming and served as a missionary for the church.
In 1838 Rich married Sarah DeArmon Pea (1814-93), and the couple settled near Far West, Missouri, until driven to Nauvoo, Illinois, in 1839. Rich served as a counselor in the Nauvoo Stake, sat on the Nauvoo City Council, and was one of the original members of the Council of Fifty. After the death of Joseph Smith, Jr., in 1844, Rich rose to the rank of major general in the Nauvoo Legion.
As a church leader, Rich followed the doctrine of plural marriage, taking three additional wives in 1845: Eliza Ann Graves (1811-79), Mary Ann Phelps (1829-1912), and Sarah Jane Peck (1825-93). Before leaving Nauvoo in 1846, he married Emeline Grover (1831-1917); and in 1847 at Winter Quarters he took Harriet Sargent (1832-1915) as his sixth wife.
In 1846 General Rich helped organize the Mormon exodus from Nauvoo. After a winter at Mt. Pisgah, Iowa, Rich was named military leader of the 1847 Emigration Company, which followed Brigham Young's Pioneer Company into Salt Lake Valley in October 1847. Rich served as a counselor in the Salt Lake Stake presidency and as a member of the Council of Fifty. He opened a farm in Centerville in 1848 and the next year, at age thirty-nine, was named to the Quorum of Twelve Apostles.