Monday, September 8, 2014

Handcarts to the Promised Land

The Mormon handcart pioneers were members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints who migrated to Utah using handcarts to carry their belongings. The handcart journeys began in 1856 and continued until 1860.

From 1849 to 1855, about 16,000 European Latter-day Saints took ship to America, traveled by rail to points in Iowa and Nebraska, and on to Utah by wagon trains. Most of these emigrants paid their own way, but the Church established the Perpetual Emigration Fund to assist poor emigrants with expenses, which they were to repay over time. Contributions were also encouraged.

Photo from Library of Congress

However, when contributions and loan repayments dwindled after a poor harvest in 1855, LDS President Brigham Young decided to begin using handcarts to help the European Saints, who were mostly poor. Young also believed it would speed up their journey. Nearly 3,000 Mormon converts from the British Isles and Scandinavia trekked to Utah pulling and pushing their heavy carts.

The pioneers were outfitted with handcarts and supplies in Iowa City, Iowa, the western railroad terminus at that time. Designed by Brigham Young, the handcarts resembled large wheelbarrows, with two 5-foot high wheels and a single 4 ½-foot wide axle. They weighed 60 pounds. On each side of the bed were 7-foot long pull shafts, with a 3-foot crossbar at the front, allowing the carts to be pushed or pulled. Cargo was carried in a 3’ by 4’ box with 8 inch walls. The handcarts usually carried about 250 pounds of supplies and baggage, but could haul loads up to 500 pounds. Carts were built entirely of wood at first; later, metal parts strengthened them.

Mormon handcart train in Iowa, 1903 illustration; Wikipedia Commons
Handcart companies (think wagon train) were organized in units. Five persons were assigned per handcart, with each individual limited to 17 pounds of clothing and bedding. Each round tent, supported by a center pole, housed 20 people and was supervised by a tent captain. Five tents were supervised by the “captain of a hundred” (sub-captain). Provisions for each group of one hundred emigrants were carried in an ox-drawn wagon, and were distributed by the tent captains.

One journal keeper wrote this: ”People made fun of us as we walked, pulling our handcarts, but the weather was fine and the roads were excellent and although I was sick and we were very tired at night, still we thought it was a glorious way to go to Zion.” This immigrant was among the lucky.

There were ten handcart companies in all. Most reached Salt Lake City with relatively few deaths along the trail. However, two groups, the Willie and Martin companies (named for their leaders) began their journey too late in 1856. They should have started out in May or June, but didn’t leave their Iowa base until August. One church official berated those who wanted to wait until the following spring to leave. He promised they would not run into snow.

On the contrary, the immigrants faced brutal cold and were almost buried by snow in central Wyoming. The few wagons accompanying them couldn't handle the sick and feeble, so they were piled on top of their handcarts and pushed by exhausted family members. Others crawled on their hands and knees through the snow because their feet were frozen. On some nights, a dozen or more people died. A number of survivors lost limbs to frostbite.
Many deaths were due to starvation because organizers had underestimated the amount of food required for the trip. The head of one company ordered his followers to lighten their loads, dumping blankets and clothing that later might have saved their lives. He even ordered the abandoned articles burned to prevent their owners from returning to retrieve them.

A heroic rescue effort was mounted by the Mormon settlers in Utah, but more than 210 of the 980 pioneers in the Willie and Martin companies died. John Chislett, a survivor, wrote, "Many a father pulled his cart, with his little children on it, until the day preceding his death."

Less than 10 percent of the Latter-day Saints who migrated west from 1846 to 1868 made the journey west using handcarts, but those determined pioneers are revered by modern day LDS members. They symbolize the fervent faith and sacrifice of all who trudged west over plains and mountains to their promised land. They are honored in events such as Pioneer Day and Church pageants.




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