Mormon Handcarts

Mormons made history and headlines between 1856 and 1860 by using handcarts to travel the roughly 1300 miles, on foot, from Iowa to Salt Lake City, across the plains and mountains. When you read Mormon literature, these journeys are admired and held up as evidence of the dedication of the Mormon people, and a tribute to their courage and unwavering strength and determination in the face of terrible adversity.

Mormon Handcart [click for picture credit Paul and Judie Ross]
Handcarts were two-wheeled carts that were pulled by people, instead of draft animals. Brigham Young thought they would be a cheaper, faster and easier way to bring European converts to Salt Lake City. Almost 3,000 Mormons, with 653 carts and 50 supply wagons, traveling in 10 different companies, made the trip to Salt Lake City over a period of four years.

The handcarts were made almost entirely of wood. They were generally six to seven feet long, wide enough to span a narrow wagon track, and could be alternately pushed or pulled. The boxes affixed to the carts were three to four feet long and eight inches high. They could carry about 500 pounds of trail provisions, personal possessions and of course survival gear like bedrolls, clothes and tents.

Some of the handcart companies completed the journey with few problems. The fourth and fifth companies, known as the Willie and Martin Companies, left Iowa City, Iowa in July 1856. This was very late to begin the trip across the plains. They encountered severe winter weather west of present day Casper, Wyoming, and hundreds died from exposure and famine before rescue parties could reach them.

The girl posing as if she was pulling the cart looks idyllic and romantic enough. It makes you want to go on the trip, right?

Here is a map:

Picture Credit Wikipedia

This was a phenomenal journey, taking many months. If they started too late in the year, this is what happened to them:

Hand Carts [Credit for the artist not found]
I love this painting, and I wish I knew who the artist is, so I can give credit. If a reader knows, please comment, so I can provide proper credit.

This painting shows the misery of the journey. Can you imagine traveling like this, all waking hours, every day, for weeks, months? Here is what a modern Mormon said about the unfortunate people who got themselves into this bind:

Sometimes the Lord will allow us to go through what seems a trial to improve us—sometimes we need trials to make us better. Sometimes He has something else in mind than what we—in our limited understanding—think we want.  — Chad’s Random Musings.

Now let’s put all the idyllic religious waxing aside. I have respect for the people who went through this. But how did it really come about?

In the middle of the 19th century, Mormon missionaries were very successful recruiting new converts in northern Europe, like Denmark, Scotland, Ireland and England. Conditions were not favorable in those countries, and a new life in America was many a European’s dream. The missionaries were nice enough, and promised them Zion, the shining city in the mountains, God’s kingdom on earth. What poor laborer, peasant or miner would not want to give up the hovel he lived in, and subject himself and his family to the loving and guiding hands of a man of God – and embark on a long journey to the promised land – America.

The reality of what they got themselves into didn’t come clear until it was too late. The emigrants mostly were not wealthy people, and they traveled in steerage. The church spent as little as possible on them.

Some of the persons who saw the emigrants, say that it was like nothing so much as an African slave-ship, filled with its unlawful and ill-gotten freight. The air in the steerage, where most of the emigrants were, was noxious, and yet these people were compelled to breathe it through all the days of the voyage. Many were too ill to leave their beds, and a change of clothing was out of the question. The entire floor was covered with mattresses, and it was impossible to walk about without stepping over some one. Men, women, and children were huddled in together in the most shameless fashion.

— Young, Ann Eliza (2012-08-04). Wife No. 19:  (Kindle Locations 2392-2396).

After the journey over the ocean, they arrived in New York, where they found themselves helpless and penniless in a strange country with nobody to provide for them and no roof over their heads. Somehow their Mormon shepherds sent them off to Iowa City, and when they arrived there, nothing had been prepared for them. There were no shanties or even tents. They were compelled to camp in the open air in Iowa, where the weather can be very inclement in late spring and early summer. A rainstorm can kill when there is no escape, no shelter, no place to get warm and dry, particularly after having had an extremely stressful journey crossing the Atlantic and then overland from New York. Fevers and dysentery brought death to many emigrants long before they made it to Zion.

The problem was that there was no returning home, no way back. I am sure many a poor family man, seeing his wife and children suffer starvation and illnesses wished he could be back in the hovel in Scotland. At least the country was familiar, and they had the roof over their heads that had served them and their forefathers for centuries. In Iowa, there was nothing.

In previous years the Mormons had provided wagon trains pulled by teams of oxen to carry the pioneers across the plains on their 1300 mile journey to Utah. But Brigham Young, while he wanted new converts, didn’t want to spend even minimal money on them. He openly admitted that the handcart strategy was an experiment. This man of God had no inhibition to subjecting his unsuspecting flock to a massive, brutal experiment the outcome of which he didn’t know.

The handcarts were built with shoddy material. The people building them knew they would constantly break down once the journey commenced. They had to be as cheap as possible. Without draft animals, there was no need to carry feed for them. The humans were their own draft animals. They had no idea what lay before them. There was little civilization west of Iowa. There were endless plains and then high mountains in Wyoming, with no support, no way to restock, and really no rescue if anything went wrong. 1300 miles of pulling a cart that weighs hundreds of pounds. Every. Step.

While Brigham Young cared for no one but himself, there were many a facilitator who saw the crime that the church committed on the poor emigrant converts. They tried to warn him and begged him for help. Only when news of disaster struck and the emigrants literally ran out of food in the snowy mountains, when severe frostbite started killing them, did Brigham Young launch rescue parties who traveled out to meet the hapless and dying emigrants. Many died, many lost their limbs and died later after they arrived.

Only to find that the shining city on the hill was just another place that they could not escape from. Here they didn’t serve some English Earl, here they gave all they had to Brigham Young.

All in the name of God.

2 thoughts on “Mormon Handcarts

  1. kdmacartney

    Thank you for your research and considered thoughts. Like you, I love the painting. The resolve and strength and resilience of humans has always captivated me. Like you, I am struck by the motivation of humans who surrender their power, intelligence, and common sense to a dream of something larger than themselves, only to find that they have been sold down the creek by a corrupt car salesman. I have been there with many a Catholic mentor (talk about corrupt car salesmen!…and saleswomen! Remember, I attended a convent high school). Still, like Joseph Campbell, I am captivated by the power of myth and the universal and ceaseless search. Therefore I cannot completely abandon the notion that something larger exists and sustains us. I am willing to surrender to the notion that this very ‘energy’ exists within. That being said, the painting and your historical account evokes a primal anger. The fact that BYU exists today and is venerated in many arenas frankly makes me nauseous. Crusades. Mike Huckabee. Colonial India…”I love your Christ. It’s your Christians I fear.” Like you, I scream the question…In the name of God????

  2. A resounding yes to your comment about Christianists, as Andrew Sullivan dubs them. They’d kill Christ all over again, soon as look at him. The painting is lovely, indeed, but there is very little in their carts. Surely 500 lbs of provisions would be piled high and heavy!

    You say you were brainwashed/schooled in a convent. I was raised VERY fundamental Baptists. My father lived to 92 afraid to die… what happned to that heaven he talked about? Anyway, I escaped to Canada when I was 21. Still here; not as rabid a place as America, half of which is getting more and more psychotic by the day. Run far, fun fast.

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