On This Day

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The PBS documentary "Sweetwater Rescue" reenacted a handcart pioneer crossing the Platte River.

On This Day: Mormon Handcart Expedition Begins

June 09, 2009 06:00 AM
by Lindsey Chapman
On June 9, 1856, thousands of Mormon pioneers set out in a handcart expedition that would become an historic westward migration, marked by tragedy and many successes.

Heading West on Foot

Motivated by faith and a desire to practice their religion without fear of persecution, 497 pioneers from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, frequently referred to as Mormons, set out on a weeks-long trip to travel more than 1,000 miles from Iowa City, Iowa, to the Salt Lake City area, History.com explains.

Ten handcart companies made the trip, Deseret News reported. William Hartley, a history professor at Brigham Young University, told the paper that in large part, the trip was not an extremely hard venture for many, with most of the 3,000 travelers arriving safely in Utah between 1856 to 1860.

For the church, handcarts were born of necessity. Many pioneers were poor and didn't have the financial means necessary to secure enough wagons and supplies for the trip. Brigham Young, the religious leader of the Mormons, suggested the handcarts as a more economical means of travel, according to History.com.

Handcarts had two wheels and were generally made to carry between 400 and 500 pounds. Parents took turns pulling the cart while older children pushed. One pioneer girl said that she and her family members had each probably taken more than a million steps to reach their new home, History.com reports. According to the site, although a difficult means of travel, some of the handcarts did complete the trip faster than covered wagons pulled by oxen.
Some of the more deadly occurrences on the trail, such as the hundreds of lives lost by the Willie and Martin handcart companies, have cast a shadow over the migration and made it seem as though "the trail was plagued by heartbreak," Hartley explained to Deseret News. He called the trip “long and boring and sometimes uncomfortable,” but added that “it was a successful journey that many enjoyed and wanted to make. Most who gathered to Zion did so happily.”

Others have sharply criticized the expeditions for the poor planning involved and the resulting loss of life.

Historical Context: Fear pushed the Mormon Church west

The relative newness of the Mormon church at the time and wariness of Joseph Smith, who members considered a prophet, resulted in persecutions against the faith, the U.S. National Park Service reports. Before heading for Utah, members had been forced to move before to Ohio, Missouri and finally, Nauvoo, Ill.

Church members practiced their religion without incident for a time in Nauvoo, but eventually hatred grew again, spurred on by such practices as polygamy and the fast growth of church membership. When Joseph Smith and his brother, Hyrum, were murdered in 1844, Brigham Young became the new leader, and helped coordinate the move west.

Opinion & Analysis: Assessing blame for tragedies along the way

A string of bad events, including a late start, a powerful snow storm in Wyoming and sheer exhaustion from pulling a 500-pound handcart, combined to form a deadly scene for members of the Willie and Martin handcart companies when they reached Wyoming.

When a snow storm hit, the groups sought shelter in a cove. By the end of the ordeal, almost 250 of the 900 pioneers had lost their lives—far more deaths than the Donner Party—but the church’s experience is not well known, The Denver Post noted.

According to The Post, David Roberts, a historian, called the handcart expeditions, the “most deadly (chapter) in the history of westward migration in the United States.” The story of the Willie and Martin handcart companies stands out for the sheer number of deaths recorded as these groups made their trip.

The church’s leaders, including then-prophet Brigham Young, have been harshly criticized for the fact that these two companies started out so late in the year, and that many didn’t have adequate supplies for the trip, The Post explained.

Fred Woods, a BYU professor of religion, told the Deseret News that historians who analyze the migration "without an understanding of the emigrants' deep religious conviction can't adequately assess the factors that eventually led to death for some."

Later Developments: 150th anniversary

Today, the handcart experience is a popular symbol of the heritage of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The 150th anniversary of the expedition was celebrated in 2006. The LDS Newsroom said Gordon B. Hinckley, president of the church, commended the pioneers for their “courage and determination,” and said their actions represented “a lesson in the power of faith.”

Related Topic: Martin's Cove

Today, the place where the Mormon pioneers weathered the storm is known as Martin’s Cove. The cove lies on federal land but is “interpreted” by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, The New York Times explained in 2004. Church missionaries serve as trail guides, according to the paper. This working arrangement is dictated by law under an energy appropriations bill signed by President George W. Bush and has created some controversy for people who live near Martin’s Cove.

Reference: Wyoming


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