Mormon History: Pioneers – Handcart Companies

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Beginning in 1847, 70,000 Mormon pioneers crossed the Great Plains to Salt Lake City. Among them were ten handcart companies. The Mormon Church had started a Perpetual Emigration Fund funded from Church and private monies that was used to assist poor emigrants. In order to make the funds stretch further and help more people President Brigham Young initiated handcart companies. This move proved to be both brilliant and tragic.Each handcart was a box shape with two wheels designed to carry 500 pounds of supplies. Each adult was allowed 17 pounds worth of personal items and each child 10 pounds. Each Mormon pioneer handcart company began at Iowa City and made the 1,300 miles journey to the Salt Lake Valley. Almost 3,000 Mormon pioneers traveled by handcart. Of these 250 died along the way, with 220 of them being in the Martin and Willie companies of 1856. "This heroic episode of Mormon history exemplifies many of the enduring qualities of nascent Mormonism itself: thorough organization, iron discipline, unswerving devotion to a cause, and limitless self-sacrifice… The true Mormon Trail was not on the prairie but in the spirit."1Those Saints in the Martin and Willie handcart companies exemplified the Mormon spirit and the history of Mormonism. Those preparing the handcart companies in Iowa City did not realize that the groups were arriving and supplies were not ready for them. Some encouraged the group of Mormon pioneers to wait until the next year but there was no work for them so they decided to go on. "We must always put our trust in the Lord," 2 and that is what they did. The 980 Mormon pioneers headed out and by October were still in Wyoming when the winter storms began. Unprepared for the cold and with little food many died from exposure and starvation. The Martin Company huddled together stripping bark off the trees and burning whatever they could find at a place now known as Martin’s Cove. The Willie Company was a few days trek ahead of them. The Mormon pioneers waited unable to go further. Returning Mormon missionaries brought word of their plight and rescue teams from the Salt Lake Valley were sent out the next day. The true miracle is that so many of the Martin and Willie companies survived the elements to reach the Salt Lake Valley. "Perhaps their suffering seems less dramatic because the handcart pioneers bore it meekly, praising God, instead of fighting for life with the ferocity of animals and eating their dead to keep their own life beating, as both the Fremont and Donner parties did… But if courage and endurance make a story, if human kindness and helpfulness and brotherly love in the midst of raw horror are worth recording, this half-forgotten episode of the Mormon migration is one of the great tales of the West and of America."3 (1) Arthur King Peters, Seven Trails West [1996], 145. (2) Stewart E. Glazier and Robert S. Clark, ed., Journal of the Trail [1997], 30–31. (3) Wallace Stegner, "Ordeal by Handcart," Collier’s, 6 July 1956, 85.