Handcart Pioneers

Brigham Young and a group of Mormon pathfinders reached Salt Lake Valley on this day in 1847, the date now commemorated across Utah as Pioneer Day. Within a few days, Young had a location for Salt Lake Temple and a plan for the eventual city; he and others in the vanguard group then returned to the Church’s temporary camp in North Omaha, Nebraska, where they organized the Mormon Exodus, some 70,000 arriving to Salt Lake City and points west over the next quarter century.

Three thousand of these were “handcart pioneers” — mostly European immigrant-converts who, too poor to go by the usual wagon train, made the four-month trek over the Mormon Trail on foot, pulling their belongings and provisions behind them. Eight of the ten handcart groups, or “companies,” that set out between 1856 and 1860 arrived at Salt Lake City safely. The story of how the two other groups, the Willie and Martin Companies, departed from Illinois too late in summer, got trapped in Wyoming snowstorms, and lost 250 men, women, and children before rescuers arrived is among the most hallowed and controversial chapters in Mormon history.

Many commentators have described the Willie/Martin story as the memoirs of the handcart pioneers do — an inspiring reflection of Mormon faith and courage, of “helpfulness and brotherly love in the midst of raw horror” (Wallace Stegner). In Devil’s Gate: Brigham Young and the Great Mormon Handcart Tragedy (2009), David Roberts agrees with those historians who see more of the saga’s dark side. In his first chapter, Roberts quotes from the memoirs of Patience Loader, who traveled with the Martin Company and watched her father die from exhaustion:

That afternoon we had not traveled far when My poor sick father fell down and we had to stop to get him up on his feet I said father You are not able to pull the cart You had better not try to pull we girls can do it this afternoon Oh he sais I can do it I will try it again I Must not give up the breathren said I shall be better and I want to go to the valley to shake hands with Brigham Young.

In his last chapter, Roberts concludes that Young (and other over-zealous, under-prepared Church leaders) deserved something other than a handshake for an emigration plan with fatal flaws and for hasty decisions that “would ineluctably lead to unbearable hardships and scores of deaths.”

Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.