During the 1830s through the 1880s, many Americans moved west into the frontier in familiar covered wagons, or Conestoga wagons, pulled by teams of oxen. Early in this period, members of the newly-formed Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints were driven from their homes by violent threatening mobs. Often these Mormon pioneers used covered wagons as they fled from New York to Ohio, then to Missouri and finally to Illinois. In the late 1840s the bulk of the members finally fled the borders of the United States to move over the Rocky Mountains to the Salt Lake Valley. By this time the church was sending missionaries all over America and overseas to European countries to spread the gospel. Those who joined the church in Europe did not escape persecution, and many of them lived in virtual poverty. Brigham Young, President of the Church, encouraged these new members to gather in America to build up a Zion society. Their Zion was the Salt Lake Valley, thousands of miles away, and from 1856-1860, the method of transportation over plains and mountains was handcarts.
Many thousands of these European Mormons wanted to migrate to Salt Lake City, but there were obstacles. It was very costly to come so far making it nearly impossible for many of them who were barely scraping out an existence in England, Denmark, Switzerland, Holland, and other places. In order to travel so far, they needed to travel to a port city, sail to America, and ride trains, ferries, and steamships to the edge of the frontier before striking out through the plains and over the Rocky Mountains, carrying with them all that they owned, wore, and ate. Creating problems for them on their arrival to the frontier, many immigrants had never even seen oxen before and did not know how to handle them. Wagons and oxen were expensive and after almost a decade of settlement, the Salt Lake Valley was overflowing with wagons and oxen making them an almost worthless asset on arrival. New settlers no longer needed to bring a future supply of food to sustain them through their first harvest.
In order to overcome the cost of traveling so far, the Perpetual Emigration Fund, began operating in England in 1850 as method for funding this poverty stricken people with small loans to pay for the travel and supplies. To repay these loans, the beneficiaries would work on public projects such as building roads and irrigation systems, or they could pay cash when they began earning a living. Funded through donations , the PEF provided the means for 85,000 people to enter America and the Salt Lake Valley between 1852 and 1887. But in 1855 the lean harvest in the Salt Lake Valley created a tight money situation there.
In 1856, after years of using traditional wagons to gather the Saints, Brigham Young needed to try something new. He decided to try providing small handcarts for people to push and pull overland. Since large amounts of baggage and supplies were not necessary, the idea was to make lighter, less expensive carts in order for the people to carry their food supplies for the trail and bring over their belongings. They were hand drawn in order to get to the Salt Lake Valley quickly and without cumbersome oxen. According to Utah History Encyclopedia, the handcarts “resembled carts pulled by porters in large cities. The carts had hickory or oak wagon beds and hickory shafts, side pieces, and axles. Wheels were as far apart as normal wagon wheels.” These groups were able to travel faster than the traditional wagon groups, sometimes covering more than 20 miles on a good day according to many company journals.
In order to avoid overloading the small carts, “adults could take only seventeen pounds of baggage, children ten pounds. Families with small children traveled in covered or family carts which had stronger axles made of iron.” Family carts tolerated the added weight of tired children who periodically needed to ride on the carts. The church established re-supply points at Fort Laramie and Fort Bridger along the 1300 mile trail, allowing them to reduce the heavy food that they needed to carry. “Each cart carried 400 to 500 pounds of foodstuffs, bedding, clothing, and cooking utensils, and needed two able-bodied people to pull it. Five people were assigned to each cart.” But even with this system, there was never enough food and clothing so the people were sometimes cold and always hungry. Food was often rationed in order to last them until they could obtain more.
The railroads brought the immigrants as far as Iowa City and after 1859 to Florence, Nebraska, where they were outfitted with handcarts and tents for the long walk and educated on trail living. Most of these immigrants had never been in such unsettled wide open spaces, nor had they been so far from urban areas. Many of them were former industrial workers and some did not know any English. A few had been coal miners who rarely saw the light of day. Coming from cramped cities, they did not know how to build campfires, put up tents, fix handcarts or cook over fires . These skills were perfected in Iowa City and Florence and perfected along the extensive trail.
Handcart groups were arranged into companies. There were ten handcart companies between 1856 and 1860, providing almost 3000 people the means to join the rest of the Saints in Salt Lake. Five of the ten companies crossed in 1856. Organization was important to a successful journey. As with earlier Mormon wagon companies, each handcart company organized itself by hundreds with a “captain of hundred” at the head. Each hundred was further organized into tents of twenty people, with about five people or a family assigned to each cart. These captains were to watch over the people in their groups and all were expected to help whenever they could, even sharing their resources with each other. Some ox-driven wagons escorted the handcart companies as baggage and provision transportation with one wagon per twenty carts.
The route these pioneers took, known as the Mormon Trail, broke off from the Oregon Trail and followed its own route through Nebraska and Wyoming into Utah. “The route followed the Platte, North Platte, and Sweetwater rivers across the Great Plains to South Pass, in Wyoming, and then turned southwest and crossed the Wasatch Range, passing through Echo and Emigration canyons.” Some of the rivers had sandy bottoms and required great exertion for the people to pull the loaded carts through. They crossed the Platte River often, and pushed and pulled over bluffs and loose, sandy roads. As they ascended to higher elevations, the weather often became very cold. Rocky Ridge was an especially cold, brutal pass strewn with rocks and steep inclines , which often broke carts and exhausted the people. Upon entering the Salt Lake Valley the new arrivals were taken in to the homes of the Mormons there and given time to rest, heal, and get their strength back.
Throughout these years the immigrants worked hard to make the handcart program a success. Ultimately, using handcarts to cross the plains was short-lived, ending in 1860. Various other methods were employed and by 1869 most immigrants moved west via the newly constructed transcontinental railroad . But the handcart program was an answer to the many problems of poverty and persecution facing thousands of European Mormons, who wanted to gather to the Salt Lake Valley during these years. It also provided hope to thousands of people and inexperience was no longer a major obstacle. The handcart program allowed the people to escape the persecution they experienced and live in a community with those who believed as they did. Although the trail was difficult and tragedies lined the way, handcarts proved to be an inexpensive and efficient means of crossing the terrain for thousands of these Europeans who wanted to gather to Zion.
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