In the footsteps: Trekkers re-enact pioneer handcart journey
MARTIN’S COVE, Wyo. — On July 28, 1856, a company of 575 individuals with 145 handcarts and eight wagons departed from Iowa City, Iowa, bound for Salt Lake City, Utah. At the behest of religious leader Brigham Young, these Mormon pioneers were bound for what they referred to as “Zion,” a place where they wouldn’t be persecuted for their beliefs.
But the travelers were grossly unprepared for the conditions and hardships that lay ahead on the 1,300-mile journey. They built handcarts as a cheap way to carry their belongings, but had to leave many things behind, including bulky winter clothing.
The Martin Company — led by Capt. Edward Martin — left late in the season, was unable to carry sufficient supplies and got caught in severe October blizzards in central Wyoming. About one in four died of cold and/or starvation, an estimated 150 to 170 succumbing before they reached the safety of their Mormon brethren. Eventually, a rescue party sent out by the church leaders in Salt Lake City located the travelers and assisted them in making the final leg of the journey.
Earlier this summer, about 100 youths and leaders from the Sioux Falls, S.D., Stake of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which includes the Worthington branch of the church, participated in a “trek” — a re-enactment of a small part of the journey their forebearers undertook in order to reach “the promised land.”
“Each church region — our church calls the region a Stake — will call the Mormon pioneer center and say, ‘We want to sign up for such and such a week,’” explained Hannon Ford, an estate attorney from Windom who is the lay leader of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints congregation in Worthington.
The Sioux Falls Stake undertakes trek every four years so that each youth has the opportunity to experience it once and get a sense of the sacrifices pioneers made for their faith.
“They have full-time missionaries who work there and go along with you, and they share some of the stories, the significance of what happened at this crossing or this area. It really brings it to heart,” explained Hannon.
The group from the Sioux Falls Stake arrived at the Mormon Handcart Visitors Center in Martin’s Cove wearing period-appropriate clothing, including long skirts and bonnets for the females and long-sleeved buttoned shirts and wide-brimmed hats for the males. They were divided into 14 families, each with an adult married couple acting as their Pa and Ma and nine or 10 youths.
Hannon and his wife were originally going to be handcart parents, but a medical emergency kept his wife at home. Daughter Eliza was assigned to another handcart family, while Hannon served as an “uncle” figure in a different group.
“When we got there, we were assigned to our families, and I knew no one except for one girl,” explained Eliza Ford, 15, a sophomore at Windom Area High School. “But by the end, I was completely in awe by how fast I connected with my brothers and sisters and Ma and Pa, so to speak.”
“At the beginning, I was reserved and aloof because I didn’t know anyone in my trek family,” said another member of the Worthington congregation, Shania Combs, 15. “But we got closer. We became like an actual family. We had to move like a team, not moving in different directions.”
Each family was assigned to a 60-pound handcart that would be pushed or pulled across the hills and prairies — requiring that teamwork.
“I was surprised at how heavy the carts are,” noted Hannon. “You see stories and see pictures of women pulling these carts. I’m a generally healthy guy, and I figured I can pull this cart, but I couldn’t do it by myself.”
For Eliza, one of more memorable parts of the journey was when the women had to pull the carts by themselves.
“One day, we had this thing called the women’s pull,” she related. “All the men and young men had to go to the top of this hill and watch while the women pulled the carts up the hill. That was because, on the real trek, so many women’s husbands died or were injured, or they had gone off to the war. When we were doing the women’s pull, you could see that some of the men were crying as they watched. And before the women’s pull — which was supposed to be a secret but everyone knew about it — the brothers in my family wouldn’t let any of the women pull before it (so they could conserve their strength).”
In Shania’s family, one of her “sisters” was an inspiring force, especially when it came time for the women’s pull.
“She brought us together,” she said. “I was worried if I could do the women’s pull. It looked like it would be really hard to pull that wagon up that long hill with just us five girls. But this girl told us she thought we could do it, and we should give it a try. I thought, ‘If she thinks we can do it, we can do it.’ All the way up the hill, she kept encouraging us. It was really hard, but we did it.”
At night, even though they were tired from their travails, the trekkers gathered around campfires for devotions, singing and dancing before retiring to their sleeping bags on the ground.
Throughout the several days of their journey, each of the trek participants carried the name and story of one of the original members of the handcart companies and was asked to spend time remembering them as they re-enacted significant events in the pioneer history.
“We only experienced a little bit of what they experienced,” acknowledged Eliza. “By the end, we had walked 22 miles with handcarts. I looked it up later. The pioneers traveled 1,300 miles. We crossed the river on our trek, and it was summer, and it was still freezing cold. They crossed the same river in the middle of winter, and some of them died because of it. I can’t imagine doing that.”
In Shania’s family, one of the children had braces on his knees, so he rode in the handcart.
“We heard a story of an old man who had bad legs, but he still wanted to go to Zion. People tried to get him to ride in the handcart. He had to humbled himself to ride,” compared Shania about the real events and her experience, particularly when crossing the river.
“There was a drop-off, so it was up to the box of the handcart. It was really heavy because we had the injured boy in it. It was really hard to pull the handcart up the side of the bank. It was hard, and the water was only up to our knees. Sometimes when pioneers crossed rivers, it was up to their shoulders. I don’t know how they did it.”
For the trek participants, the experience invoked admiration for what the pioneers went through as well as reflections on their own faith and greater appreciation for their families, homes and conveniences of modern living.
“They were stronger and more faithful than I thought,” said Hannon about the Mormon pioneers. “I thought I could probably handle that, but honestly I probably would have died out there if I had to do what they did.”
“I’m so glad I did it,” said Eliza. “It was the place I was supposed to be this summer. … There are so many things I learned from this trek. What I think I’m going to remember most is the emotional and spiritual aspect I got from trek, the feelings I felt there. Now I really appreciate my own pioneer ancestors and everyone else who made that journey to Salt Lake City because they were persecuted everywhere else,”
For Shania, the trek deepened her resolve to pursue a career as a doctor.
“At times I have doubted myself or thought maybe it would be too hard to go to college or do some of the things I want to do with my life,” she said. “... (The missionaries) said sometimes the women were stronger than the men. Sometimes they would pull harder than the men. They were strong. They believed in themselves and in what they were doing. The missionaries said we need to believe in ourselves. We are stronger than we think we are. We can do so much more than we think we can. It makes me want to try harder.”
For more information on the handcart treks, go to https://www.lds.org/locations/mormon-handcart-historic-site.
Daily Globe Features Editor Beth Rickers may be reached at 376-7327.