The Handcart Pioneers
Thousands of immigrants from England and Wales who joined the Church and the trek west took on a new form of transportation to Salt Lake City. They couldn't afford wagons after leaving their homeland, so they pulled handcarts. The human-powered handcarts, which were envisioned by Brigham Young, proved to be one of the most brilliant—and tragic—experiments in all western migration.
Iowa City was the end for the west-bound railroad in 1856. It was here that the convert emigrants were outfitted with handcarts to begin their trek. With nearly empty carts they made good time across Iowa to Council Bluffs. Here they acquired the remaining provisions for their long march.
This was a human-powered wagon, really a wooden wheelbarrow of sorts. Although modifications in design were adapted as experience tutored, the standard handcart "box" measured three-feet by four-feet, with eight-inch walls, centered over a single axle with wagon-style wheels. From the front box of the handcart extended a cross bar against which the person pulling could lean into the load and pull. Some handcarts were covered with a bow-frame canvas assembly. Fully loaded, a handcart could hold around 500 pounds of provisions and possessions, within which adults were allowed 17 pounds of clothing and bedding, children 10 pounds. Frequently even this amount became onerous, and belongings were abandoned all along the trail.
Perpetual Emigrating Fund
The Church inaugurated the Perpetual Emigrating Fund Company (PEF) in 1849. The PEF used Church assets and private contributions to assist poor emigrants from the eastern U.S. and Europe on their journey to the Salt Lake Valley. The funds were extended as a loan rather than as a gift, and sponsored emigrants signed a note obligating themselves to repay the PEF after they arrived in Utah. This obligation could be met through cash, commodities, or labor. It is estimated that prior to its dismantling in 1887, the PEF assisted more than 30,000 people to travel to Utah by wagon, by pulling a handcart or (after 1869) by rail.
Ten Handcart Companies
Ten companies of handcart pioneers walked the 1,300 miles from Iowa City (the end of the rail line) to Salt Lake City between 1856 and 1860, pulling and pushing all that they owned. Of the total of 2,962 handcart immigrants, about 250 died along the way, 220 of them in companies four and five, the Willie and Martin companies of 1856.
"Many a father pulled his cart, with his little children on it, until the day preceding his death" (LeRoy R. Hafen and Ann W. Hafen, Handcarts to Zion: The Story of a Unique Western Migration 1856–1860, , 102).
"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" (Arthur King Peters, Seven Trails West , 145).
Tragedy of the Martin and Willie Handcart Companies of 1856
Two handcart companies of poor European emigrants—980 people and 233 handcarts—started on the journey across the plains late in the year due to a series of mishaps. Eventually, nearly 220 members of the two companies died on the high plains, the majority freezing to death in early snowstorms near the Continental Divide in central Wyoming. Many others suffered trail-side amputations of fingers, toes, and legs due to frostbite. Rescue parties from Salt Lake City averted further tragedy.
"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 humankindness 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" (Wallace Stegner, "Ordeal by Handcart," Collier's, 6 July 1956, 85).