Transcript for C. C. A. Christensen, "By Handcart to Utah: The Account of C. C. A. Christensen," translated by Richard L. Jensen, Nebraska History 66 (1985): 332-48
[pages 337-44] The journey then continued by rail to Iowa City, which was the westernmost point the iron horse had reached, and there we were to begin our honeymoon trip with handcarts.
At the campground we encountered our first trials, in that we had to give up books which were bound and had been kept carefully for a long time, particularly our "Skandinaviske Stjerner" ("Scandinavian Stars".) We were only allowed to take with us fifteen pounds in weight for each person who was to travel with the handcarts, and that included our tinware for eating, bedding, and any clothing we did not wish to carry ourselves. Thus I remember that I sold my best trousers to a passing ox driver for twenty-five cents, and others had to leave valuable articles behind at the campground without any compensation. Books were left there in large numbers, and their loss has been felt afterwards with sorrow by others as well as myself.
We were given a returning missionary by the name of (James P.) Park, a native of Scotland, as captain of the handcart company. The less said about this unfortunate choice of a leader for such a people as us, the better for him. We suffered greatly the first two or three hundred miles, traveling through the state of Iowa until we reached the Missouri River. The hot season of the year, frequent rainshowers, almost bottomless roads, exertion and diet to which we were unaccustomed, and the unreasonable, inconsiderate course of action pursued by our leader (Park), brought about much sickness and many deaths among us. But through all these trials the brothers Dorius and I were, as before, always one another's inseparable, faithful helpers. Each of us had a little part of the company to help organize. Then as afterwards, Carl Dorius was the Samaritan among the sick; the encouraging, helpful friend and brother to the despondent and the exhausted. That was no less true of his young wife, and I must say the same of the other newly-married wives and of F. Dorius.
After we were reorganized in Florence (Nebraska), and were given our well-known Danish brother Christian Christiansen as our leader, things went much better. The very weakest persons were left behind; we took a number with us who were half exhausted. He (Christiansen) began with very short daily travel and walked the entire way himself in order to better be near at hand and to be able to assess the strength of the people, rather than riding horseback like other captains. His gentle, fatherly treatment will never be forgotten by those whom he led across the plains and the mountains in 1857.
Our train consisted of between thirty and forty handcarts. Each of these had an average of five persons and was loaded with what little bedding, tin eating ware, and other equipment was allowed . . . . In addition to that, we were to have a couple of hundred pounds of provisions in each handcart. Moreover, it was usually necessary for small children to ride in the handcart which the father, mother, and older brothers and sisters of the family pulled.
One of the people we had was a blind sister from Norway, who was about sixty years old, and she walked the whole way. But she was always cheerful, and as she pushed the handcart her young daughter was helping to pull we could often hear her merry laughter when she unexpectedly found herself wading through one or another of the many streams of water which were found along our way. "Now, Mother, we are about to cross some water, "we could hear her daughter warning her, "Is it deep?" or "How deep is it?" we heard in reply from the blind woman; and when the explanation was satisfactory, she walked cheerfully out into the water.
One of the most difficult streams that we had to ford was Loup Fork, a tributary of the Platte River. At the time we crossed, it was very wide, and besides that the bottom was loose sand, which was constantly shifting. The sick and the blind woman were allowed to ride in one of our freight wagons, for we had three wagons drawn by mules, which carried our tents and cookware, and in extreme emergencies one or more of those who were sick or fatigued were allowed to ride. But such a ride was an object of dread for most, for to be driven over rocky and uneven roads, and with only the tents under oneself, was for sick people usually only a means of increasing their suffering, and in some cases of hastening their death.
At the river mentioned above, Loup Fork, several interesting and almost amusing scenes also took place.
A large Indian encampment was located at that time right at the fording place, and several of the young girls were ferried across by sitting behind a half-naked Indian on horseback, having to hold on to him around the waist in order not to fall off. Those of the emigrants who dared to wade had to hold on to each other in order not to be carried downstream in the strong current, and now and then the handcart also lost its footing and threatened to leave the company, at which time extra resources for rescue had to be utilized. But all went well, and not a thing was lost, nor was anyone hurt.
Early in the morning, generally, the children who could walk—some even under the age of four—were sent ahead, accompanied by their sisters, partly to avoid the dust and partly to walk as far as possible before the burning sun and exhaustion would make it necessary to put them in the handcart.
For me it is beyond all doubt that the angels of the Lord were with us, though they were unseen, for we were walking defenseless in a long, spread-out row, in what was then the land of wild Indians, and many times we were among great herds of buffalo that could have totally annihilated us if they had been startled or for one reason or another had been led in the same direction we were traveling. But they seemed to be held at a suitable distance the whole time, although they were often only a gunshot away.
I remember a certain sister who came up one morning when the tents were being packed up, with something in her apron. Upon inspection it proved to be a little person who had come to the world the previous evening. The mother had walked with her handcart all day the previous day, and she thought she would also walk as far that day as she could, but she was prevented from doing that and rode for a few days. Both the mother and the child are still alive and living in Monroe, Sevier County, Utah.
We also had "the blind and the lame, the woman with child and her that travaileth with child together. . . ," all represented in our traveling company, for we had a girl who had a wooden leg. And oddly enough, these persons made it all the way to their destination, while many younger persons marked our path with their graves, without as much as a nameboard, except where there happened to be a bleached buffalo skull. Yet the mood was, overall, cheerful and jovial, and very seldom were complaints or displeasure heard from anyone, even when sickness or death had invaded the family.
We were only poorly supplied with provisions when we left Florence and had a thousand miles of wilderness to cover before we could expect any more. The little smoked pork, dried beef, and sugar, coffee, salt, and other seasoning with which we were furnished lasted only about three weeks in most cases, and after that there was naturally flour, flour, flour, and only flour to eat. With this they baked bread, cooked porridge, gruel, soup, coffee, pancakes, and several other nice dishes, but still it was just flour, flour, and flour; and at one point the flour was scarce, too. We only shot one buffalo, and this happened almost like a miracle, for it had lagged behind the rest of the herd. We dared not attack the great herd under our circumstances at that time.
Our supplies were intended to be as few as possible, for the weight of the provisions had to be considered, and the hard daily toil increased our appetite, rather than decreasing it, except in cases of illness. Therefore, as it said in one of our songs of encouragement from those days:
Surely, it was hard, and often we got very tired/But the carts, with our appetite,/Soon became light./And yes, the road was long,/But there was merry joking - - ts, and song/When we made camp.
But the camp in the evening was not an absolute resting place for the tired pilgrims, for then it was a matter of preparing a meal from the sparse provisions that we had brought with us. . . . We also baked our bread in kettles we had brought along. This was the women's work, and sometimes took until past midnight, for each had to wait for the other to use the dutch oven. The men fetched water and gathered fuel, where firewood could be found; otherwise the women and children helped gather dried "Ko-kasser," as we call them in Danish, since on the great plains along the Platte River there were enough of that kind, from the abundant buffalo herds which existed there at that time. After that the men had to do guard duty four or five hours every fourth day and then begin the hike anew, after breakfast was prepared and consumed.
One nice trait characterized these people, both young and old, namely that their prayers and thanksgivings were held regularly every morning and evening. The train started moving at about 6:30. The vanguard of the procession consisted of the few cows which some of those with more means had bought from farmers along the way. The small boys drove them as far ahead of the company as was possible with tolerable safety, for you must remember that we were in the land of the Indians, and one could not always depend upon them for his life. Besides that we had the great herds of wild buffalo around us for many days, and if they had been alarmed and charged, that would have been the end for us, just as we could have been swept away by a tornado. But the Lord held his hand over our defenseless emigrant company, and we were not molested by either wild people or wild animals.
One of the most important questions every morning, which we usually asked our leader—we called him captain—was: "How far is it to water today?" For he had a book which gave the distance and other information about the route, particularly with regard to water and grass for the emigrants' draft animals. Only one single night did our captain make a mistake with the directions, and we found it necessary to stop when darkness fell without water. Then some of the brethren had to go back several miles to get water for their crying little ones. But as soon as daybeak came we broke camp and found water a few miles further along our way and soon forgot the privation of that night.
Although it was a trial and involved many hardships, there were still also now and then both interesting and happy scenes as well as comical scenes on the way. Our costumes would look fine at one of our so-called "Hard Times Balls." Our hats, or what might have once have been called hats, assumed the most grotesque shapes, seeing that the sun, wind, and rain had the superior force. The ladies' skirts and the men's trousers hung in irregular trimmings, and the foot coverings proportional to the rest, with or without bottoms. Our faces were gray from the dust, which sometimes prevented us from seeing the vanguard; our noses with the skin hanging in patches, especially on those who had as much nose as I have; and almost every lower lip covered with a piece of cloth or paper because of its chapped condition, which made it difficult to speak and particularly to smile or laugh.
Bedding was often altered to become everyday clothing, and a gentleman with trousers sewn from bed ticking was no curiosity in those days. Nor were the ladies so particular about whether their skirts could hide their poor footwear, if indeed they were well enough off to own a pair of shoes, for there were many who had none; but the Scandinavians managed well with wooden shoes in those days.
A very old man, who had completely lost his sense of smell, came into camp one day, after the rest of us had things somewhat in order, with a skunk which he counted on cooking for soup. This almost made the rest of us leave. He had killed it with his cane and knew nothing about its peculiar means of defense.
We had with us a tailor who was getting along in years, but who did not therefore think any the less of his own charm but wanted to try his luck with one of our Norwegian sisters. There were two who pleased him, but the one was married, and she let him continue with his mistake for some time, to the amusement of those of us who were in on the matter.
At the same time we were traveling as peaceful emigrants to Utah, a considerable military force was also on the way to Utah. But providentially they never came near us, in that they marched along the other side of the Platte River, where we could see them, and their weapons shone in the sun. They were sent out by the government to suppress a supposed rebellion—which did not exist at all—in Utah. As they amounted to several thousand men, large trains of provisions and fat stock were also sent out for their use, and most of these traveled on the same side of the river as we did. But we had no further inconvenience from them other than the dust they raised. One morning after we had been without any sort of meat for several weeks, we passed a large, fat ox, which they had left behind because one of their heavily loaded wagons had run over one of its feet and crushed it.
As we stood looking at the poor animal, the leader of the provision train to which it belonged came back, and in a coarse yet half-friendly tone he said, "You people can have that ox; I suppose you might need a little meat." Again we saw in this instance, the Lord's care for us. We got the ox butchered and divided the meat among ourselves, but that was not so easily done, for we did not even have a decent ax in the whole company, for almost everything that was heavy had to be left at the campground at Iowa City.
Since we had a butcher with us, the art of supplying us with fresh meat was turned over to him, but unfortunately he was accustomed to hitting cattle on the forehead. The ax he had brought was, like everything else, of the lightest kind, and the poor animal merely shook its head at his blows. Then came a mighty hunter. In all probability he had belonged to the militia in the town from which he came, and so he shot it through the nose. But finally another, luckier Nimrod came and felled the animal with his shot and put an end to its suffering.
There lay (at the campground near Iowa City) heaps of handsomely bound books, good warm clothes, and much else of value, of which we deeply felt the loss when we reached Utah. But greatest of all was the loss of many dear relatives and friends, who died along the way, in a sense as voluntary martyrs for their faith in the gathering to this land.
Perhaps many would have suffered an even worse fate if President Brigham Young had not established provision stations where flour could be obtained, and the first of these stations was about 400 miles east of Salt Lake City. Afterwards we were met by wagons with flour and fruit, which benefited us greatly, but particularly since these wagons picked up the weakest and sickest among us and thus lightened considerably the responsibility for the rest of us.
None but those who have experienced such a trial of patience, faith, and endurance can form an idea of what it meant to pull a handcart, which frequently even threatened to collapse because of the extreme heat and lack of humidity, which could cause the (wood of the) cart to split and thus deprive them of the last means they possessed to bring with them their absolute necessities.
Along the way lay the skeletons of worn-out oxen, but these heroes and heroines endured. . . . With their lips half eaten up by saleratus dust, and clothed in rags, with almost bottomless shoes on their feet, yet they greeted with songs of delight the rising sun which let them see Salt Lake City for the first time.
What changes have taken place since that time! In less than one week our emigrants are now brought here from the Atlantic coast, where they disembark after a few days' pleasant ocean voyage by steamship, while we in those days were tumbled about by sailing ships for several weeks, uncertain of the time when we could expect to see the promised land. And then the journey by land over the great, empty plains and high mountains on foot, poorly supplied with food and clothing—in short, subjected to almost every deprivation that people could bear and endure, and that for all of thirteen weeks.
One can perhaps form a vague idea of our feelings when we finally stopped here in this city and were met by kind brothers and sisters, many of whom brought cakes, milk, and other things that for us were so much needed.
It was a Sunday, and with the Danish flag on the lead handcart we marched to our last resting place as far as this journey was concerned. . . . A few days later all these pilgrims had disappeared from their last camping place, having found shelter and hospitality among the Saints in Zion.
Since that time I have traveled back and forth several times across these mountains and plains, but never have I seen people more patient and devoted to God than those with whom I faced these trying circumstances in the year 1857.