Frederick Hansen, "The Great Handcart Train from Iowa City to Salt Lake City," Journal of History 9 (October 1916): 408-16.
View this source online
It was understood before we left Denmark that many were to go by handcart across the plains. Father's family were among that lot. The balance were to travel in wagons pulled by oxen, in a company by themselves. The handcarts, and going to Zion were talked of a good deal by the church members. We were told that it would be pleasant to travel without having the oxen to care for twice a day and that there wouldbe greater blessings for those who made the greatest sacrifice. I well remember that President Young (as he was called by those people) in an article that came out in the Scandinavian Star said prophetically that the time would come when the saints would be willing to go to Zion with a bundle on their backs and be glad to have that privilege. However, that prophetic statement has not as yet been fulfilled.
The only time handcarts were used was two years 1856-57. We find an account of a handcart company consisting of seventy-four young missionaries that left Utah April 23, 1857. That company were all men and able to travel. (They were going to the states on a mission.) But for men, women and children, of all ages and conditions of life to travel in this way proved to be unwise, and never provided for by the great God above.
The following is what transpired while I was with the company in 1857:
I see in the Star that those who were to pull or travel with the handcarts arrived in Iowa City, Tuesday, June 9, 1857, after traveling almost two months. We were taken from the station to the camp grounds a short distance from the city. Here we found large round tents with one center pole and large enough to hold two or three families. Tents were all set up ready for us weary travelers. We were informed that Elder [James P.] Parks would be our captain and as he could speak only the English language, O. N. [Ola Nilsson] Liljenquist, a man who could speak the English and Danish languages, was appointed interpreter.
We were now informed that we had three days to get ready to start on that long, tedious journey. The handcarts were brought to camp, each family was given one with the instruction that fifteen pounds for each member of the family was all that could be allowed; and this must include bedding, wearing apparel and family provisions. The tents and their fixtures were hauled on a wagon provided for that purpose. There were also two or three other wagons which were used to convey those who were unable to walk, some on account of old age, others were crippled, and still others too young or weak. My mother being so weak, was allowed to ride. This arrangement would have been all right if everything had been carried out as was planned and promised when we started.
The fifteen pound arrangement was quite a puzzle. The company had heard of it before leaving Copenhagen but supposed it meant fifteen pounds of wearing apparel and not everything. When father came to that, he did not know what to do. Mother was sick, bedfast. The railroad journey from Philadelphia was too much for her weak body. Father thought for awhile we would have to stay in Iowa City. Mother called us children to her bedside one afternoon, and l being the oldest, she talked mostly to me, telling me she could not live to get to Zion and wanted me to help father with the younger children. It left an impression on our minds that was not to be forgotten. Though mother lived for forty years after, I never forgot that afternoon.
When our three days of preparation had passed, father like many others had solved that awful problem of fifteen pounds by throwing away and leaving good clothing that he knew would be needed before spring.
When starting time came, we were ready, father with his handcart, mother in one of the wagons. The order of the company was that each night the tents should be pitched in a circle, the handcarts and camp fires outside the tents. The object being that the smoke would drive the mosquitoes away and as we must always camp on low land on account of water the mosquitoes were an awful pest. Inside of the tents the circle was used for meetings. Every morning at five o'clock a whistle was blown for all to get up and prepare for breakfast. Immediately afterwards all that could were expected to meet in the circle yard for morning service, which consisted of singing a hymn and prayer. Then Elder Parks, captain, would make a few remarks in English which were interpreted in Danish, by O. N. Liljenquist, after that each one took his own place for the day's journey.
On Sunday we had regular services once or twice a day. In all the services all the speakers would impress as strongly as possible that it was not safe and also that we had no right to listen to anything about Utah and the doings of the people from outsiders. We were told the nearer we got to Zion the more power the Devil had. This was repeated time and time again, and sure enough we found that to be a fact.
Saturday, June 13, our first day, we traveled between eight and ten miles which was a plenty to start on. Pulling was new work to all, also the holding back as the carts had no brakes. Father worked on the left side of the cart, my brother John on the right, I worked in the middle, pulling on a rope about four feet long, one end of which was tied to the cart, to the other end a small stick was fastened for a handle. We made what some called a spike team. I always thought I had the easiest part as I did not have to hold back going down hill.
The first night, after the captain had selected our camping ground, tents were unloaded, each family got one, and we were told right here to mark the center pole so each would know his own. Then came the time for setting up tents and arranging for the first night, after which each family gathered fuel and prepared supper. We were all glad we had started on our last mode of traveling although we knew it would be tedious and seemed much slower after traveling on steamships and railroads. Still every day brought us nearer our goal, a fact for which all were grateful. Little talking and visiting were done the first night for I remember we were all very tired and soon retired for the night. The next day, June 14, was Sunday and we did not travel.
There were services both morning and afternoon but none in the evening which was the case as long as father was with the company. Between the meetings the glory of the handcarts was being discussed; all were filled with delight to think they would get to Zion before the prophecy of Brigham Young should be fulfilled that, "the time would come when the saints would be glad of the privilege to go to Zion with a pack on their backs, to escape the overflowing scourge that would come in like a flood."
Monday morning at the services it was announced that all the old folks, the sick, and children that possibly could, were to walk up the first hill. You see we always had to camp near a stream and therefore always had a hill to start out with every morning. My mother did not have to walk the first morning but in three or four days she was told she must walk up the first hill. A few days later they wanted her to walk up two or three hills, others were urged the same way. It was done so the sickly would gain strength. This was a poor policy for instead of the weakly gaining strength many got weaker after each walk, until the company was obliged to buy another team and wagon. We traveled on in this fashion until another Sunday came, June 21, and that day the handcart train traveled eighteen miles before we stopped for dinner which was about two o'clock. After dinner we had a short church service.
Monday morning we moved along again. We were told we would soon meet the United States mail coach and that when we did we must give all the road, for Uncle Sam, then as now, claimed the "right of way" for the mail. I remember the first time we met the "mail man" as we called him. We were at the foot of a big hill when from over the top came the sound of a big horn. Looking, we saw a coach and four horses coming at breakneck speed. We all turned out and stopped, and after it passed we continued our slow speed. We did not in those days know anything about automobiles and were satisfied with slow traveling.
About this time we crossed the Des Moines River. I do not remember whether it was below or above Des Moines. But I do remember the long bridge on which we crossed the river. While in this neighborhood the leaders thought they would see how well mother could walk. The teams had been in the habit of waiting at camp for an hour or so after the handcarts and walkers had started. But on this particular morning the teamswere quite late in starting. Mother and some few others had walked as far as they could, so sat down to rest and wait for the wagons. Imagine their surprise when one after another wagon passed and left mother and her companions sitting by the roadside. They did not know what to think but supposed the teams would soon come back. In this they were mistaken. So after resting awhile they started plodding along again, resting every little ways. I often wonder what my poor mother thought when she and those with her were left alone in a strange country and not knowing whether or not they had the right road, without water and without even a shade tree to hide them from the burning rays of that June sun which shines so beautiful at times and also which sends its scorching heat on bad or good and weak or strong alike.
But mother said she had faith enough in my father that he would find her, and that he would not leave camp until she came in. Father always watched the teams as they passed us but on that day he did not see her in any of the wagons and said to brother John and me, "I wonder if they have left mother on the road, I don't seem to find her." That evening when we pulled into camp, father's first thought was to go to the teams and see about mother, but alas! she was not to be found. They had left her with others out on the prairies with no one to look after them. Father went at once, to see our interpreter who was also first counselor to the captain and demanded to know what this kind of treatment meant. The brother told father to be quiet—that his wife was not the first one to be left on the prairies by the roadside. Father knew this to be true from what he had heard; still he did not think they would leave mother.
Nevertheless, a team was sent for them, a four-mule team hitched to a lumber wagon. Mother told us afterwards that it was the worst ride she ever had. It seems like the drivers were in a hurry and drove very fast and as the saying goes, hit all the high places. Mother took her thin calico apron and folded it to put under her knees and then caught each side of the wagon with her hands. Uphill and down, over rough roads and smooth, they kept the same pace. They reached camp at midnight.
This act of cruelty hurt father and weakened his confidence in our company leaders. I think from that time on he planned some on pulling out at Florence. Here the leaders thought it would be best to have another team. So one of the brethren by name of Christenson bought a yolk of cattle and wagon and said he would haul his own family and a few others. Father got him to carry mother. After that no one was left behind, all were in camp every night. Father's family and all those that Brother Christenson took with him felt that we could never thank him enough for his kindness. I often wonder what has become of him. He joined the cattle train at Florence and started westward.
On Sunday, June 28, we rested all day, attending services both morning and afternoon. The captain, Elder Parks, made quite a long talk which was interpreted by O. N. Liljenquist. It was understood it would be the last Sunday before we would reach Florence, and the main substance of those talks was "Obey your leaders" and all would go well, listen to no outsiders.
Monday morning we started again after packing and loading the handcarts. Here we had the advantage of our oxen drivers, they had to hitch up their cattle, while we just hitched up ourselves. Perhaps all the readers have seen balky horses; I often wonder why the men did not balk. Times change and what we look at now as a hardship was then taken as a matter of course.
Still those of our party that were well got along fine. A few died on the way and were buried along the roadside. Graveyards were not accessible. At each burial a short service was always held, then we would move right on. No mercy was shown the ones called to mourn.
Shortly after dinner on the second day of July we came in sight of Council Bluffs, once known as Kanesville. We came up on what we used to call the Glenwood road. Just before we got to the edge of town we were met by the city officers who claimed we had the smallpox (which was not true) and forbid us going through the city. So we turned south and went west leaving the town to the north. We arrived at the Missouri River about evening and camped there for the night.
Some of the campers had a curiosity to see the "Muddy" as it is often called. Our leaders had been telling us of this terrible river and that Brigham Young had seen the Devil riding on the water. He had instructed the saints to be very prayerful when they were crossing the water on account of the curse that rested on it. We had heard of this talk in Denmark, but the farther west we got the more of that talk we heard.
July 3 we were all rejoicing, it was the last morning to pack before we would reach Florence. All were eager to travel and left right after our morning service. We followed the river up to the ferry. There was a steamboat of good size that took us across the river. We were right in Omaha when we got across, we did not stop in Omaha but traveled seven miles north to Florence which was then only a small village about as big then as now. We reached Florence about noon. The company realized it was now time to get ready for that toilsome journey across the desert. The next day, July 4, we were told was a national holiday and big celebrations were held everywhere.
On account of mother's continued poor health father thought it would be best for him to remain in the States a year or so until conditions would be more favorable, so he did not make any preparations to move on with the rest. Elder Parks resigned his position as captain and associated himself with the cattle train. O. N. Liljenquist also resigned. Elder Christen [Christian] Christenson who had been on a mission in the States and was on his way home, was appointed captain and as he could speak both the Danish and English languages no other was needed.
This town of Florence was the last outfitting place this side of Salt Lake City and what they did not get there they went without, so every effort was made to get the necessary supplies. Father sold out his share in the company to three young men that wanted to go to Zion.
The handcart train left Florence on Tuesday, July 7, for the West. What transpired daily I know nothing about, as father and family left the company at Florence, Nebraska. I see in the Scandinavian Star, a paper published in Denmark, that the company arrived at Laramie on the tenth day of August; this was considered half way. They wrote they had been blessed with health and were in good spirits and ready to continue their journey to Salt Lake.O. E. Olsen who had been president of their church in Copenhagen wrote from Utah in the fall of 1857 to his friends in Denmark that the company arrived there on the thirteenth day of September in the valley of the mountains.