In an extraordinary demonstration of resolve and fortitude, nearly 500 members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (often informally known as Mormons) leave Iowa City and head west for Salt Lake City carrying all their goods and supplies in two-wheeled handcarts. Of all the thousands of pioneer journeys to the West in the 19th century, few were more arduous than those undertaken by the so-called Handcart Companies from 1856 to 1860.
The secular and religious leader of the religious sect, Brigham Young, had established Salt Lake City as the center of a new Utah sanctuary for the Latter-day Saints in 1847. In subsequent years, Young worked diligently to encourage and aid members who made the difficult overland trek to the Great Salt Lake. In 1856, however, a series of poor harvests left the church with only a meager fund to help immigrants buy wagons and oxen. Young suggested a cheaper mode of travel: “Let them come on foot with handcarts or wheelbarrows; let them gird up their loins and walk through and nothing shall hinder or stay them.”
Amazingly, many members of the church followed his advice. On June 9, 1856, a band of 497 left Iowa City, Iowa, and began the more than 1,000-mile trek to Salt Lake City. They carried all their goods in about 100 two-wheeled handcarts, most of which were heaped with the maximum load of 400 to 500 pounds. Each family usually had one cart, and the father and mother took turns pulling while any children old enough helped by pushing.
The handcart immigrants soon ran into serious problems. The craftsmen who had constructed the handcarts back in Iowa City had chosen to use wooden axles instead of iron in order to save time and money. Sand and dirt quickly wore down the wood, and water and heat made the axles splinter and crack. As the level terrain of the prairies gave way to the more rugged country of the Plains, the sheer physical challenge of hauling a 500-pound cart began to take its toll. One British immigrant who was a skilled carpenter wrote of having to make three coffins in as many days.
Some of the pilgrims gave up. Two girls in one handcart group left to marry a pair of miners they met along the way. The majority, however, struggled on and eventually reached the Salt Lake Valley. Over the course of the next four years, some 3,000 converts made the overland journey by pushing and pulling heavy-laden handcarts. Better planning and the use of iron axles made the subsequent immigrations slightly easier than the first, and some actually made the journey more quickly than if they had used ox-drawn wagons. Still, once the church finances had recovered, Young’s followers returned to using conventional wagons. The handcart treks remained nothing less than heroic. One girl later estimated that she and her family had each taken over a million steps to reach their goal, pushing and pulling a creaking wooden handcart the entire way.