Handcarts novel in history

For all the prominence they play in pioneer celebrations, handcarts actually had a minor role in the overall western migration of the pioneers.

Despite all the songs and all the stories, only slightly more than 3,000 of the tens of thousands of immigrants bound for Zion used handcarts.In total, the handcart immigration accounted for approximately 4 percent of those who came to Utah.

The concept of the handcart began as early as 1850, explained Lyndia Carter, an expert on the handcart migration and a member of the Utah Crossroads Chapter of the Oregon-California Trails Association.

Brigham Young, she explained, spoke of gold-seekers who would use carts or wheelbarrows to reach California to worship their god - gold. He implied that Church members could do the same to reach Zion. He fully expected members to arrive in 1852 by handcart, but it was not to be.

But by 1855, the Perpetual Emigrating Fund, a system of donations, loans and repayment used to assist immigrants needing assistance, was deeply in debt. A cheaper way had to be found. From this economic crisis the handcart plan was conceived by Brigham Young.

"I have been thinking how we should operate another year," wrote Brigham Young. "We cannot afford to purchase wagons and teams as in times past, I am consequently thrown back upon my old plan - to make handcarts, and let the emigration foot it, and draw upon them the necessary supplies. . . . They can come as quick, if not quicker, and much cheaper. . . . If it is once tried you will find that it will become the favorite mode of crossing the plains; they will have nothing to do but come along, and I should not be surprised if a company of this kind should make the trip in sixty or seventy days. . . ."

The faith of these new immigrants would pull them every bit as much as they would pull their handcarts. Of all the things that they were told about handcart travel, what they were not told was that hunger would pull at their insides, their feet would become painfully sore and their muscles would grow almost unendurably weary.

A total of 10 handcart companies crossed the plains. The two most well-known companies were led by James G. Willie and Edward Martin. Both became trapped in early winter snow, causing the death of many through starvation and exposure in October and November 1856.

But these handcart tragedies, as compelling as they are, were not the typical handcart experience. Up until the middle of October 1856 even the Willie and Martin companies were living the "normal" daily life of hunger, fatigue and grueling drudgery. Any pleasure these handcart immigrants may have had they found deep within themselves - in their faith, their love of family, their sensitivity to beauty and their appreciation of simple things, their hope in the future, their enjoyment of music, and their sense of humor. Otherwise, life was a constant grind.

Despite the daily drudgery and the tragic drama, most of the handcart immigrants felt they had reached their goal and that was what mattered, not what they had suffered to get there.

Sarah Beesley, later in life, wanted to forget the whole experience and spoke the feelings of many when she said:

"Yes, I crossed the plains with a handcart but I am thankful I have never had to again. I could't do it. One such experience is quite enough."



The handcart era lasted only four years, 1856-1860, with no carts used in 1858.

A total of 10 handcart companies crossed the plains.

Iowa City, Iowa, was the outfitting place in 1856-57. Florence, Neb., was the outfitting place in 1859-60, shortening the distance to 1,000 miles.

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