Mormon Handcart Tragedy of 1856


Mormon Handcart Pioneers

Mormon Handcart Pioneers

“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.”


The Mormon handcart pioneers were participants in the migration of members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to Salt Lake City, Utah, who used two-wheeled handcarts to transport their belongings. The movement began in 1856 and continued until 1860.

In 1856, a series of poor harvests left the church with only a meager fund to help immigrants buy wagons and oxen, and church leaders looked for less expensive ways to move poor immigrants. As a result, Brigham Young announced on October 29, 1855 a handcart system by which the church would provide carts to be pulled by hand across the Mormon Trail. Young believed that with their carts and 90 days’ rations the travelers could make the long journey to Utah Territory within 70 days, covering about 18 miles each day. This was less time than it took to travel in a covered wagon, which averaged about 73 days.

Handcart Map courtesy Latter Day Saints Church

Handcart Map courtesy Latter Day Saints Church

Ten handcart companies would make the trek during the four years the plan was in operation. These migrations included some some 3,000 Mormon converts from England, Wales, Scotland and Scandinavia in about 650 handcarts.

The carts were pulled from Iowa City, Iowa, a distance of 1,300 miles, or from Florence (Omaha), Nebraska which was 1,030 miles. Each cart carried 400 to 500 pounds of foodstuffs, bedding, clothing, and cooking utensils, and needed two able-bodied people to pull it. Five people were assigned to each cart. Adults could take only 17 pounds of baggage, and children were allowed 10 pounds each. Families with small children traveled in covered or family carts which had stronger axles made of iron.

Handcart company captains were men with leadership and trail experience. Each company included a few ox-drawn commissary and baggage wagons, at least one per twenty carts. Wagons or carts carried large public tents, one for every 20 people. Captains of 100 people had charge of five tent groups.


Mormon Handcart Family

Mormon Handcart Family

“Many a father pulled his cart, with his little children on it, until the day preceding his death.”

– John Chislett, a survivor

The trek was disastrous for two of the companies, which started their journey dangerously late and were caught by heavy snow and severe temperatures in central Wyoming. Despite a dramatic rescue effort, more than 210 of the 980 pioneers in these two companies would die along the way.

One of these companies, led by James G. Willie, left Iowa City on July 15th, and crossed Iowa to Florence, Nebraska.

Prior to the Willie Company departing Nebraska, they met to debate the wisdom of such a late departure. But, because they were unfamiliar with the trail and the climate, they deferred to the church elders. One of the missionaries and sub-captain in the Willie Company, Levi Savage, urged them to spend the winter in Nebraska arguing that a late departure would lead to suffering, sickness and even death. However, all the other church elders argued that the trip should go forward, declaring that the company would be protected by divine intervention. As many as 100 pioneers decided to spend the winter in Nebraska or Iowa. However, the vast majority, including Levi Savage, continued the journey west. They left on August 17th.

The last company, under Edward Martin, departed Florence on August 25th. Two ox-wagon trains, led by captains W.B. Hodgett and John A. Hunt, followed the Martin Company.

In the fall, the Richards party, a group of fast-traveling missionaries returning to Utah from Europe, passed the Willie and Martin companies. On October 4th the Richards party reached Salt Lake City where they conferred with president Brigham Young and other Church leaders, reporting that the two large handcart parties were still on the way.

The next morning, the elders called on Church members to provide wagons, mules, supplies, and teamsters to find the latecomers and bring them in. On the morning of October 7 the first rescue party left Salt Lake City with 16 wagon-loads of food and supplies, pulled by four-mule teams with 27 young men serving as teamsters and rescuers. Throughout October more wagon trains were assembled, and by the end of the month 250 relief wagons were on the road.

Old Fort Laramie

Old Fort Laramie

In the meantime, the two companies of pioneers reached Fort Laramie, Wyoming, where they expected to be restocked with provisions. However there were no provisions pre-stocked for them. As a result, the companies cut back food rations, hoping that their supplies would last until help could be sent from Utah. Additionally, they lightened their loads, cutting individuals luggage allowance. Clothing and blankets, that later would be desperately needed, were discarded.

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