Handcarts and History

In many ways, handcarts have come to symbolize the Mormon pioneer experience. There are a few reasons for this. With the tragic experiences of the Willie and Martin handcart companies of 1856, the handcart companies are among the easiest group of pioneers to dramatize. As a result, popular Latter-day Saint historical fiction books and movies frequently focus on handcarts and the stories of handcart companies seem to come up almost as often as the rest of the pioneer companies combined in our Church meetings. And, of course, the handcart experience is the least expensive (and least complicated) pioneer experience to reproduce and therefore the most common way for Latter-day Saint youth to reenact Mormon pioneer treks, both in the western United States and elsewhere.[1] We even have movies dramatizing the trek reenactment experience now. While retelling and experiencing these things can be good, there are a few things to keep in mind when it comes to historical accuracy while discussing the handcart pioneers.

First, not all Mormon pioneers were handcart pioneers. Overland immigration in wagon trains to the Utah Territory occurred between the years 1847 and 1869 (when the completion of the First Transcontinental Railroad rendered wagon trains obsolete). The handcart companies made up a small subset of this group, consisting of 10 companies during the years 1856 to 1860, and only accounting for approximately 4-10% of all Latter-day Saint pioneers.[2] By the time the first handcart pioneers entered the Salt Lake Valley, around 40,000 Latter-day Saint settlers had already set roots down in the Great Basin region and both the 1847 vanguard company and the Mormon Battalion march had occurred nearly a decade ago.[3] Even during the four years that handcarts were used they were unpopular, with less than half of Mormon pioneers of that time using them.[4] The idea of using handcarts was merely one in a series of ideas that Church leaders tried out to make immigration cheaper and faster for converts and was phased out when the next idea (down-and-back wagon trains) came along.[5]

While most of the ten handcart companies were successful, it is the two that ran into the most trouble that receive the lion’s share of attention. This brings us to a second point—the experiences of the Willie and Martin handcart companies were not necessarily faith promoting for those involved or for the Saints already living in Utah Territory. Historian Chad M. Orton stated that: “The phrase in there that no one in the company ever left, you know, no one ever left the company—that’s just not historically accurate.”[6] Elsewhere, he noted that: “As a general rule, what is true now was true then. People tend to get out of an experience what they put into it. … While it is not known that anyone in the company apostatized directly as a result of the trials they endured in the cold and snow, there were Martin Company members who subsequently left the Church.”[7] Francis Webster (the man who said that he came to know God in his extremity) was an inspiring example of one who came to know God better through sacrifice and suffering with the handcart company, but not everyone came away with the same experience.[8]

For those Saints already living in Utah at the time, the experience wasn’t generally viewed as an example of sacrifice and dedication to the gospel—it was seen as a disaster and a failure on the part of Church leaders. Heber C. Kimball observed that: “There is a spirit of murmuring among the people and the fault is laid upon brother Brigham” for the tragedy of the handcart companies.[9] President Brigham Young himself seems to have been angry about the situation, though he blamed the Church officials that were over immigration. He publicly excoriated Franklin Richards and Daniel Spencer for their handling of the situation and (ironically) John Taylor for opposing the handcart companies in the first place.[10] It was decades later (when members of the Martin Handcart company were trying to convince the public that their debts to the Perpetual Emigration Fund should be forgiven) that the experience really began to be cast in terms of faithfulness and sacrifice.[11]

A third point is that the rescue of the Martin and Willie handcart companies involved many, not just a few, heroes. Two stories are told most frequently about rescuers—one about how Ephraim Hanks was ready to go with a few hours’ notice and one about three young men who carried an entire company across a freezing river, sacrificing their health and earning their salvation by doing so. As one rescuer by the name of Daniel W. Jones noted, however, “We did all we possibly could to help and cheer the people. Some writers have endeavored to make individual heroes of some of our company. I have no remembrance of any one shirking his duty. Each and everyone did all they possibly could and justice would give to each his due credit.”[12] For example, the story of the three young men as it is most frequently told is based on incomplete information. There were actually at least five young men that we know by name who carried members of the handcart company across the river. They likely did so with the help of wagons and only carried those least able to do so themselves (the sick, the old, children, and those too exhausted to make it across on their own).[13] In addition, there were at least 13 other rescuers present that day who were actively helping the Martin handcart company.[14] Concerning the health of those who carried people across the river, Chad M. Orton wrote that: “While some of these rescuers complained of health problems that resulted from the experience, most lived long and active lives that terminated in deaths that cannot be definitively attributed to their exposure to the icy water that day.”[15] While the actions of these young men were heroic, their efforts in carrying people across the Sweetwater River was only a part of the larger rescue efforts and involved more people than we usually talk about.

Sometimes, my brother-in-law jokes that conversations with me about Church history end up feeling like an episode of Adam Ruins Everything, so I initially joked about calling this post “Chad Ruins Handcarts”. My hope, however, isn’t to ruin handcart pioneers for everyone. The stories of handcart pioneers are still powerful and moving. Our efforts to replicate the pioneer trek experience have value as well. As historian John Turner noted, “the handcart companies—and their rescue—rightly came to symbolize the devotion and self-sacrifice of the Latter-day Saints.”[16] In perspective, however, the handcarts were a relatively small portion of the overall pioneer experience, accounting for less than 1/10th of all Mormon pioneers. We also have to keep in mind that not everyone from the Willie and Martin handcart companies remained members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints for life. Finally, the rescue effort to save them involved the heroic efforts and donations of thousands of individuals, so we have to be cautious in being too focused on the efforts of the very few.


Handcart pioneer statue on Temple Square in Salt Lake City, Utah


For some must push and some must pull

As we go marching up the hill;

So merrily on our way we go

Until we reach the Valley-o.



[1] I have heard of the trek experience being replicated in Iowa (where I served my mission) on a somewhat regular basis and even in other countries like Russia or the United Kingdom from time to time.

[2] Mormon Channel, Legacy—Episode 49, “Sweetwater Rescue”, https://www.mormonchannel.org/listen/series/legacy-audio/sweetwater-rescue-episode-49, transcribed by author.

[3] James B. Allen and Glen M. Leonard, The Story of the Latter-day Saints, 2nd ed (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 1992), 294.

[4] Allen and Leonard, Story of the Latter-day Saints, 294.

[5] Mormon Channel, Legacy—“Sweetwater Rescue”; Church History in the Fullness of Times Student Manual (Salt Lake City: Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 2003), 357-58.

[6] Legacy—Sweetwater Rescue.

[7]Chad M. Orton, “Francis Webster: The Unique Story of One Handcart Pioneer’s Faith and Sacrifice.” BYU Studies, 45(2) 117-140.  https://byustudies.byu.edu/content/francis-webster-unique-story-one-handcart-pioneers-faith-and-sacrifice

[8] See Orton, “Francis Webster.”

[9] Cited in Turner, Brigham Young: Pioneer Prophet (Cambridge and London: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2012), 253.

[10] Rebecca Cornwall and Leonard J. Arrington, “Rescue of the 1856 Handcart Companies” (Provo, UT: BYU Press, 1981), 38-39 and Turner, Brigham Young, 252-254.

[11] Orton, “Francis Webster”, 138-139.

[12] Daniel W. Jones, Forty Years among the Indians. A True Yet Thrilling Narrative of the Author’s Experiences among the Natives (Salt Lake City: Juvenile Instructor Office, 1890), 70. See also https://history.churchofjesuschrist.org/article/historic-sites/wyoming/five-things-you-might-not-know-about-the-handcart-rescue?lang=eng#mv2 for some more details on how many people were involved in the rescue effort.

[13] Chad M. Orton, “The Martin Handcart Company at the Sweetwater: Another Look,” BYU Studies 45, no. 3 [2006]: 15, 22. https://byustudies.byu.edu/content/martin-handcart-company-sweetwater-another-look The names of the five are C. Allen Huntington, George W. Grant, David P. Kimball, Stephen Taylor, and Ira Nebeker.

[14] Orton, “Martin Handcart Company”, 12.

[15] Orton, “Martin Handcart Company”, 8-9.

[16] Turner, Brigham Young, 252.

11 comments for “Handcarts and History

  1. Maybe it’s something like having to be the best, a kind of competition regarding whose ancestors were the best. Later generations often lionize and put up on a pedestal repeated stories with the possible objective of glorifying and creating faith promoting stories at the exclusion of historical truth. Such stories hinder the commandment to turn our hearts to our fathers, putting up barricades in coming to know our own ancestors. A collective memory of the builder of the nation, the faithful, honored pioneer distracts from the small, simple unsung choices most of our ancestors made. Glorifying one small group of pioneers, or even the pre 1869 as being the only real pioneers has a way of dividing rather than uniting and gathering. It allows envy and pride to enter our collective memory, which is the antithesis of the inclusive Gospel of Jesus Christ. Glorifying certain pioneers can make some descendants believe that they are better, and perhaps more deserving of salvation because of their lineage. Consequentially, it is very easy to give into the temptation to think less of one’s own ancestors, because their experience isn’t in the collective memory. By so doing, we ignore Malachi’s prophecy to our own detriment. Isn’t this what ending temple adoption sealings between church leaders and common members all about?

  2. Thank you for your information. My husband’s ancestry came to Utah in the 7th handcart company. I have always felt the same about the handcart companies as you have stated–that the Martin-Willey companies were a small part of the handcart experience. For those of us who have ancestors that did not come to Utah and settled in other places, the struggles were real and just as important to our personal history. Pioneers came from all generations throughout history in their efforts to seek a new way of life and continue to worship as they chose. My own family are pioneers in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints in that we were the first generation to be converted to our faith.

  3. Recently, University of Oklahoma released “The Mormon Handcart Migration: Tongue Nor Pen Can Never Tell the Sorrow” by Candy Moulton. Candy is not LDS, but she participated in the reenactment. Her book is a mixture of history and a bit of memoir (in the last chapter that describes her feelings about the Trek reenactment). This book was fairly thorough and identifies ALL of the companies and as many of the participants of each as possible. Naturally, the Willie and Martin Companies get some play. This is a good book on the subject and I recommend it.

  4. Having never lived in Utah, none of my ancestors ever traveled by handcart. As far as I am aware there are no handcarts in Australian history, and yet our stake bought handcarts, and our youth re enact something. The youth dress up as American poineers, push empty hand carts for a few hours until they arrive at a camp that has been set up and have catered meals.

    My parents were the first members, and my father the first branch president (in 1959) in an area where there are now 2 stakes. He then was called on a mission as a building supervisor, when buildings were built by volunteer labour. He did this for 8 years and sold his home to support his family. (Usually building supervisors were retired Americans who served for 18 months, and were paid a small allowance). He then worked for the church until he retired. For 10 years he was the church offices in Australia with a secretary, until someone came from SLC, found he was a builder, decided they needed an administrator. Within 5 years there were 100 people doing my fathers job, and he was offered a job back on the tools. For this no recognition, but we do reenactments of something culturally inapropriate but presumably suggested by SLC.

    I know this sounds a bit negative, but my father died last month, with no assetts, and when I pointed out his service to my Stake President, he contacted church offices, and they sent an email acknowledgeing his 30 years of faithfull service. He has never been held up as achieving something, (25 chapels at least) never mentioned in talks, someone had to look up his service to send the email. He dedicated his life to the church, outside the US, and his recognition is an email.

  5. I”m a member of a facebook group for Primary music leaders. Many of them have been planning special singing time activities to commemorate the pioneers. One woman posted a picture of a cute little model of a wagon she had made for the occasion. Another member had the audacity to chastise her: “You do know that’s a Conestoga wagon, not a handcart.” I was surprised at the ignorance. Do people really not know that the vast majority of the pioneers came with wagons?

  6. Thanks for using Orton’s research to set a few records straight. He also points out that one of the three young men whose salvation was guaranteed by Brother Brigham ended up in prison. Whatever. Life’s always more complicated than our romanticized retellings would have it.

  7. Geoff – Aus,
    In all of my reading of church history (which is significant) and 50+ years of attentive activity in the church, I have found that the most loyal and dedicated workers rarely get the credit they deserve. Kudos to your father for being among the many unsung heroes in this Church. May your family cherish his story!

    I am tired of the handcart story and trek experience hijacking the story of the Church of Jesus Christ and the LDS people. The handcart story as recounted in our lessons is frequently historically inaccurate and it is then utilized to teach erroneous doctrines. We need to do better. Thanks for the reminder, Chad.

  8. The sculpture pictured above was by Torleif Knaphus, a Norwegian sculptor who converted to the Church in his early 20s, then emigrated to Utah in 1906. (It’s always nice to see LDS art featured at T&S!)

  9. As mentioned above every several years many stakes sponsor a pioneer trek experience using handcarts. I think this might be looked upon as a liturgy like the Lords supper in our sacrament meetings. They reenact the arduous labor of the handcarts, the Mormon Battalion, symbolic deaths of family members, the women’s pull, & in the last one in my stake they raised a temple. They also have music & dancing, and, of course a testimony meeting to provide a spiritual grounding. Tthis seems to me a bit like a new liturgy like the temple endowment or a pilgrimage to Mecca for a Muslim. The young people at least those that that were transformed or those that have actually allowed the experience to “transform” them or believe they were transformed experience something akin to an enlightenment ordinance. They return survivors to the world just as the endowed go back down to the world after passing into the celestial room. In this way this new religious tradition reenforces & grounds these people in the restoration. The following Sunday chosen individuals bear their testimony of their experience to try to share it with the general assembly (proxy). Perhaps as time marches on, I believe, that the trek will become more ceremonial and less arduous even as it has become less arduous in my lifetime. Whether it remains integral to the church at least in the USA or not I don’t know. But it has been an effective religious rite for as long as I can remember. In fact those that loved their trek experience from past years, love to continue their participation in these days.

    I see a link to this trek rite in Protestant churches ehere in recent years youth groups act out being killed in an airplane accident where after the pretended accident the youth & their leaders are left to consider among themselves the implications of not being prepared for death and the afterlife. It contains similar elements with family members & individuals being taken away to differing fates And using these symbols to impress youth & adults of the reality of the eventualities of this life. Interestingly, I’ve actually seen this drama done in the LDS wards too.

    As society becomes more & more secular, we may see more creative rituals & traditions in an attempt to offset the drain of people. But if the rituals don’t affect the core of the individuals, they won’t be effective.

    As always sorry for the long note, & grammar issues. But thanks for listening

  10. Rcj, that’s an interesting thought–the handcart trek as a ritual. Might be something to ponder on.

    MoPo, Torleif Knaphus did a lot of good work for the Church! As I remember, he did some of the more interesting Angel Moroni statues that we have as well.

    Lisa, there does seem to be a common conception (though not ubiquitous) that Mormon pioneers were all handcart pioneers these days. I’ve had missionaries on Temple Square talk about how all the pioneers pulled handcarts over the mountains, seen obituaries mention Brigham Young’s 1847 handcart company, heard news agencies in Utah (as recently as yesterday) talk about people’s ancestors pulling wagons into the valley with the vanguard company, and so on. I’ve wondered how the disconnect happens with people also holding onto major stories that are clearly using stock animals to pull wagons (like Mary Fielding Smith blessing the oxen) while still thinking that handcarts were what everyone used.

    rcf, Wally, Carolyn, and Old Man, I’m glad you appreciated my sharing. Trying to make sure we’re using history accurately at Church is something that is a big deal for me. I’m interested to see how this is all handled in the next volume of Saints. I do know that one of the big reasons for the new history series is to try and show some of the pioneers of the faith in other countries at work, though a lot of that will likely be in volumes 3 and 4.

    Geoff–Aus, I’m sorry to hear about your experience with the Church. I do echo what Old Man said, though. Many of the best people I’ve ever known in the Church go unacknowledged by the institution. I’m grateful for people like your father, even if I will rarely hear about them.

  11. My father was a convert. HIs family was rather opposed. Using BYU’s relative finder program, I found that there were many wagon train and handcart pioneers on his side of the family. Doing geneology, I have to wonder if these pioneers are teaching the other ancestors.
    As bishop, I was asked to distribute 4 tickets to sit in the Celestial room during temple dedication. I gave them to local Pioneers. People who had built the kingdom in this part of “the mission field”.

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