Heritage Gateways

Official Sesquicentennial K-12 Education Project
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Pioneer 1848-1868 Companies

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1856-60, Handcarts - Part 1: (Background Info)

Description: Graphic by Steve Milam.
Image courtesy of: Heritage Gateway Project Images, These images have been gathered to support the Sesquicentennial celebration of the immigration to Utah.

A major change in the pattern of Mormon immigration took place in 1856 in Iowa City, Iowa, with the development of a remarkable travel experiment in the history of the west--the handcart experienced In 1854 the Chicago and Rock Island Railroad (C&RI) reached the Mississippi River at Rock Island, Illinois; two years later the railroad bridged (or should one say trestled?) the Mississippi and connected with the Missouri and Mississippi Railroad that ran to Iowa City. Thereafter, through 1858, most European Mormon emigrants took various railroads from Atlantic ports, connecting with the C&RI, directly to Iowa City, which became the main point of departure for the Rocky Mountains. (Beginning in 1859 most handcart pioneers took the Hannibal and St. Joseph Railroad to St. Joseph, Missouri, thence by riverboat to Florence [now North Omaha], Nebraska.)

Brigham Young, safely settled in Utah since 1847, had also decided to try this supposedly faster, easier, cheaper, and certainly more unusual way to bring thousands of European converts to Salt Lake City. While the Mormons were not the first to use some kind of carts going west (some gold-rushers, for example, had experimented with wheelbarrows and some who had moved into trans-Appalachia after the War of 1812 used handcarts), they were the first and only group to use them extensively, certainly the first to transport entire emigrant companies with them.

The Mormon open carts varied in size and were modeled after carts used by street sweepers; they were made almost entirely out of wood. They were generally six or seven feet long, the width of a wide track wagon, and carried about 500 pounds of flour, bedding, extra clothing, cooking utensils, and a tent. The carts could be pushed or pulled by hand. Some were painted with mottos and inscriptions like "Truth Will Prevail," "Merry Mormons," and "Zion's Express." Most companies also had a few ox-drawn wagons to carry extra supplies. These Mormons, mainly from England, Wales, and Scandinavia, landed in New York, Boston, and Philadelphia, and traveled by train via Chicago to Iowa City, Iowa.

Train travel was easier than travel by wagon, but it was far from luxurious. Trains averaged 20 miles an hour and had no sleeping accommodations or dining cars. Smoke and soot were everywhere, sanitation facilities were primitive, and schedules were erratic. Travelers had to provide their own food or pick it up en route. Many spent nights sitting up or in warehouses or barns. Some Mormons felt they were singled out for rude treatment by railway officials. Passenger cars sometimes caught fire or derailed. Some women gave birth en route. But on the emigrants came. (During the Civil War, because of wartime demands, rail travel became even more difficult and uncomfortable. Mormons often had to travel in cattle cars.1 Handcart emigrants crossed the Iowa River and went to the staging area that had been located on the banks of Clear Creek, 3 miles west of Iowa City, at a small settlement known as Clark's Mills, now called Coralville.

This famous experiment involved 2,962 people in 10 companies from 1856 through 1860, but only the first 7 companies, or 2,071 Saints (70 percent of the total), trod Iowa soil! The handcart company of 1859 entrained at New York City and reached St. Joseph, Missouri, on the Hannibal and St. Joseph Railroad, where they took a Missouri River riverboat to Florence, Nebraska. The C&RI reached Council Bluffs in 1860 and handcart companies of that year (the last year of the handcart experiment) were able to ride the C&RI all the way to Council Bluffs. With the exception of the fourth and fifth companies of 1856, the famous Martin and Willie companies, which started too late in the year and were trapped in Wyoming snows, the system was a success.

The first 7 companies made the 275-mile trip across Iowa from Iowa City, Iowa, to Florence, Nebraska, in from 21 to 39 days, averaging 25 days and 11 miles a day. The first company of 226 persons started out on June 9, 1856, led by the Birmingham Brass Band from England, and arrived in Utah September 26th. March music and singing kept the people together and helped ward off tedium and fatigue. The most popular of all songs was the famous "Handcart Song":

Some must push and some must pull
As we go marching up the hill,
As merrily on the way we go
Until we reach the valley, oh!

In Coralville, Iowa, the Daughters of the American Revolution have erected a bronzed tablet commemorating the handcart companies. It is located on the south side of the road just west of the intersection of Fifth Street and Tenth Avenue. Also in Coralville and the western part of Iowa City is the Mormon Trek Boulevard, a modern highway honoring these pioneers.

In 1976, in connection with the U.S. Bicentennial Celebration, a several-acre Mormon Handcart Park was developed in Coralville on ground owned by the University of Iowa, through funds provided by the Mormon Church. The site is near Clear Creek and U.S. 6, near the Hawkeye Court housing complex to the west of Mormon Trek Boulevard. There are three markers at this site having extensive text commemorating a pioneer campsite, pioneer burial ground, and the whole site in general.

Although the handcart pioneers did not know it before starting, Iowa roads were to be veritable "super highways" compared to what lay west of the Missouri. Like all Mormon pioneers before and after them, they used the best, most convenient roads and trails. Since at least 1846, when Brigham Young led the Saints across Iowa, there had been some kind of a road between Iowa City and Council Bluffs. In the beginning it had been a military road to Fort Des Moines, and later a territorial, state, mail, and coach route. Most of the handcart pioneer journals of 1856-1857 refer often to the good roads. In fact, had the Saints not been so poor, they could have ridden over the roads by stagecoach to the Missouri for about eleven dollars a person.

Today's Highway 6 generally follows this old trans-Iowa road as far as Redfield. From Coralville the pioneers passed through Homestead and South Amana, two German colonies established in 1854. (This part of Highway 6 up to Grinnell is also marked as the Hiawatha Pioneer Trail.) Passing through Marengo, Brooklyn, Grinnell, Newton, and Rising Sun, they reached Fort Des Moines. The old fort on the west bank of the Des Moines River was by then abandoned, but still standing. Near the intersection of Riverside Drive and Southwest First Street in Des Moines is a granite marker commemorating this old fort and part of the newly restored fort.

West of Des Moines, the Mormons proceeded via Adel to Redfield. West of Redfield, the old trail is only approximated by today's roads. From Redfield the pioneers went to Bear Grove. Merely a wide spot in the road today, Bear Grove was then an important coach stop and a place where the pioneers obtained necessary supplies.

From Bear Grove the Saints traveled the old military, or Dragoon Road, now largely nonexistent, to what is now Lewis, where they intersected the pioneer trail of 1846 and followed it directly to Council Bluffs. There, crossing the Missouri by ferry, they arrived at the new staging ground in Florence, Nebraska, and made final preparations to go to the Salt Lake Valley.

In the Lewis, Iowa, town park, there are two markers commemorating the Mormon Trail. One is a section of a telephone pole with "Mormon Trail" carved into it; a few yards away is a handsome bronze marker that was placed by the Daughters of the American Revolution in 1917.

In the Trans-Missouri west, the handcarters followed the established Mormon Trail into their new Zion and, as previously noted, most of these companies made it safely there. Across Nebraska all the of the handcart companies made the journey successfully. Their route and general experiences were much like other westering Mormons. They did move faster and, of course, suffered less from accidents occasioned by draft animals, heavy wagons, and stampedes. Costs were reduced by about one-third. Handcarters were able to transport less food, far few belongings, and of course, could neither ride in the carts nor sleep in them. Handcart companies also seemed to have a higher percentage of European emigrants; one company was largely Welsh, one Scandinavian, and in one, nine different languages were spoken. And most also made it successfully across Wyoming.

The joy of the success of this new, faster, and cheaper way of immigrating soon turned to sorrow with the tragic experience of the Willie and Martin companies, the 4th and 5th companies of 1856. When they arrived on the Missouri River, they found their carts were not yet prepared. Some wisely thought they should postpone the crossing of the plains that year, but such wisdom was decried by others as evidence of a weak faith. So, after a delay and with some carts made of green wood, the two companies headed west.

After reaching what is now Wyoming, they were caught in an early snowstorm. Among the Martin company of 576, a total of 145 (about 25 percent) died of exposure across Wyoming, as many as thirteen a night. Most could not be buried because the ground was so frozen. This company reached what has become known as Martin's Cove about November 3rd. It was 2 miles west of Devil's Gate. On the 6th, the temperature dropped to eleven degrees below zero. It was here a rescue party from Utah finally reached this company. Across Wyoming the Willie's company lost 77 persons (about 19 percent) out of 404. They managed to push on to a camp on Rock Creek where they awaited rescue, a rescue that came near the end of October.

The handcart experiment continued in 1857, and worked well until it ended in 1860. In 1857, for example, an attempt was made across Nebraska to establish supply stations for the benefit of handcarters. This effort had just gotten under way when the cancellation of a government contract ended it. Thereafter, the handcart companies replenished their supplies as best they could, sometimes receiving supplies sent out from Salt Lake City, and buying what they needed from the ever-growing number of supply stations, forts, and trading posts along the trail.

The handcart company of 1859 experienced what this author (Stan Kimball) considers the most bizarre trail experience of the entire Mormon immigration. Near Devil's Gate, in what is now Wyoming, the Mormons met a group of Indians who had just won a battle with another tribe. "The victorious tribe were [Sic] parading around with scalps suspended on sticks which they held high in the air. They had a number of prisoners. They invited a number of us boys to go to their camp that night to witness them torture to death their prisoners. However, we respectfully declined."

In summary, about 3,000 emigrants in 10 companies were transported west between 1856 and 1860, in 653 carts and 50 supply wagons. Generally, they traveled successfully, and cheaper and faster than wagon trains. The handcart era ended after 1860, when the Mormons switched to large church ox-team trains sent out from Salt Lake City to haul emigrants and freight west from the Missouri and other points. (This change is detailed in "Church Team Emigrants, 1860- 1868.")

Source: Historic Resource Study - Mormon Pioneer National By Stanley B. Kimball, Ph.D., May 1991. (The study focuses on the history of the trail from its official beginning in Nauvoo, Illinois, to its terminus in Salt Lake City, Utah, during the period 1846-1869. During that time, thousands of Mormon emigrants used many trails and trail variants to reach Utah. This study emphasizes the "Pioneer Route" or "Brigham Young Route" of 1846-1847. The sections on Mormon beliefs and motivations for going west have been omitted. Interested persons can find ample sources for that information. The footnotes, bibliography, maps, pictures, pioneer companies by name and dates for the 22-year period, and historic sites - about 2/3 of the book - have also been left out for space considerations. Thanks to Dr. Kimball and the National Park Service for the availability of this information.)