June 9, 1856 — On this day, 274 Mormons began their trek west for Salt Lake City. The group traveled 1,300 miles on foot and carried with them two-wheeled handcarts to haul their belongings. Four months later, the survivors reached Utah Territory. On the way, more than 200 of the emigrants died, crossing what’s now Wyoming as winter set in.
“Families pushed and pulled two-wheeled, shallow-boxed handcarts, built out of green lumber a short time before,” writes Annette Hein on wyohistory.org. “The hot sun and wind were hard on the emigrants and the handcarts. After a few weeks, the green wood began to shrink and crack. Poorly greased wooden wheels shrieked on their wooden axles.”
The Journey came to be known as the Mormon Handcart Movement, and this day marked only the beginning of the 1856-1860 trek — a period when nearly 3,000 Mormon pioneers made the journey to Utah, by foot.
Prior to the pilgrimage, Mormons were ostracized by outsiders. People felt politically and socially threatened by the group due its growth in number and diverging religious beliefs. These prejudices became violent and the need to migrate west became dire.
By the early 1850s, most American Mormons had already arrived in Utah, and the church began actively seeking converts in Europe. Church leaders organized a smooth transit system involving chartered steamships, riverboats up the Mississippi and Missouri rivers and, later, railroad passage from the East Coast to central Iowa. Many emigrants’ passage was supported by the church.
Words of Wisdom for June 9, 2016
“People made fun of us as we walked, pulling our handcarts, but the weather was fine and the roads were excellent and although I was sick and we were very tired at night, still we thought it was a glorious way to go to Zion.”
Image: Mormon missionaries in Liverpool, England, 1855. Edward Martin is on the right of the middle row.
— Mormon Handcart Movement (1856-1860). Initial problems with the carts occurred because the wood used to construct them was said to have been "green timber", with many more breakdowns than anticipated. When the First Handcart Company reached Winter Quarters, Edmund Ellsworth had a member of the company "tin" the wooden axles and also installed "thick hoop iron skeins" which enabled the handcart axles to turn more easily and resist breakage much better. This feature became a standard part of handcarts in following years, including frequent greasing to keep the wheels lubricated. The companies made good time, and their trips were largely uneventful. The emigrant companies included many children and elderly individuals, and pushing and pulling handcarts was difficult work. Journals and recollections describe periods of illness and hunger. Like other companies traveling on the Emigrant Trail, deaths occurred along the way. Hafen and Hafen's Handcarts to Zion lists 13 deaths from the first company, seven from the second, and fewer than seven from the third. Journal entries reflect the optimism of the handcart pioneers, even amid their hardships.