The Mormon handcart pioneers were participants in the migration of members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS Church) to Salt Lake City, Utah, who used handcarts to transport their belongings. The Mormon handcart movement began in 1856 and continued until 1860.
Motivated to join their fellow church members in Utah, but lacking funds for full teams of oxen or horses, nearly 3,000 Mormon pioneers from England, Wales, Scotland and Scandinavia made the journey from Iowa or Nebraska to Utah in ten handcart companies. 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 died along the way. John Chislett, a survivor, wrote, "Many a father pulled his cart, with his little children on it, until the day preceding his death."
Although fewer than 10 percent of the 1846–68 Latter-day Saint emigrants made the journey west using handcarts, the handcart pioneers have become an important symbol in LDS culture, representing the faithfulness and sacrifice of the pioneer generation. They continue to be recognized and honored in events such as Pioneer Day, church pageants, and similar commemorations.
The Latter Day Saints were first organized in 1830. Early members of the church often encountered hostility, primarily due to their practice of withdrawing from secular society and gathering in locales to practice their distinct religious beliefs. Their neighbors felt threatened by the church's rapid growth in numbers, its tendency to vote as a bloc and acquire political power, its claims of divine favor, and, later, the practice of polygamy. Violence directed against the church and its members caused the body of the church to move from Ohio to Missouri, then to Illinois. Despite the frequent moves, church members were unable to escape opposition, which culminated in the extermination order against all Mormons living in the state by Missouri Governor Lilburn Boggs in 1838 and the death of their leader Joseph Smith in 1844. Brigham Young said that he had received divine direction to organize the church members and head beyond the western frontier of the United States.
Soon after the first Mormon pioneers reached Utah in 1847, the church began encouraging its converts in the British Isles and elsewhere in Europe to emigrate to Utah. From 1849 to 1855, about 16,000 European Latter-day Saints traveled to the United States by ship, through the eastern states by rail, and to Utah by ox and wagon. Although most of these emigrants paid their own expenses, the church established the Perpetual Emigration Fund to provide financial assistance for poor emigrants to trek west, which they would repay as they were able. Contributions to expand the fund were encouraged.
When contributions and loan repayments dropped off in 1855 after a poor harvest in Utah, Young decided to begin using handcarts because the church members who remained in Europe were mostly poor. Young also believed it would speed the journey.
Young proposed the plan in a letter to Franklin D. Richards, president of the European Mission, in September 1855. Young's letter was published in the Millennial Star, the church's England-based periodical, on December 22, 1855, along with an editorial by Richards endorsing the project. The cost of the migration was expected to be reduced by one-third. The response was overwhelming – in 1856 the Perpetual Emigration Fund supported the travel of 2,012 European emigrants, compared with 1,161 the year before.
Emigrants departed from an English port (generally Liverpool) and travelled by ship to New York or Boston, then by railroad to Iowa City, Iowa, the western terminus of the rail line, where they would be outfitted with handcarts and other supplies.
Built to Young's design, the handcarts resembled a large wheelbarrow, with two wheels five feet (1.5 metres) in diameter and a single axle four and a half feet (1.4 m) wide, and weighing 60 pounds (27 kg). Running along each side of the bed were seven-foot (2.1 m) pull shafts ending with a three-foot (0.9 m) crossbar at the front. The crossbar allowed the carts to be pushed or pulled. Cargo was carried in a box about three feet by four feet (0.9 m by 1.2 m), with 8 inches (0.20 m) walls. The handcarts generally carried up to 250 pounds (110 kg) of supplies and luggage, though they were capable of handling loads as heavy as 500 pounds (230 kg). Carts used in the first year's migration were made entirely of wood ("Iowa hickory or oak"); in later years a stronger design was substituted, which included metal elements.
The handcart companies were organized using the handcarts and sleeping tents as the primary units. Five people were assigned per handcart, with each individual limited to 17 pounds (7.7 kg) of clothing and bedding. Each round tent, supported by a center pole, housed 20 occupants and was supervised by a tent captain. Five tents were supervised by the captain of a hundred (or "sub-captain"). Provisions for each group of one hundred emigrants were carried in an ox wagon, and were distributed by the tent captains.
The first two ships departed England in late March and mid-April and sailed to Boston. The emigrants spent several weeks in Iowa City, where they constructed their handcarts and were outfitted with supplies before beginning their trek of about 1,300 miles (2,100 km).
About 815 emigrants from the first two ships were organized into the first three handcart companies, headed by captains Edmund Ellsworth, Daniel D. McArthur, and Edward Bunker. The captains were missionaries returning to their homes in Utah and were familiar with the route. Most of the sub-captains were also returning missionaries.
Across Iowa they followed an existing road about 275 miles (443 km) to Council Bluffs, following a route that is close to current U.S. Route 6. After crossing the Missouri River, they paused for a few days at a Mormon outpost in Florence, Nebraska (now part of Omaha), for repairs, before beginning the remaining 1,030-mile (1,660 km) journey along the Mormon Trail to Salt Lake City.
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. With no method of communicating back up the trail, however, this needed set of fixes did not reach the fourth and fifth companies in time.
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:
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.
The first two companies arrived in Salt Lake City on September 26 and the third followed less than a week later. The first three companies were regarded as having demonstrated the feasibility of emigrating using handcarts.
|Handcart company||Captain||Ship||Arrived Iowa City||Departed Iowa City||Departed Florence, Nebraska||Number of individuals||Number died en route||Arrived Salt Lake City|
|First||Edmund Ellsworth||Enoch Train, sailed March 23, 1856, to Boston||May 12||June 9||July 20||274||13||September 26|
|Second||Daniel D. McArthur||Enoch Train, sailed March 23, 1856, to Boston;
S. Curling, sailed April 19 to Boston
|passengers from Enoch Train – May 12;
passengers from S. Curling – early June
|June 11||July 24||221||7||September 26|
|Third (Welsh)||Edward Bunker||S. Curling, sailed April 19, 1856, to Boston||early June||June 23||July 30||320||< 7||October 2|
The last two handcart companies of 1856 departed late from England. The ship Thornton, carrying the emigrants who became the Willie Company, did not leave England until May 4. The leader of the Latter-day Saints on the Thornton was James G. Willie. Another eleven days passed before the Horizon, departed, carrying the emigrants who later formed the Martin Company. The late departures may have been the result of difficulties in procuring ships in response to the unexpected demand, but the results would be tragic.
With slow communications in the era before the transatlantic telegraph, the church's agents in Iowa City were not expecting the additional emigrants and had to make frantic preparations for their arrival. Critical weeks were spent hastily assembling the carts and outfitting the companies. When the companies reached Florence, additional time was lost making repairs to the poorly built carts. Emigrant John Chislett describes the problems with the carts:
The axles and boxes being of wood, and being ground out by the dust that found its way there in spite of our efforts to keep it out, together with the extra weight put on the carts, had the effect of breaking the axles at the shoulder. All kinds of expedients were resorted to as remedies for the growing evil, but with variable success. Some wrapped their axles with leather obtained from bootlegs; others with tin, obtained by sacrificing tin-plates, kettles, or buckets from their mess outfit. Besides these inconveniences, there was felt a great lack of a proper lubricator. Of anything suitable for this purpose we had none at all.
Prior to the Willie Company departing Florence, the company met to debate the wisdom of such a late departure. Because the emigrants were unfamiliar with the trail and the climate, they deferred to the returning missionaries and church agents. One of the returning missionaries, Levi Savage, urged them to spend the winter in Nebraska. He argued that such a late departure with a company consisting of the elderly, women, and young children would lead to suffering, sickness, and even death. All of the other church elders argued that the trip should go forward, expressing optimism that the company would be protected by divine intervention. Some members of the company, perhaps as many as 100, decided to spend the winter in Florence or in Iowa, but the majority, about 404 in number (including Savage) continued the journey west. The Willie Company left Florence on August 17 and the Martin Company on August 27. Two ox-wagon trains, led by captains W.B. Hodgett and John A. Hunt, followed the Martin Company.
Near Wood River, Nebraska, a herd of bison caused the Willie Company's cattle to stampede, and nearly 30 cattle were lost. Left without enough cattle to pull all of the wagons, each handcart was required to take on an additional 100 pounds (45 kg) of flour.
In early September, Franklin D. Richards, returning from Europe where he had served as the church's mission president, passed the emigrant companies. Richards and the 12 returning missionaries who accompanied him, traveling in carriages and light wagons pulled by horses and mules, pressed on to Utah to obtain assistance for the emigrants.
In early October the two companies reached Fort Laramie, Wyoming, where they expected to be restocked with provisions, but no provisions were pre-stocked for them. The companies cut back food rations, hoping that their supplies would last until help could be sent from Utah. To lighten their loads, the Martin Company cut the luggage allowance to 10 pounds (4.5 kg) per person, discarding clothing and blankets that soon would be desperately needed.
On October 4, the Richards party reached Salt Lake City and conferred with Brigham Young and other church leaders. The next morning the church was meeting in a general conference, where Young and the other speakers called on church members to provide wagons, mules, supplies, and teamsters for a rescue mission. 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. The party elected George D. Grant as their captain. Throughout October more wagon trains were assembled, and by the end of the month 250 relief wagons were on the road.
Meanwhile, the Willie and Martin companies were running out of food and encountering bitterly cold temperatures. On October 19, a blizzard struck the region, halting the two companies and the relief party. The Willie Company was along the Sweetwater River approaching the Continental Divide. A scouting party sent ahead by the main rescue party found and greeted the emigrants, gave them a small amount of flour, encouraged them that rescue was near, and then rushed onward to try to locate the Martin Company. The members of the Willie Company had just reached the end of their flour supplies. They began slaughtering the handful of broken-down cattle that still remained while their death toll mounted. On October 20, Captain Willie and Joseph Elder went ahead by mule through the snow to locate the supply train and inform them of the company's desperate situation. They arrived at the rescue party's campsite near South Pass that evening, and by the next evening the rescue party reached the Willie Company and provided them with food and assistance. Half of the rescue party remained to assist the Willie Company while the other half pressed forward to assist the Martin Company. The difficulties of the Willie Company were not yet over. On October 23, the second day after the main rescue party had arrived, the Willie Company faced the most difficult section of the trail—the ascent up Rocky Ridge. The climb took place during a howling snowstorm through knee-deep snow. That night 13 emigrants died.
On October 19, the Martin Company was about 110 miles (180 km) further east, making its last crossing of the North Platte River near present-day Casper, Wyoming. Shortly after completing the crossing, the blizzard struck. Many members of the company suffered from hypothermia or frostbite after wading through the frigid river. They set up camp at Red Bluffs, unable to continue forward through the snow. Meanwhile, the original scouting party continued eastward until it reached a small vacant fort at Devil's Gate, where they had been instructed to wait for the rest of the rescue party if they had not found the Martin Company. When the main rescue party rejoined them, another scouting party consisting of Joseph Young, Abel Garr, and Daniel Webster Jones was sent forward. The Martin company remained in their camp at Red Bluffs for nine days until the three scouts finally arrived on October 28. By the time the scouts arrived, 56 members of the company had died. The scouts urged the emigrants to begin moving again. During this interval, the party was providentially met by Ephraim Hanks, bringing meat from a recently slaughtered buffalo, likely saving many lives as the nutritive value of the protein and fat in the meat was much higher than that of the exhausted flour supplies, etc. He also performed many blessings and helped in some amputations, etc. to stop the progression of the frostbite and gangrene that would have otherwise killed more members of the company. Three days later the main rescue party met the Martin Company and the Hodgett and Hunt wagon companies and helped them on to Devil's Gate.
George D. Grant, who headed the rescue party, reported to Young:
It is not of much use for me to attempt to give a description of the situation of these people, for this you will learn from [others]; but you can imagine between five and six hundred men, women and children, worn down by drawing hand carts through snow and mud; fainting by the wayside; falling, chilled by the cold; children crying, their limbs stiffened by cold, their feet bleeding and some of them bare to snow and frost. The sight is almost too much for the stoutest of us; but we go on doing all we can, not doubting nor despairing.
At Devil's Gate the rescue party unloaded the baggage carried in the wagons of the Hodgett and Hunt wagon companies that had been following the Martin Company so the wagons could be used to transport the weakest emigrants. A small group, led by Daniel Webster Jones, remained at Devil's Gate over the winter to protect the property. The severe weather forced the Martin Company to halt for another five days; the company moved into Martin's Cove, a few miles west of Devil's Gate, as it was much more protected than the open plains just to the east. This is where the famous crossing of the Sweetwater River on November 4 occurred (see more information below). During this season, the River, though shallow – about 2 feet (0.61 metres) – was also 90 to 120 feet (27 to 37 metres) wide. The stream temperature was frigid and clogged with floating ice. Some of the men of the rescue party spent hours pulling the carts and carrying many of the emigrants across the river. However, many members of the company crossed the river themselves, some even pulling their own handcarts across.
The rescue parties escorted the emigrants from both companies to Utah through more snow and severe weather while their members continued to suffer death from disease and exposure. The Willie Company arrived in Salt Lake City on November 9; 68 members of the company had lost their lives.
Meanwhile, a backup relief party of 77 teams and wagons was making its way east to provide additional assistance to the Martin Company. After passing Fort Bridger the leaders of the backup party concluded that the Martin Company must have wintered east of the Rockies, so they turned back. When word of the returning backup relief party was communicated to Young, he ordered the courier to return and tell them to turn back east and continue until they found the handcart company, but several days had been lost. On November 18, the backup party met the Martin Company with the greatly needed supplies. At last all the members of the handcart party were now able to ride in wagons. The 104 wagons carrying the Martin Company arrived in Salt Lake City on November 30; at least 145 members of the company had lost their lives. Many of the survivors had to have fingers, toes, or limbs amputated due to severe frostbite.
After the companies arrived in Utah, the residents generously opened their homes to the arriving emigrants, feeding and caring for them over the winter. The emigrants would eventually go on to Latter-day Saint settlements throughout Utah and the West.
One of the most persistent and popular stories regarding the Mormon pioneers was about three of the rescuers who helped the pioneers cross Sweetwater River.:242 The most popular telling, by Solomon Kimball, states:
Four eighteen-year-old boys belonging to the relief party came to the rescue; and to the astonishment of all who saw, carried nearly every member of that ill-fated handcart company across the snow-bound stream. The strain was so terrible, and the exposure so great, that in later years all the boys died from the effects of it. When President Brigham Young heard of this heroic act, he wept like a child, and later declared publicly, "That act alone will ensure C. Allen Huntington, George W. Grant, and David P. Kimball an everlasting salvation in the Celestial Kingdom of God, worlds without end.
Chad Orton notes it would be physically impossible for three boys to carry five hundred people across the river in two hours. In actuality, the rescue party had several rescuers instead of three, eighteen of which have been positively identified as being at the Sweetwater crossing. The rescuers brought ten rescue wagons in addition to the wagons the Martin Company had with them. Many survivors wrote about riding the wagons across. However, because of time constraints, not everyone could ride the wagons. Some were carried, but other survivors wrote that they crossed the river themselves or with the help of people other than the three boys. The boys mentioned in the story did help some people across, but not "nearly every member" as reported in the mythologized version of the story. While the three boys were among those that helped several across, the ages were wrong. C. Allen Huntington was 24, David P. Kimball was 17, and George W. Grant was 16. There is no medical evidence that they died from effects of the crossing, and most lived active and relatively long lives. Outside of Kimball's account, there is no other account of Brigham Young promising everlasting salvation to the rescuers based on a single act. Orton notes that such a promise is inconsistent with church doctrine.:242 John Thomas notes that Solomon Kimball did not witness the crossing, but relied heavily on other sources, particularly Orson F. Whitney's 1888 account, who also claimed that all of the boys died from the event, even though Huntington was still alive in 1888.
Another common myth is that none of the survivors of the Willie or Martin handcart companies ever complained and they never apostatized from the church. The most popular source came from William Palmer, who paraphrased a comment Francis Webster had made in a Sunday School class in Cedar City. He writes:
... did you ever hear a survivor of that company utter a word of criticism? Not one of that company ever apostatized or left the church because everyone of us came through with the absolute knowledge that God lives for we became acquainted with him in our extremities.
This was later quoted by David O. McKay in 1948, and later by Gordon B. Hinckley, James E. Faust and was taught to children. However, several people in the Willie or Martin handcart companies did leave the church, including John Chislett, John Ahmanson, Elizabeth Sermon, Henry Augustus Squires, Henry Kemp and Deborah Jane Chapman. Many of the survivors complained.:287:125
Palmer gave the quote during a radio series of Men You Should Know describing the life of Webster about forty years after Webster died. Palmer said that he was paraphrasing Webster, and given the lapse of time and the casual nature of a Sunday School class, Orton believes it unlikely to be an exact quote. Orton believes Palmer was trying to emphasize Webster's character, rather than give a definitive statement on the faithfulness of all the members of the Willie Martin handcart company, and finds it unlikely that it was an exact quote. Orton also finds it unlikely that Webster knew all of the survivors, given that they spread throughout Utah after they arrived and didn't have a reunion until after Webster's death. Orton believes Webster was only referring to the pioneers in Cedar City, where the quote was given.
In urging the method upon Europe's poor, Brigham and the priesthood would over-reach themselves; in shepherding them from Liverpool to the valley, the ordinarily reliable missionary and emigration organization would break down at several critical points; in accepting the assurances of their leaders and the wishful importunities of their own hope, the emigrants would commit themselves to greater sacrifices than even the Nauvoo refugees; and in rallying from compound fatal error to bring the survivors in, the priesthood and the people of Mormondom would show themselves at their compassionate and efficient best.
As early as November 2, 1856, while the Willie and Martin companies were still making their way to safety, Brigham Young responded to criticism of his own leadership by rebuking Franklin Richards and Daniel Spencer for allowing the companies to leave so late. However, many authors argued that Young, as author of the plan, was responsible. Ann Eliza Young, daughter of one of the men in charge of building the carts and a former plural wife of Brigham Young, described her ex-husband's plan as a "cold-blooded, scheming, blasphemous policy". Stegner described Richards as a scapegoat for Young's fundamental errors in planning, though Howard Christy, professor emeritus and former senior editor of scholarly publications at Brigham Young University (BYU), noted that Richards, as the highest-ranking official in Florence, Nebraska area, was, in fact, the official who would have had the authority and capability to have averted the tragedy by halting their late departure. Christy also pointed out that Brigham Young and the other members of the church's First Presidency had consistently pointed out that departure from what is now Omaha, Nebraska needed to happen by the end of May to safely make the journey.
Many survivors of the tragedy refused to blame anyone. Survivor John Jacques wrote, "I blame nobody. I am not anxious to blame anybody ... I have no doubt that those who had to do with its management meant well and tried to do the best they could under the circumstances." Another survivor, Francis Webster, was quoted as having said, "Was I sorry that I chose to come by hand cart? No. Neither then nor any minute of my life since. The price we paid to become acquainted with God was a privilege to pay and I am thankful that I was privileged to come in the Martin Hand Cart Company." On the other hand, survivor John Chislett, who later left the church, wrote bitterly of Richards promising them that "we should get to Zion in safety."
In May 2006, a panel of researchers at the annual conference of the Mormon History Association blamed the tragedy on a failure of leadership. Lyndia Carter, a trails historian, said Franklin D. Richards "was responsible, in my mind, for the late departure" because "he started the snowball down the slope" that eventually "added up to disaster". Christy agreed that "leadership from the top, from the outset, was seriously short of the mark." Robert Briggs, an attorney, said "It's almost a foregone conclusion ... there is evidence of negligence. With leaders all the way up to Brigham Young, there was mismanagement." On the other hand, Rebecca Bartholomew and Leonard J. Arrington wrote, "Memories of what was perhaps the worst disaster in the history of western migration have been palliated by what could also be regarded as the most heroic rescue of the Mormon frontier."
|Handcart company||Captain||Ship||Arrived Iowa City||Departed Iowa City||Departed Florence||Number of individuals||Number died en route||Arrived Salt Lake City|
|Fourth or Willie Company||James G. Willie||Thornton, sailed May 4, 1856, to New York||June 26||July 15||August 17||~500 left Iowa City; 404 left Florence||68||November 9|
|Fifth or Martin Company||Edward Martin||Horizon, sailed May 25, 1856, to Boston||July 8||July 28||August 27||576||>145||November 30|
A number of lessons had been learned from the 1856 disaster that allowed the church to continue the handcart system while avoiding another disaster. Never again would a handcart company depart Florence later than July 7. The construction of the handcarts was modified to strengthen them and reduce repairs. The handcarts would now be regularly greased. Arrangements were made to replenish supplies along the route.
By 1857 the Perpetual Emigration Fund was exhausted; almost all of the handcart emigrants that year and in subsequent years had to pay their own way. With the increased cost, the number of handcart emigrants dropped from nearly 2,000 in 1856 to about 480 in 1857. Nevertheless, in 1857 two companies made the trek, both arriving in Salt Lake City by September 13. Perhaps the most notable incident was when a captain of the U.S. Army's Utah Expedition, on its way to Utah to enforce federal authority over Young and the Latter-day Saints, donated an ox to the hungry emigrants.
With the uncertainty caused by the Utah War, the church called off all European emigration for 1858. In 1859 one handcart company crossed the plains. The emigrants were now able to travel by rail to Saint Joseph, Missouri, after which they went by riverboat to Florence, where they were outfitted with handcarts and supplies. When the 1859 company reached Fort Laramie, they discovered their food was running dangerously short, so they cut back on rations. When they reached Devil's Gate the last flour was distributed. Emigrant Ebeneezer B. Beesley recalled an incident in which a group of rough mountain men fed the hungry emigrants. One of the mountain men then asked a young woman from the company to stay with him, which the tired woman agreed to do. (William Atkin recalled another version of the story in which two young women married two mountain men.) The hunger worsened when expected supplies were not available when they reached the Green River. Three days later wagons from Utah carrying provisions finally rescued the famished emigrants.
The last two handcart companies made the journey in 1860, again following the route through St. Joseph. Although the journey proved to be difficult for the emigrants, these companies had relatively uneventful trips and experienced little loss of life.
The outbreak of the American Civil War likely hastened the handcart system's demise by disrupting immigration from Europe and placing severe restrictions on rail travel from the East Coast. In any case, by the end of that conflict the church had implemented a new system of emigration in which wagon trains travelled east from Salt Lake City in the spring and returned with emigrants in the summer. The transcontinental railroad was being constructed, and the railroad terminus gradually moved westward, shortening the trip.
|Handcart company||Captain||Ship||Arrived Iowa City||Departed Iowa City||Departed Florence||Number of individuals||Number died en route||Arrived Salt Lake City|
|Sixth||Israel Evans||George Washington, sailed March 27, 1857, to Boston||April 30||May 22||June 20||149||Unknown (>0)||September 11|
|Seventh (Scandinavian)||Christian Christiansen||L.N. Hvidt, sailed April 18, 1857, from Copenhagen to Britain; Westmoreland, sailed April 25 to Philadelphia||June 9||June 13||July 7||~330||~6||September 13|
|Eighth||George Rowley||William Tapscott, sailed April 11, 1859, to New York||–||–||June 9||235||~5||September 4|
|Ninth||Daniel Robison||Underwriter, sailed March 30, 1860, to New York||May 12 (Florence)||–||June 6||233||1||August 27|
|Tenth||Oscar O. Stoddard||William Tapscott, sailed May 11, 1860, to New York||July 1 (Florence)||–||July 6||124||0||September 24|
This heroic episode of Mormon history exemplifies many of the enduring qualities of nascent Mormonism itself: thorough organization, iron discipline, unswerving devotion to a cause, and limitless self-sacrifice. ... The true Mormon Trail was not on the prairie but in the spirit.
Wallace Stegner praised the examples of those of the handcart companies, particularly in comparison to other pioneer parties:
Perhaps their suffering seems less dramatic because the handcart pioneers bore it meekly, praising God, instead of fighting for life with the ferocity of animals and eating their dead to keep their own life beating, as both the Fremont and Donner parties did. ... But if courage and endurance make a story, if humankindness and helpfulness and brotherly love in the midst of raw horror are worth recording, this half-forgotten episode of the Mormon migration is one of the great tales of the West and of America.
The first known modern-era reenactment took place in 1966 from Henefer, Utah, to the mouth of Emigration Canyon by young men from Phoenix, Arizona, using handcarts between metal wheels repurposed from old farm wagons. In 1968, 44 girls from Long Beach, California reenacted that same stretch of the Mormon Trail with homemade handcarts. From the mid-1970s until the early 1990s, participation in handcart reenactments were offered at BYU in a program, spearheaded by Doug Cloward, that was a wilderness survival activity for youth conference participants. Beginning in 1977, similar treks were offered as part of Ricks College's outdoor recreation program, on connected jeep trails from Rexburg, Idaho and into Montana.
The reenactments have been lauded by LDS leaders; for example, M. Russell Ballard of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles said, "Through music, drama, and stirring reenactments, we will be reminded of incredible pioneer journeys, both temporal and spiritual." The reenactments have become so popular that the Bureau of Land Management is studying the impact on the trail and its environment, especially in the area around Rocky Ridge, Wyoming. According to the Casper Star-Tribune, the BLM has had to impose a fee to offset the costs of monitoring the impacts of reenactors and other campers on the trail.
A number of events were held during 2006 to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the 1856 handcart companies: