by Jennifer Polopolus-Meredith
Pioneer Day in Salt Lake City, Utah is important. It includes fun filled activities such as fireworks, parades, and a rodeo. A state holiday, Pioneer Day commemorates the passage of Mormons into Salt Lake Valley where they would settle permanently. It is the culmination of the long dangerous trek to find the sacred place for their Zion. Proud of their pioneer past, the remembrance of the trek to Utah has shaped Mormon identity as it has come to embody and promote values important to their community. Within the mythos of the journey to Salt Lake valley, travel by handcarts has become central to the story.
It is easy to understand the attachment and romanticizing by modern Mormons to those who trekked by handcart. It provides a heroic image of faithful pioneers walking over a thousand miles from Iowa City to Salt Lake through rough terrain pulling their possessions behind. Barely 3000 traveled by handcart, less than 10% of the total migration. Despite the low percentage, those who went by handcart have become the symbol of the journey. Handcart pioneers symbolize the courage, perseverance and dedication of Mormons to their faith and each other. Mostly the poor traveled by foot as covered wagon proved to expensive, but they chose the arduous path rather than stay behind. Faith in God’s plan for them as a community gave them courage and perseverance to cross the dangerous West.
Add to the story of courage elements of tragedy, heroics, and sacrifice and the symbol grows in strength. While mostly poor Mormons pulled handcarts, some voluntarily relinquished the comparative comforts of a covered wagon to walk. Francis Webster and his wife Betsy heeded the call from Brigham Young to help finance other Mormons by traveling with handcarts and donating the savings to the Perpetual Immigration Fund (PIF). In turn, PIF offered loans to less fortunate Mormons so they could also migrate. The Websters declined easier passage because their faith commanded sacrifice for their community. They wanted to help their fellow Mormons to build a stronger society. Modern Mormons also value sacrifice as they sacrifice time and money by paying tithes, volunteering in the church and community and participating in missions that spread the Mormon faith and ethos.
Unfortunately, over 200 died walking to Salt Lake Valley. Leaving late in the season and being caught in early blizzards led to some Mormons freezing, sickness, and starvation. While the deaths may have been avoidable, the tragedy adds to the significance of the handcarts. The early blizzard trapping the handcart companies demonstrates the pioneers at the mercy of the environment. It confirms the danger of the trek West and the courage and sacrifice of those who undertook the journey, especially on foot. Without that element of danger and loss the trek would lose some of its impact. Mormons might have built a myth of God’s protection if all had come through unscathed, but the tragedies highlight the willing sacrifice and depth of faith as people continued to travel by handcart after the events. Even setbacks could not shake their faith in the rightness of their plans.
From the tragic stories of death also come the tales of heroics by Mormons. Mormons searched for those lost in the early blizzards and carrying everyone from the Martin Handcart Company across Sweetwater. Mormons also donated food and other provisions and opened their homes to the handcart pioneers. The story of the rescue at Sweetwater has reached mythic proportions with three Mormons supposedly carrying everyone from the company safely across the river. While not entirely historically accurate, as Chad M. Orton has shown, Mormons did launch heroic rescue efforts to save their imperiled pioneers. Today, Mormons continue to help those endangered and less fortunate with their welfare system and humanitarian aid. While God did not prevent all tragedy, the story takes on a mythical note that only three men saved the whole company. They must have had help from God to carry and protect everyone. In this sense, the tragedy seems proof that God led their journey and watched over their people.
The handcart trek has become the dominant narrative of the pioneer trek to Salt Lake Valley. It has the elements of tragedy, heroics and sacrifice that create an exciting meaningful narrative. It also portrays the important values of sacrifice, hard work, and the centrality of community essential to the Mormon ethos. This is evident in the popularity of handcart treks taken by youth groups and entire wards. Mormons can follow in their ancestor’s footsteps, literally, by renting handcarts and pulling them for a weekend over part of the trail. They learn the history while feeling first hand the hardship and perseverance of their ancestors. Some wards go all out and make their own clothes, walk for ten hours a day, and try to authenticate as closely as possible the experience. They find out first hand, the sacrifice, perseverance, and hard work of their ancestors. Others take a less strict path and dress in modern clothing, and have more of a camping experience using tents and not walking as long. However, they still learn the history and the experience strengthens the bonds of community in the wards and also the youth groups. Fittingly, the handcart has become the symbol of the Mormon migration to Salt Lake Valley.