Despite opposition in the eastern United States, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was growing rapidly in the 1840s and 1850s. The hostility caused early members of the church to move from New York to Ohio, then Missouri and Illinois.
Although they moved frequently, church members were unable to escape opposition, which culminated in an extermination order against all Mormons living in Missouri and the murder of leader Joseph Smith in 1844. Smith's successor, Brigham Young, 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.
But after selling all their possessions to make the trip across the ocean, many families found the cost of a covered wagon and a team of oxen for the cross-country journey beyond their means.
So the church came up with a plan to help the more impoverished saints get to the Salt Lake Valley, Paonia resident Scott Morley explains. The plan revolved around handcarts that resembleda large wheelbarrow. They measured about four feet by six feet and had two wagon wheels and a crossbar that could be used to push or pull the cart containing the pioneers' belongings and up to 250 pounds of supplies.
"It was a good deal for families that had strong young boys and girls that could help push with Mom and Dad," Morley explains. "The problem was that many of those saints weren't ideal pioneers."
Many of the families that emigrated from the British Isles and other European countries came from cities where they had worked long hours, where the air wasn't very clean and the food wasn't all that nutritious. They weren't in very good health at theonset, he said.
They often wound up with a handcart that was made of green wood and therefore subject to breakdowns, contributing to the difficulty of the trip.
Still, nearly 3,000 Mormon pioneers made the journey from Iowa or Nebraska to Utah with 10 handcart companies. The trek proved 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 those 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 less than 10 percent of the 1847-68 saints 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.
The route of those pioneers is retraced annually by young members of the church. The purpose of the trek is to provide spiritual opportunities, under the leadership of the priesthood, where youth can gain a deeper appreciation of the principles of faith, obedience, and sacrifice. This summer alone, 20,000 Mormon youth will make the 29-mile trek, pulling handcarts across some of the original pioneer trails. A group of just over 100 teens from the Montrose Stake made the trip a couple of weeks ago. The majority of those teens live in Delta, Cedaredge, Paonia and Montrose.
As with the pioneers, a "family" consisting of ma, pa (the group leaders) and several children was assigned to each handcart. Although they came from different communities and were separated from their friends, the youth began bonding the moment they stepped on the bus in Delta, and after anine-hour bus ride to Wyoming everybody just "clicked," Arial Duncan shared at a sacrament meeting in Paonia.
Dressed in pioneer clothing, including bloomers and a skirt, the Hotchkiss teen portrayed a widow named Sophia who made the trek with five young children. "When everyone put their hands on the cart, it was amazing to see how well they worked together," she said.
Along the route, missionaries shared pioneer stores to illustrate the faith, obedience and sacrifice exhibited by those early saints as they crossed the plains.
For Arial, the story of the "valley" boys was particularly meaningful. The three 18-year-olds were among the rescuers who left Salt Lake to assist the struggling companies. The story of the way they made sure everyone got across the river safely was fresh in her mind when her "family" also crossed the Sweetwater. All three of those boys died from complications later in their lives.
The women's pull also proved to be a spiritual experience. The boys were either called on a mission or had passed away, leaving the young women to rely on their own strength and their faith in the Lord to alternately pull and push their carts up Rocky Ridge.
It took the pioneers 27 hours to trudge through 18 inches of snow in blizzard conditions. When the wind picked up, the temperature dropped and the rain began to fall, the youth experienced a taste of the hardship endured by the pioneers.
"How much worse they had it," Colton Hall shared at the sacrament meeting. Throughout the journey, the teens were encouraged to consider how their trek through life is similar to the trek the pioneers made. Each was encouraged to keep a journal and share their thoughts at nightly testimony meetings.
Jessie Holt referred to her journal as she related a moving story about Jens and Elsie, who made it as far as Rocky Ridge. His feet frozen, Jens wanted to give up but Elsie said she couldn't live without him. She put him in the back of the cart and without any help pulled him the rest of the way up to Rocky Ridge, where their children were waiting.
At one point, Jessie related, Elsie felt Jens hands on the wheels, helping push them up the hill. He felt he was doing little to help, but when Elsie felt his hands on the wheel it gave her hope.
Cameron VanVleet agreed that re-enactment was moving. "It was a fantastic spiritual journey to see and be in a place where the pioneers struggled so much for what they believed in. There is a special spirit in those mountains."
Brittney Kendall said her grandmother has always talked a lot about the pioneers, but until the handcart trek she never fully understood how they or the priesthood have affected so many lives.
Without cell phones, their iPads or the Internet, the teens had plenty of time for reflection. The only communication from home came via Pony Express, when letters prepared earlier by the teens' parents were delivered. That was a memorable experience for Laura Arterburn, who said the letter may have been written by her mother, but it made her feel like her dad was watching over her.
Sharon Morley and her husband Scott were the "ma" and "pa" of one family, as well as two of the adult leaders for the 106 vivacious teens from the Montrose Stake. "Fun and quiet isn't a word I usually use to describe our kids," she said, "but when we were in situations that required reverence they felt the spirit and they were reverent."
Such a feeling descended on the group when they visited the monuments near Marion. On their way to the gathering spot at the far end of Rock Creek Hollow, the group passed by the spot where 13 pioneers were buried in a common grave because it was too cold to dig individual graves.
"I know we all felt the spirit as we sat in that sacred space," Sharon said. "The missionary told us those pioneers are still there. He said it's their mission to testify to those who come. Because of their sacrifice, we are able to learn about the spirit. Now it's up to us to take the gospel to those who are seeking it.
"If all the kids are able to take that spirit away with them, can you imagine what will happen?"
As the bus unloaded a group of tired kids, Cameron VanVleet realized how much he was going to miss his new "family."
"The hardest part was having to say goodbye to my unbiological family," he said. "I will keep these memories forever."
"I cannot wait four more years until I can go again," his 14-year-old sister Courtney said.
Portions of this story were excerpted from the Mormon Handcart Treks Manual.blog comments powered by Disqus