Handcarts and History

In many ways, handcarts have come to symbolize the Mormon pioneer experience. There are a few reasons for this. With the tragic experiences of the Willie and Martin handcart companies of 1856, the handcart companies are among the easiest group of pioneers to dramatize. As a result, popular Latter-day Saint historical fiction books and movies frequently focus on handcarts and the stories of handcart companies seem to come up almost as often as the rest of the pioneer companies combined in our Church meetings. And, of course, the handcart experience is the least expensive (and least complicated) pioneer experience to reproduce and therefore the most common way for Latter-day Saint youth to reenact Mormon pioneer treks, both in the western United States and elsewhere.[1] We even have movies dramatizing the trek reenactment experience now. While retelling and experiencing these things can be good, there are a few things to keep in mind when it comes to historical accuracy while discussing the handcart pioneers.

First, not all Mormon pioneers were handcart pioneers. Overland immigration in wagon trains to the Utah Territory occurred between the years 1847 and 1869 (when the completion of the First Transcontinental Railroad rendered wagon trains obsolete). The handcart companies made up a small subset of this group, consisting of 10 companies during the years 1856 to 1860, and only accounting for approximately 4-10% of all Latter-day Saint pioneers.[2] By the time the first handcart pioneers entered the Salt Lake Valley, around 40,000 Latter-day Saint settlers had already set roots down in the Great Basin region and both the 1847 vanguard company and the Mormon Battalion march had occurred nearly a decade ago.[3] Even during the four years that handcarts were used they were unpopular, with less than half of Mormon pioneers of that time using them.[4] The idea of using handcarts was merely one in a series of ideas that Church leaders tried out to make immigration cheaper and faster for converts and was phased out when the next idea (down-and-back wagon trains) came along.[5]

While most of the ten handcart companies were successful, it is the two that ran into the most trouble that receive the lion’s share of attention. This brings us to a second point—the experiences of the Willie and Martin handcart companies were not necessarily faith promoting for those involved or for the Saints already living in Utah Territory. Historian Chad M. Orton stated that: “The phrase in there that no one in the company ever left, you know, no one ever left the company—that’s just not historically accurate.”[6] Elsewhere, he noted that: “As a general rule, what is true now was true then. People tend to get out of an experience what they put into it. … While it is not known that anyone in the company apostatized directly as a result of the trials they endured in the cold and snow, there were Martin Company members who subsequently left the Church.”[7] Francis Webster (the man who said that he came to know God in his extremity) was an inspiring example of one who came to know God better through sacrifice and suffering with the handcart company, but not everyone came away with the same experience.[8]

For those Saints already living in Utah at the time, the experience wasn’t generally viewed as an example of sacrifice and dedication to the gospel—it was seen as a disaster and a failure on the part of Church leaders. Heber C. Kimball observed that: “There is a spirit of murmuring among the people and the fault is laid upon brother Brigham” for the tragedy of the handcart companies.[9] President Brigham Young himself seems to have been angry about the situation, though he blamed the Church officials that were over immigration. He publicly excoriated Franklin Richards and Daniel Spencer for their handling of the situation and (ironically) John Taylor for opposing the handcart companies in the first place.[10] It was decades later (when members of the Martin Handcart company were trying to convince the public that their debts to the Perpetual Emigration Fund should be forgiven) that the experience really began to be cast in terms of faithfulness and sacrifice.[11]

A third point is that the rescue of the Martin and Willie handcart companies involved many, not just a few, heroes. Two stories are told most frequently about rescuers—one about how Ephraim Hanks was ready to go with a few hours’ notice and one about three young men who carried an entire company across a freezing river, sacrificing their health and earning their salvation by doing so. As one rescuer by the name of Daniel W. Jones noted, however, “We did all we possibly could to help and cheer the people. Some writers have endeavored to make individual heroes of some of our company. I have no remembrance of any one shirking his duty. Each and everyone did all they possibly could and justice would give to each his due credit.”[12] For example, the story of the three young men as it is most frequently told is based on incomplete information. There were actually at least five young men that we know by name who carried members of the handcart company across the river. They likely did so with the help of wagons and only carried those least able to do so themselves (the sick, the old, children, and those too exhausted to make it across on their own).[13] In addition, there were at least 13 other rescuers present that day who were actively helping the Martin handcart company.[14] Concerning the health of those who carried people across the river, Chad M. Orton wrote that: “While some of these rescuers complained of health problems that resulted from the experience, most lived long and active lives that terminated in deaths that cannot be definitively attributed to their exposure to the icy water that day.”[15] While the actions of these young men were heroic, their efforts in carrying people across the Sweetwater River was only a part of the larger rescue efforts and involved more people than we usually talk about.

Sometimes, my brother-in-law jokes that conversations with me about Church history end up feeling like an episode of Adam Ruins Everything, so I initially joked about calling this post “Chad Ruins Handcarts”. My hope, however, isn’t to ruin handcart pioneers for everyone. The stories of handcart pioneers are still powerful and moving. Our efforts to replicate the pioneer trek experience have value as well. As historian John Turner noted, “the handcart companies—and their rescue—rightly came to symbolize the devotion and self-sacrifice of the Latter-day Saints.”[16] In perspective, however, the handcarts were a relatively small portion of the overall pioneer experience, accounting for less than 1/10th of all Mormon pioneers. We also have to keep in mind that not everyone from the Willie and Martin handcart companies remained members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints for life. Finally, the rescue effort to save them involved the heroic efforts and donations of thousands of individuals, so we have to be cautious in being too focused on the efforts of the very few.


Handcart pioneer statue on Temple Square in Salt Lake City, Utah


For some must push and some must pull

As we go marching up the hill;

So merrily on our way we go

Until we reach the Valley-o.



[1] I have heard of the trek experience being replicated in Iowa (where I served my mission) on a somewhat regular basis and even in other countries like Russia or the United Kingdom from time to time.

[2] Mormon Channel, Legacy—Episode 49, “Sweetwater Rescue”, https://www.mormonchannel.org/listen/series/legacy-audio/sweetwater-rescue-episode-49, transcribed by author.

[3] James B. Allen and Glen M. Leonard, The Story of the Latter-day Saints, 2nd ed (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 1992), 294.

[4] Allen and Leonard, Story of the Latter-day Saints, 294.

[5] Mormon Channel, Legacy—“Sweetwater Rescue”; Church History in the Fullness of Times Student Manual (Salt Lake City: Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 2003), 357-58.

[6] Legacy—Sweetwater Rescue.

[7]Chad M. Orton, “Francis Webster: The Unique Story of One Handcart Pioneer’s Faith and Sacrifice.” BYU Studies, 45(2) 117-140.  https://byustudies.byu.edu/content/francis-webster-unique-story-one-handcart-pioneers-faith-and-sacrifice

[8] See Orton, “Francis Webster.”

[9] Cited in Turner, Brigham Young: Pioneer Prophet (Cambridge and London: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2012), 253.

[10] Rebecca Cornwall and Leonard J. Arrington, “Rescue of the 1856 Handcart Companies” (Provo, UT: BYU Press, 1981), 38-39 and Turner, Brigham Young, 252-254.

[11] Orton, “Francis Webster”, 138-139.

[12] Daniel W. Jones, Forty Years among the Indians. A True Yet Thrilling Narrative of the Author’s Experiences among the Natives (Salt Lake City: Juvenile Instructor Office, 1890), 70. See also https://history.churchofjesuschrist.org/article/historic-sites/wyoming/five-things-you-might-not-know-about-the-handcart-rescue?lang=eng#mv2 for some more details on how many people were involved in the rescue effort.

[13] Chad M. Orton, “The Martin Handcart Company at the Sweetwater: Another Look,” BYU Studies 45, no. 3 [2006]: 15, 22. https://byustudies.byu.edu/content/martin-handcart-company-sweetwater-another-look The names of the five are C. Allen Huntington, George W. Grant, David P. Kimball, Stephen Taylor, and Ira Nebeker.

[14] Orton, “Martin Handcart Company”, 12.

[15] Orton, “Martin Handcart Company”, 8-9.

[16] Turner, Brigham Young, 252.

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