Why did Mormon pioneers use handcarts?

EVANSTON — The Mormon handcart pioneers were the topic of Uinta County Museum’s most recent installment of the  Brown Bag Lunch series. Wendy Guild Peterson of Evanston, who has many Mormon pioneer ancestors, was the guest speaker on Thursday, Aug. 2.

Peterson had a replica of an actual handcart displayed next to a table with books about the Mormon pioneers. She said the wheels of the handcart were made of hickory by the Amish in Iowa. The rest of the cart her family had put together from a purchased kit.

Peterson gave a presentation with art work by Julia Rogers depicting different Mormon pioneers as she told stories taken from their personal journals and letters. She answered the questions, “Why did they come and why did they use handcarts instead of wagons with teams?”

“They came west because they wanted religious freedom and had suffered persecution in the East,” Peterson said. She went on to explain that the immigrants who converted to Mormonism had very little money when they arrived from Europe. 

It became apparent to Brigham Young that he needed to help so he and the elders started a “perpetual immigration fund.” However, the number of converts began to be too many for the funds available so Young decided that the pioneers should use handcarts instead of wagons and teams of horses or oxen.  Handcarts were cheaper and faster because they wouldn’t have to deal with harnessing animals or chasing them if they got loose at night.  

From 1856 through 1860, Mormon pioneers used handcarts for their journey from Iowa to Utah. In the five years that handcarts were used, 3,000 Mormon converts trekked westward. There were 250 deaths during that time, and 210 of those were with the fateful Martin and Willie companies of 1860.  After 1860, handcarts were no longer used.

Other photos shown during the presentation were pictures taken along the Mormon Trail. There was a picture of rocks formed into a 6-foot by 8-foot arrow pointing the way of the trail and others of rocky graves of pioneers who died along the trail.

Bad weather, disease and accidents played a large part in the deaths that were suffered. Peterson told stories and read excerpts from the personal journals of the pioneers. The stories of deprivation and endurance were combined with personal testimonies of strength, obedience and faith. The emotional stories that Peterson shared gave examples of the personal sacrifice of many individuals who helped others in serious need, taking great personal risks and some even suffering death. 

Peterson herself reenacts the handcart journey every summer and has done so for eight seasons. She estimates that she has worked with and talked to 20,000 people during those years. The journey she takes begins near the “third sister” on Interstate 80, by the windmill farm. It ends 18 miles later on the Guild Ranch land at Piedmont.

“I believe in the spirit on the trail and I feel it,” she said. “There have been many examples of the spirit blessing people.”

Peterson concluded her presentation by reading a poem she had written for her children about her faith and the trials of life.

“We all have trials in life and it is how we learn and grow from those trials that count,” she said. “The pioneers gave us great lessons of strength and faith, and I hope we can all learn from their examples.”

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