Introduction: As Far as Pushing Its
"Glorious" Handcart Myth, the Mormon Church Can Shove It
In the four years between 1856 and 1860, Brigham Young pushed an experimental
scheme using human guinea pigs in a relentless effort to funnel thousands of
new Church members to Salt Lake City, designed to people Young's vision of a
theocratic kingdom over which he would ruthlessly rule.
Mormonism's marionette-like "historians” in the employ of LDS Inc. have
(as they so often do) gone to great lengths in their propagandistic zeal to
spin the Great Handcart Debacle as a well-intended and, ultimately, glorious
undertaking. It was, indeed--at least for the undertakers.
Below are some of the faith-promoting, fact-ignoring rewrites designed to
deceive the mindlessly-believing Mormon flock, as well as the unsuspecting
public at large.
A "Most Remarkable" Endeavor
"By the mid-1850s LDS Church leaders needed less expensive ways to
move poor immigrants to Utah. The Perpetual Emigrating Fund that loaned to
the needy was depleted, and costs for wagons and ox-teams were high.
Therefore, Brigham Young announced on 29 October 1855 a handcart system by
which the Church would provide carts to be pulled by hand across the Mormon
Trail. As a result, between 1856 and 1860 nearly 3,000 Latter-day Saint
emigrants joined ten handcart companies--about 650 handcarts total--and walked
to Utah from Iowa City, Iowa, (a distance of 1,300 miles) or from Florence,
Nebraska (1,030 miles). This was, according to historian LeRoy Hafen, ‘the
most remarkable travel experiment in the history of Western America.'"
Despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, this murderous, on-the-cheap
trek ordered by the Mormon tyrant, Brigham Young, has been divinely dubbed by
some as not only a "remarkable travel experiment" but as a
downright "exalting experience."
A Story of Amazing "Spiritual Stamina"
"Handcarts, assembled at outfitting points in Iowa City, and then
Florence after 1857, resembled carts pulled by porters in large cities. The
carts had hickory or oak wagon beds and hickory shafts, side pieces, and
axles. Wheels were as far apart as normal wagon wheels. Each cart carried 400
to 500 pounds of foodstuffs, bedding, clothing, and cooking utensils, and
needed two able-bodied people to pull it. Five people were assigned to each
cart. Adults could take only seventeen pounds of baggage, children ten
pounds. Families with small children traveled in covered or family carts
which had stronger axles made of iron.
"Handcart company captains were men with leadership and trail
experience. Each company included a few ox-drawn commissary and baggage
wagons, at least one per twenty carts. Wagons or carts carried large public
tents, one for every twenty people. A 'Captain of Hundred' had charge of five
tent groups. Five companies in 1856 and two in 1857 outfitted in Iowa City
and needed a month to move 275 miles on existing roads over rolling prairie
to Florence, averaging eight to nine miles per day. Passing through partly
settled areas, they obtained some supplies along the way. After resting at
Florence, these seven companies followed the Mormon Trail to Salt Lake City;
on this stretch the first three companies spent an average of 65 days,
covering 15.7 miles per day. Later companies leaving Florence needed an
average of 84 days. By comparison, LDS wagon trains from Florence in 1861
needed 73 days to make the journey. . . .
"Pulling carts was hard, tiring work. Handcart pioneers were exposed to
rain, wind, dust, and insects. Food was tightly rationed. Most made the trek
safely; but the 1856 Martin and Willie companies met disaster. They left Iowa
City late, in part because more people came than expected, causing delays to
assemble more handcarts and tents. The two companies crossed Iowa in normal
time, but repairs at Florence slowed them. Then, on the Mormon Trail, extra
flour added to the carts slowed and damaged them. Expected flour at Fort
Laramie never came. Short rations and lack of warm clothes drained the
travelers' energy. Severe snowstorms caught them, dropping snows up to
eighteen inches deep and temperatures below freezing. Food ran out; cattle
died; rescue trains from Utah had difficulty reaching the exposed and hungry
sufferers. Despite heroic efforts by company members and Utah rescuers, about
200, or one-sixth of the companies, died, and dozens were maimed by frostbite
and deprivation. This tragedy was the worst disaster in the history of
western overland travel. Rescue wagons carried survivors to Utah over roads
kept open by teamsters driving wagons back and forth to pack the snow.
"Despite the tragedy, the Mormon Church did not give up on the plan. It
sent a missionary company east with handcarts early in 1857, and it had
sponsored five more westbound handcart companies by 1860. Overall, the ten
companies proved that handcart groups not traveling late in the season were
effective, efficient means of moving large numbers of people west at low
cost. Low costs enabled hundreds in Britain, mostly factory and agricultural
workers who otherwise might not have come, to decide to emigrate to America.
"The handcart trek was an exalting ordeal for body and spirit and
required spiritual stamina to complete. Sculptor Torlief Knaphus' statue of
handcart pioneers has become one of Mormonism's best known symbols,
representing the thousands of devout Saints who by cart or wagon 'gathered to
Zion' in Utah."
Other LDS spinmeisters have sought to portray the use of handcarts by the
Mormon pioneers as a necessity born of poverty, not a cheap conveyance
encouraged by Brigham Young at the expense of his human beasts of burden.
Carts Heroically Pulled by the "Persecuted," but Patriotic,
"In the 1850s, the Mormons were being persecuted in their own
country. To escape further difficulties, their leader, Brigham Young, led
them on an arduous journey to Utah. Because they did not have enough money
for wagons, many made their own handcarts and loaded them up with their
families and belongings. These they pulled behind themselves on a
thousand-mile trek on foot."
But enough of the fluff.
Now, for the real--and really repulsive--stuff.
Brigham Young’s Greedy and Horrific Handcart Disaster
In her book, Wife No. 19, former spouse of Brigham Young, Ann Eliza
Webb, exposed the tragic, inept, corrupt and selfish nature of Brigham
Young’s handcart scheme.
As to the person of Wife No. 19 Webb, the following biographical notes
"In 1868 Brigham Young, at age sixty-seven, married Ann Eliza Webb,
an attractive twenty-four year old divorcee with two children. Young had
already married dozens of other women. . . ."
Regarding Webb's tumultuous and short-lived relationship with Young, LDS
scholar, Jeffery Johnson, writes:
". . . [I]n 1873, Ann Eliza Webb applied for a civil divorce [from
Young]. The case came to trial in 1875, and the court ordered Brigham to pay
$500 per month allowance and $3,000 court costs. When he refused, he was
fined $25 and sentenced to a day in prison for contempt of court (Arrington
1985, 373). There is no record of application for a Church divorce, but she
was excommunicated 10 October 1874 and devoted much of the rest of her life
to publishing her somewhat sensational memoirs and giving anti-Mormon
(Of course, one would expect many, if not most, faithful LDS scholars to
minimize criticism of Mormon leaders by labeling it as
"sensational." Indeed, that's been par for the course for Mormon
apologists ever since this fanciful frontier faith popped out of Joseph
Smith's rock-laden hat).
In Chapter 11 of her book entitled, "'DIVINE EMIGRATION'--THE PROPHET
AND THE HANDCART SCHEME," Webb writes in graphic detail about Brigham
Young's prolonged and deliberate abuse of Mormonism's pushed-and-pulled
Unparalleled Mismanagement Under the Guise of a "Divine Plan"
"In the history of any people there has never been recorded a case of
such gross mismanagement as that of gathering the foreign Saints to Zion in
the year 1856.
"Until this disastrous year the emigrants had always made the journey
across the plains with ox-teams . . . The able bodied walked, and those who
were too young, too old, or too feeble to perform the journey on foot, went
in the wagons with the baggage. . . . Tedious and wearisome, to be sure, but
in no way perilous, as plenty of provisions, bedding, and clothing could be
carried, not only for the journey, but sufficient to last some time after the
"The cost of emigration in this way was from £10 to £12, English money,
or nominally $50 to $60 in gold--not very expensive, surely, for a journey
from Liverpool to Salt Lake City; but to Brigham, in one of his fits of economy,
it seemed altogether too costly, and he set to work to devise some means for
retrenchment. During the entire winter of 1855-56, he and his chief
supporters were in almost constant consultation on the subject of reducing
the expenses of emigration, and they finally hit upon the expedient of having
them cross the plains with hand-carts, wheeling their own provisions and
baggage, and so saving the expense of teams. The more Brigham thought of his
plan, the more in love he grew with it, and he sent detailed instructions
concerning it to the Apostle Franklin D. Richards, the Mormon agent at
Liverpool, who published it in the Millennial Star, as the new 'divine
plan' revealed to Brother Brigham by the Lord, whose will it was that the
journey should be made in this manner."
Duping and Grouping the Faithful
"My father was in England when the ‘command of the Lord concerning
them’ was given to the gathering Saints, and their enthusiastic devotion and
instant acceptance of the revelation showed how entirely they entrusted
themselves to the leadership of their superiors in the Church, implicitly
believing them to be inspired of God. They were told by Richards, in the
magazine, and by their missionaries in their addresses, that they should meet
many difficulties--that trials would be strewn along their path, and
occasional dangers meet them--but that the Lord's chosen people were to be a
tried people, and that they should come out unscathed, and enter Zion with
great triumph and rejoicing, coming out from the world as by great
tribulation; that the Lord would hold them in special charge, and they need
not fear terror by night nor pestilence that walketh at noonday, for they
should not so much as hurt a foot against a stone.
"It was represented to them that they were specially privileged and
honored in thus being called by the Lord to be the means of showing His power
and revealing glory to a world lying in darkness and overwhelmed with guilt,
deserted by God and given over to destruction. Considering the class of people
from whom most of the converts were made, it is not at all strange that all
this talk should impress their imaginations and arouse their enthusiasm.
Emotion, instead of reason, guided them almost entirely, and they grew almost
ecstatic over the new way in which they were called to Zion."
Brigham Young Needed Warm Bodies for His Cold-Hearted Theocratic
"The United States government was beginning to trouble itself a
little about Utah; and in order to make the Church as strong as possible, in
case of an invasion, Brigham was anxious to increase the number of emigrants,
and requested Apostle Richards to send as many as he possibly could. To do
this, the elders counseled all the emigrants, who had more money than they
needed, to deposit it with the Apostle Richards for the purpose of assisting
the poor to Zion. The call was instantly and gladly obeyed, and the number of
Saints bound Zion-ward was thereby nearly doubled. In the face of the
disaster which attended it, it has been the boast of some of the missionaries
and elders that this was the largest number that ever was sent over at one
time. So much greater, then, is the weight of responsibility which rests upon
the souls of those who originated and carried out this selfish design, made
more selfish, more cruel, and more terribly culpable for the hypocrisy and
deceit which attended it from its conception to its disastrous close. . . .
"On the 14th of March, 1856, my father, who was at Sheffield, England,
engaged in missionary work, received a telegram from Richards, telling him to
come at once to Liverpool for the purpose of taking passage for America in
the mail-packet 'Canada' . . . He had no time to say good-bye to his friends,
but made his preparations hurriedly, and left Sheffield as soon as possible.
On arriving at Liverpool and consulting with Richards, he learned that he had
been sent for to assist in the proposed hand-cart expedition, and that his
part of the work was to he performed in the United States. He, being a
practical wagon-maker, was to oversee the building of the carts. . . ."
Callous Unconcern for the Loyal Little People
"He expected, of course, to go to work at once, and was very
impatient to do so, as it was very nearly the season when the emigrants
should start to cross the plains, and the first vessel filled with them was
already due in New York. He knew that it would be a waste both of time and
money to keep them in Iowa City any longer than as absolutely necessary;
besides which, after a certain date, every day would increase the perils of
crossing the plains. But when he arrived, Daniel Spencer, the principal
agent, was east on a visit, and did not make his appearance until an entire
month had expired; and there was all that valuable time wasted in order that
one man might indulge in a little pleasure. What were a thousand or more
human lives in comparison to his enjoyment? Less than nothing, it would seem,
in his estimation.
"Not only were there no materials provided to work with, but no
provision had been made for sheltering the poor Saints, who had already
commenced to arrive by ship-loads. Their condition was pitiable in the
extreme; they had met nothing but privation from the time they left England.
The trials that had been promised them they had already encountered, but so
great was their faith, that they bore it all without a word of complaint, and
some even rejoicing that it was their lot to suffer for the cause of their
religion; they were sure they should all be brought to Zion in safety, for
had not God promised that through the mouth of His holy Prophet? Their faith
was sublime in its exaltation; and in contrast to it, the cold-blooded,
scheming, blasphemous policy of Young and his followers shows out false, and
blacker than ever. To have deceived a credulous people by wanton
misrepresentation is wicked enough, but to do it 'in the name of the Lord' is
a sin that can never be atoned for to God or man. It is the height of
blasphemy, and I fairly shudder as I endeavor to comprehend, in some slight
degree, the magnitude of such an offence.
"They had been crowded and huddled together on shipboard more like
animals than like human beings; their food had been insufficient and of bad
quality; the sleeping accommodations were limited, and there was not the
proper amount of bedding for those who were compelled to sleep in the more
exposed places. Some of the persons who saw the emigrants, say that it was
like nothing so much as an African slave-ship, filled with its unlawful and
ill-gotten freight. The air in the steerage, where most of the emigrants
were, was noxious, and yet these people were compelled to breathe it through
all the days of the voyage. Many were too ill to leave their beds, and a
change of clothing was out of the question. The entire floor was covered with
mattresses, and it was impossible to walk about without stepping over some
one. Men, women, and children were huddled in together in the most shameless
"Affairs were not much bettered when they arrived at New York; the
Apostle John Taylor, whose duty it was to provide for them there, was too
deeply engaged in a quarrel with Apostle Franklin D. Richards, as to which of
the two who were thrown on his protection, penniless and helpless, was higher
in authority, to attend to these poor creatures, in a strange country. But
everyone must understand that his personal dignity must be attended to and
his position maintained, if all the poor Saints that were emigrated, or
dreamed of emigrating, should die of starvation and exposure. I think the great
body of Saints must have learned before this time that it is by no means safe
to trust to the tender mercies of a Mormon Apostle. When, after a while, the
Apostle Taylor's imperative personal business allowed him a moment in which
to think of the unhappy emigrants, he started them for Iowa City, where they
arrived only to experience a repetition of their New York sufferings, and see
another illustration of apostolic neglect. Nothing had been prepared for them
either in the way of shanties or tents, and they were compelled to camp in
the open air, their only roof a sky that was not always blue. While in camp,
there were several very severe rain-storms, from which, as they had no
shelter, there was no escape; they got completely drenched, and this caused a
great deal of severe illness among them. They were unprotected alike from
burning sun and pitiless, chilling rain, and it is no wonder that fevers and
dysentery prevailed, and that hundreds of longing eyes closed in death before
they beheld the Zion of their hopes.
"It would have been strange if the faith of some had not wavered then;
yet none dared complain. There was nothing to do but to go on to the end.
They were thousands of miles from home, with no means of returning, and they
were taught, too, that it would be a curse upon them to turn their backs on
Zion. So there they remained through the long summer days, waiting helplessly
until they should be ordered to move onward."
Gross Criminal Negligence: Turning Out Handcarts on the Cheap
"At length my father saw his way clear to commence his work, and he
went to work with a will, pressing everyone who could be of actual assistance
into his service. But here the trouble commenced again. He was instructed to
make the wagons on as economical a plan as possible, and every step that he
took he found himself hedged about by impossibilities. The agents all talked
economy, and when one did not raise an objection to a proposal, another did,
and difficulties were placed in his way constantly.
"They did not wish to furnish iron for the tires, as it was too
expensive; raw hide, they were sure, would do just as well. My father argued
this point with them until at last the agents decided to give up raw hides,
and they furnished him with hoop iron. He was annoyed and angry, all the
while he was making the carts, at the extreme parsimony displayed. A thorough
workman himself, he wanted good materials to work with; but every time he
asked for anything, no matter how absolutely necessary it was to make the
work sufficiently durable to stand the strain of so long a journey. the reply
invariably was, '0, Brother Webb, the carts must be made cheap. We can't
afford this expenditure; you are too extravagant in your outlay;' forgetting,
in their zeal to follow their Prophet's instructions, what the consequences
would be to the poor Saints, if delayed on their way to the Valley, by having
to stop to repair their carts."
Handcart Companies Forced Into an Ill-Timed Launch with Short Supplies
"As soon as was possible they started companies on the way. My father
strongly objected to any of them starting after the last of June; but he was
overruled, and the last company left Iowa City the middle of August, for a
journey across arid plains and over snow-clad mountains, which it took twelve
weeks of the quickest traveling at that time to accomplish; and in the manner
in which these emigrants were going it would take much longer. He also
opposed their being started with such a scanty allowance of provisions. He
insisted they should have at least double the amount; but in this attempt,
also, he was unsuccessful, and one of the survivors of the expedition
afterwards said that the rations which were given out to each person for a
day could easily be eaten at breakfast. They consisted of ten ounces of flour
for each adult, and half that amount for each child under eight years of age.
At rare intervals, a little rice, coffee, sugar, and bacon were doled out to
the hungry travelers, but this was not often done. Many of the people begged
of the farmers in Iowa, so famished were they, and so inadequate was their
food which was supplied them by the agents. They were limited, too, in the
matter of baggage, and again my father tried to use his influence, but all to
no purpose; so much might go, but not a pound more.
"Almost discouraged, and altogether disgusted with the meanness and
heartless carelessness which were exhibited throughout the whole affair, as
far, at least, as he had experience with it, he yet made one more attempt to
aid the unfortunate travelers, whose trials, great as they had been, had
really not fairly begun. His last proposition was, that more teams should be
provided, so that the feeble, who were not likely to endure the fatigues of
the long march, should have an opportunity of riding; but he was met again
with the inevitable reply, 'Can't do it, Brother Webb. We tell you we can't
afford it; they must go cheap.' It was dear enough in the end, if human lives
count for anything.
"My father never speaks of those days of preparation in Iowa City that
he does not grow indignant. It might have been averted had not Brigham Young
been so parsimonious, and his followers so eager to curry favor with him, by
carrying out his instructions more implicitly than there was any need of
doing. They were only quarreled and found fault with, and reprimanded
publicly in the Tabernacle for their faithfulness to him, when it became
necessary to shield himself from odium in the matter. Nothing more would have
happened if they had obeyed the instincts of humanity, and deferred a little
to their consciences, and they certainly would have been better off, as they
would at least have retained their own self-respect, and the regard of their
unfortunate charges, which, it is needless to say, they lost most completely.
"When some of the last companies reached Council Bluffs-- better known
to most Mormons as 'Winter-Quarters'--there was considerable controversy
whether it was best to try and go any farther before spring. Most of the
emigrants knew nothing of the climate and the perils of the undertaking, and
were eager to press on to Zion. Four men only in the company had crossed the
plains; those were captains of the trains--Willie, Atwood, Savage, and
Woodward; but there were several elders at this place superintending
emigration. Of these, Levi Savage was the only one to remonstrate against
attempting to reach Salt Lake Valley so late in the season. He declared that
it would be utterly--impossible to cross the mountains without great
suffering, and even death.
"His remonstrances availed about as much my father's had done in regard
to their starting. He was defeated and reprimanded very sharply for his want
of faith. He replied that there were cases where 'common sense' was the best
guide. and he considered this to be one. 'However,' said he, 'seeing you are
to go forward, I will go with you, will help you all I can, will work with
you, suffer with you, and, if necessary, die with you.'
"Very soon after the departure of the last company of the emigrants from
Iowa City, my father, with the other elders, started for the Valley in mule
teams, intending to return, if they found it necessary, to bring succor to
the poor wandering people. In the company with my father were Apostle
Franklin D. Richards, and Elders W. H. Kimball, G. D. Grant, Joseph A. Young,
Brigham's oldest son, and several others, all of whom were returning to Utah
from foreign missions, and all of whom had been engaged in the expedition.
"They overtook the emigrants at their camp on the North Fork of the
Platte River, and camped with them over night. Richards was told of the
opposition which Savage had made, and he openly rebuked him in the morning.
He then informed the Saints that 'though it might storm on the right hand and
on the left, yet the storms should not reach them. The Lord would keep the
way open before them, and they should reach Zion in safety.' It may be that
he believed all this nonsense himself. It is to be hoped, for charity's sake,
that he did. If that were the case, however, it is a pity that he had not
been endowed with a little of Levi Savage's common sense. It would have been
much better for the Saints than all his vaunted 'spirit of prophecy.'
"It is a significant fact, that in the very face of his prophecy,
delivered to the victims of his zeal in the cause of Brigham Young, he was
anxious to hasten his arrival in Salt Lake in order to send assistance back
to the patient handcart emigrants, who, he must have seen, would soon be in
sore straits for food and clothing. The rations were scanty, and would soon
have to be lessened; the nights were chilly, and fast growing cold; and
already the seventeen pounds of bedding and clothing allowed to each one were
scarcely sufficient protection; and as the season advanced, and they approached
the mountains, it would be totally inadequate. It was fortunate that they did
not know the climate of the country, and the terrible hardships to which they
were to be exposed, else their hearts would have failed them, and they would
have had no courage to have recommenced the journey. My father realized it,
and so did most of the party with him; yet they had no idea how horrible it
was to be, else they would have insisted upon their remaining in camp until
spring. Even the usually indifferent heart of Joseph A. was touched, and he
hurried on to impress upon his father the urgent need for immediate
assistance for those poor, forlorn creatures whom he left preparing to cross
the mountains, where they would of a surety meet the late autumn and early
winter storms, and where so many of them must of a certainty perish of
exposure and hunger. He had no faith in the apostolic prophecy, which seemed
a mockery to all those who knew the hardships of the journey which lay before
these faithful souls before they could reach the Zion of their hopes.
"My father had been four years absent from us, yet such was his concern
for the poor people whom he so recently left, and who had been his care for
so long, that he could only stay to give us the most hurried greetings. His
gladness at his return, and our responsive joy, were marred by the thought of
the sufferings and privations of those earnest, simple-hearted Saints, who
had literally left all to follow the beck of one whom they supposed to be the
Prophet of the Lord. After all these years of absence, he only staid two days
with us--as short a time as it could possibly take to get the relief-train
ready with the supplies."
Blood on His Hands for His Handcart Crimes: Brigham Young’s Ultimate
"I think Brigham Young's heart and conscience must have been touched,
for he really seemed for a while to forget himself in the earnestness with
which he pushed forward the preparations for relief. He fairly arose to the
occasion, and held back nothing which could contribute to the comfort and
welfare of his poor, forlorn followers. Yet he was only acting as both
justice and decency commanded that he should act. He was the cause of all
this terrible suffering, and he felt that he should be made answerable. Such a
transaction as this could by no means remain unknown. It would be spread over
America and Europe, and used as a strong weapon against Mormonism and its
leader, already unpopular enough. He realized the mistake he had made when
too late to rectify it, and, with his usual moral cowardice, he set about
hunting for somebody on whose shoulders to shift the blame from his own.
Richards and Spencer were the unfortunate victims, and he turned his wrath
against them, in private conversation and in public assemblies, until they
were nearly crushed by the weight of opprobrium which he heaped upon them. He
was nearly beside himself with fear of the consequences which would follow,
when this crowning act of selfish cupidity and egotistical vanity and
presumption should be known. Love of approbation is a striking characteristic
of this Latter-Day Prophet, and he puffs and swells with self-importance at
every word he receives, even of the baldest, most insincere flattery, and he
cringes and crouches in as servile a manner as a whipped cur, when any
adverse criticism is passed upon either his personnel or his actions. A moral
as well as a physical coward, he dares not face a just opinion of himself and
his deeds, and he sneaks, and skulks, and hides behind any one he can find
who is broad enough to shield him.
"My father's disgust at a religion which submitted to such chicanery,
and his distrust of Brigham Young, were so great, that he was very near
apostatizing; but my mother again held him to the church. She argued and explained;
she wept and she entreated, until he said no more about it. But though, for
her sake, he took no steps towards leaving the Church and renouncing the
faith, he felt daily his disgust and distrust increasing, and he never again
believed so strongly in the Mormon religion, and ever after regarded Brigham
with much less awe and respect than formerly."
Conclusion: "How the West Was Spun" in the Wake of Brigham
Young's Forced Handcart March
Wyoming writer Annie Proulx, in a recent article for the London Guardian
entitled, "How the West Was Spun," examines the creation and
maintenance of certain "heroic myths of the American frontier."
Proulx notes that Americans (and this certainly holds true for
fanciful-minded Mormons) hold on to and promote cherished myths, often at
great detriment to the truth:
"The heroic myth of the American West is much more powerful than its
historical past. To this day, the great false beliefs . . . prevail: that
[these] were . . . brave, generous, unselfish men; that the West was 'won' by
noble White American pioneers . . . and that everything in the natural world
from the west bank of the Missouri to the Pacific Ocean was there to be used
by human beings to further their wealth.
"These absurd but solidly-rooted fantasies cannot be pulled up. People
believe in and identify themselves with these myths and will scratch and kick
to maintain their Western self-image. The rest of the country and the world
believes in the heroic myth because the tourism bureau will never let anyone
One of those stubbornly-entrenched myths that Proulx mentions is the
"Mormon Handcart Journey," which is annually and magnificently
mimicked by enthusiastic LDS stand-ins:
"Much of the West's past is literally acted out each year by
enthusiasts called 're-enactors,' who don appropriate costumes and take on
pageant-like roles in such events of yesteryear as a . . . Mormon Handcart
Journey. For a few days it is real enough. . . ."
But how real is it?
William Grigg, in his article, "Mass Murder in the Desert," cites
renegade Mormon historian Will Bagley's searing description of Brigham
Young's Mormon handcart debacle as what it really was--a fevered flight of
religious fanaticism, undertaken on the backs of thousands of devout,
brainwashed Mormons who became Young's unwitting and unfortunate victims:
" . . . [F]or nearly the entire first century of the [Mormon] religion's
existence--beginning with the Missouri-era threats to redeem 'Zion' by
bloodshed-- faithful Mormons were marinated in hatred toward 'Gentiles' and
taught the redemptive power of sanctified violence.
"In the early 1850s, the sense of besetting persecution by unbelievers
so central to the Mormons' communal identity became outright paranoia after
Mormon leaders unveiled the previously disavowed practice of polygamy. The
nascent Republican Party identified polygamy and slavery as 'twin relics of
barbarism' and declared war on both. . . .
"Like despots both ancient and modern, Brigham Young eagerly seized on
this external threat to consolidate his power. He also ramped up Mormon
recruitment efforts in Great Britain and Scandinavia (where Mormon
missionaries carefully concealed the doctrine of polygamy) as a way of
building up his kingdom. To cut down on the time and expense involved in
bringing new Mormons to 'Zion,' Young ordered the construction of
handcarts--rickshaw-like vehicles used to carry the pilgrims and their
possessions across the plains.
"The handcart initiative led to disaster in late 1856 as two companies
of Mormon immigrants (known as the Martin and Willie companies), promised by
Mormon leaders that God would hold back the winter snows, were caught in an
abnormally early and severe blizzard. More than 200 men, women, and children
died, making the Martin/Willie debacle 'the worst disaster in the history of
America's overland trails,' recalls Bagley.
"Despite the fact that the handcart disaster was a direct outgrowth of
Young's 'inspired' immigration scheme, 'Mormon leaders refused to shoulder
any blame for the catastrophe,' Bagley continues. Jedediah Grant,
high-ranking first counselor in the Mormon Church presidency, 'laid the blame
on the victims. . . . [He] blamed the death and suffering of the handcart
Saints on "the same disobedience and sinfulness that had induced
spiritual sleepiness among the people already in Zion."'"
So it was with Brigham Young's ruthless "Handcarts to Hell"
undertaking--and so it remains (all gussied up and sanitized, of course) in
the historically-disfigured annals of Mormon folklore.