With the advent of the Mormon Church’s yearly tribute to Mormon Pioneers approaching we felt it’d be worthy to look at a few facts about the handcart companies to know the rest of the story, as Paul Harvey used to say.
The amount of attention the Church gives to this is noteworthy for sure. It’s a display of freshly scrubbed young faces outfitted in pioneer trousers and dresses with pretty homemade silk ribbons tying back perfectly pleated braids. Looking like they stepped off the stage for the latest episode of Bonanza or Little House on the Prairie, they make one’s mind go immediately back in time 158 years.
But, oh say what is truth? What really happened in 1856 that caused the needless deaths of so many? To hear the Church of today talk about it there’s nary a word of the outright greediness of Brigham Young and company.
What you’ll see and hear are stories of how brave their ancestors were to risk and sometimes give their very lives just to start living for God in the Rocky Mountains. Neither will you hear a repeat of Young’s outrageous sermon he gave not a month after the fiasco.
Journal of Discourses 4:89-94; “I rise to make a few remarks, to satisfy the feelings of the people and correct their minds and judgment.
You have heard concerning the sufferings of the people in the handcart trains … speak about the scenes they have witnessed, and I would like to forestall the erroneous impressions that many may otherwise imbibe on this subject.
Count the living and the dead, and you will find that not half the number died in brother Willie’s handcart company, in proportion to the number in that company, as have died in past seasons by the cholera in single companies traveling with wagons and oxen, with carriages and horses…With regard to those who have died and been laid away by the roadside on the Plains, since the cold weather commenced, let me tell you they have not suffered one hundreth part so much as did our brethren and sisters who have died with the cholera.
Some of those who have died in the handcart companies this season, I am told, would be singing, and, before the tune was done, would drop over and breathe their last; and others would die while eating, and with a piece of bread in their hands. I should be pleased when the time comes, if we could all depart from this life as easily as did those our brethren and sisters…I speak of these things, to forestall indulgence in a misplaced sympathy.
You have heard the brethren relate their trials through Iowa; it is a wicked place…Take Missouri, Illinois, and Iowa, and they are the places where we have been afflicted and driven. What can we expect from those people? Anything but hell out of doors?” – Brigham Young, Salt Lake City, November 16, 1856
Brigham was referencing the Willie and Martin Handcart Companies in a way he had no business doing. These were two of the ten companies that trekked west pushing handcarts. Because of their extreme poverty Brigham saw fit to spend as little as necessary to get the foreign born converts to Utah and supplied them with only a handcart to carry food and the meager clothing they may have had to push across the plains and mountain ranges of America. When you look at historical facts you’ll find that Brigham issued one poor command after another which was the true cause of so many deaths.
If Brigham had been a true prophet of God, wouldn’t he have received word from the Lord that people needed to have better hygiene habits to prevent cholera? It’s true, there were more deaths from cholera than any other event, but even that could’ve been avoided had they known to wash their hands properly, refrain from washing rags in the drinking water and dispose of waste in a safe manner. The July 1998 Ensign reports 4,600 deaths from 1847 to 1860. The latter date is obviously four years past the time of Brigham’s sermon, but serves as a fair estimate for the number of deaths over the initial surge of Mormon migration.
Furthermore, you need look no further than a history book to discover Brigham should have listened to other people’s warnings not to leave on a cross-country trek in early autumn. Levi Savage and Eliza Webb Young’s father urged they spend the winter in Nebraska, but their warnings fell on the deaf ears of LDS leaders who insisted they obey Brigham and that immigrants would safely arrive at their destination by means of divine intervention.
Not knowing the terrain or weather conditions of their new country, the majority of immigrants deferred to their hosts with only about 100 staying behind. This simple directive would’ve saved roughly 250 lives. The trip only lasted two months, but one of the lessons learned on this is that you shouldn’t go camping at the beginning of blizzard season. Many froze or starved to death on the plains of Wyoming, with the majority of these two handcart companies were compiled of the elderly, children and women. See Will Bagley, One Long Funeral March
Shifting the blame to hide facts is shameless behavior, not to mention that he had no business telling people how long they should grieve or how deeply. Henry Ford once said; ‘Don’t find fault, find a remedy’ and I’m afraid Brigham hadn’t thought of this in his life.
The problems were numerous with the handcart fiascos, otherwise known as tragedies to Mormons. The handcart pioneers are revered today and even considered royalty to most. The handcarts they used were made of green timber which caused them to split and break apart rendering them useless. (The reenactments they do today of this event are made of wheels with metal rims which weren’t afforded to early pioneers.) Of course, dry wood costs more money and Brigham wasn’t about to spend more than what he deemed necessary.
Young was in such a hurry to get more people to the Rockies he didn’t stop to care about things like the amount of food needed for the trip. Severely underestimating the amount of food needed for each person to stay alive, many people starved to death despite claims they died with food in their hands. Also keep in mind no outfitting supply stops were provided en-route as there were for the wagon trains that embarked on the same pathways.
Those who didn’t freeze to death suffered grievous injuries from frostbite, aka amputations. They were also commanded by LDS leaders to lighten their loads which forced them to leave behind precious blankets and extra clothing.
The more you know about the history of this nightmare, the more sinister Young’s comment becomes. And contrary to what Brigham said that ‘they didn’t suffer nearly as much as those who died from cholera’…THEY’RE DEAD! Come now, how much more suffering could they have gone through to appease you Mr. Young? I would imagine they suffered horrible deaths seeing as how the cold or lack of food literally killed them!
The Mormons of today pay homage to the pioneers based on the lies they’ve been fed. There’s nothing in these horrible events that are worthy of glorifying the Church. This ceremonial pomp and ceremony is a white-washed perversion of reality. Tragically these innocent victims died at the hands of an imposter and Grinch-meister.
The reenactments today are done from June to August with participants wearing breathable light cotton clothing and hiking shoes. They’re also supplied with plenty of fresh water in Igloo coolers, tents to sleep in and warm meals at the end of each day. Just like the Bonanza series’ Hollywood version of the Old West, they offer no sliver of reality to what really happened that fateful year.
See David Roberts’ un-sanitized version of events in his book Devils Gate Brigham’s Handcart Tragedy