Most of the time when we talk about the handcart companies, we mean the two companies which were caught in the snow in Wyoming and had to be rescued. Their story started months before Winter set in, when they left Iowa City, IA, in the middle of July. I recently found this amazing website which draws on primary sources and provides a day by day account of the handcarts’ progress.
It has been an odd experience for me to read the journals and track their progress as they start out. When a journal entry says: “Made seventeen miles today. Good spirits in camp.”, I feel like I am watching a child playing innocently too close to a dangerous road. The knowledge of what is going to happen to these people overshadows everything. When they have several days in succession where they make good progress, I find myself mentally urging them forward even faster, although I already know how it will all end. When they stop for several days to rest, I feel like scolding them. There is a kind of slow unfolding, where some parts of the story inspire false hope and other parts point towards the inevitable tragic fate.
There is so much about what they did that is still inexplicable. Even after reading their own words and the official company log, I don’t understand many of their decisions. Here are a few of my questions, before they are even out of Iowa:
1. Levi Savage records that their ration starting out from Iowa City was 10 ounces of flour per man per day, nine ounces for women, and half that for children. I looked at the wrapper on my whole grain bread this morning. One slice is 1.5 oz, with 110 calories. So, about 6 2/3 slices of bread per day, total, for men who were pulling heavy loads for 12-17 miles per day. That works out to less than 800 calories. There was also a ration of pork, at a rate of 10 ounces per 4 weeks, (yes, you read that correctly) and some sugar, tea, and coffee, but these were hardly ever provided. Our people were starving to death before they even left civilization, and the records state that people from the farms and villages they passed through sometimes had pity and brought food into the camps, and if they didn’t, the men were driven by hunger to walk to the nearest town and beg for food. That image haunts and horrifies me. I wonder what they expected when they got past the Missouri river, where there were no more farms and towns?
2. They left Iowa City in mid-July, arrived at Council Bluffs on August 10th, and rested there for a week, leaving on July 16. So, for the first month on the trail, they travelled 250 miles, and that was over the easiest part. They still had a thousand miles to go, some of it over mountains, and without ready access to additional food supplies. Did they look at a calendar and calculate that their current rate of travel would put them into Salt Lake City around Christmas? I wonder what they were thinking.
The story of the Mormon migration has so many elements of drama that it is easy to appear melodramatic when talking about it. But the slow daily progress of these people who attempted to walk from Iowa to Utah needs no embellishment. Their journals speak for them, and they give a matter-of-fact recounting of what they went through. Wallace Stegner summarized their story this way, in The gathering of Zion:
In urging the method upon Europe’s poor, Brigham and the priesthood would over-reach themselves; in shepherding them from Liverpool to the valley, the ordinarily reliable missionary and emigration organization would break down at several critical points; in accepting the assurances of their leaders and the wishful importunities of their own hope, the emigrants would commit themselves to greater sacrifices than even the Nauvoo refugees; and in rallying from compound fatal error to bring the survivors in, the priesthood and the people of Mormondom would show themselves at their compassionate and efficient best.
If you have any interest in primary sources and the study of our history, the website linked above is an excellent resource, and I urge you to see what it offers.