Handcart Tragedy display, The Great River Arch, Kearney, Nebraska
Handcart Tragedy display, The Great River Arch, Kearney, Nebraska

Mormon Handcart Tragedy

As our own lives become more insulated, virtual, and comfortable, actual episodes of suffering and endurance have become popular stuff. Mt. Everest mishaps, perfect storms, cold mountains, you name it. The name we like best, though, is "Mormon Handcart Tragedy," three words we had never seen so strung before last summer, and now we notice the phrase everywhere. The latest appearance was in a feature story about the depredation in the New York Times. (Full ignorance disclosure: none of the Roadsideamerica.com Team are practicing Mormons)

Great River Arch - Mormon handcart.

During a trip last year, we saw two wax representations of the Handcart Tragedy in three days (Old West Wax Museum, Thermopolis, Wyoming and The Great River Arch, Kearney, Nebraska). In both cases, a wax man pulls a cart like a mule, up to his knees in snow and mud, while a wax woman and child (and in Thermopolis, Brigham Young himself) exhort him on. For any husband who thinks he got it rough with SUV payments and private school tuition, it's a humbling image.

The Thermopolis figures are old, but the Great River Arch is a new Disney-designed multimillion dollar multimedia extravaganza, spanning over I-80. There, the handcart diorama shares space with a Cadillac convertible and railroad engines. But we've heard of cars and trains. What gives? What was the handcart tragedy, exactly?

It turns out back in July, 1856, a group of Mormon pioneers from England led by Edward Martin left Iowa and embarked on the 1,200-mile wilderness trek to Salt Lake City. Experts advised them that it was too late in the year to start, and that they didn't have enough provisions. Many were too poor to purchase horses and covered wagons, so the men pulled their earthly belongings behind them in carts.

One thing led to another. The handcarts cracked and fell apart. The familes needed to leave behind the heaviest things, which happened to be blankets and winter clothes.

In October, in southwestern Wyoming near what is now the town of Alcova, the Martin party got trapped by a blizzard. After enduring sorrow and suffering that "Tongue nor pen can never tell," 150 of the 600 in the group died of starvation and exposure. The rest were rescued by a team from Salt Lake. (Note: Two who did not die were Butch Cassidy's parents.)

Handcart Tragedy display, Old West Wax Museum, Thermopolis, Wyoming.
Handcart Tragedy display, Old West Wax Museum, Thermopolis, Wyoming.

For more than a hundred years, it remained a footnote. People had their own problems. But interest has grown, helped tremendously by the opening in 1997 of a Mormon Handcart Center near the Martin's Cove site. Tourists come 1,000 a day during the summer months -- no one wants to be there in late October. Fun is fun, but…

The Center, which is in the middle of 12,000 acres, is owned and operated by the Mormon Church. They also have a 1,000 head cattle ranch on the land. Last September, after years of haggling, opposition from church and state separatists, and political backroom deals, the actual site of the tragedy, which sits on Federal Land, was leased to the Mormon Church.

Bryce Christensen, director of Mormon Handcart Historic Sites in Wyoming, has said: "There's a spirit here that seems to answer questions people are fighting with, that helps them reach deep in their souls. Even those who are not members of the church find a calmness and peace here that they comment on."

A visitor's center displays detail the sad story of the Martin Company. Bits of broken handcart hubs and spokes are cemented among the rocks of the fireplace there.

Another trailside grave - Great River Arch.
Another trailside grave - Great River Arch.

There are about 160 handcarts for visitors to pull, and organized two- or three-day treks involve hauling them to campsites (a distance of between three and six miles) and back, as well as spending some time for reflection in Martin's Cove.

But the handcart pulling craze is not limited to Martin's Cove. Every summer in Iowa City, the Mormon Trek Heritage Festival takes place off Mormon Trek Boulevard, adjacent to the University of Iowa's Mormon Handcart Park. This is where the trip started. Along with barbecue, music and games, replica wooden handcarts are provided for people to pull across the prairie.

In fact, since the sesquicentennial of the Mormon Pioneer Historic Trail in 1996, handcart treks over various part of the Trail (1,300 miles from Nauvoo, IL to Salt Lake City, UT) have taken off. The Bureau of Land Management estimates that less than 1,000 people took part in LDS-sponsored handcart treks in 1999, but only three years later, the number had grown to more than 12,000.

According to the NY Times piece, cart-pulling ceremonies are held everywhere from Russia to Florida. And handcarts were present, though not center stage, in the pageantry of the Salt Lake City Winter Olympics.

The desire to pull a handcart over the prairie seems to us an odd combination of test-your-strength and test-your-faith. It's like wanting to carry around a big cross. Both are made of wood, but at least the cart has wheels, and is not further burdened by two thousand years of predecessor weirdoes ruining the image when you tell your friends back home about it.

And what, exactly is the message of the handcart? "Go ill-prepared into the wilderness?" Ignore the warnings of those more knowledgeable than you, and risk the lives of your children, because with God's help and your own fortitude, 75% of you will live?

The pioneers weren't forced to make the trip, like on the Trail of Tears or the Bataan Death March. They brought it on themselves, over a many-month period, when at any time, a sane decision to wait until next year would have kept things from spinning out of control.

There's a reason we have things insulated and virtual these days. It's better than freezing to death with no food.

RoadsideAmerica.com Team Field Report

The Archway

3060 E. 1st St., Kearney, NE
I-80 exit 275.
M-Sa 9-5, Su 12-5 (Call to verify) Local health policies may affect hours and access.
Adults $12, 6-12 $6
RA Rates:
Worth a Detour
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RoadsideAmerica.com Team Field Report

Old West Wax Museum

Jan 2010 - Closed - wax figures moved to Riverton Local health policies may affect hours and access.

Mormon Handcart Visitors' Center

47600 W. Hwy. 220, Alcova, WY
33 miles southwest of Alcova.
Summer Su-Sa 8 am - 7 pm. (Call to verify) Local health policies may affect hours and access.
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