Western Migration Hand-Cart Disaster - 1856
DEVIL'S GATE: Brigham Young and the Great Mormon Handcart Tragedy. David Roberts. Simon & Schuster. 402 pages.
People do remarkable and appalling things in the name of religion. Distinguishing between the two categories isn't always easy. In the mid-1850s, Brigham Young directed members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to gather in Zion -- Utah Territory -- to enable the struggling Mormon colony to hold its ground against the encroachments of westering American gentiles. To save money and thereby maximize the number of Mormons able to make the trek, Young decided to forgo horse- and oxen-drawn wagons in favor of human-powered push carts. The handcarts cost a 10th of what wagons and draft animals did, and they promised to fill Utah with Mormons before too many gentiles arrived.
The journey of the handcart travelers from Iowa to Utah became a defining myth of Mormon history, the equivalent, as historian David Roberts observes, of the voyage of the Mayflower in American colonial history. Subsequent generations of Mormons took pride in their descent from handcart pioneers; as with the Mayflower, more than a few of the claims of lineage were spurious.
In the judgment of Roberts, who has written extensively about the American West and its peoples, the mythmaking has a sinister aspect, crossing the line into historical cover-up. The handcart companies -- as these traveling groups were called -- suffered from hunger, disease, exposure and death; their mortality rate dramatically exceeded the average for overland companies, despite the fact that the Mormons traveled but half the distance covered by the much more numerous immigrants to California and Oregon. Most of the 3,000 handcart travelers treated the journey as a heavenly ordained test of their faith; Roberts, making compelling use of their diaries and other records, considers it a criminal fiasco imposed on the innocent migrants by the arrogant, unbending leaders of their church.
Throughout Devil's Gate, Roberts shows great sympathy for the travelers but none for those who set them in motion. He demonstrates that Young's handcart scheme was based on a gross underestimate of the labor involved in pushing carts 1,300 miles across plains and over mountains. The plan was also poorly executed, with most of the carts hastily constructed of green wood that warped and shattered on the road. Young's hurry to populate Utah with Mormons prevented the laggards from stopping for the winter and thereby condemned some 220 persons to death, mainly by exposure.
Roberts is by no means the first person to tell the handcart story, which was broken by the survivors themselves. But it remains a gripping tale, and one that bears retelling. Whether Roberts' account will seriously challenge the mythical version, however, is open to doubt. The handcart migration revealed inflexibility and short-sightedness, but it also brought out enormous courage and perseverance. Those who remember and honor the latter traits may be willing to forgive or forget the former.
H. W. Brands reviewed this book for The Washington Post.
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