Impetus for Mormon Handcart Emigration

Some converts, especially those able to pay their own ship fare, had made a practise of settling temporarily in the eastern or midwestern states, wherever they could find jobs that would help them assemble an outfit to bring their families in some comfort to the valley. Plenty of the poor would have· jumped at the same chance, if the Church would have brought them across the Atlantic. But all Church experience indicated that among those who stopped short of Zion there was a high apostasy rate. In his letters of instruction, Brigham warned against those who would use the P.E. Fund’s help simply as a means of getting to America and escaping their economic trap. It was desirable that all emigrants sent under P.E. Fund auspices be sent all the way at once. That meant a greater expenditure per person; and the effort to reduce that expenditure meant, inevitably, the proposal to bring them across the plains with their small belongings in handcarts.

“Let all things be done in order,” said the Thirteenth General Epistle of October 29, 1855, “and let all the Saints who can, gather up for Zion and come while the way is open before them; let the poor also come, whether they receive aid or not from the Fund, let them come on foot, with handcarts or wheelbarrows; let them gird up their loins and walk through, and nothing shall hinder or stay them.”

Coming from one who had three times traveled the Mormon Trail, who had seen hundreds of the trailworn emerge from the mouth of Emigration Canyon, who was in constant touch with the missionaries and captains bringing in converts, and who had himself served in the British mission and knew the physical specimens that the missionary nets dredged up there, the Epistle was recklessly optimistic. It was the statement of a man who wanted something to be possible, not of one who knew it to be. It was more hortatory than sound. It minimized difficulties, especially those related to illness and infirmity; it failed to sound adequate warnings; it persisted in the statistical view of an earlier letter Brigham had sent to Franklin Richards: “Fifteen miles a day will bring them through in 70 days, and after they get accustomed to it they will travel 20, 25, and even 30 with all ease … the little ones and sick, if there are any, can be carried on the carts, but there will be none sick in a little time after they get started.”

Those have been described by anti-Mormon writers as the words of a man willing to break eggs to make an omelet. It is perhaps fairer to say that in this instance Brigham was letting his impatience for growth and strength cloud his usually sound judgment, or was perhaps depending too incautiously on the caution of his agents. But he was surely not averse, either, to the principle of trying and testing his people, nor were they unwilling to be tested. Because he was the Prophet of the Lord, what he said was totally accepted, and used by both missionaries and converts to justify an adventure which common sense undazzled by prophecy might have annulled, or at least limited. Brother Brigham urged it, his missionaries and agents urged it, Piercy’s Route from Liverpool showed them idealized scenes of a road along which he and a company of people like themselves had passed without incident, their friends and relatives in Zion wrote urgent letters, saying “Come.”