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A Journey of Faith: The Mormon Handcart Pioneers

Following the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, land-hungry Americans and recent immigrants from Europe set their sights on moving across the western frontier in what has become known as the Great Western Migration.

Some settlers followed the trail blazed by Meriwether Lewis and William Clark. In 1804, Lewis and Clark’s Corps of Discovery traveled from Camp Dubois in Illinois up the Missouri River and across the northern plains and mountains to the mouth of the Colombia River. This route became known as the Oregon Trail.

During the 19th century, other settlers made a long and dangerous journey from St. Louis, crossing the plains before turning southwest on the east side of the Rockies in the plains of Colorado.

This route, the Santa Fe Trail, had commonly been used used by fur trappers and traders. During the mid 1800s, the Santa Fe Trail became increasingly used by those hoping to strike it rich in the gold fields of California or to stake a claim to homestead land for ranching.

Whether it was to start a new life, pan for gold or mine silver, claim land to farm or establish a cattle ranch – the majority of the pioneers of the early to mid 1800s traveled westward to acquire wealth, property or to fulfill their personal ambitions.

However, another group of settlers migrated across the western plains not for riches or fame but to follow their faith


The Mormon pioneers were members of the Church of Latter Day Saints (LDS). Brigham Young, the second president of the LDS church, organized groups of Mormon settlers to immigrate westward from 1847 through 1868. The original group had left in exodus from Nauvoo, Illinois, in 1846 and fled to Iowa. In 1847, under the leadership of Brigham Young, the first group of pioneers left Council Bluffs, Iowa, to head toward the Rocky Mountains.

Council Bluffs, Iowa, was an important destination of historical significance. In the late summer of 1804, Lewis and Clark’s Corps of Discovery had made camp alongside the Missouri River to rest and make needed repairs to their canoes and keel boat.

Lewis and Clark had been charged by President Thomas Jefferson with finding a land/water route to the Pacific and making scientific findings and collecting samples of flora and fauna of the West. In addition, Jefferson wanted the co-captains of the expedition to make contact with the Indian tribes they encountered and to explain that the lands of the Louisiana Territory (all lands west of the Mississippi River to the Rocky Mountains) were no longer governed by the Spanish and French – but now were under the dominion of the United States government.

On that hot summer day, the two explorers from Virginia met with members of the Oto and Missouri Indian tribes in a council to exchange the news of the United States presence in the territory and to reassure the Indians that their new “Great Father”, Thomas Jefferson, wanted peaceful trade, not war, with the tribes. The location of this first council of U.S. representatives and the native tribal leaders took place at what is today known as Council Bluffs, Iowa.

Four decades later in 1847, Brigham Young and his advance group of LDS settlers left Council Bluffs and journeyed westward across the plains and into the Utah desert earning Young the nickname of the “Mormon Moses”. Like the Biblical Moses, Brigham Young felt a spiritual call to lead his flock to the “promised land” where they could freely practice their faith.

Young and his first group of pioneers established a sanctuary for the Mormon faithful in the Salt Lake Valley in Utah, which was part of Mexico at that time.

In 1849, the LDS church launched an “immigration fund” to loan money to Mormons in the Eastern United States as well as to LDS members in Europe to travel to Utah and join the religious community.

Over the next several years, groups of LDS immigrants traveled to Council Bluffs and then on to Utah on foot with all of their belongings loaded onto simple wooden handcarts.

Unlike other western pioneers who traveled in Conestoga wagons pulled by teams of oxen, Young encouraged the sect members to put whatever goods and supplies they could fit into handcarts or wheelbarrows and set forth on their trek to Utah. “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.”

This unique migration found thousands of Mormons making the arduous walk across the frontier, pulling their handcarts for the 1,179 miles between Iowa and the Mormon settlement near the Great Salt Lake.

One hand cart was allowed for each family and the carts could hold up to 200 pounds of supplies, food, and tools. Pulling a heavily laden handcart or pushing a wheelbarrow for more than a thousand miles was physically draining for the men, women and children who made the difficult journey to Utah. Although some individuals perished under the strain, most of these Mormon pioneers kept walking, step-by-step, until they reached Utah to join their religious community.

Following the initial migration of 500, thousands more LDS members made the difficult journey over what would become known as the Mormon Trail.

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