As youth prepare to travel to Wyoming for a handcart trek, parents may feel trepidation; perhaps even worry that their youth are not adequately prepared. I understand. I have seen my own children go out the door on various occasions without me as their guardian. I have contemplated being a stowaway or going in disguise. (Obi-one waves his hand, “This is not your mother you are looking at.”) Yet, with trustworthy leaders, modern conveniences, and emergency, technology-based resources, I could feel reasonably reassured that they would return safely, and hopefully, better for the experience.
Also, consider their advantages compared to the original handcart pioneers who committed to trek, not just a few days, but months and without a return to fine homes when it was over.
Concerning the outfitting of handcarts in Iowa City, Wallace Stegner, American historian, writer and environmentalist, wrote: “In all its history, the American West never saw a more unlikely band of pioneers than [those] who were camped on the bank of the Iowa River at Iowa City in early June 1856. Looking for the brown and resolute and weather-seasoned among them, you would have seen instead starved cheeks, pale skins, bad teeth, thin chests, all the stigmata of unhealthy work and inadequate diet. There were more women than men, more children under fifteen than either. . . . They looked more like the population of the poor farm on a picnic than like pioneers about to cross the plains.
“Most of them, until they were herded from their crowded immigrant ship,. . . dumped here at the brink of the West, had never pitched a tent, slept on the ground, cooked outdoors, built a campfire. They had not even the rudimentary skills that make frontiersmen. But as it turned out, they had some of the stuff that makes heroes” (Stegner, Wallace B. The Gathering of Zion: The Story of the Mormon Trail. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1964).
In The Price We Paid, Olsen writes, “What was it, then, that helped these people become heroes? That many of them came from such a low condition and would show such strength and courage in the most extreme adversity is not merely a manifestation of the will to survive. It is perhaps even more an indication of the transforming power of the gospel of Jesus Christ” (Olsen, Andrew D., The Price We Paid, 63, 64).
An example is Millen Atwood who travelled with the Willie Company. Heber J. Grant, who was born the same month the Willie company arrived in Salt Lake City, wrote about a time when he was about 17. He was studying grammar and “was assigned to bring two examples of poor sentences along with their corrections, to each class.” At this time he attended a meeting where Atwood spoke. Heber J. Grant later said:
“I wrote down his first sentence, smiled to myself, and said: ‘I am going to get here tonight, during the thirty minutes that Brother Atwood speaks, enough material to last me for the entire winter in my night school grammar class. . . But I did not write anything more after the first sentence—not a word. And when Millen Atwood stopped preaching, tears were rolling down my cheeks, because of the marvelous testimony which that man bore of the divine mission of Joseph Smith, the prophet of God, and of the wonderful inspiration that attended the prophet in all his labors’” (Grant, Heber J. Gospel Standards. Compiled by G. Homer Durham. Salt Lake City: Improvement Era, 1941).
The handcart pioneers may have been roughly cut, and lacking in education, but they had fortitude, perseverance, hearts open to the stoking fires of testimony and a vision of the Zion they hoped to attain.