Devil's Gate

Brigham Young and the Great Mormon Handcart Tragedy

By David Roberts
Simon & Schuster. 416 pp. $26
Sept. 21, 2008

Chapter One


Up to that point, for Patience Loader, the journey had been chiefly exhausting. During the four weeks from July 25 to August 22, 1856, the company with which she traveled had covered 270 miles of trail from Iowa City to Florence, a fledgling community six miles north of Omaha, which itself had been founded just two years earlier. Averaging ten miles a day, the party of pioneers, some 575 strong, suffered the occasional delay due to thunderstorms or wayward cattle, but kept up their spirits with prayer services in camp each night and songs upon starting off each morning.

Yet even as the emigrants approached Florence, the trek, for twenty-eight-year-old Patience, took on an ominous new cast. Her fifty-seven-year-old father, James Loader, had been growing weaker by the day. Now his legs and feet swelled so badly that he had trouble walking. He was too feeble to help erect the big canvas tent under which twenty pilgrims slept wrapped in blankets on the ground. After mid-August, as he went to bed each night, James wondered whether he would be able to travel at all on the morrow.

Patience, her father, her mother, four of her younger sisters, and a younger brother were eight of some 1,865 Mormon emigrants engaged in what historians LeRoy and Ann Hafen call "the most remarkable travel experiment in the history of Western America." The Loaders and their fellow sojourners were traveling overland from eastern Iowa across the crest of the Continental Divide to Utah. The last four-fifths of that 1,300-mile trail, from Florence onward, had been traversed (though not blazed, for thousands of settlers bound for Oregon and California - including the ill-starred Donner party - had preceded them) by Brigham Young's pioneer company of Mormons, who in 1847 had founded their new Zion on the site that would become Salt Lake City.

In 1856, however, the emigrants were not traveling, as Brigham Young's party had, in covered wagons pulled by oxen. Instead, they were serving as their own beasts of burden. From Iowa City all the way to Salt Lake City, they pulled and pushed wooden handcarts freighted with three months' worth of clothing, gear, and sometimes food. A few ox-drawn wagons accompanied the handcart train: in Patience Loader's company, along with 145 handcarts, there were eight wagons to carry the heavy tents, miscellaneous gear, and much of the food. The wagons could also serve in extremis to carry a pioneer who was too weak or ill to walk.

The handcart "experiment" was Brigham Young's idea. Complicated factors lay behind its genesis, but the bottom line was economic. By 1856, Young's virtually autonomous empire on the edge of the Great Basin - the self-proclaimed State of Deseret - was rife with fears of an impending invasion by the U.S. Army. Four years before, Young had gone public with a doctrine that had long been kept secret within the Mormon hierarchy - what the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (as the Mormons called themselves) referred to as "plural marriage." Polygamy, in short, was not merely permissible in Utah: it was the sacred duty of every God-fearing Saint. Young and his "Apostles" (the chief officers of the Mormon theocracy) had lobbied in vain to have Utah admitted to the union as a state. That very year of 1856, John C. Frémont, the first Republican candidate for the presidency, had grounded his campaign on the pledge to rid the country of "those twin relics of barbarism - Polygamy and Slavery."

Deseret needed reinforcements. Meanwhile, thanks to nearly two decades of proselytizing so zealous there is no comparable achievement in American annals, missionaries sent to Great Britain and Scandinavia had converted thousands of the working-class poor to Mormonism. Not only to strengthen the colony, but to ensure the converts' own spiritual salvation, Young determined to get those Saints to Zion as quickly as possible. And as cheaply as possible - for Deseret was in the midst of a fiscal crisis. Handcart emigration, Brigham Young declared, could be accomplished even more easily than the usual trek by covered wagon, and at a fraction of the cost.

The handcart of 1856 was modeled on the kinds of luggage trolleys employed by railroad porters in the big cities of the Eastern United States. Its two wheels, about four and a half feet in diameter, were narrow hoops of wood, with thin wooden spokes radiating from the axle hub. The axle itself was made of hickory. The bed upon which the pioneers' goods were carried was a shallow, open, rectangular box, a little less than three feet wide by five feet long. From the front of the cart protruded a simple yoke made of thin, rounded sticks; two persons could stand inside this yoke, grasp the crosspiece with both hands at chest level, and push the cart along.

The Mormon handcart, designed to be as light as possible, weighed only about sixty-five pounds. In consequence, it was a fragile, rickety vehicle. The bane of the emigrants' existence was the constant breaking down of these handcarts, necessitating jury-rigged repairs along the trail.

On the average, four or five pilgrims pushed and pulled a single handcart. Each emigrant had been strictly limited to seventeen pounds of personal belongings, including clothes, bedding, and cooking utensils. The aggregate load, then, could be as little as eighty-five pounds, but it was usually much heavier, when logistical setbacks forced each handcart team to add a hundred-pound sack of flour to its load, or when a young child or failing grandparent for whom there was no room in the wagons had to be carried on the cart by his or her family.

From Iowa City to Florence, Patience and her father normally stood inside the yoke and pushed the cart by its crossbar. Sisters Maria (nineteen years old) and Jane (fourteen) pulled the cart by means of ropes tied to the shafts of the yoke. Sister Sarah, only twelve years old, pushed from behind the cart. Patience's mother, Amy, fifty-four years old; Patience's twenty-two-year-old sister, Tamar, who had fallen ill with the flulike malady the Saints called "mountain fever"; and her little brother Robert, who was nine, walked alongside. Before the family reached Florence, however, James Loader grew too weak to help with the pushing. Maria took his place inside the yoke, and the cart trundled on under the power of only four young women and girls.

The memoir of her life that Patience Loader wrote sometime after 1887, more than three decades after her handcart trek, is silent on the agonies of the initial 270-mile leg of the journey. They emerge, however, in the diary kept by another member of that party, forty-five-year-old Joseph Beecroft. Sample extracts:

August 1: About 9 aclock we started on our ardious journey.... We felt fateagued, got fires lighted water boiled, and our dry bred and tea. Between 3 and four we started for the next camp ground about 3 miles off which we reached very tired about 6 aclock. I thought I should have had to give it up, for I had a faint fit.

August 5: we were worse featuged than on any former perion [portion] of our jurney my wife was really finished. We had 2 carriages had their Axels broke in our company.

August 7: we rested near some water and being so near finished I could not fetch water. we started again and came to a place with which was secelected a camp. I[t] was nearly dark.... I could not help with tent.

August 10: I soon had breakfast and then went for an brought a large bundle of wood, which nearly murdered me. I came to tent and stayed in all day, and endured horrid pain in my limbs perticularly below my hips. My wife tryed to comfort me.

August 12: Soon after we started my goods had to be put in the waggon inorder that a young sister who could not endure the shaking of the waggon might be carried on in my cart.... Finding our queer position, and that I could bear to stand no longer, we moved on 100 yards came to a wood yard and in horrid pain we sat down leaving our selves in the hand of our father in heaven.

Unlike Beecroft, Patience Loader waited more than thirty years to record her story of the handcart trek. Yet among the scores of journals and memoirs written by the handcart pioneers that have come down to us, Patience's "Reccolections of past days" is the most vivid and eloquent. In an odd way, her account rings even truer thanks to her quirky spelling, erratic capitalization, and virtual absence of punctuation. Thus, describing James Loader's collapse on the approach to Florence, Patience writes:

That afternoon we had not traveled far when My poor sick father fell down and we had to stop to get him up on his feet I said father You are not able to pull the cart You had better not try to pull we girls can do it this afternoon Oh he sais I can do it I will try it again I Must not give up the breathren said I shall be better and I want to go to the valley to shake hands with Brigham Young.

Even so, the Loader family came very close to terminating their journey in Florence. As the handcart train had crossed Iowa, it traversed a sparsely settled country, with many a roadside homestead and even a nascent village or two, such as Des Moines. Florence, however, stood on the edge of true frontier. On the thousand miles of trail stretching between that community and Salt Lake City, there were only three outposts of American civilization: the forts named Kearny, Laramie, and Bridger.

In that last week of August, not only was James Loader nearly unable to walk and Tamar racked with high fevers, but yet another Loader sister, twenty-five-year-old Zilpah - married to John Jaques, who had been a staff member in the Liverpool Mormon Mission - was within days of giving birth. The Jaqueses pushed their own handcart, but traveled in tandem with the Loader family.

It would not have been unreasonable for the Loader family to stay put in Florence and winter over, finishing their pilgrimage the next summer. In 1846, Brigham Young's vanguard party had originally hoped to go all the way to the Great Basin, but as the season grew too late to push on, the 148 pioneers who would found their Zion in the wilderness, along with many other Mormon emigrants, stopped just across the Missouri River from the border of the state of Iowa and threw together an instant village they called Winter Quarters (later renamed Florence). In doing so, they were in fact squatting on territory that had been ceded to the Omaha Indian tribe. Starting off again in early April 1847, the pioneer wagon train reached Utah in the height of summer.

In her memoir, Patience bitterly rues the decision not to stay in Florence. For in pushing on, the Loader family plunged into an utter catastrophe. By the time the last handcart pioneers straggled into Salt Lake on November 30, they had left some 220 of their brothers and sisters dead on the trail. Consequently the Mormon handcart tragedy of 1856 remains the greatest disaster in the whole pageant of westward migration across America.

The handcart catastrophe was, moreover, entirely preventable. What went wrong, and why?

Born in 1827, Patience Loader grew up in Aston Rowant, a small town in south-central England, "fifteen Miles from the City of Oxford," as she explained in the first paragraph of her memoir, "Which place is noted for its great educational coleges and old fashion buildings some which are black with age." As a member of the working class, she was typical of the legions of British converts with whom she would travel across the Great Plains. Yet compared to the coal miners and factory workers among that throng, Patience's father, James, occupied a relatively comfortable station in life, as private gardener to a baronet named Sir Henry John Lambert.

To follow Patience Loader's narrative of her journey to Utah is to retrace the steps of a representative handcart pioneer in the landmark year of 1856. And yet in other respects, Patience's experience was unique and poignant.

By the time she wrote "Reccolections of past days," Patience had been a steadfast Mormon for more than three decades. As far as we know, she never wavered in her faith or dreamed of returning to England. Yet one of the felicities of Patience's memoir lies in the fact that, despite her fidelity to the church, she seldom colors the past with retrospective pieties. She has a genius for remembering exactly how she felt.

Thus the gardener's cottage in which she grew up lingered long in her heart, an image of a lost Eden:

the dear old house with a thatched roof and old fashion casements wendows with dimant cut glass and the verada in front with woodbrnes roses and honey suckles twing up to the upstairs windows a beautifull flower garden on each side of the Walk from the Street to the house a walk of red brick laid in on each side with flints all kept so clean and free from weeds and gravle walks all around the house to the back Whare we had a play ground a beautifull green grass plate whare father had swings and jumps batts and balls skiping ropes and everything to please his children at home as he did not alow us to go out in the Street.

James Loader was what we would call today an overprotective father. By the age of seventeen, Patience had apparently never spent a night away from home. On October 10, 1844, under the mischievous sway of her sister Ann (two years her elder), Patience indulged in what must have been the most rebellious and hedonistic act of her young life, which was to attend a county fair in the village of Thame, six miles from Aston Rowant. "I never had been to a fare in My life," she later wrote, "as my Parents would never alow me or My sisters to visit those places allthough fares was verey comon in England in those days once a year an the young Men and women go there to enjoy themselves together there thay dance all day and sometimes up to a late hour at Night."

With their father's permission out of the question, Ann and Patience sneaked away from the cottage. Patience tried to have fun at the fair, but guilt laid its heavy hand on her spirit: "We had a verey good day alltogether but to tell the truth I did not have any real enjoyment the thoughts that we had run away from home unknown to our parents spoiled all my pleasure."

James Loader, furious and worried, set out on foot to track down the wayward girls, to no avail. At a late hour, the sisters stopped for the night at their cousins' house in Kingston, closer to Thame than Aston Rowant. In the morning, the girls faced the music, which was as discordant as they had feared.

On October 11, the day the sisters returned home, Patience began seven consecutive years as a domestic servant in various households. By 1845, invited by her older brother Jonas, she was installed in sprawling London, then the most populous city in the world (and one of the most sophisticated), but she remained a country girl through and through. The constant theme running through her narrative of those years is lonesomeness and homesickness. Jonas got her a job helping a young married couple run a dairy. But when Jonas left to get married and start his own business, Patience felt abandoned - and trapped in the dairy.

By 1848, as a skilled seamstress, Patience had seen her salary rise to £12 a year. No photograph of Patience Loader from her English years seems to have survived, but a picture taken in Utah in 1858, when at the age of thirty-one she married her first husband, reveals a pleasant, almost pixieish face, with a prim mouth but gaily curling hair.

The Loaders were staunch Anglicans. James and his wife, Amy, were so devout that as a child Patience found the churchgoing onerous: "Sometimes I use to get quite tiard and as I grew older I use to think it was alittle to much to have to go to church and Sunday school all day on Sundays when some of My companions could go and take a nice walk with there friends." In London, Patience had the misfortune to serve three years as a servant for an elderly "Maden Lady" and her equally superannuated housekeeper, who were fervent devotees of a splinter church calling itself the Independents.

Between the two the Lady and her housekeeper I heard nothing but religion talked over and ever talking to get Me to join there church which in time I done. I must say More to pleas them than Myself for I realy fealt religion a burthen.... Thay allmost thought it a sin to laugh and thay considered it awfull to think of going to a theater.

From the employ of this odd couple, Patience passed, around 1848, into the service of the Maden Lady's sister, one Mrs. Henderson, and her husband. The Hendersons, who had served for years as missionaries in Russia, were also fiercely devout, imposing on their hired help as many as three church meetings each Sunday, Bible classes at home on Monday evenings, and prayer meetings on Thursday evenings. Mr. Henderson, a tutor at some sort of school or college, was often heard to swear that "he could not die happey if he did not visit Jerusalem."


Excerpted from Devil's Gate by David Roberts Copyright © 2008 by David Roberts. Excerpted by permission.
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