Handcart trek in Blackwater Forest

Libby McSheehy
The road wasn’t easy for 72 youth and adults who recreated Brigham Young’s trek of 1856.

More than 72 youth and countless adults braved the temperatures and the mud and rain to trek through the Blackwater Forest pulling handcarts on the last three days of the year.  This trek was the culmination of the study of Church history, a class which met daily at 5: 45 a.m. prior to high school. Holly Tew and Paul Lawson, the youth leaders, along with a youth council, planned the trek with all its logistical problems and accompanied them on the journey.

In 1856, Brigham Young decided to try handcarts for crossing the plains because the Perpetual Emigration Fund used for supplying the funds for the trek west was depleted due to drought and grasshoppers. Wagons and teams were very expensive and most converts worked in factories and were unfamiliar with hitching animals to wagons and driving them. Out of 10 handcart companies, eight reached the Salt Lake Valley with no trouble. The Martin and Willie companies were not so fortunate. Caught in early blizzards in October on the plains of Wyoming with temperatures hovering at 15 to 18 below zero, they suffered starvation, frostbite and exposure.  Of the 2,000 members of these two companies, more than 200 perished.

The rescue itself was a remarkable effort.  Supplies and teams and drivers were called for at their semi-annual meeting called General Conference and immediately were sent out to rescue the pioneers on the plains of Wyoming. In spite of their efforts, they were delayed by the same blizzards raging on the plains 350 miles away.  The hapless converts were down to just four ounces of flour to eat per day. When they saw the rescuers finally arrive with clothes and food, they cried with joy. But it took them many more days of travel before they reached their destination. The Willie Company took a short cut by crossing Rocky Ridge, a rough, fissured steep grade strewn with boulders. A storm was raging and it took them 18 hours in the dark to cross. Their journey began in July and did not end until December, when they were taken into homes of their fellow Saints.

It is these pioneers who are remembered during the Handcart Treks. This week the youth of the Fort Walton Beach Stake became these pioneers and honored them by giving their time, energy and devotion to each one. These local youngsters pushed and pulled their laden handcarts seven miles the first day. On the second day they pulled 18 miles, most of it done by the ladies while they were separated from the guys. During this phase there were many uphill grades to challenge them even more. This experience was to depict the period of time when the men were called away and the women had to fend for themselves. They all welcomed the campsites, fires and food on that day especially. These young people gave up modern conveniences, their precious electronics and the comforts of home to brave the elements for three days. While trekking they were remembering specific pioneers with their unique struggles whose lives they had studied. They also spent quiet time reflecting on this experience and its meaning to them, studying scriptures and writing in their journals. Other preparations these youngsters made for months prior to this journey were learning to set up tents, walking distances to get in shape, gathering supplies they would need, sewing sunbonnets and pioneer clothes, and making some handcarts. (Wheels for the handcarts came from Ohio where they were made by the Amish.)

At the end of their journey they held a testimony meeting where they shared their thoughts on their experiences and of those hardy, suffering pioneers whose trek lasted for 1,300 miles. As one member stated, “We have a whole new appreciation of these pioneers.”