IF YOU GO
- What: A presentation about the handcart trek re-enactment
- When: 6 p.m. Sunday
- Where: LDS Chapel, 667 10th St., East Wenatchee
Over 110 local youth, most from area congregations of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, recently completed a re-enactment of the 1856-60 Mormon pioneer handcart trek across the Great Plains of the United States to Utah Territory.
Leaving modern technology and conveniences behind, and dressed as their pioneer ancestors, the youth and their leaders met at Bing Canyon Campground in Plymouth, south of the Tri-Cities, in mid-June. They joined “families” of seven to nine teens led by a “ma” and “pa,” packed essential gear into replica handcarts, and walked, pulling or pushing the carts over rolling sagebrush hills for four days.
During the 10 years handcarts were used in the pioneer migration to the Salt Lake Valley, nearly 2,300 people began the trek. Of those, 250 died en route, 220 of them members of the Willie and Martin companies which were caught in early snowstorms on the high Wyoming plains. Rescue parties from Salt Lake City averted further tragedy. But their suffering and hardships have taught many of their descendants about perseverance and faith.
“The trek gave me a perspective on what the pioneers went through,” said Alyssa Armstrong of Brewster. “They left everything they knew and were comfortable with to walk for what must have felt like forever. I thought I understood what it was like for the pioneers to make those treks from watching movies, but when you do it yourself, even for a couple of days, it gives you a great perspective on their trials and hardships.”
Kendell Clay, who graduated this spring from Wenatchee High School, agreed with Armstrong on gaining perspective. “The pioneers went through tough things. They made it easier for us to be here now. On the trek, I learned that it is not OK to just sit back and watch others work. You need to be aggressive in working so others don’t have to pick up the slack.”
Soon after the United States declared war on Mexico in 1846, the government requested that several hundred Mormon men, then in Iowa preparing for their westward migration, join federal troops. They did so and by the time the men’s families started west, many women and children were forced to make the mid-continental crossing without the aid of their able-bodied husbands and fathers.
In honor of those brave women, the modern trekkers undertook the Women’s Pull, an event many youth felt was the most significant single experience of the journey. Young men were asked to stand by silently, hats in hands, and watch the efforts of the young women as they labored to pull and push handcarts up a steep hill.
Sixteen-year-old Jack Carnline remembered, “While watching the women’s pull, we were encouraged to think about what we’ve sat back and watched our mothers do for us. It was so hard to watch these young women struggle and not be able to help. Afterwards, our (interactions) with them was much different than it had been earlier. What I learned from them was: don’t let anything stop you from getting to where you need to be.”
Chloe Camp, another recent WHS graduate, said the women’s pull was very intense physically, but “an amazing bonding experience” for the young women involved. “Our pull was short-lived; the pioneer women had to do it all the time,” she said. “What impressed me most was hearing all the encouragement from the other girls. We bonded. We learned what we could do together. I’d love to do it again.”
During daylight trekking, the youth were taught the historical background of the original migration of Mormon pioneers across the continent. All of them had names of their own ancestors or others who made the months-long trip, and they learned about those individuals. But in the evenings, like young people everywhere, they played period games, sang and square danced.
“This was a powerful four-day experience that permitted all who participated to feel and live, in a small way, the sacrifices made by our ancestors as they crossed the plains over a century and a half ago using simple handcarts,” said Hal Hunsaker, the local leader of the LDS community and a “pa” on the trek. “(The) trekkers experienced toil and strain, wind and rain, joy and pain as we pulled our handcarts for miles each day, camped along the trail, and learned many lessons that changed our hearts. We were blessed to have dozens of support crew members assisting along the way to make it an unforgettable experience. At the conclusion of this trek, we felt blessed to live in a time with modern conveniences, but also understood the blessings of a simpler time and the power that comes from unity.”
Everyone involved in this handcart trek agreed it had a positive impact on their lives, but that inspiration didn’t come solely from looking back at the experiences of others. As trail boss Greg White noted, “We’re grateful for the early pioneers, but each of us is a pioneer in our own valley in the changes that occur here.”
Kathleen Irving is a recent transplant to Wenatchee. She lives in Sunnyslope with her husband and teaches adults English as a Second Language.