Today’s typical teen may not think that giving up electronics, sleeping on hard ground and experiencing extreme weather is the ideal way to spend fall break.
But more than 80 young and 60 adult volunteers from Tempe South Stake of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints decided to step back in time to experience travel by handcart—at the same time learning more about their pioneer ancestors who helped settle the West.
The modern-day reenactment took place near the Mogollon Rim during October when many of the students were on fall break.
“We wanted them to remember those who made so many sacrifices in order for this generation to have the freedoms and opportunities that they do,” said Paul Thomas, stake president and ecclesiastical leader of all who participated.
“And I think we accomplished that goal.”
Over a year in the planning, the three-day adventure focused on giving teenagers a “pioneer experience” in a compressed amount of time. The site selected for the trek was a Forest Service road off Arizona Highway 260, near the community of Forest Lakes.
Teams of adult volunteers were organized to obtain handcarts, prepare meals, handle medical emergencies and maintain ham radio communication.
Photographers and videographers documented each activity. A special group of men worked behind the scenes as “wranglers,” also functioning as actors (dressing as Native Americans, mountain men or bandits) to enhance the experience. They had warm fires waiting for the tired pioneers each night they rolled into camp, and helped set up tarps as shelters.
To prepare for their trek experience, the participants were encouraged to learn about the 10 Mormon handcart companies that crossed the plains to Salt Lake City between 1856 and 1860. Each of these companies faced hardship and a few deaths. The exceptions were the Willie and Martin companies, which were composed of British and Scandinavian emigrants. They traveled by ship from Liverpool to Boston in May 1856, then by rail to Iowa City, the most western train depot.
Outfitted with handcarts, they finally began their exodus to Utah in late July. Leaving near the end of summer would prove deadly as they became trapped in the Rockies by early October snowstorms. More than 200 men, women and children from those two handcart companies are buried in shallow graves along the trail, mostly in what is now Wyoming.
Handcarts were popular with European immigrants who could not afford the more expensive covered wagons and oxen teams. But handcarts meant limited cargo space and weight. Each pioneer could bring personal possessions weighing no more than 17 pounds. They could not even haul sufficient food for the journey, and so every handcart company experienced hunger and severe rationing.
When the Martin handcart company ran desperately low on supplies, four ounces of flour was the daily ration of food for one adult. It would be mixed with a little water and eaten as paste. The modern trek participants carried with them a reminder of those early emigrants—a small bag with four ounces of flour that was kept in their possession at all times.
On Oct. 11, the first day of the re-enactment, teens and adults met early at the Tempe stake center wearing pioneer clothing. This included hats and vests or suspenders for the men and long dresses and bonnets for the women. No electronics were allowed and personal belongings had to be kept to a minimum.
Each youth was assigned to a family that included a “Ma and Pa” married couple. Efforts were made to mix the teens into various groups so they could make new friends. Each group (or family) then traveled two hours to the trek site, where they would assemble their handcarts, load them, eat lunch and begin their 21-mile journey. Eleven handcarts and eleven “families” were now far removed from civilization.
Fourteen-year-old Sydney Gregson of Chandler was nervous, not knowing what to expect.
“I thought about it and decided that I needed to do this, and I came to the conclusion that I’m going to do it good.”
The company covered 13 miles the first day. Anjanette Ludwig, a Tempe mother of four young children, volunteered to be a “big sister” for one of the handcart families. Anjanette’s great-great-grandmother, Sarah Hunter Woodruff, was a real-life handcart pioneer. “As we began our journey, I walked for her,” said Anjanette, “and it changed me.”
Chris Erskine, a dentist and father of four, had a similar experience. “I had ancestors that were part of those Mormon pioneers who were driven out of Illinois and Missouri. My thoughts were of them as we pushed our cart. I am so grateful for my pioneer heritage.”
Along the way, the trekkers encountered “Indians” who gave the hungry families beef jerky in exchange for trinkets that the youths had earned prior to the trek. Historically, say Mormon record keepers, the Native American tribes were friendly to the pioneers and often provided them with much-needed food.
Later in the day, when the group thought they had found a good place to camp, an angry mob (a.k.a. the wranglers) forced them to leave their land and move on. The gunfire may have been blanks, but the sore muscles were real. The group would have to travel another two miles before they found a suitable campsite.
Trek organizers Dale and Shelly Heward knew in advance that they might face some bad weather.
“But we thought this might add to the authenticity of the experience,” said Dale. “Little did we know we would give these Valley kids an experience that included thunder, lightning, rain—even hail. We were caught in a storm at 7,000 feet elevation. For some of these kids, it was probably the coldest night they have ever experienced.”
“It rained all night the first night,” added Rob Haws, of Chandler, who with his wife volunteered to be “Ma and Pa” for one of the handcart families. “I very much undervalued plastic. We endured intense rain beating against our shelters. Most stayed dry, but a few awoke to find themselves and everything they owned soaking wet.”
Day two began with a pioneer breakfast of oatmeal and raisins. “It had been a terrible storm all night,” recalled Stake President Paul Thomas. Although this day’s journey was a shorter distance, it was much harder terrain. The trekkers traversed a steep downhill climb, followed by a steep uphill grade on a very rocky slope. Ropes were used in front of the handcarts to pull going uphill, and behind the carts as a brake going down.
Kyle Lott, 15, and a sophomore at Corona High School didn’t start the day well. He woke up cold and had fallen in a mud puddle. But during the steep climb he realized that the struggle wasn’t so bad when his handcart family worked together as a team. Kyle was in front, pulling the rope, concerned that “I couldn’t let the girls outdo me!”
Between the rough trail and intermittent rain, the trekkers might have been discouraged. But organizer Shelly Heward noticed that when the handcart family groups began singing, spirits were lifted and the journey was less tedious. “We faced big puddles and ruts and rain and hail, but for the most part, we were happy.”
“Mountain men” crossed paths with the trekkers and some good old-fashioned trading yielded the pioneers a lunch of apples and trail mix. The group arrived at camp in the early afternoon and were greeted with hot chocolate and warm campfires. Afternoon activities included black powder shooting, candle making, and hatchet throwing, followed by a dutch-oven dinner of stew, cornbread, and apple crisp. The evening ended with a group program and then breaking into smaller “family” groups to sit around campfires and recap the day’s events.
“It was a beautiful clear sky,” says Dale Heward. “We could see the stars and the Milky Way.” But that clear sky brought something else—freezing temperatures.
Day 3, Saturday, October 13, 2012 – Two miles covered.
The weary campers awoke to a heavy frost and temperatures in the twenties. Everything that was wet from the prior day’s rain was now stiff with ice, including socks that had been laid by the fire to dry. One trekker’s shoes were even frozen together.
After breakfast, individual families held a devotional and then each trekker was encouraged to go and find a quiet place in the forest where they could be alone, record in their trek journal, or read the experiences of previous pioneers.
Emily Arnold, 15, of Tempe, says that she didn’t initially want to go on the trek. “I was nervous. I didn’t understand the pioneer stories before, but now I do.”
Dale Heward said that Emily’s experience was similar to many of the 80 teenagers who participated. “Many times I heard the statement, ‘I didn’t want to come, but my mom made me—and I am so glad I did.’” The youth were equally impressed with the adult volunteers who weren’t coerced to come, but just wanted to be part of the experience
By late morning, the trekkers were wrapping up the final two miles of their 21-mile adventure. As they came over a hill, they could see a U-Haul truck and base camp, which meant the end of their journey! Although they seemed tired just five minutes earlier, every handcart crew began running toward camp, their carts bouncing along. “It was like seeing horses run to the corral after a hard day,” laughs Heward. “They were excited to be done!”
After dismantling their handcarts, the seasoned pioneers celebrated their accomplishment with a feast of hamburgers, hotdogs, chicken, fruit and cookies. “We went through a lot together,” says Heward. “I think it changed all of us.”
JD Schaeffer, 17, and a student at Marcos de Niza High School, agreed. “It wasn’t easy, but it was fun,” he says. “I will never forget it. And I loved the puddles!”