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The Walking Pioneers

Today we resent it when airlines restrict us to 50 pounds of luggage. Imagine moving from Illinois to Utah -- and having a 17 pounds luggage restriction!


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Everyone knows about wagon trains. Later there were stagecoaches. Later yet, there were trains. But in the mid-1850's, hundreds of pioneers walked from Iowa City, Iowa, to Salt Lake City, Utah, pulling simple wooden handcarts. On these handcarts were tents and the necessities – plus a mere 17 pounds of worldly possessions.

The very early pioneers traveled ahead by horse-drawn wagon beginning in 1845. These were primarily pioneers who had been in this country a generation or two. Most already had two migrations under their belt. After immigrating to the United States, at some point they migrated to Nauvoo, Illinois. Most had come from Kirtland, Ohio, and many had lived temporarily in Missouri before coming back east to Nauvoo, Illinois. With literal horsepower to carry the load, the luggage restrictions on those pioneers were not so severe.

The later pioneers were new immigrants to the United States, literally having just set foot on North American soil mere weeks before they joined the handcart companies. They had no horses or wagons and very little money. Many arrived through the courtesy of the Perpetual Emigrating Fund Company who paid their passage.

The first two handcart companies came to this country aboard the ships the Enoch Train and the S. Curling. The travelers on just these first two ships arrived from numerous countries and spoke a variety of languages:









Channel Islands








Swiss Cantons




East India




If you are researching someone from one of the handcart company countries of origin who appears to have vanished, consider checking the handcart companies. They might have migrated to Utah.

In comparison to most immigrants to the New World, these particular individuals had an easy time of it – well, during the early part of their journey anyway! They sailed shortly after new regulations were in place requiring ships to supply them with sufficient food, water and medical supplies. Plus, they had the Mormon missionaries watching over their health and welfare.

After these immigrants disembarked, they took the train from Boston to New York City before riding the rails west to Iowa City, Iowa. Unlike the vast majority of pioneers, these immigrants did not have to make the journey across nearly half the country by way of horse-and-wagon along a dusty trail.

It was not until they arrived in Iowa City that the hard part of the journey would begin. Handcarts were ready and waiting for them – but they were not fully loaded yet. That first leg of the journey was through settled country where supplies were available. So the load was kept a bit lighter since the handcart companies could buy food from settlements they passed.

The handcart companies would walk 178 miles from Iowa City to Florence before fully loading their wagons. I recall in the late 1980's when I was living in Charleston, Illinois. I met some political science graduate students from Manchester, England, who were so excited to be in Charleston. In this enlightened day and age, these bright graduate students thought they could take a bus to Chicago's Loop for the afternoon. They truly had no concept how vastly huge this country is – and that it is a three hour drive.

No doubt, the pioneers had similar misconceptions. Several times I have taken the train from Boston to Coles County, Illinois. Even with today's high-speed Amtrak trains, it feels like you have surely crossed the entire country by the time you set foot on the platform in Mattoon, Illinois. In fact, it is 1,084 miles – less than half the distance to Salt Lake City.

Granted, many of the immigrants were leaving behind an impoverished Europe. But, did they really understand how far they were going to walk, some 1,300 miles, while pulling a 400 pound cart by day and sleeping on the ground every night once they got off that train?

By the time the handcart companies left Florence, Iowa, they would be walking beyond the settlements and into the true West. They had no choice but to take flour and other staples with them, even though they hunted buffalo and other game along the way. There would be few places to shop, if any at all.

As men, women and children were pulling and pushing the handcarts, they had to keep the load light. Each person was restricted to 17 pounds of personal items.

The option of paying extra for the privilege of taking heavier luggage did not exist. There is at least one account of a woman tying personal items to her apron strings and taking them anyway. Other people reportedly donned every article of clothing they could. Apparently as long as the items were not on the cart, that was allowed.

Knowing some people were trying to get around the rules, personal items on the carts were weighed again a couple of days into the journey. If a person's items exceeded 17 pounds, the handcart pioneers had to discard items until they were within the weight limit – or, at least, get them off the cart.

The guides knew what the immigrants did not: they had to walk across the Rocky Mountains. Pulling a handcart across the flat plains states was hard enough. But, pulling a handcart across the Rockies was not going to be an easy stroll.

Pulling a loaded cart without protection from the elements had to have been beyond difficult. Their motivation came from the belief that they were walking toward Zion and that God would protect them. An entire body of songs came out of this period of history, songs written and sung by the handcart immigrants, that helped encourage them to keep walking.

Possibly unlike any other group of pioneers crossing North America at that time, they also had other pioneers looking after them. Wagon trains with food and other supplies met up with the handcart companies to replenish their supplies en route to Zion, or Utah. There were also frequent newspaper accounts of their progress.

The Willie and Martin Handcart Companies starting their journey too late in the season. They were overcome by winter weather and were in dire need of rescue. Mormon pioneers went looking for them and did, in fact, rescue most of the party. There is a website commemorating this remarkable rescue at Mormon Handcart Companies.

There is a day-by-day record of these companies online at Willie Handcart Company Chronology. The Mormon Wiki has an entry about the handcart companies along with a photo of a monument to the them in Salt Lake City's Temple Square.

To learn more about the handcarts, read "Handcarts to Zion," by Le Roy Reuben Hafen and Ann W. Hafen. This book includes a detailed list of each person, their age and their relationships for the ten handcart companies that made this remarkable journey on foot.

The next time you are frustrated about luggage weight restrictions, think of the Handcart Companies.

Source Information: GenWeekly, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2008.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Genealogy Today LLC.

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