Can you comprehend what it means to be taught from the time you are little, about ancestors who gave up all for the sake of their religion? Those who are descendants of the American pilgrims can identify. The pilgrims left England in search of a life that would allow them to worship freely. They suffered hardships and in some cases death in that pursuit. But the Mormon pioneers were suffering religious persecution within America. At that time, they were viewed as a political threat. In addition, the then practice of plural marriage was misunderstood by the citizens of the state where they lived. Plural marriage wasn't against the law at that time, but wasn't a popular practice. So Mormons were tarred and feathered. They were attacked, and their women were sometimes raped. Their farms were burned and confiscated. They were publicly ridiculed. Eventually, Governor Boggs signed an extermination order calling for the eradication of Mormons, even if it meant by death. The pioneer saints packed up and headed West. Their faith was what helped them to live through this trying time. This was the heritage that was told to me growing up. These were my family; my blood.
Brigham Young had seen in vision the place where the pioneers should go. When they arrived, he knew the place and said, "This is the place." That place is now known as Salt Lake City, Utah. But to the saints at that time, it was known as a kind of Zion. It was a place where they could worship freely without persecution. It was a place to build up a community of the church of God. In many ways, Brigham Young was likened to Moses who led the children of Israel through the wilderness. As president of the church, he helped to organize the exodus, and personally also made the long trek.
Some of the pioneers were able to ride on wagons to the west. But because of the expense, not all were given that opportunity. Brigham Young came up with an ingenious idea to have the saints use handcarts to emigrate to the West. My own grandmother (several generations back) pulled a handcart while taking care of three small children. I can't remember, but I think she was widowed. It could not have been easy to pull a heavy handcart across rough terrain, but her faith and desire to gather with the other church members helped her to make the trek. She told of times when the three year old would fall asleep along the trail. The older sibling with stay behind with that child, and my grandmother would continue on. After making camp, she would walk back, sometimes several miles until she could find her children and bring them in to camp. It couldn't have been easy, but she continued on until she reached the "promised land".
Two of the handcart companies left too late in the season. The Willie and Martin handcart companies mistakenly thought they could make the trek before winter set in. But they were unprepared for the difficulty of the trek, and the harsh weather that would overtake them in Wyoming. Brigham Young got word of their difficulty and sent a rescue party to bring them in. My great, great grandfather, Clark Allen Huntington was a teenager at the time, and he aided the rescue company. He, with a few other youth helped to carry the saints across the Sweetwater river so that they could be brought in to the Salt Lake Valley. These two companies had suffered many deaths. Many of them came to the Salt Lake valley with frozen limbs that had to ultimately be amputated. Many had lost their children and spouses. While my grandfather has been lauded through the past decades for his heroism, I have come to feel that the real heroes in this story were those who survived that difficult trek. They are the ones who had the faith to keep going in the face of inevitable death. They were the ones whose faith helped them to continue, despite loss of family members along the way. They were the true heroes of the pioneer story.
A story is told of a church meeting held years later, wherein some people began to criticize the church leaders for allowing these two handcart companies to make the trek so late in the year. As the discussion was argued on every side, a man named Frances Webster stood up in the back and said, "I ask you to stop this criticism. You are discussing a matter you know nothing about. Cold historic facts mean nothing here, for they give no proper interpretation of the questions involved. Mistake to send the Handcart Company out so late in the season? Yes! But I was in that company and my wife was in it, and Sister Nellie Unthank whom you have cited here was there, too. We suffered beyond anything you can imagine and many died of exposure and starvation, but did you ever hear a survivor of that company utter a word of criticism? Every one of us came through with the absolute knowledge that God lives for we became acquainted with Him in our extremities!
"I have pulled my handcart when I was so weak and weary from illness and lack of food that I could hardly put one foot ahead of the other. I have looked ahead and seen a patch of sand or a hill slope and I have said, I can go only that far and there I must give up for I cannot pull the load through it. I have gone to that sand and when I reached it, the cart began pushing me! I have looked back many times to see who was pushing my cart, but my eyes saw no one. I knew then that the Angels of God were there. "Was I sorry that I chose to come by handcart? No! Neither then nor any minute of my life since. The price we paid to become acquainted with God was a privilege to pay and I am thankful that I was privileged to come in the Martin Handcart Company." (from the writings of William R. Palmer)
Today we live in a very different world from that of our pioneer ancestors. We are sometimes criticized, but we are not driven from our homes. We are allowed the freedom to worship as we feel. We face modern trials that our ancestors could never of dreamed of seeing. We cannot see the future, and may face dark days ahead. But underneath it all, there is the guiding remembrance of our faithful pioneer ancestors. Their heritage will be the example for us to follow. I hope that I can. live up to their legacy.
(Trail of Sacrifice, Valley of Promise by Clark Kelsey Price)