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R. Scott Lloyd, Photo by R. Scott Lloyd
Reunion handcart trek for descendants of Martin Handcart Company at Martin's Cove, Wyoming, on Sept. 2 and 3, 2011. Richard Wright and family pull handcart across Sweetwater.

Handcarts are a symbol of the pioneer spirit for Mormons today but were a source of “conflicting emotions” for church members in the 19th century, said historian Melvin L. Bashore, who spoke on “Handcart Trekking: From Commemorative Re-enactment to Modern Phenomenon” on Friday afternoon at the Mormon History Association Conference in Calgary, Canada.

“During Brigham Young’s lifetime, feelings about the handcarts were publicly suppressed. The memories of the legacies and disasters in 1856 were too fresh,” Bashore explained. But slowly people began to write about their handcart journeys, and in time, their accomplishments were both admired and then celebrated. Especially as the handcart pioneer generation began to die, communities worked to honor these men and women at commemorative celebrations.

For the past 15 years, handcart trek re-enactments have been an ever-increasing part of a youth’s experience. And yet while many point to the Pioneer Sesquicentennial celebration of members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints as the beginnings of the modern handcart-trekking phenomenon, Bashore traced it to a 1966 handcart trek undertaken by Boy Scouts from Phoenix who traveled from Henefer, Utah, to Salt Lake City. They had produced handmade handcarts (using wheels from old hay wagons) and transported all the needed supplies from Arizona to Utah. Similar to how they pioneers had to come down Big Mountain, these Boy Scouts had to lower their carts using ropes and chains.

Bashore contacted the originator of this Boy Scout trek, Wayne Green, who told him, “I just came up with the idea. … It just sounded like an adventuresome, fun thing to do, and at the same time the opportunity to teach a little church history.”

Two years later, in 1968, a young women’s group from East Long Beach, Calif., took the same trip. They again brought homemade handcarts. Bashore explained that in preparation for the trip, “each of the girls made her own pioneer clothing and pioneer soap (and) baked bread over a campfire. Some of the girls even made their own sleeping bags. They had to earn physical fitness requirements beforehand, hike 25 miles, do a mile run, pass a written exam on handcart history and write two book reports. Isn’t that amazing?”

Bashore contacted Marlene Belame, the originator of this trek, who thought, “Well, gee, why can’t girls do this?” The preparation paid off, as they finished the 40-plus-mile trek, they only had blisters, mild sunburns and many memories. Belame remembers that near the end of the trek, as they neared the mouth of Emigration Canyon, “These college guys went by in a convertible and screamed at us ‘Hey, you're late, they’ve already settled the valley!’”

These early treks, followed by three more in the 1970s, “were the genesis of what would turn into almost a rite of passage for Mormon youth,” Bashore said. “Where once the handcart was a novelty of the Mormon past, it has evolved in its use for the Mormon community: Today it may be the most recognized pioneer symbol honoring the past.”

Emily W. Jensen updates "Today in the Bloggernacle" on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, presenting the best from the world of LDS-oriented blog sites. Her extended "Bloggernacle Back Bench" appears on Tuesdays. Email: [email protected]