Megan Gladwell
Popsicle-stick handcart made by my son at his first Cub Scout day camp.

A few weeks ago, my youngest son had his first experience with Cub Scout day camp. He arrived home filthy and exhilarated, with arms filled with a can of soda, his leftover lunch, a shiny new pocketknife (yikes), and a darling little replica of a handcart. Predictably, the soda can was soon drained, the knife was the center of attention for the remainder of the day, and the simple little handcart lay forgotten.

Recently, my dad heard a wonderful talk about handcarts (in England, of all places) and some interesting facts about their role in the lives of the Mormon pioneers. He shared with me some thoughts about handcarts, which in turn got the spindly wheels turning in my mind.

Why handcarts? As many European converts to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints were too poor to afford the fees required for Westward travel on oxen-driven wagon trains, Brigham Young suggested a cheaper method: handcarts. Some stats (stay with me here!): Between 1856 and 1860, handcarts were used by the Mormon emigrants who walked 1,300 miles from the Iowa plains to Salt Lake City.

Nearly 3,000 pioneers made the trek in 10 companies, with each trip spanning three to four months and averaging 25 to 35 miles per day. Five people were assigned to each 60-pound handcart. Each adult was allowed to carry personal belongings weighing up to 17 pounds, and children could bring 10 pounds of belongings. The handcarts primarily carried their extra clothing, bedding, and food, and other necessities. Items such as cooking utensils and a tent were loaded on as well.

All said, a handcart could typically carry 250 to 500 pounds. The handcart resembled a large wheelbarrow, with a 5-foot-long wooden box set between two lightweight wheels. A crossbar extended from the box, against which one would lean to pull the load.

Some wagons were, of course, utilized as well, for extra provisions and to carry the sick.

Now, I’m no expert in LDS Church history or even pioneer lore. However, I did find the information about handcarts rather intriguing. In particular, I was struck by the regulation that the adult emigrants could only carry up to 17 pounds in personal belongings. Only 17 pounds!

Seventeen pounds of stuff can only go so far. A couple pair of my favorite boots, a beloved sweater, and some of my books would cover it. Not to mention jewelry, scriptures, journals, jeans, dishes, photo albums, computer, framed pictures, blankets, towels, make-up, lotion — the thought of editing my personal belongings makes my head spin. Of course, many of my frivolous and technologically advanced treasures weren’t common possessions in 1856, so they wouldn’t have been a consideration (or distraction). Even so, one quickly realizes that 17 pounds ain’t much. A pioneer’s initial “must” items would soon need to be reduced. What a stressful situation, and the trek had not even begun!

As we travel through life, what are our “must-have” items? Fortunately, we don’t have to make the hard choices that our forebears did — or do we? Figuratively speaking, as we load up our own handcarts, what “baggage” needs sorting and discarding? What is essential to our well-being, and our relationships with Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ? What are the keepers for the long haul that will enable us to reach our destination? For me, I should focus more on temple work, study, and service and less, for example, on finding the perfect pair of jeans.

My son’s little Popsicle-stick handcart was a reminder to me of the tremendous challenges the early pioneers endured. But it also serves as a symbol for paring down, cutting back and re-evaluating what I hold most dear in life.

(Sources: ; ; )

Megan Gladwell is an Indiana native and mother of four. She blogs at and her email is [email protected].