Celebrating Mormon Handcart Company 150 Years

“Celebrating Mormon Handcart Company 150 Years,” Ensign, June 2006, 77–78

Celebrating Mormon Handcart Company 150 Years

For those who couldn’t get the word ses-qui-cen-ten-ni-al to roll off the tongue during the 1997 commemoration of the pioneers reaching the Salt Lake Valley, another chance to master the word comes this year as members celebrate the thousands of immigrants who joined the Saints by handcart.

Celebrations will include the Iowa City Mormon Handcart Trek Commemoration, taking place where it all began 150 years ago—Iowa City, Iowa. Here, where the westward railroad ended, 3,000 men, women, and children embarked on a 1,300-mile journey across prairie, desert, river, and mountain, pushing and pulling what few belongings they had in handcarts.

Taking place on June 9 to 11, the commemoration honors the departure of the first Mormon handcart company on June 9, 1856, with a daylong symposium, festivals, an interfaith devotional, and an evening fireside with a visiting General Authority. Paul Willie, a descendant of Captain James G. Willie, whose company is well remembered for its late start and ill-fated journey, will also speak.

Even those from other denominations will take part in celebrating the historical significance of the expeditions of the handcart pioneers. A song to be performed at the weekend’s interfaith devotional was composed by Jon Spong, a Methodist. The words were written by Loren Horton, a senior historian emeritus of the State Historical Society of Iowa. He and his wife, Carol, who will sing the song in the devotional, are Episcopalian.

In that Sunday devotional, a Methodist, Unitarian, and Episcopalian, along with Iowa City stake president Andrew Hall, will each speak to the interfaith gathering, which is representative of the various denominations that were present in Iowa City in 1856.

“It’s always a delightful thing to be able to have different background and beliefs working together,” Mr. Horton says. “This is a natural opportunity for that to happen.”

Mr. Horton will speak in the Friday symposium on the setting in Iowa in 1856, remarking on the social and economic impact of LDS handcart pioneers. Iowa City’s population at that time stood at 6,316. The following year brought 2,340 immigrants. This influx of Mormon settlers, who had faced persecution elsewhere, found a safe harbor in Iowa City, where Mr. Horton says members of other denominations often helped the Saints build handcarts and prepare for their journey.

Fred Woods, current chair for religious understanding at Brigham Young University and the executive director of the Mormon Historic Sites Foundation, helped to forge the union of denominations for the event.

“We want to emphasize the common ground which we all walk upon as we journey through life,” he says.

The Cedar Rapids Iowa Stake, Davenport Iowa Stake, Des Moines Iowa Mission, Des Moines Iowa Stake, Iowa City Iowa Stake, and Nauvoo Illinois Mission will all take an active part in the three-day event, but Brother Woods emphasizes that members worldwide can take part by honoring the pioneers’ sacrifice.

“The best way that Latter-day Saints can revere our rich pioneer ancestry is to live a faithful life,” he says.