Like most folks, my perception of the pioneers heading west in the mid-1800s is dominated by covered wagons pulled by oxen, certainly an uncomfortable way for a family to travel. Recently however I have come across an even more uncomfortable mode of transportation – walking and pulling a handcart.
We have known for a long time that several branches of our Smith family ancestors had converted to Mormonism and moved to Utah. Their story turns out to be well worth relating. It begins in 1854 in Quincy, Pennsylvania, halfway between Waynesboro and Chambersburg, when Daniel Robison returned home from a revival meeting and advised his wife Rachel that he had been converted to Mormonism. At the time Rachel was eighteen years old, focusing on rearing their young daughter Agnes and making a good home for her family. Rachel was the sister of William Geesamin Smith, my great-grandfather. Her sister Margaret had married Daniel’s brother William and lived nearby. Both families eventually became Mormons.
In May, 1860, the Robison clan decided to go West and find a new home in Utah, where they could practice their religion without conflict. Their thirty-two person party included Daniel’s parents, nine siblings, five spouses, and sixteen children. They travelled two thousand miles by boat and train, through Canada, to Florence, Nebraska, the site of a Mormon community dating back to Brigham Young’s 1847 “Great Encampment”.
At Florence they joined an expedition of two hundred and thirty-three persons, bound for Utah and the Promised Land. The majority of the people in this party had begun their journey in England. Daniel Robison was elected Captain of the expedition, which included thirty-nine handcarts and six wagons pulled by oxen.
In 1856 Brigham Young had decided to maximize their ability to move settlers west by providing handcarts to supplement the wagons. The handcarts consisted of boxes four feet long by three feet wide with eight inch walls, with a five-foot diameter wagon wheel on each side, and a cross-bar connected to a pair of pull shafts. Two persons pulled each cart. A typical cart weighed about sixty pounds and could hold about four hundred pounds of luggage and supplies. Each person in the party was permitted seventeen pounds of clothing and bedding. Ten circular tents were provided for sleeping at night.
Captain Robison’s party was the ninth of ten handcart parties to successfully complete the journey to Utah. Two of the earlier ones had encountered bad weather early in the winter and suffered significant loss of life. This party left Florence early in June and arrived in Salt Lake City on August 27, 1860, having negotiated eleven hundred miles in eighty-two days.
Provisions allotted to the pioneers included, per person, a pound and a quarter of flour per day, a pound and a quarter of salty bacon per week, four ounces of sugar per week, and one pound of soap per six weeks. Rachel Robison reported that she had prepared noodles before the trip and shared them with the sick. Her daily baking involved yeast cake and light dough bread. She also reported the bonanza of fresh fish they caught when they forded the Sweetwater River, a welcome respite from the salty bacon.
The route the expedition followed was the Oregon Trail, sometimes called the Mormon Trail in those days. From Florence it followed the Platte River all the way across Nebraska, passing through Fort Kearney, Confluence Point, Ash Hollow, and Chimney Rock, to Scotts Bluff. A distance of four hundred and seventy-five miles, uphill about 3700 feet.
The journey through Wyoming was more demanding. From Fort Laramie they continued on the south shore of the Platte, then crossed it twice – at Mormon Ferry and Martin’s Cove, before reaching the summit (7411 feet) at South Pass, a distance of three hundred and seventy-five miles.
From there it was all downhill, crossing the Bear River at Lombard Crossing, and finally reaching a sanctuary at Fort Bridger, one hundred and thirty miles away. At this point the Mormon Trail left the Oregon Trail, crossing the Green River at the Needles and proceeding through Echo Canyon and into Salt Lake City, another one hundred and twenty-five miles.
Despite concern about the Native Americans in the country through which they passed, the Mormons had very few problems. A member of the Robison party, Henry Yeager, reported one incident in which a Brave entered their encampment and offered to trade a horse for a young woman, Mary Ann Young. When Yeager realized her unwillingness, he persuaded the Brave that she was his spouse.
He also reported a more serious incident that occurred near Fort Bridger when “a party of horsemen” forced their way into an encampment and threatened to abduct the Mormon women. They were surprised to find themselves surrounded by a large contingent of armed Mormon men, and quickly exited the site.
The arrival of the Robison expedition in Salt Lake City was a joyous occasion for all concerned. The Daniel Robison family initially settled in Farmington, then moved to Morgan, a community in a fertile valley in the Wasatch Mountains, about thirty miles northeast of Salt Lake City, where they built a log cabin and homesteaded a small farm.
The Robisons and later a grand-daughter, Ada Rogers, maintained contact with the Smiths and Oylers for nearly seventy-five years; we are fortunate to have some of the letters that were received from them. Daniel died in 1905; Rachel, in 1907. Five of their twelve children survived to become adults.
It is difficult today to imagine the hardships these people endured in their odyssey to find a home where they could safely practice their religion. I am not sure many young couples today would have the fortitude to leave their homes and pull a handcart eleven hundred miles through the desert. Their example helps one understand the plight of the thousands of refugees all around the world today.
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