Many handcart companies were made up entirely of immigrant Saints who had only recently arrived in the United States and were not prepared for the harsh, rugged plains or the bitter weather that they were sometimes exposed to. Heat, rain, dust, wind, rattlesnakes, wild animals, thirst, hunger, sickness, cold, and death were ever present. But so was the excitement of journeying across a new land to a new home.
Handcart children perhaps had the most adventures of any children crossing the plains. Some of the pioneer diaries from those days tell the touching and tragic tales of children on the trail: “When we started out on the trail each morning there was always something new to see,” one diary states. “Birds running along the road … flowers and pretty rocks to pick.”
In some companies the children started out earlier than the handcarts and walked ahead of the main camp so that they wouldn’t hold it up. One mother wrote that her boy of five “has walked eighteen miles without resting.”
Some young boys and girls helped push and pull the handcarts that held the few possessions that they were allowed to take with them.
Many were forced to abandon their belongings as they found that the burden of pulling a cart itself took all their strength.
In the Martin handcart company of 1856, Brother Martin insisted that the people throw away all nonessentials so that they could reach the valley more quickly. Many children had to part with toys that they had brought. One little girl had a small cast-iron toy lion. It, too, was dumped, but she so loved the lion that during the night she went back to where they had left the discarded items, found her pet lion, put it on a string, and wore it underneath her dress all the way to the Salt Lake Valley.
Many of the handcart pioneers were without much food near the end of their journey. One older boy, driven by hunger, left the camp one night and went into an Indian camp, seeking food. There he found a Frenchman and his Indian wife who gave him food and shelter. His father found the boy the next morning, but the Frenchman and his wife begged the father to permit the boy to stay with them until he was stronger. The father agreed, and the boy stayed with them for two years before coming to the valley with Johnston’s Army and being reunited with his family.
Many miracles occurred along the trail. Two little girls were playing near a fire, and one of them fell backward into a kettle of boiling water. She was quickly pulled out, and, after being administered to by the priesthood, recovered.
One young girl was running after her family’s cow in her bare feet when she ran into something soft. It was a bed of snakes! “I could scarcely move,” she wrote. “All I could think of was to pray.” The Lord heard her prayers, and she escaped without being bitten.
Although the children worked hard and faced many difficult times, they also had fun. One diary states: “It was great fun pulling empty carts and imitating the wagon driver with a gee and a haw. … We had plenty of time to see the country we were passing through, to run here and there and to explore this and that.”
The pioneers usually killed buffaloes for food along the trail. It was an exciting time for the whole camp when they had fresh meat to eat. And some of the children delighted in being allowed to sit on one of the large beasts after it had been killed.
The children spent time searching in the large anthills near deserted Indian campgrounds for Indian beads, which they made into necklaces. And they would build corrals of sand and stone, put captured insects inside, and pretend that these were their “cattle.” They also played a game similar to hide-and-seek called I spy.
With all the new and thrilling experiences the pioneer children had, none compared to the joy of finally arriving in the valley where they would start a new life.