1,400 Miles by Handcart from Iowa City

Postcard 248 from Bob Hibbs Collection

hand cart


Designed to haul less than 100 pounds, more than 250 flimsy two-wheeled handcarts that could 
be pushed or pulled were made locally for European Mormons headed west from Iowa City in 1856. 
Many perished. Sketch courtesy University of Northern Iowa archives.


By Bob Hibbs


A 1,400-mile journey on foot from Iowa City to Salt Lake marks a unique American tragedy resulting from what an early local history calls “deluded people” without frontier skills setting out into the wilderness too late in the season to offer hope of success.

The Mecca at Salt Lake for converts to the Mormon Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints brought some 1,300 European immigrants, chiefly from England and Wales, to the Iowa City train depot during April, May and June 1856.

The tracks had been built into Iowa City only months before, making the local Mississippi & Missouri Railroad depot the western terminus from the east coast.

The church had provided covered wagons earlier, but its financing plan failed, making handcarts necessary to haul meager supplies. Ten to 15 miles daily meant the walk would take 110 days or more.

A decade earlier, Brigham Young and followers had abandoned Nauvoo, Illinois, just across the river from Ft. Madison, and founded a Mormon Valhalla in a desert on the shores of Great Salt Lake. Their route became the Mormon Trail.

Mormon immigrants made camp along the Clear Creek in a scattered pattern from what now is southern Coralville to near Tiffin. The Iowa City street name of Mormon Trek Boulevard recalls their camp. Neglected graves left behind provide mute testimony to reality.

Their chief piece of equipment, one for every five people, consisted of two wooden wheels with thin strips of iron as tires connected by a wooden axel which supported a box to hold clothing, bedding and food, limited to 17 pounds per person. 

The rickety conveyance was fragile at best and life-threatening at worst.

They huddled in tents and a few in covered wagons, with their meager supplies of food cooked over open fires. Area residents provided assistance, particularly the Iowa City Masonic Lodge since Mormon leaders were Masons.

Believers looking west toward their promised land ignored hardships waiting along the trail – from flooded rivers and unfriendly Native Americans to snow in mountain passes of the Rockies.

Vast stretches of unsettled country offered no supplies anywhere. “Let them come on foot, with handcarts or wheelbarrows, and nothing shall hinder or stay them,” the church had declared as a “Devine Plan.”

They left Iowa City in five groups, the first with 226 on June 9, exactly 148 years ago last Wednesday; a second started two days later and a third largely Welsh on June 23. Another departed in mid July, the other July 28.

The first group lost three children before reaching Council Bluffs, just 250 miles into the trek. Settlers in Iowa often fed hungry travelers; while the country beyond the Missouri River was unsettled – no roads, no bridges, no wells, no repair shops, no groceries, no inns, no settlements.

Iron tires wore out, axels broke, and precious bacon had to be used for axel grease, reducing already inadequate foodstuffs.

Men often ate the daily allowance of 10 ounces of flour at breakfast, then pushed a handcart all day, going to bed hungry. A little rice, sugar, coffee and bacon were occasional luxuries; but deer and buffalo roaming the prairies were unavailable since the travelers lacked hunting skills.

The smaller early groups reached Salt Lake with moderate losses. Winter caught the last two; a rescue party eventually brought in remnants of a tragic exercise in pain, suffering and death brought on by unbounded faith.

An 1883 history of Johnson County refers to the “Mormon emigration” as “deluded people,” recording that three young women were helped “to escape,” with one returning to England, while the others married and remained in Iowa.

The Mormon trek west from Iowa City is a tale of senseless tragedy.

Copyright 2004 By Bob Hibbs

Bob Hibbs collects local postcards and other historic ephemera and researches history related to them. 

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 Page updated 12 Oct 2017