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Mormon Handcart

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Journeying to Zion by Handcart: One Young Woman’s Experience

Jennifer L. Lund

Like tens of thousands of other Latter-day Saints in the 19th century, Kirsten Ericksen wanted to gather to Zion in Utah Territory, USA. Accompanied by her parents and grandmother, the 20-year-old young woman left her native Denmark in the spring of 1857 and began a journey that was unlike anything she had experienced before. It was an adventure fraught with peril yet also imbued with purpose—to give up much of what she knew and loved for her faith and the promise of a new life and temple covenants that could be made only in Zion.

This painting of an emigrant ship likely portrays the Westmoreland, on which Kirsten Ericksen and artist C. C. A. Christensen traveled in 1857.

After five weeks at sea on the ship Westmoreland, the immigrants landed in Philadelphia and began making their way westward by railroad.1 Somehow Kirsten got left behind at one point in the journey. She later said she was “a young girl in a strange land—[she had] no friends and could not speak English or make [her] wants known.”2 The pioneer company’s captain telegraphed a description of her along the rail line, and she was recognized because of her clothing. By pointing at a watch, the stationmaster communicated that if she took the 6:30 p.m. train, she could find her company, which she did.

Kirsten’s unfamiliarity with English was a particular challenge. One observer noted of the company of 330 immigrants: “It was the most motley crew I ever beheld. Most of them were Danes with a sprinkling of Welsh, Swedes and English. . . . Most could not understand what we said to them.”3

The Handcart Trek Begins

At the end of the railroad in Iowa City, Iowa, 68 handcarts with three wagons and 10 mules were waiting for the company of immigrants.4 The wagons would carry tents, flour, rice, other foodstuffs, and sick members of the company. “We were only allowed to take 15 pounds weight of clothing to each person,” Kirsten recalled. She particularly regretted that “our new clothing and even Bedclothes had to be left laying on the ground.”5 Kirsten and another young woman were assigned to help an elderly couple pull their cart as they crossed the rolling hills of Iowa. At Florence, Nebraska, they stopped to rest and reorganize under their new captain, Christian Christiansen, a returning missionary.

A handcart company near South Pass, Wyoming, by Kimball Warren.

Only three weeks into the journey, Kirsten’s parents and grandmother knew they could not stand the rigors of the trail and decided to stay in Nebraska for a time. Kirsten faced a difficult decision—she could stay in Nebraska or keep going with the company. “I came to the conclusion,” she said, “that I could not leave my aged parents in a strange country and so made up my mind to stay with them. The Captain . . . came to me and advised me to leave my parents and promised me if I would do so, God would bless me and them and preserve us—this was a very sore trial to me. But I put my trust in God.” Kirsten never forgot July 7, 1857, the day she left the outfitting post, “full of sorrow in parting from [her] parents.”6

After just a few days, Kirsten was “so worn out pulling over the rough roads—up hills—and through the sand” that she lay down in the grass, expecting to die. She was discouraged and lonely and “came to the conclusion that [she] might as well die there as suffer longer.”7 But Captain Christiansen found her and promised to help her over any rough spots on the trail. Until she was reassigned to a cart with more pullers, whenever she faced a steep hill or deep sand, the kindly captain appeared to help her pull.

Trail Life

At the Loup Fork River, the immigrants faced a treacherous crossing. Though not deep, the river was roughly a mile wide and punctuated with deep holes, sandbars, and pockets of quicksand. Along with the others, Kirsten emptied her handcart and loaded her belongings and food rations into the raised bed of a wagon. The wagons ferried the goods across the river and were unloaded on the other side. Then the wagons returned for additional loads. The captain hired local Indians as guides to navigate the crossing. The Indians carried the women on horseback and tied ropes to the handcarts to assist as the men maneuvered the carts in the strong current. The crossing took a full day, but everyone made it safely.8

Rough terrain, like Rocky Ridge in Wyoming, shredded the pioneers’ shoes and bloodied their feet.

During the long days, the sun beat down intensely. Kirsten cut rawhide from dead cattle along the road to make moccasins to replace her worn shoes. “Crossing the Creeks and Rivers would make the Raw hide soft, and the hot sun and Roads would make them hard,” she recalled. “Our feet were nearly all the time sore and bleeding.”9

Each night the immigrants raised large, 20-person tents to protect against the rain and cold.10 Since Kirsten had given up her bedclothes to meet the weight limit, she spent the long nights wrapped only in a shawl, grateful for the body heat of her fellow pullers as well as three or four other families. Even though they were desperate for sleep, their slumber was interrupted to take turns baking bread. Kirsten recalled of her turns at the campfire, “I was very often too warm on one side and much too cold on the other side.”11

Never Enough to Eat

Bread was the staple of their diet, with a little salt pork, rice, sugar, and other seasonings. One member of Kirsten’s company recalled that after three weeks on the trail, most of their supplies were gone, and “there was naturally flour, flour, flour, and only flour to eat.” They baked bread and made porridge, gruel, soup, and pancakes, but there was still “just flour, flour, flour; and at one point flour was scarce, too.”12 Before resupply wagons from Salt Lake City appeared with additional foodstuffs, daily rations were often cut in half and sometimes down to a quarter, leaving hungry pioneers to travel on only a few ounces of flour a day. One of Kirsten’s fellow travelers reminisced, “I went hungry most of the time.”13

Just east of South Pass, Wyoming, Kirsten was grateful to see the resupply wagons that had been sent from Salt Lake City. They brought food and provided a way for some of the immigrants to ride the last two weeks of their journey. Kirsten continued to walk, but she no longer had to pull a handcart, for which she was most thankful.14 Thirty miles from the Salt Lake Valley, more wagons appeared, this time loaded with bread, cake, and fruit—all in celebration that their journey was almost over.15

Reaching Zion at Last

Courtesy of Springville Museum of Art. - DO NOT COPY. Artist C. C. A. Christensen, who traveled in the same company with Kirsten Ericksen, recalled the joy of arriving in the Salt Lake Valley in 1857.

Kirsten arrived in Salt Lake City on September 13. The company had traveled slightly more than one thousand miles from Florence, Nebraska, in 68 days. And before that, she had pulled a handcart for three weeks from Iowa City to Florence, covering another 300 miles. Was Kirsten’s heart full of gratitude and joy? Unfortunately, we don’t know. She recorded only her regret at having to leave behind most of her clothing and her surprise at the ragged pioneers she met in Utah. Another traveler that same year summed up the experience of those who pushed and pulled handcarts: “There could not have been a more difficult mode of travel. . . . I knew when I left England that ours was to be a handcart company, but it was impossible for me to realize the hardships I had to meet.”16

Shortly after arriving, Kirsten was taken to the home of her sister in Lehi, Utah, where she recovered from the journey. On November 1, just a month and a half after arriving in Utah, she married her brother-in-law Jens Peter Benson as a plural wife. Brigham Young performed the sealing ordinance.17 The following year, Kirsten was reunited with her parents and grandmother, who arrived in a wagon train. “And so were fulfilled the promises of our Captain . . . made to me when I left my parents,” she recalled with joy. Kirsten realized her dream of gathering to Zion and concluded, “I have been blessed of the Lord.”18

Footnotes

[1] See C. C. A. Christensen, “By Handcart to Utah: The Account of C. C. A. Christensen,” trans. Richard L. Jensen, Nebraska History, vol. 66 (Winter 1985), 336–37.

[2] Kirsten Ericksen Benson, “Recollections of Kirsten Ericksen Benson coming to Zion in 1857,” in Kersten E. Benson biographical file, 1, Church History Library, Salt Lake City. Kirsten’s first name is spelled alternately as Kersten. This article uses Kirsten, which is used in the manuscript version of her recollection cited here, and which appears on the parish register record of her birth, in her obituary, and in the Latter-day Saint Biographical Encyclopedia. The headstone on her grave spells her name Kersten.

[3] Henry Buckingham, in “The Massacre on the Plains,” Nashville Daily News, Nov. 25, 1857.

[4] J. M. Tanner, A Biographical Sketch of James Jensen (Salt Lake City, Utah: Deseret News, 1911), 23; LeRoy R. Hafen and Ann W. Hafen, Handcarts to Zion: The Story of a Unique Western Migration (Glendale, California: Arthur H. Clark Company, 1960; 1988 reprint), 193.

[5] Benson, “Recollections,” 1.

[6] Benson, “Recollections,” 2, 3; spelling and punctuation modernized.

[7] Benson, “Recollections,” 3.

[8] See Tanner, Biographical Sketch, 27–29; Soren Jacobsen journal, June 16, 1857, Church History Library, Salt Lake City.

[9] Benson, “Recollections,” 4.

[10] See Lyndia McDowell Carter, “The Mormon Handcart Companies,” Overland Journal, vol. 13, no. 1 (Spring 1995), 6.

[11] Benson, “Recollections,” 4.

[12] Christensen, “By Handcart to Utah,” 340.

[13] Lars C. Christensen autobiography, 5, Church History Library, Salt Lake City.

[14] See Benson, “Recollections,” 4.

[15] See Tanner, Biographical Sketch, 39–40.

[16] Susan M. Witbeck autobiographical sketch, 5, Church History Library, Salt Lake City; William Clayton, The Latter-day Saints’ Emigrants’ Guide, ed. Stanley B. Kimball (Gerald, Missouri: Patrice Press, 1983), 80; Carter, “Mormon Handcart Companies,” 5.

[17] See Sealings of the Living, Endowment House, Book C, 19 Jan. 1856–22 Nov. 1861, 248, Special Collections, Family History Library, Salt Lake City; see also Peter Benson biographical sketch, 1, Church History Library, Salt Lake City.

[18] Benson, “Recollections,” 5; spelling modernized.