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3/20/09

Patience Loader & The Terrible Hand Cart Trek of Brigham Young's Followers

The Great Basin of Utah looked desolate with the Great Salt Lake Desert spreading in a sea of white toward the Western horizon.

Brigham Young and his fellow pioneers saw none of that. They saw the future. “This is the place,” Young, declared on July 24, 1847. He had left Nauvoo, Illinois, as the head of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. They were believers in the face of hatred and violence that fell on them. They determined to create a home in the West far from those who threatened them. Some of Young's later followers came in hand carts, and therein lies a tale.

Brigham Young has been criticized for encouraging people to undertake the arduous, deadly journey to Utah pulling their worldly belongings in a hand cart. Wallace Stegner wrote about the West, and in one scene he described the Mormons who trekked out of Iowa to Utah with hand carts. "In all its history, the American West never saw a more unlikely band of pioneers than the four hundred-odd who were camped on the banks of the Iowa river at Iowa City in June 1856. They were not colorful--only improbable . . . starved cheeks, pale skins, bad teeth, thin chests . . . There were more women than men, more children under fifteen than either. . . herded from their crowded immigrant ship and loaded into the cars and rushed to the end of the Rock Island Line [they] had never pitched a tent, slept on the ground, cooked outdoors, built a campfire. They had not even the rudimentary skills that make frontiersmen." Yet, they had "grit and faith, and in the weeks ahead . . . they were tested beyond human endurance. . . ."

One of these was Patience Loader, a girl fresh from England, whose family joined the Martin Handcart Company. In the middle of the wilderness, her father, James, collapsed one day, exhausted, near death, from pulling the cart. In her memoirs, Patience described the moment in her memoirs when she spoke to her father about his condition. "'Father, you are not able to pull the cart. You had better not try to pull. We girls can do it this afternoon.' 'Oh,' he said...I must not give up...I want to go to the valley to shake hands with Brigham Young.'" But soon her father could not go on. He could pull no more.

Looking at his family, his eyes teared. He said to them, "You know I love my children." Then he died. He was lucky.

Members of the hand cart company watched their rations disappear, their limbs freeze, and their friends die. James' daughters pulled the cart.

That night Patience's sister Zilpha groaned in the darkness under the stars as she gave birth to a boy. Patience's sister Tamar, fell sick to Rocky Mountain Spotted fever as they crossed the Rockies. The company could not wait for Tamar or anybody else. They had to move on.

Patience kept the fire burning bright as wolves howled in the distance. Occasionally they saw gleaming eyes staring at them from the darkness.

For "The Awful March of The Saints" (Patience Loader and her hand cart company), see American Heritage Magazine. Here are photos of Patience Loader, her grave, and an account of her life. If you want to read about Patience Loader, here is Meridian Magazine. In case you want to do a hand cart trek on your vacation, try this.

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