David Roberts, “The Awful March of the Saints,” American Heritage 58:3 (Fall 2008), 28-31.

The current issue of American Heritage magazine, not yet available on the internet (please do not post links to copyright-violating scans that interested Latter-day Saints sometimes post), contains a short article by David Roberts about the Martin and Willie handcart companies, a foretaste of his just-published Devil’s Gate: Brigham Young and the Great Mormon Handcart Tragedy (my copy of which I expect to be delivered by Amazon this afternoon).

Roberts focuses on the experiences of Patience Loader to personalize the dramatic, poignant, faithful, horrifying struggles of the Saints pulling and pushing handcarts to Zion in 1856. Although he refers in passing to the five companies totaling some 1,865 handcarters that season, he does not mention the multiple wagon companies nor the first three handcart companies that also crossed in safety, although with great physical hardship, earlier that season. Instead, Roberts leaves the death and suffering of the Martin company of which Patience was a member to represent all but Brigham Young’s 1847 vanguard company, which he does indicate crossed with “covered ox-wagons.”

My super-sensitive always-ready-to-detect-offense-from-non-Mormons antennae quiver at this point, ready to sound the alarm of unfairness … but honestly, how often do we as Latter-day Saints allow the handcart pioneers, especially those of the Martin and Willie companies, to serve as shorthand for the full Mormon pioneer experience? There’s a reason, after all, why the silhouette of a handcart served as the symbol for the “Faith in Every Footstep” celebrations of 1997 (despite 1997 being the sesquicentennial of the first wagon crossings) and why our youth go on handcart treks rather than wagon treks/hayrides. Let’s have no quibblings about that from non-Mormon authors when we do the same thing ourselves.

Somehow Roberts manages to pack a wide range of Patience’s experiences into this brief article. We see her care for her ailing father, then witness her father’s death, then ford the North Platte, then struggle with the “routine” agonies of gathering fire fuel, scavenging for food, and camping in the open air when the ground was frozen too hard to drive tent stakes. We listen to her relate the horrifying details of one man’s starvation dream, and watch an episode of her mother’s funny and successful heroics to get an exhausted Patience and her sister on their feet again. We see the arrival of rescuers, and have a summary of Patience’s after-life in Utah.

These scenes taken from Patience’s reminiscences are, I believe, what drew Roberts to his handcart study in the first place. His narratives of adventure and survival under extreme conditions of arctic cold and desert heat are the centerpieces of his On the Ridge Between Life and Death, The Mountain of My Fear, Sandstone Spine, Four Against the Arctic, and more than a dozen other adventure and history books. He has a real gift for making the reader care about the men and women he writes about, appreciate their life-and-death struggles, and keep turning the pages to see whether or how those men and women survive. Try reading this article as if you were completely unfamiliar with the Mormon experience – you will care whether Patience and any of her family survive, and you will be shocked by anything that would put such people in such desperate circumstances. (This will be the experience of countless non-Mormon readers who hear of these adventures for the first time through Roberts’s article.)

If caring about their physical well-being is the strength of Roberts’ writing, understanding the motivations that put Patience and her family at risk is his shortcoming. Nothing in this article hints at why these men and women were willing to put themselves and their children at such risk, and what, if anything, other than sheer animal determination kept them going. The introductory paragraphs indicate that Patience was among the number of “Mormon emigrants seeking to cross the 1,300 miles from where the railroad ended in Iowa to Salt Lake City,” but there’s no hint of a motive or a sustaining force there. The concluding paragraphs tell us that Patience (unlike “many” other “embittered” emigrants) did not leave the church, but neither did she once “ask herself whether the whole desperate journey had been worth it.” For all the reader unfamiliar with Mormon history knows, the Loaders just got up one morning and decided to leave England for the American West.

While we are left in utter darkness as to what impelled Patience, Roberts does give us his evaluation of the handcart enterprise itself. It was “Brigham Young’s brainchild. Its chief motive was to save money, as the prophet sought to bring as many European converts (mostly from the working-class poor of Britain and Scandinavia) to Zion.” He does us the credit of acknowledging that the first purpose behind the organization of emigrant companies was “to save their souls,” but pairs that with the purported secondary purpose “to shore up [Young’s] breakaway theocracy against an anticipated offensive by the U.S. Army, which would, in fact, take place less than two years in the future.” That unfortunate statement comes from understanding dangerously little of the Mormon experience as a whole and stringing together the few scattered facts one knows into a too-close cause-and-effect relationship, paired with a too gullible acceptance of the jaundiced thesis that Brigham Young’s every action was a calculated move to extend his political power, his every pastoral word a cynical cover for personal ambition.

I understand Roberts’s conclusion that Brigham Young “must bear the lion’s share of the blame for a tragedy unmatched in American annals,” because, while I disagree with his reasoning, I understand the sources he consulted and his choices to accept these sources and the opinions of this historian, over those sources and the caveats of that other historian. His knowledge of Brigham Young is limited to the narrow window of the late 1850s. He has studied the handcarts in depth and has thoughtful reasons for his conclusions there, but his understanding of the Utah War, Mormon history in general, and the life of faith are all too superficial to lend him authority outside his primary interest of the nuts and bolts of wilderness survival.

But man, oh, man, can he make you see and feel and care about the battle for that survival!

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