The Gathering

Latter-day Saint converts journeying from Europe to “the place of gathering” in the Utah wilderness created the longest trail west.

On reaching America, the Latter-day Saints were herded into Castle Garden, the large round immigrant receiving center off the shore of New York City.
In the mid-19th century, the city was a bustling, dirty, noisy, wondrous place. Some people melted into the landscape, electing to stay, while the devout pressed on for the Utah Territory.
Mormon immigrants were the objects of curiosity, jeers and even violence as they made their way by rail from the East Coast to Iowa City, the “jumping-off” place. Trains had no sleeping accommodations, and smoke and soot were everywhere. According to one account, some Latter-day Saints traveled in cattle cars.
Instead of crossing the plains and mountains by covered wagon, hundreds of immigrants in 1856 would push and pull wooden handcarts all the way to Utah. Saints were allowed 17 pounds of belongings and supplies, far too scanty for some of them to last the distance.
Latter-day Saint journals recorded good relationships with Indians. Many said Indians were stately and helpful, sometimes helping pull handcarts across rough terrain.
Mormon wagon trains, along with the poorer handcart parties, camped along the North Platte River, near the imposing spire of Chimney Rock (also shown in the previous image).
Slogans like “Merry Mormons” and “Zion’s Express” adorned the sides of some handcarts, but the difficulties mounted. The carts, constructed of green wood without metal rims, constantly broke down.
In the Nebraska Territory the country became drier and the trail more rugged, but many pioneers were enthralled by the beauty of bluff country and intrigued by strange creatures like horned lizards, bighorn sheep, burrowing owls and prairie dogs.
Thousands of handcarts, wagons, draft animals and people wore paths in the sandstone, like this one along the North Platte River in Wyoming.
At Devil’s Gate in Wyoming, some immigrants were fortunate enough to leave behind only their names carved in rock. Many others left the bodies of loved ones.
The Rockies were the first mountains many European immigrants had seen. They crossed the Continental Divide at South Pass. A reporter for the New-York Daily Times, traveling west to report on the Mormons, wrote, “The scenery is wild, beautiful and gorgeous.”
West of the Rockies the immigrants entered the vast sagebrush desert of the Great Basin, leaving ruts that can still be seen.
Less than 40 miles from the Salt Lake Valley, pioneers entered Echo Canyon, a narrow gorge with steep walls and a treacherous road. One person called it the “wildest scaryest place I ever saw.”
When the handcart pioneers first came over Hogsback Summit and viewed the intimidating Wasatch Mountains ahead, many broke down and wept. Historians dubbed this Heartbreak Ridge.
Big Mountain
The old, young, feeble, pregnant, lame and sick pulled their carts up the steep flanks of the Wasatch Range. A visitor wrote, “This steep pitch, at the end of a thousand miles of hard work and semi-starvation, causes the death of many a wretched animal.”
From the summit of Big Mountain, the highest point of the journey, the pioneers caught their first glimpse of the Promised Land and gave “vent to the emotions long pent up within their bosoms by sobs and tears, laughter and congratulations, psalms and hysterics.” 
Bonded by prayers, hymns and suffering, almost 3,000 handcart pioneers pulled handcarts 1,300 miles from Iowa City to the Salt Lake Valley between 1856 and 1860. The handcart era ended after 1860, when Church leaders switched to ox-team trains.
Not everyone made it. During the first year of the handcart experiment, well over 200 people died from starvation, exposure, exhaustion, accidents and disease. Many ate the hides and feet of cattle to survive. One woman recounted that “my sister and I used to pray we could die to get out of our misery.”
Of the harrowing 1856 handcart trek, writer Wallace Stegner wrote, “If courage and endurance make a story, if human kindness and helpfulness and brotherly love in the midst of raw horror are worth recording, this half-forgotten episode of the Mormon migration is one of the great tales of the West and of America.”
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The Gates of Eden