Scared that the US government was going to march on the State of Deseret (a huge swath of land that encapsulated all of present-day Utah and Nevada as well as parts of Wyoming, Colorado and Arizona), Young decided that he needed an army of Mormons. Recruiting poor Northern Europeans was easy, but transporting them from the East Coast to Deseret was a costly enterprise. In light of these costs, Young decided that the pioneers ought to embark from Iowa City, Iowa (where the railway lines stopped) to Salt Lake City on foot, pulling their belongings and sustenance on handcarts. With a 17 lb limit to each immigrant's load, Young calculated that "fifeen miles a day will bring [the handcart companies] through in 70 days, and after they get accustomed to it they will travel 20, 25, and even 30 with all ease." (pg. 91) His estimation was optimistic to the point of delusion.
The handcart pioneers were plagued with bad luck, starting as early in the journey as Iowa City. There, the first two companies disembarked from the train in early May to find that there had been no handcarts made for them. Such an oversight on the part of the Mormon who was posted in Iowa City to negotiate the purchase and construction of the handcarts forced the immigrants, many of whom had no knowledge of carpentry, to construct their own carts out of green wood. This same fate awaited all five of the companies in 1856; each company set out with shoddily-made handcarts that were ill-constructed for the 1,300 mile journey across Iowa, Nebraska, Wyoming, Idaho and Utah ahead of them. While the first three companies suffered immense hardship, the final two were pushed to the edge, with many of their parties falling into the deathly chasm.
The final two companies of 1956—the Willie and Martin companies (named after their leaders, James G. Willie and Edward Martin)— did not arrive in Iowa City until August, far too late in the year for set out for Salt Lake without concern for the weather. But the leaders and other high church officials urged that the two parties soldier on westward, and so they did, soon to shoulder the high cost of their decision.
Roberts uses journals of the pioneers to illustrate much of his tale. Readers are encouraged to empathize with the poor souls who ventured out onto the cold and unforgiving plain to find Zion. His points are furthered by a narrative of High Church Mormon history, as well as a contemporary attempt to understand the mythologizing of the handcart pioneers—a myth he likens to the Mayflower. It is a fascinating experience.