Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Book: Devil's Gate

Devil's Gate: Brigham Young and the Great Mormon Handcart Tragedy by David Roberts is one of the most absorbing and thought provoking works of history that I have read recently, and I would recommend it to anyone who is interested in the history of the American West or Mormonism. Roberts delves into the greatest tragedy of the migration westward in Nineteenth Century America (I'd like to elucidate that I am referring to the greatest tragedy in the migration itself, not the tragedies that occurred as a consequence of the migration)—the loss of more than 200 immigrants due to a decision, sanctioned by Brigham Young, for the last two companies of pioneers to start out late in the year. The book argues that the handcart "experiment" was an ill-thought out expedition that valued monetary efficiency and expediency over human lives, and that, despite Young's protestations of ignorance after the fact, he was knowledgeable of the late starts and therefore culpable for the disaster.
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.

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