When we think of the trek west along the California trail, we often think of long trains of covered wagons. In 1855 close to 3,000 people chose to travel across the country on foot, pushing and pulling wooden carts instead. We invite you to learn more about these handcart pioneers — their motives, challenges, and the literal steps they took to complete the journey of a lifetime.

Who Were The Handcart Pioneers?

The California trail saw many immigrants and emigrants flow west during the mid to late 1800s for rich farmland, freedom, and to take part in the California Gold Rush. However, the 10 companies of handcart pioneers were made up of members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints trying to reach Salt Lake City and escape religious prosecution.

According to Family Search, these groups of faithful, some who had sold all they had to make the trip, included cobblers, factory workers, farmers, fishermen, and aristocrats. Swiss, Danish, Scottish, Norwegian, Welsh, and English immigrants who didn’t share the same language risked the trek to Utah.

Why Handcarts?

Mormon church leaders decided to use handcarts in hopes that more church members could make the journey west. They reasoned that handcart companies would travel more quickly and at less of an expense for the pioneers. Ultimately, 650 handcarts were pushed and pulled to Utah.

According to Historynet, each wooden cart was small, usually a 5-foot-long hickory box between two narrow, lightweight wheels made of white oak and elm. Each could carry close to 500 pounds.

An Example: The Merrill Wagon Company Vs. McArthur Handcart Company


  • 210 People, 331 Oxen, 50 Wagons
  • Cost: $93 Per Person
  • Length Of Company On Trail: 8 Miles
  • Length Of The Trip: 75 Days


  • 220 People, 47 Oxen, 4 Wagons, 47 Handcarts
  • Cost: $13 Per Person
  • Length Of Company On Trail: 1/2 Mile
  • Length Of The Trip: 65 Days

Mormon Pioneers Making Do

According to Mary Ann Jones of the first handcart pioneer company, one tent and four handcarts were allotted to groups of twenty people. A few ox-drawn wagons also accompanied each group to carry the tents, more supplies, and any sick.

“We were allowed 17 pounds of baggage for each person. This included clothing, bedding, and cooking utensils. Some people who wanted to take more than allowed placed on their bodies more clothing than usual while being checked. Thus, some thin people became stout all at once.” “One old sister carried … a colander on her apron string all the way to the Salt Lake Valley.” — Mary Ann Jones, member of the first Mormon handcart company.

1,300 Miles — The Mormon Trail On Foot

Mary’s company traveled from ten to twenty-eight miles each day on foot, from Iowa City, Iowa to Salt Lake City, Utah. The trek was close to 1,300 miles and took around 2 months.

The Willie & Martin Handcart Companies

Like many groups of early westward expansionists, the handcart pioneers did experience tragedy on the trail — namely the Willie and Martin companies. The reason these groups had problems after three other companies had made the journey successfully will sound familiar if you’ve heard the well-known tale of the Donner-Reed party.

A Disastrous, Late-Season Journey

Two European ships, the Thorton and the Horizon arrived with immigrants ready to travel to Salt Lake much later in the season than was safe. They left with quickly built green wood handcarts that caused additional issues and ended up losing close to 300 people to fatigue, freezing, and starvation.

More Pioneer Stories On The California Trail

The story of the handcart pioneers is just one of many along the California Trail. Stop by the California Trail Interpretive Center in Elko, NV, today to see these stories brought to life through exhibits and activities. If you’re ready to plan your trip, contact us to get the latest information on upcoming events.

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