by Linda Harris
The last Mormon pioneer company crossed miles of treacherous wilderness heading west 143 years ago. Commemorating their faith and sacrifices, nearly 300 teenagers from 30 congregations of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints embarked upon similar treks this summer.
In the blistering triple-digit heat of the last three days of June, 80 stalwart teenagers from Petersburg, Hopewell, Colonial Heights, Prince George, Chester, Wakefield, and Lawrenceville pushed and pulled handcarts across 14 miles of rugged landscape, hills, and timberland. The young pioneers were dressed in period clothing with the young men in long-sleeve shirts, trousers and suspenders, and the young women in pioneer dresses, bonnets and aprons. All modern conveniences and electronics were left behind, and each person was allowed to bring sleeping gear and whatever provisions would fit into a five-gallon bucket, which also served as a stool. Meals were prepared over a campfire, and the nights were spent on the un-cushioned landscape of the Virginia plain.
Seventeen-year-old Samantha Quada of Thomas Dale High School commented, “Through the trek, we all came to understand and appreciate how much the early pioneers sacrificed for our church. Our short three-day trek put into perspective what they endured for three months.”
In U.S. history, few people have suffered for their religious convictions and belief in Jesus Christ more than the early members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Within the span of 17 years, the fast growing body of Church membership moved from western New York to Kirkland, Ohio and Jackson County, Missouri, and then united in Commerce/Nauvoo, Illinois seeking a community that would offer them refuge to live and worship in safety. Unrest continued, and on June 27, 1844 Church president, Joseph Smith, Jr. was assassinated. With ongoing threats and attacks on the general membership as well, the first wave of Latter-day Saints (nicknamed Mormons) again abandoned their homes, this time in the dead of winter in 1847, beginning an exodus that would ultimately take them and thousands to the desolate Valley of the Great Salt Lake.
Bailey Jensen, who will enter Dinwiddie High School this fall reflected, “How easy we have life today. The pioneers lost family and friends everyday, but they just had to keep on walking.” Between 1847 and 1869, more than 60,000 Latter-day Saints men, women and children made the trip west, with more than 6,000 being left along the way in shallow graves.
Thousands of European converts sailed to America, arriving near destitute. Lacking the financial means to complete the journey to join the main body of the Church in the Rocky Mountains, a fund was established to assist immigrants and a new mode of less-expensive travel developed as an alternative to the covered wagon: a man-powered wagon called a handcart. Centered between two wagon-style wheels, the handcart included a box that measured about three-by-four feet with eight-inch walls. Fully loaded, the box could hold about 500 pounds of provisions and possessions. A bar extended from the front of each side of the box, adjoined by a crossbar. The person pulling the handcart would lean into the crossbar, and often another would push from behind; and thus, they would begin the journey. From 1856—1860, 2,965 immigrants literally walked the 1,300 miles across the plains and through the mountains. In these groups, one in six perished from disease, exposure or starvation. Over the past few years, local Latter-day Saints youth have helped build similar handcarts and reenacted the living-history experience.
Andy Quada, trail boss and carpenter for the Chesterfield Stake’s company, helped the youth prepare both physically and spiritually for months in advanced. “We took them on a pre-hike and suggested some exercises and physical preparations they could do. We also gave them scripture-reading assignments and pioneer stories to read about the handcart pioneers that traveled with the Willie and Martin Handcart Companies.” These companies got a late start and were caught by early winter and deep snowfalls. Of the 980 travelers in the two companies, 210 died.
When the youth assembled at the historic Rock Methodist Church in Lawrenceville, Va. to begin the trek, Quada encouraged the young people to talk to one another and help each other. He wanted these young people to get closer to the Lord by understanding their heritage and the sacrifices that were made to bring forth the gospel of Jesus Christ.” Trek organizer, President Mark T. Evans, challenged the youth to, “Pray as you go along.” To the young men, he said, “Take care of the young women. Give them water first, help them with their tents; look after them.”
The youth were divided into families, each with a Ma and Pa (and maybe some Aunts and Uncles as additional chaperones) with 8 to 9 siblings per family. Each family received a handcart to carry its provisions. Matthew Boersma of the Colonial Heights Ward (congregation) could relate the life of his pioneer ancestor, Francis Webster, to his experience. Like Matthew’s trek family there were nine in Webster’s group and his wife was pregnant.
The covered-wagon and handcart companies of the early Mormon pioneers included entire families, extended family, single adults and orphaned children; Americans, Brits, Welch, Scandinavians; doctors, lawyers, architects, farmers, seamstresses, teachers; rich and poor; black and white. Amid this vast diversity, they moved with a social cohesiveness built on their faith and a quest to live and worship freely. A goal of this summer’s reenactments is to help the youth build new friendships and unite in their common belief for a cohesive journey that will extend its impact well beyond the three-day trek.
Wendi Wilson, a rising senior at Thomas Dale High School stated, “I was very optimistic about the trek at first; but when I got into it, I found it a lot harder than I imagined, and I could not make it on my own. I really, really had to rely on my faith and let the Lord pull me through it.” Likewise fifteen-year-old Quinton Hynst, a student at L.C. Bird. understood the power of prayer Friday night when the severe storm hit the area. “We prayed for safety and our prayers were heard and answered. The wind was so bad, and then the storm split in half and went around our camp.” Lisa Lauchner, Stake Young Women’s President, concluded that, “When the storms of life come your way—and they will—turn to the Lord to find your strength and refuge.”
The 24th of July marks 165 years since the first party of Mormon pioneers entered the dry and desolate Salt Lake Valley. Today church membership nears 14.5 million members worldwide, and in Virginia, exceeds 87,000 members. Nearly 9,800 of those members reside in the Greater Richmond, Tri-Cities, Wakefield, Lawrenceville, and surrounding localities. In many ways the youth of Virginia and, indeed, the world, are like the pioneers. Elder M. Russell Ballard, of the Church’s Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, notes, “Each of you has your own personal challenges, and each of you is on the pioneer trail toward eternal life.”