Local Mormon Teens Reenact 19th Century Pioneer Journey
Last month 158 local teenagers and 44 adults from North St. Louis and St. Charles, Lincoln and Warren Counties gave up all modern conveniences to push and pull pioneer handcarts approximately 30 miles through the Mark Twain National Forest. Dressed in typical pioneer fashion - complete with bonnets, bloomers and suspenders - the youth went without cell phones, iPods, and even deodorant to make it as authentic of an experience as possible.
Called simply “Trek,” this journey was a small reenactment of the 1,300-mile trip made by Mormon pioneers in 1856. This is the first time such an event has ever taken place in the St. Louis area. Organized by local leaders from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the June 20 – 23 trek was designed to give the youth a small understanding of what some of the early pioneers may have experienced.
In 1847 thousands of Mormon pioneers began their migration westward with covered wagons. However, by 1856 there were still thousands more who had not yet made the trip, and who did not have the financial means to purchase a covered wagon and oxen. To cut down on expenses, pioneers used cost-effective handcarts to cross the plains. Ten companies of pioneer handcarts walked the 1,300 miles from Iowa City to Salt Lake City between 1856 and 1860, pulling and pushing all that they owned. Many hardships were encountered along the way. Of the total 2,962 handcart immigrants, about 250 died along the way.
Preparations for trek began back in December with Trek Master Bill Stanley scouting out several possible sites. “We wanted a place that could be a microcosm of the terrain encountered by the pioneers, both wooded and open areas, flat and rocky hills,” said Stanley. “We felt the diversity of the Mark Twain National Forest allowed us to do some things with the trek we would not be able to do elsewhere.” He worked closely with Gail Blair, National Forest Service Ranger, to find a suitable route through the mountains. Eighteen handcarts with more than 200 people had to create as little of an impact as possible on protected forest lands.
“A lot of kids were hesitant to go on trek, because they’d have to dress in pioneer clothes and go without modern luxuries,” said Stanley. “But by the second day, no one cared anymore what you looked like or smelled like. Instead they were looking at something much deeper – they began to see what really matters in life – family, service, sacrifice, faith, and hard work.”
The trail was laid out on both country and forest service roads through the primitive wilderness of the Mark Twain National Forest near Steeleville, Mo. “We looked at camping areas and what would accommodate such a large group, laid out some ground rules such as pack it in, pack it out, porta-potties being provided, etcetera,” said Blair. With permits and approvals in hand, the trek planners began the process of assembling the handcarts.
Authentically fashioned after the original handcarts pulled by Mormon pioneers, each handcart measured 4-feet wide and 5-feet long, and weighed a little over 200 pounds unloaded. The carts carried food, water, bedding, personal items and cooking utensils for each assigned family. Youth were assigned into “families” consisting of 8-10 “children” led by an adult Ma and Pa. Each family pulled and pushed a handcart loaded with their belongings and enough supplies to last the four days of the journey. It took 6-8 people at any given time to maneuver each handcart through the rough terrain.
The terrain proved to be one of the greatest challenges for the youth. Pushing and pulling the heavy handcarts, they wound their way up and down steep terrain. In 90-degree temperatures, the youth and leaders encountered “Miracle Mile” on day one, with six hills over rocky steep terrain, sometimes with up to 45-degree inclines. Using ropes to pull the carts up, some had to unload and hand-carry the supplies to lighten the cart. After successfully reaching the tops of hills themselves, many youth made repeated trips to return down the hills to help other “families” up the steep grades, working themselves nearly to exhaustion.
Crossing through knee high streams, muddy bogs, poison ivy and rocky ridges, the young handcart “pioneers” also learned what it might have been like for the early pioneers to give up everything for the sake of their faith. Even the food proved to be a challenge, as youth were offered authentic pioneer fare, such as simple broth, rolls, mush, and beans. The youth learned to reserve some food for future meals, or to divide the meager rations among themselves while the Ma and Pa occasionally went without.
Tired and worn out, the youth were undaunted in their desires to successfully complete the trek, with often heroic-like efforts. Terry Slezak, president of the St. Louis North Stake (a stake is similar to a diocese in the Catholic Church) said, “Trek was exactly like we wanted it to be. We wanted the youth to better understand the hardships of the early pioneers so they can face any hard challenge with confidence, because of what they experienced on trek.” Seralyn Morgan, a 17-year-old trek participant and senior at Fort Zumwalt West High School, agreed. “It was really tough physically and emotionally, but it made me much more grateful for the experiences of the early pioneers. Trek was uplifting and helped me put life in proper perspective. It made my faith grow so much.”
“I think it was a turning point in many of the youth’s lives, both in terms of understanding who they are and how they fit into the whole scheme of life, especially in terms of family and spirituality,” said Stanley. “It was an all-encompassing experience.”
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