Nearly 150 years ago, Mormon pioneers set out from the Midwest, bound for Salt Lake City. They walked, pulling their belongings in wooden handcarts. Two groups got a late start and were stranded in Wyoming by a devastating October blizzard. And for the past 20 years, thousands of Mormon teenagers have been returning to that site to follow in the footsteps of their ancestors.
When the blizzard struck on October 19th, 1856, the lagging handcart companies were still weeks from Salt Lake City. More than 200 people died of exhaustion, hunger, and cold.
Today, reenactment handcarts are pulled by a ‘Ma’ and a ‘Pa’ and a group of teens, all dressed up like pioneers. Over several days, they cover more than 20 miles of sagebrush-stubbled plain.
It's late morning when these trekkers and their 17 handcarts come to the banks of the Sweetwater River at Martin’s Cove in central Wyoming. This is the place where the pioneers sought protection from the bitter wind and snow, but shelter was on the other side of the icy river. A missionary, Elder Joel Bingham, sets the scene for the 150 teens participating in this reenactment: “Now, you're not hungry. It's not 11 below zero. But try to think what's happening here happened then. Let’s cross the river.” The boys each lift a girl into their arms or onto their backs and wade into the water; then the handcarts take the plunge.
Back in 1856, it was also young men—rescue riders from Salt Lake City—who forded the river over and over to carry those too weak to cross on their own. Kari Kovach is one of the trek leaders for this group from Brighton, Colorado. She says the frozen river took a toll: “They call them ‘ice cakes’, it was the big, broken off chunks of ice that would float down the river. And they said the people had scars for the rest of their lives from the ice cutting them.”
Kari’s son, 16 year old Parley Kovach, carried seven girls across. “Doing the river crossing just now, that brought me to tears,” he says. One of the girls carried across was 14 year old Abbie Johnson, who says “You just felt loved and appreciated and all that type of stuff. Just because, usually in these days guys don't really do stuff like that anymore, so it was nice to be noticed and to be appreciated and to be taken care of.”
“Everyone just thinks the stories are stories,” says Parley Kovach. “They know about the pioneers and how they came across, but I don't think they realize how hard it was for them.” For him, the experience brought history alive. And that’s the point, says Parley’s dad, Kevin Kovach—to feel what it’s like to save someone. “And so giving them that experience to carry someone across and feeling like they can be a rescuer, whether it's in the worldly sense where we rescue people like a fireman or a policeman or something like that, that’s great, but also in the spiritual sense, where we can go out and we can help others, we can serve others,” says Kevin Kovach.
And his wife, Kari Kovach, says the reenactment honors the original pioneers. “You know, I see what these pioneers did, and every time we come, it's almost like you can feel their presences here saying, ‘Look what we did, and we did it for you.’”
The 1856 handcart disaster has become an enduring symbol of faith and sacrifice. It’s in memory of those ancestors who risked so much for their faith that Mormon teens retrace their steps each year.