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Things About Which Second Thoughts Are Appropriate

Pioneer trek experiences are not a full-bore historic reenactment. Instead, they’re an attempt to create an environment that removes us from writing an essay about yourself just a bit, and opens us up to new experiences and inspiration.

However, we’re using the historical facts of other peoples’ lives to do it, and that deserves a certain (fairly high) level of respect and historical integrity. These were, after all, real and living people. Their experiences were not jokes, farce, or make-believe!

Keeping in mind that the handcart scheme encompassed only a few years of the Saints’ emigration (1856 to 1860, as compared to the Exodus and Emigration period that most consider beginning with the Nauvoo evacuation in 1846 and changes dramatically in 1869 with the completion of the Trans-Continental Railroad), and quite a small percentage of the total emigrating population (about 3K out of 70K from 1846 to 1869, or less than 5%) here are some elements to reconsider:

Women’s Pull

The basis for the Women’s Pull pre-dates the handcart era by a full decade, and relates to the exodus from Nauvoo and very early emigration to Utah, when men volunteered for paid service in the Mormon Battalion during the war with Mexico. Their advance pay provided funds for needed supplies to get those who were evacuating Nauvoo a little more comfortable while they prepared to emigrate to the intermountain West.

Generally what happens is that men and boys on the Trek experience step away, and the women and girls pull the carts up a decently-steep hill. It can be very emotional, but it’s engineered emotion, not necessarily “The Spirit”, and it’s usually accompanied by some seriously manipulative emotional stories to prep the engineered experience.

Historically, only a very few of the men among the evacuees participated in the Mormon Battalion: 512 total (there were about 640 people involved with the Battallion, including women, children, and babies born along the way). That’s 512 men out of as many as upwards of 16,000 Saints in the Nauvoo region in the mid-1840s. (Hint: that left a lot of men and older boys to go along with the migration of the main bodies of the Saints… the full Battallion population of 638 souls is less than 4% of the total population of LDS in the region.)

The Pull gets a lot less impressive, but far more historically accurate, when 4 of every 100 men on the Trek experience stands aside, and the rest help the women pull the carts.

Pony Express

April 3, 1860 to October 24, 1861.

That’s the grand span of the Pony Express. It overlaps the Handcart era by approximately five months (April to October 1860, the “emigration window” for Saints in 1860; by the same window in 1861, the Pony Express was still in operation, but the Church had ceased the handcart plan.)

Often, Trek experiences have “the Pony Express” deliver letters from parents to the youth on Trek, full of encouragement or spiritual messages.

To give a more rich sense of history and the experience of the actual handcart Saints, those chosen for Pony Express delivery need to be young and small (not more than 125 pounds, by Pony Express company regulations.) Parents need to be willing to shell out for the privilege, too: letters transmitted by the Express cost $5 (in 1860 dollars) per half-ounce. That’s the equivalent of $131 per half-ounce in 2014 US dollars. For a full one-ounce letter (what you can mail today for under 50 cents), a parent would spend $232 in 1860. (That same $232 is the equivalent of 22 weeks’ wages for a skilled carpenter in 1860.) (You can find the formula for calculating dollar value here.)

(Here are some really snazzy images of known Pony Express postmarks. Not all would be applicable to Trek mail packets… the May 22 St Joseph images only work from May 23 to about May 27 each year, for instance, and the July 3 St Joseph mark would work for Treks taking place between July 5 and July 12. The Express really was expressed–10 days from St Joseph to California.)

Having mail delivered is a fine and good thing; just have it delivered by horse, and not by The Pony Express. Noting letter received or sent along the emigration trail is common enough in both LDS and non-LDS diaries. The excitement and anticipation of hearing news from home is plenty, with regular, non-Pony-Express mail delivery.

Using carefully-researched historical elements can be highly effective; we just need to be careful to set up a truthful environment, and trust that each person will learn what it most important for them to learn–even if that is very different from what we ourselves feel and understand!

© 2012 Elizabeth Stewart Clark. All Rights Reserved.