Book review- Devil’s Gate: Brigham Young and the Great Mormon Handcart Tragedy

I just finished David Robert’s Devils Gate: Brigham Young and the Great Mormon Handcart Tragedy and thought that I would give it a brief review. This was my first book-length treatment of the handcart pioneers. The depth of my familiarity to this point has been the various classic anecdotes shared in a thousand talks and General Conference addresses since the pioneers first reached Utah. So, I found myself with a lot to learn.

For anyone coming after me who wants to read this book, I offer the following warning. Read the first chapter, then skip to about page 78. The author, who has written several books previously on a variety of topics relating to the American West, but without any previous experience or expertise in Mormonism, gives us, in the early part of the second chapter, his own personal views on the life and work of the Prophet Joseph Smith. His view takes the stance that between two reasonable and plausible interpretations of various acts of Joseph Smith, one that makes him look like a good person, and one that makes him look like a no-good scoundrel, Roberts inevitably chooses the latter on every occasion. Roberts still pretends that Fawn Brodie’s No Man Knows My History is the definitive biography of Joseph Smith. Writing in 2008, acting not only as if Rough Stone Rolling is not at least the former’s equal in scholarly rigor, but acting as if RSR simply did not exist, is inexcusable from a historian’s point of view. While Robert’s opinions of Joseph Smith may not be supported by RSR, the arguments made in that book must at least be dealt with.

Perhaps more importantly, Joseph Smith’s story is ultimately irrelevant to the story of the handcart pioneers. Obviously, the visions of the Prophet Joseph Smith point towards the ultimate motivation of the handcart pioneers, but Joseph Smith was not responsible for any of the decisions that lead to the handcart disaster. He did not make the decisions, nor do any of the principles which he taught illuminate the reasons for the various acts of mismanagement that lead to the deaths of so many.

Which brings me to the author’s ultimate argument: that Brigham Young was responsible for the deaths of the handcart pioneers, and that he ordered them to their deaths because he valued life so cheaply. In the author’s defense, I will point out that this is at least John Taylor’s estimation of Young’s motivation. In a letter responding to Young’s accusation of overspending on the provisions of the handcart pioneers in New York, Taylor lowers the condemnatory hammer, sarcastically stating that he was unaware that money was to be valued more highly than lives in the handcart enterprises. (I apologize that I do not have the quote in front of me, but the book was already returned to the library). However, other than this single quote from Taylor, who was in NY at the time that the serious decisions regarding the handcart journey were being made, the author provides little in the way of evidence for Young’s callousness. What he does show is that Young was likely misinformed, overly optimistic, and overzealous regarding the handcart pioneers. This assessment is one I can get behind. Brigham Young was overly optimistic about the time it would require for the handcart pioneers to cross the plains and how much the members of the teams could handle on a daily basis. He was anxious to get the handcart pioneers to Zion as quickly as possible, which probably lead him to discount some opinions contrary to his position. And he was certainly surrounded by other parties at least as zealous as himself, encouraging some careless decision-making. However, none of this proves callousness or a lack of respect for human life. In fact, Brigham Young’s eventual order for a dramatic rescue of the handcart pioneers (once their dire position was made clear to him by recent arrivals to the valley from the trail) tends to show the opposite. He may have been tardy, but not unconcerned.

At one point, the author takes issue with an exhibit from a church history site which depicts the unfolding of the handcart tragedy as a series of falling dominoes, representing the numerous circumstances that put the handcart pioneers in danger. In this, he is correct. Various of those “circumstances” were not in fact circumstances at all, but were the result of multiple human decisions, some of which were not taken in full light of the facts or with the proper goal of preserving and safeguarding human life in mind. To paraphrase the famous quip regarding guns, snow, hunger and cold did not kill the handcart pioneers, poor decision-making did.

Roberts finishes his story of the Martin and Willie companies with about 50-75 pages left in the book. One of the final chapters is one of the more interesting, and deals with Roberts’ tour of various church history sites along the Mormon Trail. Roberts opines that the missionary-docents misrepresent some aspects of the handcart history (they probably do) and that the practice of Mormon youth recreating portions of the handcart journey over a short distance probably does a disservice to the memory of the handcart pioneers by cheapening their suffering, which is in his mind the chief feature of the tale. Opinions on this may vary, and may be particularly vehement among those who have done a handcart “trek.” However, it is certain that a journey of a couple of days, with adequate food and water on hand, in clement conditions, with emergency aid available, and stepping into a couple of “cow patties” along the way do not remotely equate to the handcart pioneer’s months of suffering in cold and hunger, nearly no prospect of rescue or return, during which death stalked them at every turn. One can argue whether it was meant to encourage association with their experiences, reflection, loyalty, humility, or a mix of them all. In my opinion, this chapter is one of Roberts’ more original contributions to the scholarship surrounding the handcart tragedy.

For member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, there is a familiar anecdote with which anyone questioning the necessity of the handcart pioneer’s sacrifice and the guilt behind any of their leaders’ decisions must deal. I quote it in part below:

Some years after the Martin company made their journey to Salt Lake City, a teacher in a Church class commented how foolish it was for the Martin company to come across the plains when it did. The teacher criticized the Church leaders for allowing a company to make such a journey without more supplies and protection.
I was an old man sitting in the classroom listening, then I spoke out, asking that the criticism be stopped, ‘Mistake to send the Handcart Company out so late in the season? Yes. But I was in that company and my wife was in it. … We suffered beyond anything you can imagine and many died of exposure and starvation, but did you ever hear a survivor of that company utter a word of criticism? Not one of that company ever apostatized or left the Church, because everyone of us came through with the absolute knowledge that God lives, for we became acquainted with Him in our extremities.

……

‘Was I sorry that I chose to come by handcart? No. Neither then nor any minute of my life since. The price we paid to become acquainted with God was a privilege to pay, and I am thankful that I was privileged to come in the Martin Handcart Company.’

The argument here, in short, is that the sufferings of the handcart pioneers were necessary for the individual’s salvation and ultimately, for the building up of Zion. Roberts notes and documents that one of the premises of this argument, that no member of the handcart companies ever apostatized, is false. Several members of the handcart companies, including some of their subcaptains, did ultimately apostatize, and their experience on the handcart trail contributed to that decision. Furthermore, those who died along the trail are not available to answer whether the handcart trek was worth it in their minds. Could the handcart pioneers have become acquainted with God’s mercy and care without suffering what they did? Second-guessing from this distance seems imprudent. But some Saints obviously did. Pioneer companies and handcart companies besides the ill-fated Martin and Willie companies made it through with fewer deaths and injuries and their material contributions and testimonies too contributed heavily to the establishment of the Church in the Salt Lake Valley and throughout the West.

To sum up: I thought this book (besides the portion I recommend be excluded above) was a decent history of the handcart pioneers. My disclaimer of course is that I have read no others. My eyes were certainly opened to some of the excesses involved in the handcart enterprises and occasions where better decisions could ultimately have been made, saving the lives of hundreds, with no ill effects on the establishment of Zion. The author’s bias against Mormonism and Brigham Young (though sympathetic to the pioneers) was clear from the beginning; but since an unbiased history could likely never be told, it is more important to be aware of the bias than to dismiss the book out of hand because of it.

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3 thoughts on “Book review- Devil’s Gate: Brigham Young and the Great Mormon Handcart Tragedy

  1. Thanks for the review, AHL. About a year ago I read Tom Rea's Devil's Gate: Owning the Land, Owning the Story (U. of Okalhoma Press, 2006), which included some more-or-less evenhanded coverage of the handcart episode. More interesting was the extended discussion of 20th-century LDS efforts to obtain ownership of land near Devil's Gate where the Martin company finally ran out of gas and camped (as best they could) until help arrived.Even so, I'm not sure I really got what I expected from Rea's book. Rea is a journalist, not a historian, which might explain why the recent events about buying the Sun Ranch seemed to be covered better than the historical handcart events. I'd like to read the Roberts book sometime and compare.

  2. Pretty good review, AHL. I just have one question about his claims, and one that is really not very important. The speaker of the quote you included claims no one in the Martin handcart company apostatized. Does Roberts look specifically at the Martin company? His claims, according to your review, seem to be based on a broader sample of handcart companies in general.Of course, I have a comment on his critique of pioneer trek, not because it is an experience that I consider sacred to Mormonism, but rather because I think that he is failing to understand to what extent young Mormons attempting to experience something of pioneer suffering fit into the larger picture of how people of different faiths connect to their traditions. Since I am a historian trained in the Christian tradition, his argument reminds me of the thousands of years Christians have spent recreating the suffering of Jesus through rituals–Passion plays, pilgrimages to holy places, et cetera. Early Christians often sought martyrdom as a way of following scriptural exhortation to suffer with Christ, and when their leaders banned martyrdom, they sought to connect with their heritage of suffering through ascetic renunciation, intellectual discipline, and even by literally praying to receive the stigmata of Christ. Luther and others of his time rejected the transubstantial interpretation of the Eucharist but still understood the powerful unifying aspects of remembered suffering through partaking of the Eucharist in the Christian community. Today, evangelicals flock to places such as The Holy Land Experience in Orlando where they can relive the acts the suffering of Jesus and his disciples and the agonies of the cross. So does Christianity in general denegrate the sufferings of its predecessors, and even its God, through such symbolic reenactments? Perhaps. But such re-creation of religious suffering as a way of connecting to one's heritage plays an important part of virtually every world religion in existence because it keeps religion alive. Whether Roberts likes it or not, Mormon pioneer trek is just one small tile in a large mosaic of people seeking personal religious experience through symbolic reenactment of some kind.

  3. To answer your first question, yes. John (or Johan) Ahmanson and John Chislett were two subcaptains of the Willie company, both of whom apostatized. See http://www.lds.org/churchhistory/library/pioneercompanysearchresults/1,15792,4017-1-319,00.html. Ahmanson went on to write an exit narrative after leaving Mormonism called "Secret History." There may have been others who I am forgetting (and I no longer have the book in front of me).BTW, large portions of this book are available on Google Books.

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