A statue commemorating Mormon handcart pioneers on Temple Square in Salt Lake City, Utah
Our Stake (A group of congregations or wards, generally about three thousand to five thousand members in five to ten congregations.) at church is getting ready to take the youth on a handcart trek. My son Calvin is the only one old enough to go. I was telling him about the ancestors that we have who were among the original handcart pioneers. He claimed that I'd never told him the story. So I decided that I'd better put it here, in writing, for the rest of posterity.
"Peder Mortensen and mission: Peder Mortensen never expected to be a Utah Pioneer or a survivor of one of the most infamous and ill-fated handcart companies in the history of the western Mormon migration.
Peder’s livelihood and destiny had been carefully scripted by his patriarchal ancestors. As a devout Lutheran, he made a living as a cooper, shoemaker, and landowner in the village of Harbolle, Denmark, located on the southwest end of the Island of Mon.
Although Peder was a cripple, he and his wife, Helene Sandersen, and their eight children, created a comfortable middle-class lifestyle on the inherited farm from his father’s line.
Their thrifty and industrious lives drastically changed in 1855 when missionaries from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Elder Soren P. Guhl and Elder Scoby, visited their village of Harbolle.
Morten, Peder’s oldest son and a biblical scholar studying for the Lutheran ministry, listened to the missionaries with great interest. Morten first thought he could entrap the missionaries into declaring their “Golden Bible” to be a fraud. Instead the missionaries baptized all the Mortensen family members over age eight; Peter (50), Helena (47), Morten (28), Anna (24), Anders (22), Hans (18), Lars (13), and Mette (10). Seven-year-old Maria and four-year-old Caroline were baptized later.
Soon after its organization, leaders in the LDS Church asked the church members to gather together first in Independence, Missouri, then in Nauvoo, Illinois, and finally in Salt Lake City, Utah. Peder and his family responded to the doctrine of “the gathering” by selling their farm and traveling to Copenhagen, Denmark to await passage to America.
During a month-long stay in the Danish capitol, the Mortensen family became acquainted with Scandinavian Mission President Hector C. Haight, who asked Morten to remain in Denmark and serve as a missionary.
Haight, recognizing a hesitance to split the family, made a solemn promise to Peder that Morten later recorded in his journal. “If you will consent to his staying and filling a mission, I promise you in the name of the Lord that you will, everyone of you, reach the land of Zion in safety, and God will protect you on sea and on land,” Haight said.
Morten stayed in Denmark as a missionary and the Mortensen family sailed to America aboard the steamship Thornton on May 4, 1856. Once in America the family traveled by both train and steamship to Iowa City, Iowa where they joined a company of 500 people, 120 handcarts and six wagons under the direction of James G. Willie.
The Willie handcart company is listed as the fourth handcart company to arrive in Salt Lake City as part of a new, cheaper method of people-powered travel proposed by then LDS Church President Brigham Young and financed by a revolving endowment known as the Perpetual Emigration Fund. Wooden handcarts, modeled after carts used by street sweepers, measured six to seven feet long, carried 500 pounds of trail provisions, and could be alternately pushed or pulled.
Still possessing sufficient funds from the sale of his farm to purchase ox teams and wagons for his family to ride to the 1400-mile trek to Salt Lake, Peder Mortensen gave his money to the Perpetual Emigration Fund allowing his family and three other families to make the handcart journey.
Peder, disabled by rheumatism, rode the entire trip on a handcart pulled by his children. Peder’s daughter Mette wrote about the journey in her diary. She described walking to the point of Fort Laramie as “monotonous.” But after Ft. Laramie Mette said, “They cut the flour rations and it began to snow.”
All but two of the ten handcart companies deployed between 1856 and 1860 completed the trail with few problems. The fourth and fifth companies, known today as the Martin and Willie companies, left winter quarters in August 1856, too late to begin a trip across the plains. The blizzard of October 1856 caught both handcart companies west of present day Casper, Wyoming. Despite heroic efforts by company members and Utah rescuers, about 200, or one-sixth of the companies died and dozens were maimed by frostbite and deprivation.
Every member of the Mortensen family survived the journey west without lasting injuries from the cold. Mette wrote she believed their safe arrival in Salt Lake fulfilled the promise they received from Hector C. Haight, Morten’s mission president, and Morten’s willingness to serve the Lord.
On December 1, 1856, Peder Mortensen and his family settled in Parowan, Utah." Morten is my great-great grandfather. We come through his daughter Diantha Elizabeth Mortensen.
(Thanks to amygreg.com for posting this story. I've had a hard time finding it online, so I wanted to post it where we'd be able to locate it.)