55. The Handcart Song
Written by J.D.T. McAllister, 1856
Performed by Margaret Young Boyle, 1952
From the CD Farewell to Nauvoo – Hymns and Songs of the Mormon Pioneers, by Fiddlesticks (FiddleSticks, USA 2004)



Ye Saints who dwell on Europe’s shore
Prepare yourselves with many more
To leave your own dear native land
For sure God’s judgments are at hand

We must cross the raging main
Before the Promised Land we gain
Then with the faithful make a start
To cross the plains in your handcart!

And some will push and some will pull
As we go marching up the hill
So merrily on our way we go
Until we reach the valley-o!

The lands that boast of modern light
We know are all as dark as night
Where poor men toil and want for bread,
And rich men’s dogs are better fed.

The land that boasts of liberty
I never again would wish to see
Then you from Europe make a start
And we’ll cross the plains in our handcart.

- The Handcart Song: verses one to five


One: FiddleSticks

FiddleSticks is the Davis family folk group that performs folk songs and traditional tunes from the Celtic lands, from England, and from America. Our band is made up of three sisters, Rebecca, Kathryn, and Elizabeth, and their dad Marco Davis. Marco’s wife is Andi. Featured instruments include fiddle, flutes, cello, bodhran (Irish drum), guitar, and vocals. [...] Our music is a mix of traditional dance music, together with original pieces by the group’s young composer (Kate), as well as plenty of ‘storytelling’ songs of life, love, and laughter. A typical performance also includes a few set of Klezmer (Jewish), continental European, and Mormon Pioneer music.’

- http://www.fiddle-sticks.com/FSKnow.html


Two: Crossing the plains

Our favourite rendition of the Handcart Song was sung and recorded in 1951 by an actual Mormon pioneer named Margaret Graham Young Boyle. Margaret was born in 1854 in Kirkintilloch, Scotland and immigrated with to Utah with her parents and twelve siblings in about 1872.’

- FiddleSticks – with Lisa Arrington, Farewell to Nauvoo – Hymns and Songs of the Mormon Pioneers. Expanded Liner Notes and Lyrics


Large-scale emigration from Scotland began in the 18th century. The main reason for this was the destruction of the clan system after the Battle of Culloden in 1746. This resulted in a rapid increase in the cost of renting land and an increasing number of Scottish farmers decided to cross the Atlantic and settle in America.

Agricultural problems became even more acute in the first part of the 19th century. The spread of large-scale sheep rearing resulted in the Highland clearances where thousands of crofters were evicted from their land. Most Scots emigrated to Canada but there were also large numbers who went to the United States. During the 19th century Scotland lost a much higher percentage of her people than either England or Wales. By 1890 there were over 250,000 people born in Scotland living in the United States.’

- Scottish immigration http://www.spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk/USAscotland.htm


Ten companies of handcart pioneers, mostly Mormon converts from Europe, walked the 1,300 miles from Iowa City (the end of the rail line) to Salt Lake City between 1856 and 1860, pulling and pushing all that they owned. Of the total of 2,962 handcart immigrants, about 250 died along the way, 220 of them in the Willie and Martin companies of 1856. They couldn’t afford wagons after leaving their homeland, so they pulled human-powered handcarts. A handcart could only hold 500 pounds of provisions and possessions, so adults were allowed only 17 pounds of clothing and bedding, children 10 pounds. We had some ancestors who travelled the plains with the Willie and Martin companies and shared their fate.’



Three: The Lost Tribe of Israel

Oh long before the valley’s gained
We will be met upon the plains
With music sweet and friends so dear
And fresh supplies our hearts to cheer

And then with music and with song
How merrily we will march along
And we’ll bless the day we made that start
For we crossed the plains in our handcart!

I have no more to write to you
Than the region’s lone and preachers are few
For here in war and almost gone
With the red man in Zion’s land

- The Handcart Song: verses ten to twelve


The Northwestern Band of Shoshone of Brigham City, UT has the dubious distinction of being the only Mormon Indian tribe in the United States. ‘That’s what they call us when we visit reservations,’ laughed Bruce Parry, executive director of the tribe. The Mormon Church has always sought to convert Indians, since they are held in special regard to Mormons as the Lamanites, the lost tribe of Israel. According to Mormon theology, Native Americans/ Lamanites were those whom Jesus ministered to when he came to the United States after his resurrection. In a very real way, the presence of Native Americans is evidence of the veracity of the Book Of Mormon. Then why, however, have so few Indians converted to the Church of Latter Day Saints?

Despite the scriptural sanctioning of Native peoples, Utah Indians and Mormons were often at odds when the LDS church first arrived in Utah in the 1840s. Both peoples were barely surviving at subsistence levels: the Indians because of their hunter/gatherer lifestyle and the Mormons because they had been kicked out of Illinois with little but the shirts on their backs. When the Mormons started to graze their cattle in the fertile Cache Valley where the Shoshoni lived, the Indian’s food supply of grass was eradicated. In retaliation, the Indians periodically stole cattle and horses from the invading settlers, calling it rent to compensate them for the loss of their lands. Violence often broke out, and it was usually the Indians who were shot. Brigham Young’s oft-quoted policy about Indians was that it was cheaper to feed them than to fight them, but this was not so often the case in practice. Despite theological ideas about Indians, the Indians were about as eager to convert as the Mormons were eager to have these ‘illiterate savages’ join their fold.

But then violence erupted at Bear River in the winter of 1863. Many members of the Northwestern Band were camped out for the night, and a U.S. Militia group led by Col. Patrick Connor had been authorised to put down those troublesome Indians. When morning came, over 400 Shoshone were dead, mainly women, children and the wounded. It was the largest Indian massacre in the history of the United States, and the militia group had been led to their camp by a local Mormon. Still, after the massacre, Indian legend has it that the spirit of the Nefites, wandering apostles immortalized in the Book of Mormon, visited the devastated tribe and told them to get baptised. Whether it was Mormon spirits or the very real threat of being sent to the reservations, all of the members of the tribe except one man were baptized within a few weeks in 1873. (The hold-out actually wanted to become a Mormon but he was afraid of water.) Converting to Mormonism solved a lot of the tribe’s problems. The church gave them land to farm, 1700 acres in Washakie, UT, and thus saved them both from starvation and from being shuttled to the reservation.

‘Although they tried to help us with farming, it was completely foreign to the way we lived,’ said Bruce Parry. ‘But our band decided to become civilized. When they started that reservation on Fort Hall, we refused to go.’ The people of the Northwestern Band were finally legitimate members of the church-run Utah society.

[…] Today the tenor of reservation Christianity has changed somewhat. The popularity of Indian culture in the 1970s spread to the Christian community as well. Now it is not uncommon for priests to join members of their native congregations in their sweat lodges. Reservation churches are often beautifully decorated with native motifs, and depictions of Jesus show a dark-skinned man wearing eagle feathers. Still, however, Mormon and Pentecostal missionaries often ask their converts to give up all native traditions, including events as seemingly innocuous as pow-wows. These tactics have brought them little success. More liberal reservation pastors must fight the perception that it is completely unnecessary to go to church to worship the God whose presence is everywhere. But perhaps most troubling is that harsh missionary practice of the past has eradicated native traditions to the point where nothing is left but vague pan-Indian ceremonies like sweat lodges, Sun Dances and peyote churches. Welcome to Christianity on the reservation today.’

- Mormon and Indian, by Julia Roller, from Native and Christian – a look at Christianity on Indian Reservations



<   >