Bringing The World Home To You

© 2023 WUNC North Carolina Public Radio
120 Friday Center Dr
Chapel Hill, NC 27517
919.445.9150 | 800.962.9862
91.5 Chapel Hill 88.9 Manteo 90.9 Rocky Mount 91.1 Welcome 91.9 Fayetteville 90.5 Buxton 94.1 Lumberton 99.9 Southern Pines
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Mormon Teens Re-Enact Handcart Disaster To Bring History To Life


From a religion grappling with the future to another one remember its past. For the past 20 years or so, thousands of Mormon teenagers have been reenacting an important religious moment in that faith. It happened in 1856 when Mormons were fleeing the Midwest for Utah. They walked pulling their belongings behind them in wooden handcarts. Two groups from Iowa got stranded in a blizzard in Wyoming, and every year Mormons retrace their steps. From Wyoming Public Radio, Micah Schweizer has the story.

MICAH SCHWEIZER, BYLINE: When the blizzard struck on October 19, 1856, the lagging handcart companies were still weeks from Salt Lake City. More than 200 people died of exhaustion, hunger and cold.


SCHWEIZER: Today, reenactment handcarts are pulled by a ma and a pa, and a group of teens all dressed up like pioneers. Picture them pulling an oversized wheelbarrow with two large wooden wheels. Over several days, they cover more than 20 miles of sagebrush stubbled plane.

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.

JOEL BINGHAM: 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.

SCHWEIZER: 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.

KARI KOVACH: They called them ice cakes - it was the big broken up chunks of ice that would float down the river. And they said people had scars for the rest of their lives from the ice cutting them.

SCHWEIZER: Kari's son, 16-year-old Parley Kovach, carried seven girls across.

PARLEY KOVACH: Doing the river crossing just now, that brought me to tears when I was carrying the girls across the river.

SCHWEIZER: One of the girls carried across was 14-year-old Abbie Johnson.

ABBIE JOHNSON: 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 be appreciated and be taken care of.

P. KOVACH: Everyone just thinks that the stories are stories.

SCHWEIZER: Parley Kovach says the experience brought history alive for him.

P. KOVACH: They know about the pioneers and how they came across, but I don't think they realized how hard it was for them.

SCHWEIZER: That's the point, says Parley's dad, Kevin Kovach, to feel what it's like to save someone.

KEVIN KOVACH: And so giving them that experience to carry someone across and feel like they are - 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.

SCHWEIZER: And Kevin's wife Kari Kovach says the reenactment honors the original pioneers.

KARI KOVACH: You know, I see with these pioneers did. And every time we come, it's almost like you can feel their presence is here saying look what we did, and we did it for you.

SCHWEIZER: 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.

For NPR News, I'm Mica Schweizer in Laramie, Wyoming. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Micah Schweizer