Kirkus Reviews QR Code
DEVIL’S GATE by David Roberts


Brigham Young and the Great Mormon Handcart Tragedy

by David Roberts

Pub Date: Sept. 16th, 2008
ISBN: 978-1-4165-3988-9
Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Roberts (Sandstone Spine: Seeking the Anasazi on the First Traverse of the Comb Ridge, 2005, etc.) elaborates on a footnote to the history of westward expansion, excoriating the early leaders of Mormonism in the bargain.

Those leaders already have much to answer for, as Fawn Brodie’s No Man Knows My History (1945) and Sally Denton’s American Massacre (2003) demonstrate. Roberts adds to the charges with this study of the handcart migration of 1856, an experiment that ended in tragedy. It involved mostly European immigrants recruited abroad for settlement in “Deseret,” the great Mormon territory twice the size of Texas, which speaks, in Roberts’s formulation, to “the grandiosity of Mormon ambitions.” Lacking the Conestoga wagons of earlier immigrants, which Mormon leader Brigham Young said the church could not afford, they had to traverse the 1,300 miles from Iowa to Utah, across prairies and mountains, using two-wheeled carts. As Roberts recounts, about 3,000 immigrants made the trek, the last contingents of them, numbering about 1,000, leaving late in the summer. Caught in early snowstorms in the Wyoming Rockies and worn down by the journey, some 220 died. By Roberts’s account, Young had received warning that the late-leaving parties were courting disaster, and, he writes, “The Prophet seems to have forgotten that in 1847 it had taken his hand-picked pioneer party, nearly all of whom were men in the prime of life, 108 days to travel from Winter Quarters [Nebraska] to the Great Salt Lake, over a trail three hundred miles shorter than the one the handcart pioneers would be required to traverse.” Following the deaths, others within the Mormon hierarchy were scapegoated. Roberts’s account is solid, but he oversimplifies in order to blame Young. Other historians, such as Leonard Arrington and Bernard DeVoto, have shown that there were many causes at work, including poor communications and the newly converted immigrants’ zeal to get to the promised land.

Of a piece with Jon Krakauer’s Under the Banner of Heaven (2003), though without its drama—serviceable, but really a magazine article plumped up to book length.