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It's often easy to think we've got it tough, but the trials of modern life usually pale in comparison with the hardships endured by our ancestors.

Take, for example, the Mormon handcart pioneers, who 160 years ago were footslogging 1,300 miles across America, dragging all they owned on hastily constructed two-wheeled handcarts.

In an extraordinary display of resolution and fortitude, nearly 500 Mormons set out from Iowa City in early June 1856, heading west for Salt Lake City, Utah. Most were Mormon convert families recently arrived in America from England, Wales, Scotland and Scandinavia.

The leader of the Mormons, Brigham Young, had established Salt Lake City as a new sanctuary for members of his Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in 1847. Converts, many fleeing religious oppression in their home countries or seeking a new life in America, were encouraged to join their fellow Mormons in Salt Lake City.

Initially the church was able to provide some financial aid to the pioneers wanting to join it, helping them buy wagons and oxen for the difficult trek. But by 1856, after a series of poor harvests, the money was all but gone, leading Young to propose a cheaper way.

"Let them come on foot with handcarts or wheelbarrows; let them gird up their loins and walk through and nothing shall hinder or stay them."

Incredibly, many Mormons heeded his advice and the so-called 'Handcart Companies' were born. Between June 9th and 23rd, the first three Handcart Companies set out from Iowa City, together comprising about 815 Mormon emigrants. Each was headed by a Company Captain, who were Mormon missionaries returning to their homes in Utah and familiar with the route ahead.

The emigrants had spent several weeks in Iowa City, constructing their wooden handcarts to Brigham Young's own design. They would carry all their worldly goods, many heaped high to their maximum load of around 500 pounds. Each family usually had one cart, the father and mother taking turns pulling while any children old enough would push. Only the smallest infants could ride on the carts.

Initially the first three companies made good progress, but problems soon emerged with their hastily-made handcarts. They had wooden axles instead of iron, to save time and money, but the green unseasoned timber began to splinter and crack when subjected to hot days, cold nights and water. Sand and dirt also wore down the wood and repairs were almost a daily necessity.

When the level terrain of the prairies gave way to more rugged ground, the sheer physical effort of pulling a 500-pound load also took its toll, with many possessions discarded along the way. A few of the pilgrims gave up and turned back, or joined communities along the route, while some fell ill and died.  But most ploughed on, steadfast in their conviction they would make it.

Remarkably, they did, reaching Salt Lake City in late September and early October. There were only 27 deaths from the 815 pioneers in the first three companies, mainly the elderly or very young. Their success was seen as evidence that Brigham Young's plan could work, and between 1856 and 1860 more than 3,000 Handcart Pioneers made the gruelling journey west.

Sadly, not all the companies were as fortunate as those first three. The last two companies of 1856 set out dangerously late and were caught by heavy snow and severe cold in Wyoming. Despite rescue parties being sent out from Salt Lake City, more than 210 of the 980 pioneers in these two companies did not survive.

Hard lessons were learnt and subsequent companies had better planning and better equipment, including more durable handcarts with stronger iron axles. After 1860, when the church's finances had recovered, Mormon converts returned to more conventional covered wagons pulled by oxen, though some actually took longer than the Handcart Pioneers.

Today Salt Lake City remains at the centre of the Mormon religion established by Brigham Young, though less than half its population – estimated at approaching 1.2 million people – are active members of the Latter-day Saints Church. Re-enactments of the Handcart Pioneers' arduous journey remain a popular challenge for young church members, though help is only ever a mobile phone call away.

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