(Re)living the Pioneer Past: Mormon Youth Handcart Trek Re-enactments
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Theatre Topics 16.2 (2006) 113-130

(Re)living the Pioneer Past:
Mormon Youth Handcart Trek Re-enactments

Almost directly in the center of the state of Wyoming lies Martin's Cove, the point where the Mormon Trail, the California Trail, the Oregon Trail, and the Pony Express route all converge. It is also the site where, in 1856, members of two Mormon Handcart Companies died when they were trapped en route to Salt Lake by an early and remarkably harsh winter. The death of these pioneers and the subsequent rescue effort sent from Utah Territory mark a seminal historical event in the formation of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS or Mormons). The land where the event took place has recently gained a similar important place in Mormon cultural imagination.

In 1997, the LDS Church opened The Mormon Handcart Visitors' Center at Martin's Cove. The Visitors' Center gives information about handcart pioneers, provides access to the cove where so many lost their lives, and encourages re-enactments of the event by providing handcarts that visitors are allowed to pull along the trails to Martin's Cove. The handcarts, modeled after the ones used by pioneers, are roughly the size of a small pick-up bed. Made of wood, they balance on two wheels and can carry about four hundred pounds of supplies. Church leaders in the intermountain West encourage youth to participate in organized recreations of a handcart trek, during which they wear pioneer clothes, carry all their supplies in handbags, and push handcarts while singing Mormon hymns. These treks generally are organized as "youth conferences," annual summer events where Mormon teenagers spend several days together in workshops, activities, dances, and religious meetings.

In July 2002, I participated as a "Ma" in just such an event. Our trek was a phenomenal organizational feat. Our local congregation bused three hundred participants to Wyoming, fed everyone for three days, and kept us occupied with devotionals, games, sightseeing activities, lectures, and testimony meetings. I was responsible, with another Ma, for a "family" of nine (five young women ages fourteen to eighteen and four young men ages twelve to eighteen). I also was in a unique position to examine the implications of re-enactment, from my experiences as a practicing member of the Church and through the critical lens of my work as a theatre scholar. Over the three-day period, we performed as a pioneer family: wearing period clothing, following a camp leader, and pulling a handcart over fifteen miles (fig. 1). Throughout this trek, and others like it, the carefully scripted event and design elements instill a legacy in Mormon youth participants as they join a community of pioneers from the historical past.

Most religions have a history of founding leaders, heroes, or saints, but history and genealogy play a special role in the LDS faith. One of the missions of the Church is a call to "redeem the dead." 1 For Mormons, this mission is accomplished through a variety of means: maintenance of personal journals, extensive genealogical research, a curriculum that focuses on Church history, and performance events and re-enactments that teach about LDS heritage. Even more integral to this mission is the practice of providing church ordinances, such as baptism or marriage, for ancestors who have passed on through special proxy ceremonies performed in LDS temples. For Mormons, identifying with the past is not just an educational enterprise, but a doctrinal imperative. Youth handcart treks therefore function to teach teenagers about the past and to encourage them to fulfill their responsibilities toward their ancestors as part of their commitment to the Church. My analysis [End Page 113] of handcart treks, such as the one I participated in, provides a narrowly focused study of an American religious performance that intersects with living history museum programs, community-based theatre, and daily practice. It provides one example of a growing number of memorial performances that engage in complex formations of identity and ideology.

My 'family' poses after crossing the Sweetwater River. The young woman immediately to the right of center is clutching our 'baby,' Petunia, who required care throughout the trek. Our family was fortunate; Petunia didn't die of hypothermia, starvation, or a fever. Other families weren't so blessed and lost their babies along the way. Photo: Megan Sanborn Jones.
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