Mormon trek tests strength and courage on Jericho Trail
If you happened to be driving through the Francis Marion Forest Thursday, April 4 or the following Friday or Saturday, you may have seen something that made you doubt your eyesight: teenagers dressed in pioneer garb emerging from the forest pulling 400-pound handcarts across a paved highway.
Yes, 21st century girls were wearing cotton bonnets and floor-length cotton dresses with bloomers underneath. Boys donned straw hats, overalls, and, of course, the requisite bandanas.
If you chose to follow this anachronistic spectacle, you would have learned that the 122 teenagers and almost half that many adults walked 19 miles along the South Carolina’s Jericho Trail — in the rain.
Why? To re-enact a Mormon migration, a migration that began in Nauvoo, Ill in 1846 and ended 1,300 miles later in Salt Lake City, Utah.
The first wave of 19th century Mormon pioneers started the trek west to flee persecution from hostile neighbors and politicians. But they weren’t just running from danger; they were following a dream that they could find a place to flourish and practice their religion.
The journey lasted up to a year and was taken by about 70,000 men, women and children between 1847 and 1868. Violent mobs, starvation, disease, attacks from Indians, and extreme weather stole the lives of nearly one in 20.
None of the Lowcountry re-enactors lost their lives, but their short journey was not without incident.
One girl got entangled in a briar patch and another was run over by a handcart. One adult nearly passed out from a kidney stone and another took a heroic leap into a five-foot deep “puddle” to keep a handcart from falling into the mire.
Within hours of beginning the simulation, everyone’s clothes were wet and caked with mud. Food was meager: a clementine, a stick of beef jerky, and a couple of saltine crackers for lunch. The youth, divided into families of 10 children with a “Ma” and “Pa,” slept in canvas tents and lean-tos atop roots, rocks, and holes.
Re-enactments of hardships and crises faced by the pioneers began in the first hour when they were driven into the forest in a cold drizzle by a mob bearing guns and clubs. Other re-enactments included an encounter with the “angel of death,” the death of an infant, a ferry crossing, and a rescue by pioneers who had blazed the trail in better weather.
These South Carolina pioneers did not have their eyes on a western utopia, nor were they feeling persecution.
Pennye Hallam of Mt. Pleasant was the coordinator of the re-enactment.
“The vision from the beginning was to help kids think beyond themselves and gain a greater appreciation of their heritage, family and church,” she said. “They need to understand what hardships their ancestors endured and face physical and personal challenges that build character and testimony.”
One participant confessed that she often complains at home when she’s asked to help out. She explained, “Now that I have an understanding of what the pioneers went through, I’ve asked myself why I complain.”
Another said, “As I pulled the handcart, I felt cold on the outside but warm on the inside.”
Many shared that the experience helped them appreciate the sacrifices that the pioneers endured and the strength of the religious beliefs that empowered them. Buoyed by the faith of their forefathers and foremothers, many of the teenagers shared that their confidence, religious convictions, commitment to teamwork, and gratitude for their families grew with each bump in the road and drop of rain.
The next trek will take place four years from now. In April 2017 if you happen upon a handcart in the Francis Marion, rest assured you’re not crazy and neither are the people dressed up in sunbonnets.