Full of hope and having absolute trust in their prophets, 600 Mormons left Iowa in 1856 for their promised land in Utah. Many who had gone before had uneventful journeys. But those in this congregation were lucky to reach Zion alive.
Based on the Martin Handcart Company transmigration, historian and novelist Sandra Dallas’ new book, True Sisters, tells the gripping tale of this fateful group of emigrants.
They started late, not leaving Iowa City until the end of July. It was doubtful that they would reach Zion before the winter blanketed the mountains. But they had supreme faith that they were God’s chosen people and would be kept safe. Under direction of their leaders, they made handcarts to pull across the heartland prairies and the rugged terrain of the west.
Previous handcart makers had used up all of the dry wood, resigning the Martin Company to use green wood, which is far more susceptible to breakage. The prophets had not promised them an easy trip – sacrifice was part and parcel of the religion – but the suffering experienced by the Martin Company exceeded what most people could endure.
Dallas tells this account through the perspective of the women emigrants. Among them, Jessie, a strong and self-determined women, shares equal footing and equal work with her two brothers she is traveling with.
Louisa believes her husband is next to God and does not doubt him, even after he starts making some reckless decisions. Nannie, having been stood-up at the alter, joins her sister and brother-in-law as they piously make their trek to Zion. Anne is along on this trip under duress. It is her husband who has converted to Mormonism, not her. He sold their business, the one that he had inherited from her father, gave almost all of their money to the church and threatened to take their children with him to America, leaving her alone and penniless in England.
During the 1,300-mile journey, the women see their children die from sickness, accidents, freezing conditions, and starvation. Some women become widows, some women die. Surviving children become orphans. Almost whole families are wiped out. When difficulties begin, the elders explain that they are being tested by God and that only the faithful will be spared. Anyone who suffers along the way is deemed to be an apostate. Leaving Iowa with blind faith, the pioneers will develop major doubts about their religion, prophets, leaders, spouses and themselves by the time they reach the Salt Lake Valley.
If the physical hardships are not abomination enough, the women, being recent converts and having come from Europe, begin learning about polygamy. During the time of the migration, "celestial marriage" and obedience to one’s husband are tenets of the Mormon religion. The women in the story have few options, but they have grit. They also find sisterhood with each other, for it is to each other that they turn to for medical help, solace and companionship and strength.
True Sisters is an engaging story of survival. As with many of her other books, Dallas leaves the reader with an understanding of the importance of female friendships. Without each other, far more of the women would have died in route to their promised land.
About the Author
Pam Jenkins is Manager of the H&R Block Business and Career Center in the Kansas City Public Library. Her reading practices can be eclectic.