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The Handcart Trail Part 1

Posted in Events on March 1, 2013
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We have followed the Mormon Trail from Nauvoo, Illinois, to Winter Quarters, Nebraska, in the past two issues of this magazine. In 1846, Brigham Young and his followers used that part of the trail while on their way to settle the Salt Lake Valley in Utah. They chose to spend the winter in Winter Quarters and finish their journey in 1847. The trail continued to be used in following years by others who traveled to the valley. By 1856, the trail was well defined and a timetable for travel was established using Winter Quarters as a starting point. Four groups chose to ignore the warnings of others who said it was too late in the year to continue. Those four groups became a part of what history has recorded as the Handcart Disaster of 1856. Butch Cassidy’s grandparents and the girl who eventually became his mother were in one of those groups. This story covers their arrival in the U.S. and their journey to Winter Quarters.

Butch Cassidy’s name was fictitious, but it was the one he used most. His second most popular name was Jim Lowe, but he rarely used his real name, Robert LeRoy Parker. He shared the name Robert with both of his grandfathers. They were Robert Parker from England and Robert Gillies from Scotland.

Maxi Parker
Butch Cassidy’s grandparents, Robert and Ann Parker, were born in Lancashire, England, on May 29, 1820, and March 22, 1819, respectively. The two were courting when Robert joined the Mormon Church, and he convinced Ann to join with him and they were married in 1843. Their first child, Maxi, was born on June 8, 1844, and would eventually become the father of Robert LeRoy Parker.

Maxi exhibited a defiant trait that he would someday pass on to Butch Cassidy, his eldest son. That trait surfaced in Maxi when his father put him to work in the mill. Male children were expected to get a job at a very young age, and Maxi was 10 or 11. One day, he simply left the mill and refused to go back. In those days, such behavior was a disgrace to the entire family.

On March 22, 1856, Robert and Ann Parker boarded their family of six on a ship called the Enoch Train with more than 500 other Mormons. They arrived in Boston six weeks later, on May 23, where they boarded a train for Iowa City, Iowa. The tracks had been built to that point on January 1, and the Parkers reached the end of the track on May 12. Their names appear with those who joined the MacArthur Handcart Company and left Iowa City on June 11. The next 1,300 miles were made on foot, pulling a handcart behind them through the wilderness to the Salt Lake Valley. Other than losing their youngest son in the wilderness for a few days, nothing eventful happened during their journey. They arrived in the Salt Lake Valley on September 26.

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Anne Gillies
Butch Cassidy’s other grandparents, Robert and Jane Gillies, were from Scotland and joined the Mormon Church in England. Robert was a cabinetmaker by trade. On April 19, 1856, he and his wife Jane Gillies loaded their family of six on a ship named the S. Curling with 734 other Mormons. They docked in Boston on May 25, and, like the Parkers, boarded a train to get from Boston to Iowa City. Among their children was a 9-year-old girl named Annie. She had a long way to go before she would become the wife of Maxi Parker and eventually the mother of Robert LeRoy Parker.

U.S. Route 6 replaced about half of the original trail across Iowa, but there are still many miles of it that follow the unpaved roads through wide-open country.

Fast-forward 156 years to July 23, 2012, when we stood at the end of Webster Street a block north of Page Street on the south side of downtown Iowa City. In 1856, the railroad tracks ended at that point. The original depot is long gone and the tracks no longer end there.

The Gillies family stepped off the train at that depot. Nine-year old Anne Gillies had to be in awe of the hectic sight around her. It was a three-mile hike to the location where handcarts were being built for the journey. That site is now a historical park where you can find historical markers at the park and hiking trails along Clear Creek, but no remains of a camp that existed so long ago.

We used a base camp strategy to follow this trail. This motorhome is parked at a convenient location along the trail so several days can be spent in that area before moving on.

The Gillies family was not cash poor. We can make that assumption because they could afford to purchase a wagon and team for their journey rather than pulling a handcart. They were assigned to the Hodgett Wagon Train, which was ordered to stay behind and follow the Martin Handcart Company. The Martin Handcarts began leaving Iowa City on July 23. They only went a few miles before establishing a gathering point for the group to assemble and begin the journey.

After spending some time at the Mormon Handcart Park, we pulled out onto U.S. Route 6 and headed west using a book titled Emigrating Journals of the Willie and Martin Handcart Companies and the Hunt and Hodgett Wagon Trains, by Lynne Slater Turner. Specifically, we were following a journal in the book written by Jesse Haven, the leader of the Martin Handcart Company, also referred to as the 6th Handcart Company. We could not find a journal written by anyone in the Hodgett Wagon Train, but it was following close behind Haven’s group.

The current highway follows fairly close to the Handcart Trail all the way to Newton. The original trail leaves the paved roads near Newton and cuts across the backcountry most of the way to the site of Fort Des Moines. On August 7, the Martin Company crossed the toll bridge at Fort Des Moines and continued another four miles before making camp. At that time, the fort had already been abandoned for 10 years, but a small town had grown up around it. Today, Des Moines is the largest city in Iowa.

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We crossed a modern bridge on Allen Street and found that there was no turn into the site of Fort Des Moines, so a U-turn at the next light, 2nd Street, was required to gain access. Nothing of the fort remains, but one old building has a historical marker on its side declaring that location to be the birthplace of Des Moines.

From Des Moines, we followed the trail on back roads to Lewis, Iowa, where the handcarts from Iowa City had connected to the original Mormon Trail. In 1856, a new gristmill had been constructed to serve the thriving grain and livestock industry.

The rest of the trail to Winter Quarters in Nebraska was covered in the February issue of this magazine. The Martin Company arrived in Winter Quarters on August 19, while the Hodgett Wagon Train was still about 30 miles behind them at that time. The Willie Company had already left Winter Quarters, even though they were warned against going into the wilderness during the winter months. The Martin, Hodgett, and Hunt companies all received the same warning. Even so, they trudged forward and that decision cost many of them their lives. Anne Gillies was too young to understand the warnings, but the decision her parents supported took the lives of many other children in her age group. Join us next month as we pick up the trail in Winter Quarters and follow it across Nebraska on the way to the jaws of death awaiting the travelers in Wyoming.

This map shows the Handcart Trail from Iowa City and the Mormon Trail from Nauvoo. They merged in Lewis, Iowa.

We used numerous sources for this series, including: Emigrating Journals of the Willie and Martin Handcart Companies and the Hunt and Hodgett Wagon Train, written by Lynne Slater Turner; The Mormon Trail Revisited, written by Gregory M. Franzwa; and National Historic Trails and Mormon Pioneer Trail, published by the National Park Service. We also used numerous websites and gathered information from historical sites along the way. For additional information, visit or send an email to

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