Pioneer trek experiences are not a full-bore historic reenactment. Instead, they’re an attempt to create an environment that removes us from everyday life just a bit, and opens us up to new experiences and inspiration.
However, we’re using the historical facts of other peoples’ lives to do it, and that deserves a certain (fairly high) level of respect and historical integrity. These were, after all, real and living people. Their experiences were not jokes, farce, or make-believe!
Keeping in mind that the handcart scheme encompassed only a few years of the Saints’ emigration (1856 to 1860, as compared to the Exodus and Emigration period that most consider beginning with the Nauvoo evacuation in 1846 and changes dramatically in 1869 with the completion of the Trans-Continental Railroad), and quite a small percentage of the total emigrating population (about 3K out of 70K from 1846 to 1869, or less than 5%) here are some elements to reconsider:
The basis for the Women’s Pull pre-dates the handcart era by a full decade, and relates to the exodus from Nauvoo and very early emigration to Utah, when men volunteered for paid service in the Mormon Battalion during the war with Mexico. Their advance pay provided funds for needed supplies to get those who were evacuating Nauvoo a little more comfortable while they prepared to emigrate to the intermountain West.
Generally what happens is that men and boys on the Trek experience step away, and the women and girls pull the carts up a decently-steep hill. It can be very emotional, but it’s engineered emotion, not necessarily “The Spirit”, and it’s usually accompanied by some seriously manipulative emotional stories to prep the engineered experience.
Historically, only a very few of the men among the evacuees participated in the Mormon Battalion: 512 total (there were about 640 people involved with the Battallion, including women, children, and babies born along the way). That’s 512 men out of as many as upwards of 16,000 Saints in the Nauvoo region in the mid-1840s. (Hint: that left a lot of men and older boys to go along with the migration of the main bodies of the Saints… the full Battallion population of 638 souls is less than 4% of the total population of LDS in the region.)
The Pull gets a lot less impressive, but far more historically accurate, when 4 of every 100 men on the Trek experience stands aside, and the rest help the women pull the carts.
April 3, 1860 to October 24, 1861.
That’s the grand span of the Pony Express. It overlaps the Handcart era by approximately five months (April to October 1860, the “emigration window” for Saints in 1860; by the same window in 1861, the Pony Express was still in operation, but the Church had ceased the handcart plan.)
Often, Trek experiences have “the Pony Express” deliver letters from parents to the youth on Trek, full of encouragement or spiritual messages.
To give a more rich sense of history and the experience of the actual handcart Saints, those chosen for Pony Express delivery need to be young and small (not more than 125 pounds, by Pony Express company regulations.) Parents need to be willing to shell out for the privilege, too: letters transmitted by the Express cost $5 (in 1860 dollars) per half-ounce. That’s the equivalent of $131 per half-ounce in 2014 US dollars. For a full one-ounce letter (what you can mail today for under 50 cents), a parent would spend $232 in 1860. (That same $232 is the equivalent of 22 weeks’ wages for a skilled carpenter in 1860.) (You can find the formula for calculating dollar value here.)
(Here are some really snazzy images of known Pony Express postmarks. Not all would be applicable to Trek mail packets… the May 22 St Joseph images only work from May 23 to about May 27 each year, for instance, and the July 3 St Joseph mark would work for Treks taking place between July 5 and July 12. The Express really was expressed–10 days from St Joseph to California.)
Having mail delivered is a fine and good thing; just have it delivered by horse, and not by The Pony Express. Noting letter received or sent along the emigration trail is common enough in both LDS and non-LDS diaries. The excitement and anticipation of hearing news from home is plenty, with regular, non-Pony-Express mail delivery.
Using carefully-researched historical elements can be highly effective; we just need to be careful to set up a truthful environment, and trust that each person will learn what it most important for them to learn–even if that is very different from what we ourselves feel and understand!
Even though Trek is not a full-bore immersion history reenactment, you can utilize the functional clothing systems of the past to keep participants safer, healthier, and more comfortable.
In the Pioneer Pack section, you’ll find some helpful articles you can download, print, and share; or find the blog posts on Dressing here: Why Dress Like a Pioneer; How to Dress Like a Pioneer Man (or Boy); How to Dress Like a Pioneer Woman; How to Dress Like a Pioneer Girl, and How to Choose Pioneer Patterns. In the Pioneer Pack section, you’ll also find some free projects to get basic, needful clothing items made with actual historic shapes and techniques.
In the Pioneer Patterns article, some pattern lines need to be updated for 2015. Here’s a quick run-down of what’s reasonable to use. If it’s not on the list, there’s a reason! These chain-store-available Big 3 pattern publishers don’t generally publish fully accurate historic patterns, so the list includes styles that make for a Reasonable Historic Flavor, not full-out historic authenticity. They include Halloween costumes that are plausible for the 1850s, as well as non-dated patterns that might be adapted.
As always, use these patterns with 100% natural fibers only: light to medium-weight worsted wools, and light to medium-weight woven cottons predominantly, with some limited use of linen, and rarely silk.
With all of these Big 3 patterns, please wait for a $2 sale at a chain store. They have limited functionality in most cases, and paying $10 per family for them is not a good value. Before purchasing any of these on sale, look at the free patterns on this website, and other options for historical clothing. The Trek 2015 board on Pinterest has original images, original garments, and project links to help you.
Men & Boys
Simplicity 2895: Men’s Frock, Vest, and Shirt: of all the items, the shirt is the only one that’s plausible for the 1850s. The rest are more 1870s. However, it’s one of the only Big 3 patterns that even approximates a frock coat, and a large majority of young and grown men in the 1850s would own a good wool frock as their Sunday Best; many emigrated in the clothing they regularly owned.
Simplicity 4762: Men’s & Boy’s Vests: This is not historic shaping; vests of the period had collars that went all the way around the back of the neck, and didn’t generally have the pointed fronts. This will be plausible if the length is adjusted to come to the historic waist level (natural waist), and not be overly extended to meet modern trouser waists. (Period trouser waists sit at the true natural waist, very close to the bottom of the floating ribs.)
Burda 2767: “1848” Menswear: This is not fully historic shaping, but if the View A coat is done in good wool and fitted very closely to the body (it’s about two sizes to large on the model! Use period images from our Trek Pinterest set for a visual on the Real Thing), it’s at least plausible. The narrow-fall trousers are Quite Outdated for the late 40s, and even more so by the mid-50s (Trek Era), so skip that–a normal fly front, with buttons instead of a zipper, is more accurate.
Burda 7799: Men’s Vests: Again, not historic clothing (sensing a trend?), but the View A and B attention to a nice close fit, and plenty of buttons down the front, both conform to a more period style.
McCalls 7003: Men’s Costume: Not Historic–primarily in that the shapes are not fully historic, and the trousers are too short in the rise, making the vest too long for historic lines as well. If the trouser rise is moved higher, and the vest shortened in the body, it does have the full collar style that suits for the 1850s. Be sure to fit the body of the vest and coat well; wool is very common for the coat.
Women & Girls
In general, one-piece dresses in one fabric have the best historical flavor, and are the most comfortable to wear and move in. Go for a fitted look in the waist, at the anatomical waist, or the weight of the necessarily-full skirts will pull badly on the lower back.
Simplicity 2890: Corset, Chemise, and Drawers: These are actual historic shapes. The corset needs to be very specifically fitted to the individual figure to be safe during Trek, but it will also make a huge positive difference in comfort and back support!
Simplicity 9769: Corset, Chemise, and Drawers: Another with actual historic shapes, and the same notes as above. This corset is all shaped seams, and is quite simple for an intermediate sewist to adjust properly for individual figures.
Simplicity 3732: “Pilgrim” Dress: Make dress View B neckline (jewel neck), View A sleeve, removing all trim from both. Add another panel in the skirt for anyone over the age of 10 (this one is comically narrow without more), and hem to lower calf for teenagers, top of foot for women. Skip all the odd platter collars, skirt overlays, caps, etc. The sunbonnet is non-functional; don’t bother. Same notes on the children’s pattern version, 3725.
Butterick 5831: Dress & Petticoat: The dress is actually quite decent for the mid-century shaping. There’s no need for sew-in interfacing in any portion of it, and make the petticoat plain at the hem, with gathers at the waist. Be sure you’re using at least three full-widths of fabric for the dress skirt and petticoat. Cut all the skirts shorter, lower-calf length, for teenage girls. Refer to the Pioneer Pack projects for how to measure for the skirts you personally need.
Functional clothing is so important for safe and comfortable trekking! Please put thought into the shapes you’re using, and take good advice from those who’ve used actual historic systems of clothing: the original Pioneers were not foolish, and their clothing systems really do work! Make use of vital aspects of that system to enhance a Trek experience.
It’s my personal opinion that there’s so much to be gained from creating your own historic clothing for living history and family history use, and for Trek experiences, but sometimes, it’s nice to have a few ready-to-wear resources. Recently, Deseret Book debuted a new line called “Historic Zion’s Mercantile” with a small range of items intended for trek use, sold through the stores and on-line.
Unfortunately, there are some significant problems with the products (largely to do with historic research and modern safety), and it’s important to be aware before investing in anything. I cannot recommend the Zion’s Mercantile products in general, with a few exceptions I’ll note with the individual items below.
For the Women & Girls
“Pioneer” Skirts: One significant drawback to the skirts is their width. At barely more than 70″ around, they do not begin to approach the fullness used by women and girls in the mid-19th century. This is not just a style issue; these narrow skirts prevent a person from taking a full, deep stride, and present a safety hazard in typical outdoor settings with variable terrain.
While the skirts are 100% cotton, the prints chosen are monochromatic in an era of great color and vibrancy. Only three choices in print make the trail a very boring sight, particularly in the face of the dozens of wonderful reproduced prints available for this era from quilting fabric lines.
The skirts have a very narrow turned hem, which lacks body, causing the skirt to wrap between the legs during movement. There is no length noted for “calf-length”; as this measurement varies from person to person, skirts will be either too short or too long for most people (and too long, at these narrow circumferences, increases safety hazards). Measured on my 5’5″ teenager, the skirt barely hit upper calf, making it slightly too short for the historical styles appropriate to her age, and definitely too short for adult use.
The skirts do have an in-seam pocket (a feature commonly seen in historic dresses), but the pocket opening is very small, and the pocket bag has squared corners. Squared corners are rarely seen in historic dress pockets, as they decrease the utility of the pocket; items small and even large are apt to hide in the corners.
The skirt waistband is a bulky elastic-and-drawstring arrangement found in modern track suits. Though the skirts are too slim for mid-century use, this waistband adds a sturdy inch or two around the waist. Compared to a comfortably-fitted buttoning band, this is a distinct down-grade. The skirts will be unsuitable for generous figures, as well.
As to price, you could spend the same money and an hour of time sewing a skirt from colorful, accurate cotton print, using free resources here, and get a safer, more attractive, more comfortable, more accurate result.
Sunbonnets: Though marketed as “functional and pretty”, the Zion’s Mercantile sunbonnet meets only the latter of these descriptors. The brim does not project forward far enough, or run deep enough down the sides of the face, to provide good sun protection; the back curtain is a scant 3″ long, which bares most of the neck to the sun as well.
Because the back neck area employs elastic, rather than stable, adjustable ties or tape (with or without a casing; there are many bonnet styles at mid-century), the bonnet lacks flexibility for increasing or decreasing sun exposure, the way a period bonnet does. The elastic will always default to “no tension”, pulling the bonnet toward the back of the head. When the ties are tied beneath the chin, this elastic tension produces a choking sensation.
The use of dark-dyed fabrics for sunbonnets is problematic, as the darker colors absorb radiant heat more than lighter prints.
A second style of sunbonnet, just as non-functional for shading as the main style, was on the shelves of our local store, sized for tiny girls. Reserve these for indoor dress-up, rather than outdoor situations where actual sun protection is required.
Even without a special sale on reproduction-quality fabric, a simple, fully-accurate, fully-adjustable bonnet with excellent sun protection can be made at home for about half the cost of the ready-made, in less than an hour (and it can be cute, too).
Aprons: The textile choices in aprons expand to four, with the inclusion of unbleached muslin (in the mid-19th century period, unbleached cloth is rarely used outside of factory and mill applications, such as for sacks of feed; white, bleached cotton is more appropriate.) The aprons have a similarly scant hem to the skirts, and are a bit slim on fullness compared to mid-century aprons. With these flaws considered, this is possibly the most functional item in the entire line.
If budget is a concern, the same apron can be made for less with free patterns in the Pioneer Pack portion of this site.
For the Men & Boys
“Felt” Hat: Though the $5 cost is attractive, this faux-felt covered plastic hat is inappropriate for safe outdoor use.
Wool Felt Hat: Felt hats in the mid-19th century were made in fur felt, and used radically different construction techniques than this imported pressed wool felt option. The overall shape is not at a distracting level of inaccuracy, and the $30 price is commensurate with the apparent quality of the hat. It will be important to change out the decorative hat band, to avoid grabbing someone else’s identical hat after the dance!
Straw Hat: Straw is cooler than pressed wool felt, and the $14 price point is low. However, the brim is very wavy in the product picture, and lacks a stable, finished edge that will give the hat a lifespan of longer that one cloudburst. The brim is wide enough for sun coverage, which is good.
“Pioneer” Shirt: Though the description says this shirt has a “mock” collar, it is actually a band collar. This is a thoroughly modern shirt style in a low-grade fabric (unbleached muslin) that will show every speck of grime and dust during a trek. Any youth or adult will be better served by a thrifted shirting print, plain white, or plaid button-down shirt at 1/3 the cost.
“Frontier” Shirt: In an unbleached muslin of a quality certain to go limp when washed, this shirt lacks the styling of any mid-century shirt. Button-and-loop closures are non-historic for the pioneer era, as is the shallow front placket and very slender sleeve.
“Possibles” Bag or “Satchel”: Apparently intended to hold personal items (most of which are better stowed in skirt pockets, trouser pockets, or the handcart), this very small strapped bag is one thin layer of cotton, with a folded fabric strap. Because the bag lacks structure and stability, items stored in it will, in very short order, pull down on the strap. It has insufficient structure to comfortably carry a standard clear plastic water bottle. If needed personal items cannot be streamlined to fit in dress or trouser pockets, consider constructing a simple bag of sturdy canvas.
This item seems to be very loosely based on the Fur Trade Era leather accoutrements of some mountain men, and is not an item I’ve found mentioned by Utah emigrants. Mid-19th century luggage pieces termed “satchel” tend to be in the shape that we might now call a “doctor’s bag”, with functional metal hardware, hinged top, and a very definite structure. Other “satchel” styles looked much like structured leather messenger bags, with additional leather straps and buckles to close it. The single-layer cotton item for sale lacks features in line with both Fur Trade Era possibles bags and mid-century leather satchels.
Bandanas: These are standard modern paisley bandanas in multiple colors. While they lack authentic period styling for neckerchiefs, they do have some measure of utility for sun protection around the neckline, and sweat/body oil absorption.
“Neck Coolers”: With moisture-holding beads sewn inside, these are a 100% modern item to promote some level of evaporative cooling. In the 19th century, pioneers accomplished the same thing with a dampened linen neckcloth and a breeze created by their own motion or the wind.
Journals: The journals should be classed as souvenir items only. The plain brown and logo journals have a modern spiral binding inside, with little room for writing or sketching. The closure snap is also completely modern, as is the ballpoint pen sold with each.
The leather journal does feature a true sewn-signature spine; the leather cover is what could be called “primitive” rather than historically-styled. The “twig” pencil sold with the more expensive leather journal is an example of mistaking the past for “rustic”; manufactured lead pencils of the mid-century were made in the same way modern pencils are made, with a bead of lead laid in a groove between two halves of a wooden cylinder, then glued and sanded. A plain wooden pencil of modern manufacture, with the ferrule and eraser removed, would be far more accurate to the pioneer era, which arose nearly a full century into the Industrial Revolution.
Bracelets: Again, these are souvenir only; they may be interesting memorabilia, but they are not historic in nature, which may be a consideration in meeting your trek goals.
Personal Care Items: For treks longer than 4 hours, you will need more sunscreen than is provided in the $2 bottle; a better plan is to bring large bottles and tubes of unscented sunblock from home. Please note that using hand sanitizer instead of washing with water can exacerbate sun-sensitivity in many people, and lead to sunburn even with sunblock use. Lip balm of equal “accuracy” (that is, fully modern in composition and container) is generally 98 cents a tube, retail, rather than double that.
Dishware and Utensils: the heavy use of enamelware dishes comes somewhat after the classic “Pioneer” era (1847 to the completion of the Trans-Continental Railroad in 1869), but these pieces are inexpensive and not as obtrusive as blue speckle-ware. The utensil set is comparable to any backpacking utensil set: quite modern, but could be useful in this situation. The prices are reasonable, but thrift stores will yield metal pie plates, stoneware mugs, china teacups, and plated silverware more reminiscent of what the pioneers actually used, at sometimes lower prices, too (or, bring things from home.)
One Last Note
Finally, I find it frustrating that the name “Zion’s Mercantile”, which originally referred to the goods available through the hard work and productivity of those early Saints in Deseret, is being used for a line of items made overseas. The whole purpose of Zion’s Mercantile was to provide a fair exchange of goods and services within the boundaries of Zion during the settlement and growth of the Utah region. By using overseas manufacture, the owners of this line are at great risk of supporting the miserable and unsafe factory systems that prey upon the powerless and poor in many parts of the world (the recent tragedy of the garment factory collapse in Indonesia is not an isolated or rare incident!)—the polar opposite of the goals of the truly historic cooperative enterprise.
What you choose in your own preparations remains your decision; please carefully consider whether this particular set of ready-made options is really appropriate for you.
For a printable PDF of this article, click Overlander Foods .
When planning meals for a trek experience, keeping some key concepts in mind can enhance the experience for all. Focusing on historic food items that are pleasing to the modern palate, you add another dimension to the trek experience.
First on the list is good flavor! You’ll want to plan menu items that taste good, andare familiar enough to satisfy the taste buds without upsetting the digestive tract. Beans for breakfast, lunch, and dinner may be one historic option, but the sudden addition can be traumatic to the digestive system of many! Plan tasty, fairly-familiar dishes.
The trek experience generally involves a lot of physical exertion, and in some very challenging climates. Hot weather plus exertion can cause a person to work through their nutrients and electrolytes more quickly than they otherwise would. Rather than falling back on chemical preparations, plan foods that help replenish the body. You’ll cut down on the gear burden, and improve health. Continue reading
For a printable copy of this article, including suggested clothing charts, click Why Dress Like a Pioneer.
During the mid-19th century, members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints dressed very much like their non-LDS counterparts. Their lives, too, were very much like any other life of similar location and livelihood. Their personal tests and trials may have been different from our own today, but there are many similarities, and much we can learn from their tragedies and triumphs, and most particularly, from their faith.
Dressing in historic clothing is one way to form an immediate connection to the past. When we take on their clothing, we get a better feel for the physical conditions of their lives. We step outside our own known world, and enter theirs, for just awhile, setting aside our daily worries and distractions. We can have some wonderful “time travel” moments, when it feels as though the veil is very thin, and our pioneer friends are standing right beside us, encouraging us in our personal journeys.
Not everyone wants to play pretend to the same degree of immersion, however. This dressing plan allows for multiple stages of historic clothing, from the basic flavor of the past, to a fully authentic wardrobe. By setting an expectation of participation at the basic level or above, a variety of personal preferences and budgets can be accommodated without compromising the “time travel” moments of those who prefer a more immersive experience. Continue reading
For a printable version of this article, click Preparing for Your Trek.
Handcart Trek experiences can be among the most formative of your life! Pulled out of your everyday routines, and living out of doors for a few days, you’ll find yourself more open to the Spirit. The connections to our past, and the real stories of life and struggle and joy of our ancestors, are tremendously valuable aspects of the Trek.
As with any big experience, there are important physical and mental preparations you’ll want to undertake, to help you get the most from your time in the past. Continue reading