Full Chisel Blog

January 21, 2009

Handcart 1856

Filed under: Historical Material,Of Interest,Techniques,Uncategorized — Stephen Shepherd @ 3:03 pm

The following text is from Hand Carts to Zion by the Hafens.  Most of it is a footnote.




“The open handcart was made of Iowa hickory or oak, the shafts and side pieces of the same material, but the axles generally of hickory. In length the side pieces and shafts were about six or seven feet, with three or four binding cross bars from the back part to the fore part of the body of the cart; then two or three feet space from the latter bar to the front bar…

“The carts were the usual width of the wide track wagon. Across the bars of the bed of the cart we generally sewed a strip of bed ticking or a counterpane [bed sheet]. On this wooden cart of a thimbleless axle, with about a 2 1/2 inch shoulder and one inch point, were often loaded 400 or 500 pounds of flour, bedding, extra clothing, cooking utensils and a tent. How the flimsy Yankee hickory structure held up the load for hundreds of miles has been a wonder to us since then.” Josiah Rogerson, in the Salt Lake Tribune, Jan. 4, 1914 as quoted in Handcarts to Zion p. 54 – 55.





(footnote 1, p.53)

Upon being requested for suggestions relative to the construction of handcarts, C.R. Dana wrote to F.D. Richards from Manchester, England, on Feb. 7, 1856: “Supposing that a suitable person should be sent to the Iowa for that purpose, he should in the first place eek out some good timber adjacent to a saw mill, and near the outfitting point.  He should select hickory for axle-trees, red or slippery elm for hubs, white oak for spokes and rims to the wheels, white ash for fills or shafts, and for making cribbs or beds.  I am of the opinion that the axle-trees should be sawed two and a half by three and a half inches.

            “The oak for the rims should be sawed into boards about three quarters of an inch thick, and ripped into strips three inches wide, or two and a half might possibly do.  The timber for them should grow on low ground, as that kind is much easier to bend, and very tough.  The axle-trees, hubbs, and spokes should be first prepared, so that they could have time to season.

            “When the hubbs are prepared, the spokes driven and tenoned, the rims should then be mortised, or bored, to receive the spokes.  The inside corners of the rims should also be rounded off to prevent the sand from gathering and remaining on them…I am confident that carts could be cuilt that would be substantial, light, and easy to draw; and I will venture to say that they need not cost more than four or five dollars each; for there would be no necessity for any planing, or any polishing, only the arms or spindles at the axle-trees, and a very little about the shafts.”  Millennial Star, XVIII (1856) 127-28.

            The carts of the Fourth and the Fifth companies were made in great haste, due to the lateness of the season.  John Chislett, who came in the Fourth Company, says of their construction:

            They had to be made on the camp-ground.  They were made in a hurry, some of them of very insufficiently seasoned timber, and strength was sacrificed to weight until the production was a fragile structure, with nothing to recommend it but lightness.  They were generally made of two parallel hickory or oak sticks, about five feet long, and two by one and a half inches thick.  These were connected by one cross-piece at one end to serve as a handle, and three or four similar pieces nearly a foot apart, commencing at the other end, to serve as the bed of the cart, under the centre of which was fastened a wooden axle-tree, without iron skeins.  A pair of light wheels, devoid of iron, except a very light iron tire, completed the “divine” handcart.  Its weight was somewhere near sixty pound.”-“Mr. Chislett’s Narrative,” in T.B.H. Stenhouse, The Rocky Mountain Saints (New York, 1873), 314.




Hafen, LeRoy R. and Ann W. Hafen, Handcarts to Zion.  Glendale, CA: The Arthur H. Clark Company, 1960.

This is my take on the handcart from the description.


I think I got it right.



  1. So cool! I could use one. Now I have another item in my need to make list! That list is growing way too fast. Thank you for taking the time to publish this for us!

    This one looks to be a fairly steep learning curve as well.


    Comment by Bob Strawn — January 21, 2009 @ 6:22 pm

  2. Very timely Stephen, and as always, very interesting.

    Early this spring, I’ll be helping a blacksmith install steel hoops on to wheels he has made for a gun carriage.

    I’ll be looking for the similarities and the differences from what you have illustrated.

    Comment by Terry in Ottawa — January 22, 2009 @ 6:24 am

  3. Having had relatives who used handcarts in 1856, it is very interesting to know such details on the woods used and general construction. That’s a great drawing, by the way.

    Comment by Don Richards — January 24, 2009 @ 9:45 pm

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