The tidal wave of humanity that swept West with the California gold rush crested in 1850 when about 50,000 people crossed the plains.
One of them, William Bedford Temple of Carroll County, Ark., described the astonishing parade to his wife. The gold-crazed pioneers had "all kinds of ways of going, some in carts, some afoot," Temple noted. Perhaps the oddest sight was "three large stout men with a wheelbarrow, no joke."
"The Man with the Wheelbarrow" achieved legendary status. Tales of these pushcart pioneers (there must have been at least six of them) indicate most of them gave up not long after they started.
Warren Hough heard of a man at Fort Laramie in 1850 who "had out-traveled all the teams" and wanted to find a pack train "so as to have company." At the end of May, D.A. Millington reported, "There was a man who had rolled a wheelbarrow" all the way to Yellow Creek on the Utah-Wyoming border.
"Here he had broken it and left it, having got in with a wagon, and we sacrilegiously made fire of the wheelbarrow to cook our supper."
That fall, Mathew Dalton ran into a gold seeker pushing a wheelbarrow near today's Willard, Utah.
Two years later, Norwegian overlander Tosten Stab3/4k saw two men from Illinois who had a handcart "calculated to carry 200 pounds. One of the men pulled it, and the other pushed from behind," traveling as far and as fast as the rest of the emigrants.
At Laramie the men hired a wagon to haul their goods "and left their handcart standing by the roadside."
A man started out from St. Joseph, Mo., in 1849 "with a wheelbarrow to cross the plains. He had a bushel of parched corn, his blankets and nothing else," Forty-niner Charles Ferguson recalled. The man "wheeled it manfully" for several days but gave out, he reported.
"I have several times heard of a man crossing the continent with a wheelbarrow," Ferguson wrote, "but I don't believe it was ever accomplished. There are so many sand dunes, so many rivers to cross, besides deep and terrible gorges to traverse, and two ranges of mighty mountains to ascend and descend, that it seems to me impossible."
Ferguson was right about how tough it was to get to California, but he was wrong about the failure of transcontinental wheelbarrowing.
James Gordon Brookmire, an Ulster Scot who came to America in 1831, did it. At age 40, Brookmire sold 50 acres to raise cash and left a wife and six children behind in Pennsylvania. He started out with a band of Kentuckians, but switched to a wheelbarrow at Fort Kearny, Neb. Traveling with a faithful dog, Brookmire was struck by lightning in the Rocky Mountains. He lost his wheelbarrow and almost drowned trying to cross Utah's Weber River, but he pressed on with a new vehicle and reached Hangtown and the gold fields that fall.
Many gold rushers died broke, but in April 1852 the Alta California reported that Brookmire, "who is said to have crossed the Plains on foot, carrying his provender and traps in a wheelbarrow, has returned home with $15,000 in dust, the fruits of his own digging."
Brookmire lived happily ever after. He returned to his family, invested his fortune, educated his children and died at age 90.
Less happily, the wheelbarrow men inspired the Mormon handcart experiment that sought to "Push the Saints to Zion."
The 1856 handcart disaster resulted in more than 200 deaths, the costliest human toll in overland trails history.
Will Bagley learned details of Brookmire's life from historian Morris Werner of Nashville, Tenn.