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Man follows ancestors’ Mormon journey

BY ZHI XIONG | MAY 04, 2009 7:30 AM

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Jesse and Mary Griffen left behind a destitute life in England. Seeking religious and material relief in the West, the train took them, along with 148 other Mormon immigrants, from Boston to Iowa City.

In 1857, this was the end of the railroad. And this is where their great-great-great grandson, Kent Steinke, picked up the journey at 5 a.m. today.

“A knowledge of history — one with value instead of a neutral, objective history — can help us find a place in the world we’re all seeking,” the 35-year-old said.

Steinke is not a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. After the Griffens, most of his family has been Methodist, and Steinke attended seminary school in Dubuque and in Kentucky. But, harboring an intense interest in the Mormons as an ethnic group, the Nebraska native has planned for years to recreate their travels.

“It was just a matter of time,” said his wife, Jackie Steinke. The 42-year-old joined her husband in Iowa City, unable to take a month off work. “He’s so into his family history, especially the Griffens.”
Kent Steinke, a nurse assistant for patients with Alzheimer’s disease, spent thousands of dollars preparing for his trip. He started April 22 in Boston and plans to end in Omaha, where his ancestors settled. Along the way, he has made every stop first by train — as the immigrants did 152 years ago.
He was able to recreate the trip thanks to Jesse Griffen, who kept meticulous notes of their voyage. Steinke inherited the diary from his grandmother.

Arriving in Iowa City April 29, Steinke set up a tent in the Mormon Handcart Park. The UI owns the Hawkeye Apartments just behind the park’s edges and helped preserve the historic and religious site; Steinke said he received university officials’ permission to camp there.

During the day, he went to the Main Library, the Old Capitol Museum and the state Historical Society to learn more about his heritage.

Unlike iconic pioneers, the handcart travelers were too poor to afford oxen or horse-drawn covered wagons. They took the train as far as they could with financial help from other Mormon settlers, who were waiting for them in Utah. From Iowa City, they continued on foot the rest of the way.

Delayed by rain and logistics with the handcarts, they camped in the cold and chill for weeks in the woods now named after them, the Mormon Handcart Park.

On Sunday evening, Steinke was in a similar predicament. His cart had not yet arrived from Cedar Rapids by dinnertime on Sunday, but he said it would arrive early this morning. To experience frontier fare, Steinke ate mostly bread and smoked bacon, cooked in a squat, heavy Dutch oven.
Sunday night saw him to a Mormon family’s home for dinner, however.

“[His journey] is admirable and adventurous,” said Scott Gill, the host. “I’d like to say I would do the same, but I’m not sure I could.”

From Iowa City, Steinke could get to Omaha by car in six hours. But he wanted to experience the grueling handcart trip, which had cost a pregnant Mary Griffen her health and prevented her from reaching their original destination.

The hardships they faced deeply touched Steinke. He discovered an appreciation for tiny, Midwestern towns, the kind he knows most university students dream of escaping.

“They were a wonderful place, a destination at the end of a difficult journey,” he said. “I couldn’t see that until I’d seen all the places, gone on the journey and seen where [the pioneers] were going.”


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