Distance: 993 miles from Nauvoo
Having started late from Iowa and suffered innumerable mishaps
and miscalculations along the way, two handcart companies under
the leadership of Captains Edward Martin and James G. Willie were
caught in early snows near the Continental Divide in 1856. In one
of the greatest tragedies in overland trail history, hundreds died
of exposure and starvation before rescuers from the Salt Lake Valley
brought them to this location a few miles west of Devil's Gate in
11 November 1856
"Before we left Iowa my dear Mother had given birth to a
son, Peter. She was naturally weak with the care of a
nursing baby and five other children. Father was weak from
want of food, having denied himself for us. The terrible
strain of the journey was too much for him and one night,
near the Sweetwater, he passed quietly away at the age of
35. Our little brother, Peter, died the same night. They
built a fire to thaw the ground so that a grave could be
dug, then with my baby brother clasped in his arms, they
wrapped him in a blanket and laid him tenderly away. My
darling Mother had to take up the journey alone with us five
children. Provisions were almost gone, desolation reigned.
"The company passed off the main road to 'Martin's Ravine' to escape
the terrible blizzards and storms for we had little clothing and
had given up all hope. Death had taken a heavy toll and the Ravine
was like an overcrowded tomb. No mortal tongue could describe the
suffering. Such was the condition when word was received that help
was on the way" (quoted in Mary Larson Kirkman Hulet Cook, Woman
of Faith and Fortitude, Daughters of Utah Pioneers, ,
4, paragraphing altered)
Elizabeth Sermon, Martin Company
"My husband's health began to fail and his heart almost
broken to see me falling in shafts. Myself and children
hungry, almost naked, footsore and himself nearly done for.
Many trials came after this. My oldest boy had the mountain
fever, we had to haul him in the cart, there was not room in
the wagon. One day we started him out before the carts in
the morning to walk with the aged and sick, but we had not
gone far on our journey before we found him lying by the
roadside, unable to go any farther. I picked him up and put
him on my back and drew my cart as well, but could not
manage far, so put him in the cart, which made three
children and my luggage. My husband failing more each day,
the Captain put a young man to help me for a short time. My
other son Henry walked at 7 years old, 1300 miles with the
exception of a few miles. . . .
"I will here state there was no time crossing the rivers
to stop and take off clothing, but had to wade through and
draw our carts at the same time with our clothes dripping
wet, had to dry in the sun and dust as merrily on our way we
go until we reach the valley, oh, like a herd of stock or
"My husband's sufferings have always pained me and I can never
forget them. Poor Rob's [age 5] feet began to freeze. I cannot remember
the place; it was after wading a very deep river [Platte?] the freezing
commenced. We had no wood but sagebrush. I went out and cut the
sage to keep the fire all night. Covered them up with their feet
to the fire and cut some more and kept the fire as well as I could.
My clothes froze stiff. Well, we got through that night. Your father
would not walk now. He would get into wagon after wagon, only to
be turned out. The cattle were giving out and everyone had their
friends, but the friend death, would soon end his sufferings. John
[age 9] and Rob had to ride, Henry [age 7] walked, your father would
take my arm and walk a little distance, fall on his knees with weakness.
We moved from Devil's Gate. I believe it was brother David Kimball
who carried us over a river [Sweetwater] and a great many more besides
us. My poor husband blessed him for so doing.
"After our food had given out as I said before, we went
into our tents to die. I always thought I could get through
to Salt Lake City and I tried to encourage my husband, but
he was starving. He had always lived good at home. There was
a shout in the camp. Brother Joseph A. Young had come on
packed mules with Brother Little. Brought flour, meat and
onions. I got 1 pound of flour and some meat and 2 onions. I
chopped the fat off the meat real fine and made some
dumplings. We made a good meal and blessed Brother Little
and Joseph from the bottom of our hearts. . . . We had 70
miles to get to the wagons that had been sent from Salt Lake
City with food and clothing and some clothing had come for
"Your father after having some food and clothes, seemed
to revive. He called you to him and told you to be good
children and to do all you could for me, and then he said to
me, 'God bless you, Eli,' that being the name he called me.
'You have saved my life this time.' I said, 'We must hold
out now and get to the wagons,' but we had to go back to the
1/4 lb. of flour and he sank under it. I think he would not
have died if he had got food, but he was spared the trial
ahead. We went to bed about 3:00. He put his arm around me
and said, 'I am done,' and breathed his last.
"I called Brother John Oley. We sewed him up in a quilt with his
clothes on, except his boots, which I put on my feet and wore them
into Salt Lake City. A coat I put on John to keep him warm, which
afterward went to Ft. Bridger. Some friend tried to get it for me
but we did not succeed. Father was buried in the morning with 2
more in the grave. I stood like a statue, bewildered, not a tear:
the cold chills, even now as I write, creep over my body, for I
feel I can still see the wolves waiting for their bodies as they
would come down to camp before we left.
"Well, I went again to the cart as all that could had to walk to
get to the wagons. Poor Rob had to ride from this time and sometimes
John, Henry and Marian [age 3] were with me. When I got into camp
I would clear the snow away with a tin plate, gather my wood, get
my bed clothes from the wagon. . . . I was to weak to haul much
. . . get my allowance of flour and carry the children to the fire,
make their beds on the ground, the tent was frozen and ground so
hard we could not set it up. I think it was two weeks we were without
tents. We went to bed without supper in order to get a little better
breakfast. I found it some help to toast the rawhide on the coals
and chew it; it helped to keep the hunger away, for I was feeling
it rather keenly now. I had to take a portion of poor Robert's feet
off which pierced my very soul. I had to sever the leaders with
a pair of scissors. Little did I think when I bought them in old
England that they would be used for such a purpose. Every day some
portion was decaying until the poor boy's feet were all gone. Then
John's began to freeze; then afterwards my own. We kept meeting
teams from Salt Lake City now, which rendered all the assistance
they could. I remember asking one of the drivers if he could give
me a cob of corn to eat. He looked so pitiful and said, 'Oh, sister,
I hate to refuse you but my horses haven't enough to eat now, and
I do not know how we will get back to Salt Lake.' I said, 'I ought
not to have asked you, but myself and children are so hungry.' He
said, 'Keep up your faith sister.'
"A loaf of bread would have given me great faith and satisfied a hungry
stomach as well, but the bread was not many miles off. We got it
and it was the sweetest bread we ever ate. One instance occurred.
Poor Brother Blair, a very tall thin man; he was starving and was
eating a piece of griddle cake; another poor brother, not as hungry
asked for a piece of it. He said, 'I cannot do it, I want it myself.'
Poor fellow he died in the night and so one after another passed
away. Fathers, mothers, sisters, brothers and friends, many, many
honest souls laid in mother earth. The brothers kept meeting us
and some times we had a good cheery fire built for us when we got
into camp. I was terribly put to for clothes to wrap my poor boy's
legs in, his feet all gone. I got all I could from the camp, then
I used my underclothing until I had but 2 skirts left upon my body,
and as such I finished my journey for my wardrobe would not be replenished
where I was.
"At last the old handcart was laid by without a regret; we got
to the wagons, were taken in and some days we rode all day and got
a little more food. A severe storm came up. I think it was on the
Sweetwater, but I was so troubled I forget all about the names of
places. My eldest boy John's feet decaying, my boys both of them
losing their limbs, their father dead, my own feet very painful,
I thought, 'Why can't I die?' My first thought of death. Brother
Patton took us in his wagon, blessed me for my integrity and blessed
us with tea and bread and so with what food was so kindly sent out
to us from the people in Salt Lake, our lives were spared."
(Stewart E. Glazer and Robert S. Clark, eds., Journal of the
Trail 2nd ed. , 103107; paragraphing altered).
"The terrific storm which caused the immigrants
so much suffering and loss overtook me near the South Pass,
where I stopped about three days with Reddick N. Allred, who
had come out with provisions for the immigrants. The storm
during these three days was simply awful. In all my travels
in the Rocky Mountains both before and afterwards, I have
seen no worse. When at length the snow ceased falling, it
lay on the ground so deep that for many days it was
impossible to move wagons through it.
"Being deeply concerned about the possible fate of the
immigrants, and feeling anxious to learn of their condition,
I determined to start out on horseback to meet them; and for
this purpose I secured a pack-saddle and two animals (one to
ride and one to pack), from Brother Allred, and began to
make my way slowly through the snow alone.
"After traveling for sometime I met Joseph A. Young and
one of the Garr boys, two of the relief company which had
been sent from Salt Lake City to help the companies. They
had met the immigrants and were now returning with important
dispatches from the camps to the headquarters of the Church,
reporting the awful condition of the companies.
"In the meantime I continued my lonely journey, and the
night after meeting Elders Young and Garr, I camped in the
snow in the mountains. As I was preparing to make a bed in
the snow with the few articles that my pack animal carried
for me, I thought how comfortable a buffalo robe would be on
such an occasion, and also how I could relish a little
buffalo meat for supper, and before lying down for the night
I was instinctively led to ask the Lord to send me a
"Now, I am a firm believer in the efficacy of prayer, for I have
on many different occasions asked the Lord for blessings, which
He in His mercy has bestowed on me. But when I after praying as
I did on that lonely night in the South Pass, looked around me and
spied a buffalo bull within fifty yards of my camp, my surprise
was complete; I had certainly not expected so immediate an answer
to my prayer. However, I soon collected myself and was not at a
loss to know what to do. Taking deliberate aim at the animal, my
first shot brought him down, he made a few jumps only, and then
rolled down into the very hollow where I was encamped.
"I was soon busily engaged skinning my game, finishing
which, I spread the hide on the snow and placed my bed upon
it. I next prepared supper, eating tongue and other choice
parts of the animal I had killed, to my heart's content.
After this I enjoyed a refreshing night's sleep, while my
horses were browsing on the sage brush.
"Early the next morning I was on my way again, and soon
reached what is know as the Ice Springs Bench. There I
happened upon a herd of buffalo, and killed a nice cow. I
was impressed to do this, although I did not know why until
a few hours later, but the thought occurred to my mind that
the hand of the Lord was in it, as it was a rare thing to
find buffalo herds around that place at this late part of
the season. I skinned and dressed the cow; then cut up part
of its meat in long strips and loaded my horses with it.
"Thereupon I resumed my journey, and traveled on till
towards evening. I think the sun was about an hour high in
the west when I spied something in the distance that looked
like a black streak in the snow. As I got near to it, I
perceived it moved; then I was satisfied that this was the
long looked for hand-cart company, led by Captain Edward
"I reached the ill-fated train just as the immigrants were camping
for the night. The sight that met my gaze as I entered their camp
can never be erased from my memory. The starved forms and haggard
countenances of the poor sufferers, as they moved about slowly,
shivering with cold, to prepare their scanty evening meal, was enough
to touch the stoutest heart. When they saw me coming, they hailed
me with joy inexpressible, and when they further beheld the supply
of fresh meat I brought into camp, their gratitude knew no bounds.
Flocking around me, one would say, 'Oh, please, give me a small
peace of meat;' another would exclaim, 'My poor children are starving,
do give me a little;' and children with tears in their eyes would
call out, 'Give me some, give me some.' At first I tried to wait
on them and handed out the meat as they called for it; but finally
I told them to help themselves. Five minutes later both my horses
had been released of their extra burdenthe meat was all gone,
and the next few hours found the people in camp busily engaged in
cooking and eating it, with thankful hearts.
"A prophecy had been made by one of the brethren that the company
should feast on buffalo meat, when their provisions might run short;
my arrival in their camp, loaded with meat, was the beginning of
the fulfillment of that prediction; but only the beginning, as I
afterwards shot and killed a number of buffalo for them as we journeyed
"When I saw the terrible condition of the immigrants on
first entering their camp, my heart almost melted within me.
I rose up in my saddle and tried to speak cheering and
comforting words to them. I told them also that they should
all have the privilege to ride into Salt Lake City, as more
teams were coming.
"After dark, on the evening of my arrival in the hand cart camp,
a woman passed the camp fire where I was sitting crying aloud. Wondering
what was the matter, my natural impulse led me to follow her. She
went straight to Daniel Tyler's wagon, where she told the heartrending
story of her husband being at the point of death, and in pleading
tones she asked Elder Tyler to come and administer to him. This
good brother, tired and weary as he was, after pulling hand-carts
all day, had just retired for the night, and was a little reluctant
in getting up; but on this earnest solicitation he soon arose, and
we both followed the woman to the tent, in which we found the apparently
lifeless form of her husband. On seeing him, Elder Tyler remarked,
'I cannot administer to a dead man.' Brother Tyler requested me
to stay and lay out the supposed dead brother, while he returned
to his wagon to seek that rest which he needed so much.
"I immediately stepped back to the camp fire where several of the
brethren were sitting, and addressing myself to Elders Grant, Kimball
and one or two others, I said, 'Will you boys do just as I tell
you?' The answer was in the affirmative. We then went to work and
built a fire near the tent which I and Elder Tyler had just visited;
next we warmed some water, and washed the dying man, whose name
was Blair, from head to foot. I then anointed him with consecrated
oil over his whole body, after which we laid hands on him and commanded
him in the name of Jesus Christ to breath and live. The effect was
instantaneous. The man who was dead to all appearances, immediately
began to breathe, sat up in his bed and commenced to sing a hymn.
His wife, unable to control her feelings of joy and thankfulness
ran through the camp exclaiming: 'My husband was dead, but is now
alive. Praise be the name of God. The man who brought the buffalo
meat has healed him.'
"This circumstance caused a great general excitement in the whole
camp and many of the drooping spirits began to take fresh courage
from that very hour. After this the greater portion of my time was
devoted to waiting on the sick. 'Come to me,' 'help me,' 'please
administer to my sick wife,' or 'my dying child,' etc., were some
of the requests that were being made of me almost hourly for some
time after I had joined the immigrants, and I spent days going from
tent to tent administering to the sick.
"Truly the Lord was with me and others of His servants who labored
faithfully together with me in that day of trial and suffering.
The result of this our labor of love certainly redounded to the
honor and glory of a kind and merciful God. In scores of instances,
when we administered to the sick and rebuked the diseases in the
name of the Lord Jesus Christ, the sufferers would rally at once;
they were healed almost instantly. I believe I administered to several
hundreds in a single day; and I could give the manes of many whose
lives were saved by the power of God. . . .
"I have but a very little to say about the sufferings of
Captain Martin's company before I joined it; but it had
passed through terrible ordeals. Women and the larger
children helped the men to pull the hand-carts, and in
crossing the frozen streams, they had to break the ice with
their feet. In fording the Platte River, the largest stream
they had to cross after the cold weather set in, the clothes
of the immigrants were frozen stiff around their bodies
before they could exchange them for others. This is supposed
to have been the cause of the many deaths which occurred
soon afterwards. It has been stated on good authority that
nineteen immigrants died one night.
"The survivors who performed the last acts of kindness to
those who perished, were not strong enough to dig the graves
of sufficient depth to preserve the bodies from the wild
beasts, and wolves were actually seen tearing open the
graves before the company was out of sight.
"Many of the survivors, in witnessing the terrible afflictions
and losses, became at last almost stupefied or mentally dazed, and
did not seem to realize the terrible condition they were in. The
suffering from the lack of sufficient food also told on the people.
When the first relief teams met the immigrants, there was only one
day's quarter rations left in camp" (quoted in Andrew Jenson, "Church
Emigration," The Contributor, Feb. 1893, 202-5; paragraphing
Brigham Young, Salt Lake City
5 October 1856
General Conference of the Church
will now give this people the subject and the text for the Elders
who may speak to-day and during the conference. It is this. On the
5th day of October, 1856, many of our brethren and sisters are on
the plains with handcarts, and probably many are now seven hundred
miles from this place, and they must be brought here, we must send
assistance to them. The text will be, 'to get them here.' I want
the brethren who may speak to understand that their text is the
people on the plains. And the subject matter for this community
is to send for them and bring them in before winter sets in.
"That is my religion; that is the dictation of the Holy
Ghost that I possess. It is to save the people. This is the
salvation I am now seeking for. To save our brethren that
would be apt to perish, or suffer extremely, if we do not
send them assistance.
"I shall call upon the Bishops this day. I shall not wait until
tomorrow, nor until the next day, for 60 good mule teams and 12
or 15 wagons. I do not want to send oxen. I want good horse and
mules. They are in this Territory, and we must have them. Also 12
tons of flour and 40 good teamsters, besides those that drive the
teams. This is dividing my texts into heads. First, 40 good young
men who know how to drive teams, to take charge of the teams that
are now managed by men, women and children who know nothing about
driving them. Second, 60 or 65 good spans of mules, or horses, with
harness, whipple trees, neckyokes, stretchers, lead chains, &c.
And thirdly, 24 thousand pounds of flour, which we have on hand.
"I will tell you all that your faith, religion, and profession
of religion, will never save one soul of you in the Celestial Kingdom
of our God, unless you carry out just such principles as I am now
teaching you. Go and bring in those people now on the plains.
And attend strictly to those things which we call temporal, or temporal
duties. Otherwise, your faith will be in vain. The preaching you
have heard will be in vain to you, and you will sink to Hell,
unless you attend to the things we tell you" (quoted in LeRoy
R. Hafen and Ann W. Hafen, Handcarts to Zion , 120-21).
courtesy of Infobases, Inc.