Viewpoint: Be Among Today’s Kind and Courageous Rescue Teams

Contributed By the Church News

  • 30 January 2017

We don’t have Latter-day Saints stranded on the plains of Wyoming, but we have brothers and sisters—children of our Heavenly Father—who need help. May we be among their rescue teams.

Article Highlights

  • Just like the rescuers in pioneer history, we too can rescue those who need our help.

“Perhaps their suffering seems less dramatic because the handcart pioneers bore it meekly, praising God, instead of fighting for life with the ferocity of animals. But if courage and endurance make a story, if human kindness and helpfulness and brotherly love in the midst of raw horror are worth recording, this half-forgotten episode of Mormon migration is one of the great tales of the West and of America,” wrote historian Wallace Stegner of the Mormon handcart pioneers and their rescuers (“Ordeal by Handcart,” Collier’s, July 6, 1956, 85).

Latter-day Saints today speak of the Mormon handcart pioneers, telling of their courage and determination to gather to Zion in their poverty. Some stories from this era of Church history tell of happy times, such as how, although foot-weary, they danced at day’s end. Other recitations tell of sorrow and tragedy.

Ten handcart companies were formed as an economical way for cash-strapped pioneers to make their way to the Valley of the Great Salt Lake between 1856 and 1860. Eight of the ten arrived without untoward incidents, but two experienced difficulties of tragic proportions.

Late in the season of 1856, James G. Willie led a company of 500 handcart pioneers; Edward Martin led 655. Two wagon companies were assigned to travel with them. William B. Hodgett’s wagon company had 185 people; John A. Hunt’s had 200.

A late start from Iowa City and early snowstorms on Wyoming’s plains created a tableau of suffering and death. Problems arose even before the storms. Elder Franklin D. Richards (1821–1899) and missionaries returning from their missions to England who had helped organize the handcart companies had been at Florence, in what is now Nebraska, when the Willie and Martin companies left there. They caught up with the handcart companies in early September 1856 and discovered the Willie company had reduced provisions and some carts were in great disrepair. They learned that the company had lost 30 head of cattle in a stampede.

Elder Richards, before traveling on, promised he and the missionaries with him would return to help. Upon arriving in Salt Lake City on October 4, Elder Richards made a report to Brigham Young, who until then had not known there were still pioneers on the plains that late in the season.

He immediately called a meeting to organize a rescue effort, and the next day, Sunday, he announced: “Many of our brethren and sisters are on the plains with hand-carts, … and they must be brought here. … Go and bring in those people now on the plains, and attend strictly to those things which we call temporal, … otherwise your faith will be in vain” (Deseret News, Oct. 15, 1856). He repeated the call the next day, asking for blankets, stockings, shoes, and clothing.

A rescue party of men and 16 wagons was en route by Tuesday, October 7. Some 250 rescue teams were on their way by the end of the month, carrying whatever provisions would fit in wagons or on pack animals.

The rescuers had difficulty finding the pioneers who, by then, were trapped by snowstorms. Exact figures are not known, but some estimate that 69 people in the Willie company, between 150 and 170 in the Martin company, 10 in the Hodgett company, and 19 in the Hunt company died.

One can only imagine what it was like when rescue parties began arriving. John Chislett of the Willie company wrote: “Just as the sun was sinking beautifully behind the distant hills, … several covered wagons, each drawn by four horses, were seen coming towards us. … Shouts of joy rent the air; strong men wept until tears ran freely down their furrowed and sunburnt cheeks, and little children … fairly danced around with gladness. … The [rescuers] were so overcome that they could not for some time utter a word. … [How] bravely they worked to bring us safely to the valley—to the Zion of our hopes” (in B. H. Roberts, A Comprehensive History of the Church, 4:93–94).

The rescue efforts continued for 63 days, until all the stranded pioneers had been transported to the safety of Zion, their new home.

On August 15, 1992, President Gordon B. Hinckley dedicated a monument at Martin’s Cove, where members of that company sought shelter. In the prayer he gave, President Hinckley said: “Father, we are so grateful for their faith, their faith in Thee and in Thy Beloved Son, their faith in the Prophet Joseph Smith and Thy work which was restored through him. They left their native land, England, to find refuge where they could worship according to their conscience with their associates in the Salt Lake Valley. Great was their suffering, terrible their tragedy.”

The stories of the Mormon handcart pioneers and those who came to their rescue are more than mere anecdotes. They tell of people of faith, hope, and courage. We can tune our empathetic natures to what the pioneers endured and be inspired by those who went to their rescue.

We don’t have to look to history to find people suffering trials, individuals and families stranded, as it were, on their life’s journey. Much has been written and said about refugees and their struggles to find a better life. Perhaps some of their hopes and dreams are similar to those held by the pioneers.

Nearly every day we read or hear of people who go to the rescue of others. They are professionals—law officers, firefighters, search and rescue teams, medical and emergency personnel, and others whose lives and careers are dedicated to helping—and “ordinary people” who simply care about others and volunteer to help in any way they can, whether it is by something as heroic as saving a life or as common as offering a helping hand to someone in need.

We don’t have Latter-day Saints stranded on the plains of Wyoming, but we have brothers and sisters—children of our Heavenly Father—who need help. May we be among their rescue teams.

(Resource: December 2006 Ensign)