Remembering the Rescue

The new Mormon Handcart Visitors’ Center at Sun Ranch in Wyoming honors the October–November 1856 rescue of the Willie and Martin Handcart Companies.

Remembering the Rescue

Between 1856 and 1860, ten handcart companies of Latter-day Saints made their way from Iowa City, Iowa, or Florence, Nebraska, to the Salt Lake Valley. Handcarts proved to be a less expensive and often faster means of travel than wagon trains. Eight of these companies passed over the more than 1,000 miles with little trouble. Two of these ten companies, however, became stranded in early, monstrous snowstorms in Wyoming. The story of the suffering of those two companies and of their eventual rescue by Latter-day Saints from the Salt Lake Valley is poignant and dramatic. Following are paintings featured in the new Mormon Handcart Visitors’ Center that portray this epic story.

Looking back on the suffering of the Willie and Martin Companies and the courage of those who rescued them serves to strengthen us. The words of one survivor of the Martin Company experience—Elizabeth Horrocks Jackson Kingsford, widow of Aaron Jackson, who died after crossing the Platte River—reflect that strength: “I have a desire to leave a record of those scenes and events, through which I have passed, that my children, down to my latest posterity, may read what their ancestors were willing to suffer, and did suffer, patiently for the gospel’s sake. And I wish them to understand too, that what I now [write] is the history of hundreds of others, … who have passed through many like scenes for the same cause. I also desire them to know that it was obedience to the commands of the true and living God [to gather to the Salt Lake Valley], and with the assurance of an eternal reward—an exaltation to eternal life in His kingdom—that we suffered these things. I hope, too, that it will inspire my posterity with fortitude to stand firm and faithful to the truth, and be willing to suffer, and sacrifice all things they may be required to pass thru for the kingdom of God’s sake” (“Leaves from the Life of Elizabeth Horrocks Jackson Kingsford,” Utah State Historical Society, Manuscript A 719).

Map of the Mormon Trail(click to view larger)

Map of the Mormon Trail showing the rescue sites of both the Willie and the Martin Handcart Companies. Also noted are the locations of Devil’s Gate and the Martin Handcart Company refuge site, both at modern-day Sun Ranch. Highways, shown on map, provide easy access to the visitors’ center.

Visitors’ Center at Sun Ranch

Much of the site where the Martin Company sought shelter is on the Sun Ranch in Wyoming—land owned for four generations by the descendants of a French Canadian homesteader, Tom DeBeau Soliel, who changed his surname to Sun. In 1872, 16 years after the rescues took place, he built a cabin near Devil’s Gate on the Sweetwater River and raised cattle on his extensive acreage. Until recently, his children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren worked the ranch.

Today, the ranch house has been transformed into a visitors’ center, where the story of the rescue of the companies is retold. Located near Martin’s Cove, the site where the Martin Company took refuge, the center is open from 8:00 A.M. to 7:00 P.M. seven days a week. More than 100 handcarts are ready for use by individuals or groups who would like to make the 2 2/3 mile trek to and from Martin’s Cove. Longer treks are possible. Carts are not available on Sundays. No food or lodging is available at the center. Only groups with reservations who are participating in overnight treks can camp overnight. Call 1-307-324-5218 for information or reservations.

Martin’s Cove

Surrounded on three sides by rocky ridges and with a high sandy mound in its center, Martin’s Cove provided protection from the wind.

Devil’s Gate

Devil’s Gate dominates the landscape near the Mormon Handcart Visitors’ Center.

Crossing the Platte

The Willie Company was two weeks ahead of the Martin Company. A 19 October 1856 snowstorm caught the Willie Company at the Sweetwater River in central Wyoming, 40 miles east of South Pass. The same storm caught the Martin Company on the North Platte River near Casper, Wyoming. Above: Crossing the Platte left Martin Company members wet, with no way to dry their clothing. Each day after that crossing, several died from exposure. (Painting by Larry Winborg.)

A father dies

Heber McBride of the Martin Company, then 13 years old, wrote of the day when his father was among the 13 who died, “I went to look for Father and at last I found him under a wagon with snow all over him and he was stiff and dead. I felt as though my heart would burst. I sat down beside him on the snow and took hold of one of his hands and cried, ‘Oh Father, Father’” (Heber Robert McBride Autobiography, typescript, BYU HBLL Special Collections and Manuscripts, 12). (Painting by Olinda Reynolds.)

The Martin Company at Red Buttes

The Martin Company camped on 23 October across from the Red Buttes where the trail left the North Platte River. “During our sojourn at this camp we were placed under very trying circumstances: being reduced to very low rations of flour, a scanty supply of clothing and in addition to these evils, it became our painful duty to bury very many of our friends and traveling companions” (William Binder Reminiscences, Historical Department, Archives Division, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 3; hereafter cited as LDS Church Archives). Fifty-six members of the company died between 19 October and 28 October. Each person’s daily allowance of a few ounces of flour was eaten as gruel or baked into small cakes. Children chewed rawhide to stop the hunger pangs. “The aged and worn-out seemed … to relinquish all their desire for life, passing away like an infant in slumber” (Josiah Rogerson, “Martin Handcart Company, 1856,” Salt Lake Herald, 17 Nov. 1907). (Painting by Joseph Brickey.)

President Brigham Young made an impassioned plea in general conference for men

On 5 October, the day after President Brigham Young learned that there were companies out on the plains, he made an impassioned plea in general conference for men, teams, provisions, and clothing. (Line drawing by Robert T. Barrett.)

The response to the call of President Young was most remarkable

“The response to the call of President Young was most remarkable,” wrote Harvey H. Cluff. “On … October 7th 22 teams—two span of mules or horses to each wagon and each wagon loaded to the bows. There were about fifty young men in the company” (Harvey H. Cluff Journal, 1836–1868, typescript, BYU HBLL Special Collections and Manuscripts, 25). (Painting by Larry Winborg.)

Four messengers from the relief company searched for the Willie Company

Four messengers from the relief company searched for the Willie Company and found them on 19 October. (Painting by Jerry Thompson.)

Snowbound on the Sweetwater

The company moved on, but became snowbound that evening on the Sweetwater. Rescuers arrived amidst cries of joy on 21 October. (Painting by Glen S. Hopkinson.) “If help had not come when it did, there would have been no one left to tell the tale,” wrote Mary Hurren Wight, who was a child at the time. “Tears streamed down the cheeks of the men and the children danced for joy. As soon as the people could control their feelings, they all knelt down in the snow and gave thanks to God” (Autobiography, LDS Church Archives, 11–12).

Rocky Ridge

Though relief had arrived, the Willie Company still had far to go. Ascending the steep 4-mile trail on Rocky Ridge on 23 October left 15 dead in one night. For days the Saints dragged their carts through snow, eventually meeting up with more rescue wagons. By Fort Bridger, nearly all were in wagons. “Those of you who have never had this experience cannot realize how … we thanked God for our rescue,” remembered John Oborn, a child at the time of the rescue. “Mother and I were cared for by a dear brother, who … seemed like an angel from heaven. We left our handcart and rode in his wagon and slowly but safely he brought us to Zion” (“Brief History of the Life of John Oborn, Pioneer of 1856,” in John Oborn Reminiscence and Diary, LDS Church Archives, 2). (Painting by Jerry Thompson.)

Devil’s Gate

Three scouts left Devil’s Gate to find the Martin Company, arriving at the Red Buttes camp on 28 October. (Painting by Robert T. Barrett.)

The struggling handcart company took refuge in nearby Martin’s Cove

Following the scouts back to Devil’s Gate, the struggling handcart company took refuge in nearby Martin’s Cove. (Painting by Olinda Reynolds.)

Ephraim Hanks finds the Martin Company

On 10 November, after shooting two buffalos, Ephraim Hanks came upon the Martin Company. He later wrote of the scene: “Flocking around me, one would say, ‘Oh, please, give me some 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’” (quoted in Hafen and Hafen, Handcarts, 135). (Painting by Steve Halford.)

The Willie Company arrived in Salt Lake Valley

The Willie Company arrived in Salt Lake Valley on 9 November; the Martin company on 30 November. In the Tabernacle, prior to the arrival of the Martin Company, President Young told the Saints to go home and prepare to help the emigrants. “Prayer is good, but when baked potatoes and pudding and milk are needed, prayer will not supply their place on this occasion; give every duty its proper time and place” (quoted in Deseret News, 10 Dec. 1856, 320). (Painting by Larry Winborg.)

[illustration] “I will go with you, will help you all I can, … and, if necessary, I will die with you,” said Levi Savage, after trying to discourage the Willie Handcart Company from leaving so late in the season (quoted in LeRoy R. Hafen and Ann W. Hafen, Handcarts to Zion [1960], 96–97). (Line drawing by Robert T. Barrett.)

[illustrations] Despite the lateness of the season, most of the families were determined to go forward. (Painting by Olinda Reynolds.) Right: Many handcarts, which had been built quickly from green wood, began to pull apart at the joints as the wood shrank. (Painting by Olinda Reynolds.)

[photos] Photography by Welden C. Andersen and LaRene Gaunt

[photo] The Mormon Handcart Visitors’ Center, formerly Sun Ranch living quarters, tells the dramatic rescue story of the Willie and the Martin Handcart Companies using paintings, maps, and a video.

[photos] Above: Visitors pull one of the many handcarts available (below).