When handcart pioneers are mentioned, most minds turn to the tragic story of the Willie and Martin handcart companies of 1856. But they were only two of 10 handcart companies, and the only two devastated by tragedy. Following is the story of the first and second handcart companies—captained by Edmund Lovell Ellsworth and Daniel D. McArthur, respectively—as told from the journal accounts of those who walked the 1,300 miles from Iowa City, Iowa, to the Salt Lake Valley.
While serving as a missionary in England in the latter part of May 1855, Edmund Ellsworth had a dream. He told Andrew Galloway, president of the Herefordshire Conference, of it. “I dreamed that I was at home and went to … President [Brigham Young]’s office. … He said, ‘Why, Edmund, we have just been talking about you. We are thinking of having a company of the Saints to cross the plains with handcarts next year. We would like you to take charge of the company. Will you do it?’ I said, ‘If you say, I will.’” Elder Ellsworth asked President Galloway what he thought of the dream, to which President Galloway replied, “Well, I think it is more than a common dream. I would write it in your journal and see what will become of it.”1
Weeks later, Elder Ellsworth received a letter from President Young: “We are very anxious to have a company [gathered] up in England to cross the plains. I do believe that I could bring a company across. … Would you like to try it? … I pray for you continually—Brigham Young.”2
After Elder Ellsworth read the letter, he handed his journal to Brother Galloway to compare with the letter. They were very similar.
On 29 October 1855 the First Presidency issued the “Thirteenth General Epistle” regarding immigration to Zion: “The [Perpetual Emigrating] Fund is designed to deliver the honest poor, the pauper, if you please, from the thraldom of ages. … Let all the Saints who can, gather up for Zion. … Let them come on foot, with handcarts or wheelbarrows. … [Thereby] the main expense of the immigration will be avoided, consequently thousands more than heretofore can receive assistance.”3
Latter-day Saint elders in England, instead of returning directly home, were informed that they were to aid those who planned to emigrate during the coming season. In March of 1856, Elder Edmund Ellsworth was among those who sailed with 529 Saints aboard the ship Enoch Train.
After six weeks on the ocean, the Enoch Train docked in Boston on 1 May. The emigrants left by omnibus for the railway station, then took the steamer Plymouth Rock to New York City, where Elder John Taylor of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles boarded the boat and asked God to bless the Saints with a safe journey to the valley. They continued traveling by rail to Rock Island, Illinois, crossed the Mississippi River in a boat, and boarded a train of boxcars. The cars had no seats; the travelers had to sit on their trunks and baggage and had no room to lie down at night. On 12 May they reached Iowa City late at night, where they remained until 9 June.4
Once in Iowa City, all the men began making handcarts, many of which were hastily constructed. Josiah Rogerson described the handcarts: “The open handcart was made of Iowa hickory or oak. … In length the side pieces and shafts were about six or seven feet. … The carts were the usual width of the wide track wagon … [and] were often loaded with 400 or 500 pounds of flour, bedding, extra clothing, cooking utensils, and a tent. … The covered or family cart was similar in size. … It was made stronger, with an iron axle. … Two persons were assigned to the pulling of each open cart. … In many instances the father had to pull the covered cart alone.”5
Mary Ann Jones, a member of the first company, wrote: “We left Iowa City 9 June and traveled to Florence, leaving there 16 July. The handcarts were flimsy and were continually breaking down. … We were allotted one tent and four handcarts to twenty persons. Our company [Edmund Ellsworth, captain] consisted of 274 members, the other passengers of the ship were in the second company [Daniel D. McArthur, captain]. We traveled from ten to twenty-eight miles each day. We always reached camp long before the three wagons which were attached to our company. We were allowed 17 pounds of baggage for each person. This included clothing, bedding, and cooking utensils. Some people who wanted to take more than allowed placed on their bodies more clothing than usual while being checked. Thus some thin people became stout all at once. After weighing in these same people placed their extra items on the carts. After a few days all members were checked again, unannounced. One old sister carried … a colander on her apron string all the way to the Salt Lake Valley. … The Lord was with us and guided us by His spirit, for although tired and footsore, we could sing the songs of Zion as we traveled.”6
The McArthur company was only a few days behind the Ellsworth company. Among those in the McArthur company was the Hans Heinrich Elliker family of Zurich, Switzerland, consisting of the parents and seven children ages 5 to 26. While camped at Florence, Nebraska, two of the daughters died of cholera and were buried there. Once on the trail, the father became ill and the mother and three sons took turns pulling him in the poorly constructed handcart.
One day as they crossed a small stream, the 21-year-old son, Konrad, asked if he could stop and rest awhile, saying he would catch up with them. “As they looked back they saw him wetting his white handkerchief in the stream. That was the last they saw of him.” Though others went back and searched for him, no trace was ever found and the company had to move on. Adding to the heartache of this family, the father died a few days later and was “laid to rest on the plains with only a pile of stones to mark the hallowed spot.”7
Mary Bathgate and Isabella Park, both over 60, traveled together in the McArthur company and insisted on walking. On 16 August, Sister Bathgate was bitten on the leg by a large rattlesnake. She said “that there was power in the Priesthood, and she knew it.” By the time Daniel McArthur and others arrived, she had tied “her garter around her leg above the wound to stop the circulation of the blood,” but was still “quite sick.” Brother McArthur wrote, “We took a pocket knife and cut the wound larger, squeezed out all the bad blood we could, … then took and anointed her leg and head, and laid our hands on her in the name of Jesus and felt to rebuke the influence of the poison, and she felt full of faith.” She finally consented to ride in the wagon.
Later that day, just as the wagons were ready to start up after a rest stop, Isabella Park “ran in before the wagon” to see her friend Mary Bathgate. Brother McArthur wrote of the event: “The driver, not seeing her, hallooed at his team and they being quick to mind, Sister Park could not get out of the way, and the fore wheel struck her and threw her down and passed over both her hips. Brother Leonard grabbed hold of her to pull her out of the way before the hind wheel could catch her. He only got her out part way, and the hind wheels passed over her ankles. We all thought that she would be mashed to pieces, but to the joy of us all, there was not a bone broken, although the wagon had something like two tons’ burden on it, a load for 4 yoke of oxen. We went right to work and applied the same medicine to her that we did to the sister who was bitten by the rattlesnake, and although quite sore for a few days, Sister Park got better, so that she was on the tramp before we got into this valley, and Sister Bathgate was right by her side, to cheer her up. … I know that nothing but the power of God saved the two sisters, and they traveled together, they rode together, and suffered together.”8
Mary Ann Jones wrote: “Some stomachs may reject a supper cooked with water taken from a buffalo wallow and on a fire of buffalo chips, but to us the food was good. … A very remarkable thing happened while we were at the Platte River. One of the oxen, used to pull the wagons, died. Brother Ellsworth asked the brethren what could be done. Should we place a cow in the team? One brother said: ‘Look, Brother Ellsworth, at that steer on the hill.’
“The animal worked as well as the others. When we were within two days of Salt Lake City we met some wagons sent with provisions and to help us the remainder of the way. The next morning, when gathering animals, that steer was gone. After hunting for him for several hours Brother Ellsworth said, ‘The Lord loaned him to us as long as we needed him.’”9
On 18 September, while the handcarts of the Ellsworth company were traveling up the hill west of Green River, they were surprised to suddenly come upon 17 missionaries bound for Britain and other locations. Thomas Bullock, one of the missionaries, wrote: “As the two companies approached each other, the camp of missionaries formed in line, and gave three loud Hosannahs with the waving of hats, which was heartily led by Elder [Parley] P. Pratt [of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles], responded to by loud greeting from the Saints of the handcart train, who unitedly made the hills and valley resound with shouts of gladness; the memory of this scene will never be forgotten by any person present.”10
Elder Pratt described this meeting: “Their faces were much sunburnt and their lips parched; but cheerfulness reigned in every heart, and joy seemed to beam on every countenance. The company gathered around us and I tried to address them, observing that this was a new era in American as well as Church history; but my utterance was choked, and I had to make the third trial before I could overcome my emotions.”11
Both of the companies were together as they neared Salt Lake City. When they were about eight miles from the city, they were met by President Young, his counselors, the Nauvoo Brass Band, and many others. Sarah Sabin Hatch, who was present, wrote, “President Young rose to make a speech, but when he saw how hungry the little ones were, he said, ‘Come, let’s serve the food; speeches can wait.’”12
Mary Powell wrote of the gathering: “They arrived in wagons drawn by oxen and mules. They hauled melons. President Young told us to eat moderately of the melons, to eat the pink and not to eat the green. Father said he was quite sensible.”13
Of the 274 people who embarked upon the journey in the Ellsworth company, 13 persons died. Of the 221 people in the McArthur company, 7 died.14 The 20 deaths resulted from consumption, diarrhea, and whooping cough, except for the death of Henry Walker, age 58, in the Ellsworth company, who was killed by lightning, and 21-year-old Konrad Elliker, in the McArthur company, who disappeared and was not seen again.
Mary Ann Jones described their arrival: “It was a day never to be forgotten. We had reached our goal, traveling on foot all of the way. … We had left comfortable homes, fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters, and friends all for our testimony of the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ and for the privilege of hearing a prophet’s voice and to live with the Saints of God. I have never regretted the trip.”15
Two days after arriving in the Salt Lake Valley, the Saints held a meeting in the old Bowery. Mary Powell wrote, “My little sister Annie, age four, had been promised a big piece of bread and butter when she reached the valley. [She had walked all the way by the side of Captain Ellsworth, and he put her on his shoulders when they came into the valley.] Just as we were lined up to hear a few words from Brother Brigham, a lady held up a piece of bread and Annie ran toward her. ‘That’s my piece of bread and butter!’ she cried joyously. At the sight of this, President Young wept. ‘God bless the child!’”16
President Young went on to say that he had always had faith that men, women, and children could cross the plains on foot and draw handcarts and now his faith was based on actual knowledge. He stated: “My reasoning has been like this: Take small children, … and if their steps were counted and measured, those that they take in the course of one day, you would find that they had taken enough to have traveled from 12 to 20 miles. Count the steps that a woman takes when she is doing her work, … steps enough to have traveled from 15 to 20 miles a day. … So with men. … Many people have believed that they could not walk much of a distance, if they had to walk right along in a road, but this is not so. …
“I wanted to tell one secret. While those brethren and sisters were faltering, and did not know whether to stop or go along, there was faith in this valley that bound them to that journey. … That is the secret of the movement.”
Captain Ellsworth spoke next, reflecting on their journey: “Had the making of our handcarts been directed by the wisdom of our President here, … much labor on the plains might have been avoided. … Our handcarts were of a poor description, but they had to be experimented upon, and the experiment made this season has been at our expense. …
“Consequently I have had to labor with the people incessantly to keep faith in them, to keep them away from the wagons, by showing them there was honor attached to pulling handcarts into the valley, by saying, I have walked 1,300 miles, old and decrepit as I am, with these crooked legs of mine, and there is honor in that.”17
Elder Wilford Woodruff of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles wrote a letter to the editor of The Mormon on 30 September 1856, which in part said: “Elders Ellsworth and McArthur have earned honor and glory to themselves in the leading of those companies. … Brother Ellsworth went through the city covered with dust at the head of his brave company, drawing a handcart under the close scrutiny of the thousands who crowded the streets with weeping eyes to gaze upon the scene; as he passed by his own lovely home and saw his [family] standing in his door, he made no halt, only gave a passing salute, continuing with his company until he reached the public square and saw them all comfortably encamped and fed. … [President] Young has declared from the beginning that it was a practical, safe operation; his sayings in this, as in all other cases, have proven true. … Never has a company been so highly honored, … since Israel has arrived in these mountains, as the pioneer handcart companies.”18
Ye Saints that dwell on Europe’s shores,
Prepare yourselves with many more
To leave behind your native land
For sure God’s Judgments are at hand.
Prepare to cross the stormy main
Before you do the valley gain
And with the faithful make a start
To cross the plains with your hand cart.
Some must push and some must pull
As we go marching up the hill,
As merrily on the way we go
Until we reach the valley, oh.1
The first and second companies of emigrants by handcarts “arrived in camp on the 17th of July, in fine health and spirits. Singing as they came along, Elder J. D. T. McAllister’s noted handcart song,” wrote J. H. Latey from Florence, Nebraska Territory, “one would not think that they had come from Iowa City, a long and rough journey of from 275 to 300 miles, except by their dust-stained garments and sunburned faces. My heart is gladdened as I write this, for methinks I see in their merry countenances and buoyant steps and the strains of the handcart song seems ringing in my ears like sweet music heard at eventide or in a dream.”2