“We are very anxious to have a company … cross the plains with handcarts. … Would you like to try it?”1 wrote President Brigham Young in 1855 to Edmund Ellsworth, his son-in-law in England.
This was not the first time President Young had considered using handcarts, but it was the first time he had acted on it. With 20,000 converts in Europe “clamoring” to come to Zion,2 leaders hoped to provide an inexpensive travel option. The Perpetual Emigrating Fund would pay for the travel expenses of the handcart pioneers, and the pioneers would repay the fund once in Utah. President of the European Mission, Elder Franklin D. Richards (1821–99), as well as missionaries and converts, enthusiastically embraced the idea.
“The fire of emigration blazes … to such an extent that the folks are willing to part with all their effects, and toddle off with a few things in a pocket handkerchief,” wrote London missionary William H. Kimball to President Richards.3
A total of ten handcart companies traveled to Salt Lake City between 1856 and 1860. Eight of the ten companies successfully arrived in Salt Lake City. The two largest companies, however, met with tragedy—the fourth handcart company of 500 led by James G. Willie and the fifth company of 665 led by Edward Martin. Also part of this tragedy were two independent wagon companies made up of Saints who had the means to purchase their own wagons—one wagon company of 185 led by William B. Hodgett and the other of 200 led by John A. Hunt. The Hodgett wagon company traveled near or with the Martin handcart company, and the Hunt company traveled about two days behind Martin and Hodgett.
This is the story of Latter-day Saints who were motivated by their desire to follow a living prophet and gather to Zion. When they found themselves in the midst of extraordinary circumstances due to a late start and early snowstorms, they displayed courage and faith as they relied on God, the gospel, and one another. No one could have predicted the severity of the snowstorms that created such suffering, nor could anyone have predicted the heights to which Brigham Young, the Saints in Utah, the immigrants, and the rescuers would rise in the midst of extreme difficulty.
During the winter and spring of 1855–56, Elder Richards oversaw the migration of the European immigrants as they traveled by ship and train from Liverpool, England, to Iowa City, Iowa. Here the Saints were outfitted with handcarts and supplies. Though those in charge were organized and capable, they were not fully prepared for such a large number of immigrants so late in the season of 1856.
Even so, for the approximately 1,500 handcart immigrants who left Iowa City in 1856,4 the first 200 miles “went well as [they] joyously sang, ‘For 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!’”5
But when the Willie company reached Florence, Nebraska (now modern-day Omaha, Nebraska), they had to make a difficult decision. Should they continue the trek and trust a divine hand to temper the weather, or should they spend the winter in an area “where jobs were scarce and survival depended upon homesteading skills” that the immigrants had not learned in factories?6
Leaders and immigrants held a meeting and voted to go on. If “weather patterns had been normal,” the decision “would have been applauded.”7 Instead, the decision has often been questioned.
Levi Savage, a subcaptain, was one who opposed the decision. But he said, “Seeing you are to go forward, I will go with you; … will suffer with you, and if necessary, will die with you.”8 The Willie company left on August 16.9
The Martin company arrived in Florence after the Willie company had left. After several meetings the Martin company decided to move ahead, leaving on August 25.10 By September 2, 1856, the two independent wagon companies had also left Florence.
Elder Richards and several returning missionaries—including some who had helped outfit the handcart companies—were the last to leave. When they passed the Martin and Willie companies in early September 1856, they were surprised at the condition in which they found the Willie company due to reduced provisions, the condition of some carts, and the loss of 30 cattle in a stampede. They promised they would return with help.
President Brigham Young had no knowledge of any other groups crossing the plains that season until Elder Richards arrived in Salt Lake City on October 4 and told him of the situation. The overall plan for handcart immigration had always included the promise of wagons carrying supplies from the valley to assist the companies, but the lack of knowledge about these late handcart companies meant that supplies would be leaving weeks behind schedule. President Young promptly called a meeting that evening to organize a rescue effort.
The next morning at Sunday morning services in the bowery in Salt Lake City, President Young announced, with an urgency he said was dictated by the Holy Ghost: “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.”11
The next day was the first day of general conference, and President Young again called for teams and wagons as he had the day before. He also called for blankets, stockings, shoes, and clothing. In response to the urgency of the situation, many sisters immediately donated “petticoats, stockings, and everything they could spare, right there in the Tabernacle.”12 That evening many of the rescuers gathered in President Young’s office to receive instructions and priesthood blessings.
On Tuesday, October 7, a rescue party with 16 supply wagons met at Big Mountain. Leader George D. Grant chose Robert T. Burton and William H. Kimball as his assistants. They were experienced leaders of the local militias, of which all men were members. The others who volunteered were experienced frontiersmen or were Minute Men—a group of strong, fearless young men attached to each local militia. Within a few days, the rescue party grew in wagons and men as additional teamsters, eager to help, caught up with the group.
At the same time, however, the immigrants were already suffering and dying from cold weather and lack of food. Amy Loader of the Martin company carried a biscuit made from rationed flour “in her pocket and usually gave portions to her young son, Robert, when he became hungry.” Near Fort Laramie, she “came across a man [from their company] who had fallen on the ground and was almost lifeless. She went to him and said, ‘Brother what is the matter, why do you not go on?’ He replied, ‘Sister Loader, I cannot, I am too weak but if I had just one mouthful of bread I believe I could.’ She asked, ‘Do you think so and would you?’ When he replied, ‘Yes,’ she took the bread from her pocket and gave it to him. After eating he arose and was again able to walk.”13
By the end of October, at least 250 rescue teams were on the road. Even so, it would be 63 days before all the surviving immigrants would be safely in Salt Lake City. Although exact numbers are elusive and the numbers greatly decreased after the arrival of the rescue party, best estimates put the death toll at 69 in the Willie company, 150–170 in the Martin company, 10 in the Hodgett company, and 19 in the Hunt company.14 The leading causes of death were starvation, exposure, exhaustion, and dysentery.
“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,” wrote historian Wallace Stegner of the handcart pioneers and their rescue. “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.”15
Why did most of these pioneers bear their suffering “meekly, praising God”? The answer is found in their testimonies of the gospel of Jesus Christ and in a common goal—to “hear a prophet’s voice and live with the Saints of Zion.”16 Intrinsic in their willing response to gather to Zion was the belief that they were building the kingdom of God. They believed, as Elizabeth Horrocks Jackson, “that my suffering for the Gospel’s sake will be sanctified unto me for my good.”17 And if they died, their loved ones found comfort in the fact that they had died “with their faces zion-ward in full faith and fellowship with the saints.”18
This is why there was courage and endurance, “kindness and helpfulness and brotherly love,” as Wallace Stegner noted. While not all Latter-day Saints rose to the occasion, the fact that so many did stands as a witness of their commitment to the gospel of Jesus Christ, to the prophet, and to each other.
On October 12, when Captain George Grant and the rescue party arrived at Fort Bridger, Wyoming, they still had not found the handcart companies, although they had fully expected to find them there or nearby. Captain Grant immediately sent express riders east to locate them. The rescue party continued on through South Pass, Wyoming, where Grant asked Reddick N. Allred to stay and establish a supply camp for rescuers as they traveled through the area. He left Allred with flour, cattle, 11 guards, and 4 wagons.
Captain Grant’s rescue party with supply wagons continued to the Sweetwater River in Wyoming. On October 19 a major snowstorm, the first of several, became a blizzard. For protection, Grant camped off the road in a dense grove of willow trees.
Also stranded in the heavy snow on October 19 were the two handcart companies and the two wagon companies—Willie for three days just east of Rocky Ridge in Wyoming; and Martin, Hodgett, and Hunt for nine days near present-day Casper, Wyoming.
About noon on October 19, the express riders located the Willie company. Their light wagon with its few pounds of flour seemed “like a thunderbolt out of the clear sky,” its drivers like “messengers from the courts of glory” to the starving company.19 Though they had little food to leave, they did provide hope to the company when they told Captain Willie that a rescue party with supply wagons was just a long day’s travel to the west.
Express rider Joseph A. Young saw Emily Hill (Woodmansee) among those of the Willie company. He had known her in England and burst into tears. She asked, “Why do you cry, Brother Young?” He said, “Oh, because you look so starved, and the provision wagons are [miles] away.” Then, feeling in his pocket, he produced a small onion. “Eat this,” he said.20
That same day the express riders continued eastward in search of the Martin company. Grant had instructed the riders to go no farther than Devil’s Gate, Wyoming—where a log stockade with three or four cabins had been built. Everyone felt sure that the Martin company would be west of Devil’s Gate, but they were wrong.
On October 20 Captain James Willie and Joseph Elder left the Willie company and headed west on mules to search for the promised supply wagons.
Meanwhile at the rescue party camp on October 20, Harvey Cluff volunteered to take a sign and place it in a conspicuous place at the main road. “In facing the northern blast up hill,” he later wrote, “I found it quite difficult to keep from freezing. I had only been back to camp a short time when two men [James Willie and Joseph Elder] rode up from the Willie handcart company. The signboard had done the work of salvation.”21
The next morning the snow was deep as the rescue party, along with Willie and Elder, pushed the 27 miles back to the Willie campsite. John Chislett of the handcart company wrote of meeting the rescue party: “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. … They felt that they had, in a great measure, contributed to our sad position; but … how bravely they worked to bring us safely to the valley—to the Zion of our hopes!”22
The rescuers handed out flour, potatoes, onions, bedding, and socks. The young rescuers “with axes in hand … dragged from the distant hills several cords of wood. … Bonfires were soon made, and the cooking began in earnest, … until every member of the Willie company had enough to eat and to spare.”23 Even so, nine deaths occurred that night. The next day Captain Grant assigned William H. Kimball to take charge of helping the Willie Company back to Salt Lake City. He left some supply wagons with Kimball, then took 17 men and nine wagons and headed for Devil’s Gate.
On October 22 the Willie company, with the help of some of the rescuers, moved to the base of Rocky Ridge. The next day, they faced the most terrible ordeal of their journey: the 16-mile trek to Rock Creek Hollow, which included a steep 5-mile ascent over the barren Rocky Ridge during a bitter, howling wind that whipped the freshly fallen snow from the day before into a furious storm.
Levi Savage wrote of the day: “We buried our dead, got up our teams and about nine o’clock a.m. commenced ascending the Rocky Ridge. This was a severe day. … We became weary, set down to rest, and some became chilled and commenced to freeze.”24
The next day the company rested at Rock Creek Hollow and buried 15. Leader William Kimball had sent express riders to Reddick Allred’s station near South Pass. Allred brought fresh teams and six provision wagons to Rock Creek Hollow. This was one of Allred’s finest moments. He had remained at his station while others encouraged him to turn back with them when they left.
The Willie company moved on to Fort Bridger, where the immigrants left their handcarts behind and rode in wagons. Lightweight ambulance wagons took the most seriously ill and drove from before sunrise to far past sunset each day, arriving in Salt Lake City on November 3.
The Willie company entered Salt Lake City on November 9. William Woodward wrote of their arrival on that sunny day: “The Bishops of the different wards took every person that was not provided for … and put them into comfortable quarters. Hundreds of persons were round the wagons on our way thro’ the city welcoming the company safely home.”25
When the October 19 snowstorm hit, the Martin handcart company had just crossed the Platte River near present-day Casper, Wyoming—a devastating turning point for them. Martha Robinson Blackham related that the waist-deep water “put them into shock. … Upon reaching the other side a tremendous storm of snow, hail, and fierce winds hit the company. … That night 13 pioneers died from exposure. … Deaths came frequently [in the next few days] and the dead were found … holding hands, or sitting by the fire, or while eating crusts of bread or when singing hymns.”26
Some found the courage to cross on their own. Eliza Cusworth Burton Staker was among those. She waded across the river three times. First she took her son, whom she was forced to tie to a tree while she went back to get his sister. Then she made a third trip to get her handcart.27
Grace Slater Wignall continued the story: “Monday morning the camp moved about 9 miles to [Red Butte]. We were there 9 days; the snow was then about two feet deep. … I called in the elders to administer to [my sick husband], and he was healed immediately.”28
Events such as this were why “the ‘songs of Zion’ were frequently heard … , though the company was in the very depths of its privations.”29
Captain Grant and the rescue party, meanwhile, had traveled 100 miles through deep snow and reached Devil’s Gate on Sunday, October 26, with no sign of the ailing Martin, Hodgett, or Hunt companies. The rescue party was totally exhausted and spent the day “in fasting and prayer, and in preparing themselves to receive the mind and will of the Lord.”30
The next day Grant sent out another express team and told them not to return until they had located the companies. One of the express riders, Daniel W. Jones (not the Welsh missionary), later wrote of this moment: “Having seen the sufferings of Brother Willie’s company, we more fully realized the danger the others were in. The Elders who had just returned from England having many dear friends with these companies, suffered great anxiety, some of them feeling more or less the responsibility resting upon them for allowing these people to start so late in the season across the plains.”31
The Martin company was suffering. Their clothing was almost worn out. Most of their bedding had been burned because they were too weak to pull it farther. They were more numerous than the Willie company with more women, children, and aged. They had started later and been stranded longer by the mountain storms than the Willie company.
But like other Saints in the early Church, they felt a close kinship to the ancient house of Israel and drew strength from it. They had been taught: “Ancient Israel travelled to the promised land on foot, with their wives and little ones. The Lord calls upon modern Israel to do the same.”32 This kinship is evident in the writings of Elizabeth Horrocks Jackson when she described the night her husband died as “enveloped in almost Egyptian darkness.” A few days later, on October 27, Elizabeth had a stunning dream. “My husband stood by me, and said, ‘Cheer up, Elizabeth, deliverance is at hand.’”33
The next day the express riders found the company in several inches of snow. Mary Ferguson Scott of the Hodgett wagon company, which was camped near the Martin company, “sprang to her feet and screamed at the top of her voice, ‘I see them coming! I see them coming! Surely they are angels from heaven.’”34
In fact, as a result of how he looked coming through the snow, express rider Joseph A. (A for Angell, his mother’s maiden name) Young became known to the company as the “blue angel.” Albert Jones described the scene: “The white mule [Young was riding] was lost sight of on the white background of snow, and Joseph A. with his big blue soldier’s overcoat, its large cape and capacious skirts rising and falling with the motion of the mule, gave the appearance of a big blue winged angel flying to our rescue. The scene that presented itself on his arrival I shall never forget; women and men surrounded him, weeping and crying aloud; on their knees, holding to the skirts of his coat, as though afraid he would escape from their grasp and fly away.”35
“Many declared we were angels,” mused the down-to-earth Daniel W. Jones. “I told them I thought we were better than angels for this occasion, as we were good strong men come to help them into the valley, and that our company, and wagons loaded with provisions, were not far away.”36
Though the express riders brought no supplies with them, they provided life-saving hope by announcing that 10 wagons with food and clothing awaited them at Devil’s Gate. The express riders then hurried on to find John Hunt’s wagon camp.
“On the 29th, I returned from Capt. Hunt’s to Capt. Martin’s company,” wrote Joseph A. Young. “Capt. Martin had started early in the morning, and when I overtook them their cry was, ‘let us go to the Valley; let us go to Zion.’”37
Young and the other express riders left the Martin company and arrived at Devil’s Gate on October 31. The camp sprang to life. Grant led the rescuers east that day, and they met the snowbound Martin company at Greasewood Creek. Although a welcome sight, Grant’s supplies provided only about half of the pioneers with a good coat or a pair of stockings without holes.38
Patience Loader was among those who received clothing. “I was thankful to get a nice warm quilted hood, which was very warm and comfortable,” she later wrote. “I also got a pair of slippers as I was nearly barefoot.”39
The companies began to travel to Devil’s Gate. Grant later described the scene to President Young in a letter: “You can imagine between five and six hundred men, women and children, … fainting by the wayside; … children crying, their limbs stiffened by cold, their feet bleeding, … The sight is almost too much for the stoutest of us; but we go on doing all we can. … I think that not over one-third of br. Martin’s company is able to walk. … We have prayed without ceasing, and the blessing of God has been with us. Br. Charles Decker has now traveled this road the 49th time, and he says he has never before seen so much snow on the Sweet Water at any season of the year.”40
Everyone struggled on through another snowstorm on November 1 and finally arrived at Devil’s Gate the next day. “In the ensuing days 4,120 pounds of flour and two bushels of onions would be distributed; … [Soon] every nook and corner of the fort was taken. Wagons and tents were filled to their utmost capacity.” Within a few days the Hodgett and Hunt wagon companies arrived, making some 1,200 persons assembled there. All was in disarray at the small fort. Pioneers, rescuers, wagons, cattle, horses, mules, bedding, and personal baggage all added to the fray. “Provisions would once more have to be rationed. … Hope lay in additional supplies which were expected daily from the valley.”41
Now with a small city of weak, starving people to care for, Captain Grant sent express riders to Salt Lake City to request more supplies. They rode 348 miles in only 10 days, averaging more than 34 miles per day, through snow. All along the way, they caught up with westbound supply wagons driven by teamsters who had given up hope of finding the stranded companies. Once the teamsters learned that the companies had been found, they turned around with renewed determination to find the immigrants.
On November 3, when the express team delivered Grant’s letter to President Young telling of the desperate state of the companies, Brigham Young immediately sent messengers out with instructions to turn around any returning supply wagons. Joseph A. Young also delivered a verbal message to the prophet from the immigrants, who requested the faith and prayers of the Saints in the valley. The immigrants said “that they would endeavor to merit [the faith and prayers of the Saints in the valley] in their journey and after their arrival.”42
Arza Hinckley was one teamster who did not turn back from his original errand but continued moving east in search of the stranded immigrants. When he met two companies of supply wagons returning to Salt Lake City, he convinced them to camp nearby until he found the handcart company. When asked why he thought he could find the handcarts when they hadn’t been able to, Hinckley replied, “Brigham Young sent me out to find the handcart folks and I will find them or give my life trying.”43
Meanwhile, to relieve overcrowding at Devil’s Gate and to provide more protection from the weather for the Martin company, everyone agreed to move them to a nearby cove on November 4. (The cove was later named Martin’s Cove in their honor.)
The Sweetwater River flowed between Devil’s Gate and the cove, and it was full of floating ice. Memories of the suffering and deaths caused from crossing the Platte River caused many to cry to the Lord for help.
Rescuer Cyrus H. Wheelock, who had been in the European Mission presidency, “could scarcely refrain from shedding tears, and he declared that he would willingly give his own life if that would save the lives of the emigrants.”44
Some needed help, and others came to their aid. Among those offering help were the young Minute Men, “brave men there in the water, packing the women and children over on their backs.”45 Others made similar sacrifices.
Once at the cove, rations were cut to four ounces of flour, for the second time, for each person per day. People continued to die, although not as many as before the rescuers arrived, sometimes half a dozen a day, and on one occasion 16 were buried in one grave.46
The officers of the companies decided to empty the Hodgett and Hunt wagons to carry the sickest immigrants to Salt Lake and to store the freight at the stockade. Grant left express rider Daniel W. Jones in charge with 2 assistants and 17 young men from the Hodgett and Hunt wagon companies.
As the immigrants prepared to move from the cove, another blizzard struck. Snow collected 12 to 18 inches deep and by November 6 the temperature dropped to -11 degrees Fahrenheit (-24 C.). On November 9 the weather moderated somewhat, and they left.
Help came on November 10 with the arrival of Ephraim Hanks, who brought two pack animals loaded with frozen buffalo meat. Hanks wrote of his arrival in the Martin company: “Flocking around me, one would say, ‘Oh, please, give me a small piece 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.’ … The next few hours found the people in camp busily engaged in cooking and eating it, with thankful hearts.”47
Hanks provided another important service: “Many of the Saints [had] frozen limbs which were endangering their lives. Brother Hanks anointed these folks and prayed that [an] amputation could be done without pain. Then when he took out his great hunting knife, held it to the fire to cleanse it, and took off the dying limb with its keen blade; many with tears in their eyes said they hadn’t felt a thing.”48
As the company moved from day to day, Ephraim Hanks killed many buffalo for the hungry company. He wrote: “The most remarkable thing about it was that I had traveled that road more than fifty times, and never before saw so many buffaloes in that part of the country. There was not a member of the party but what believed that the Lord had sent them to us in answer to prayer.”49
On November 18, when the Martin company reached Reddick Allred’s supply camp just east of South Pass, Grant saluted him with “Hurrah for the bulldog, good for hanging on.”50 The welcome supplies were distributed, and Allred joined the company.
On November 18, 30 supply wagons led by William H. Kimball arrived at the Sweetwater. Knowing the immigrants were nearby, Kimball dispatched several rescuers to bring them in. Once the immigrants were gathered together, the rescuers gave up their wagons to them. Grant put Robert T. Burton in charge of bringing the Martin company into Salt Lake. Then he, Kimball, and others left for Salt Lake to report to President Young.
Rescuer Asa Hawley described the routine that took place daily until the Martin company reached Salt Lake: “We would carry [the immigrants] to our wagons. After seeing them to bed, we would close the wagon covers thus shutting out all the cold possible. … Then shoveling away the snow we would lay our scanty blankets down for a little rest, then up in the morning a long time before daylight we would build a big fire and prepare breakfast. When all was about ready we would arouse our passengers … [and] pass them their food. … [We then] loaded them into our wagons and traveled on.”51
At noon on November 30, 104 wagons carrying the Martin company and several families from the wagon companies rolled past the old tabernacle and halted before the tithing office (where the Joseph Smith Memorial Building now stands). Officials handed out medicines and food donated by Latter-day Saints from throughout the area.
On December 7, 10, and 15, a total of about 50 more wagons reached the city, carrying 360 members of the Hunt and Hodgett independent wagon companies, who had rested at Fort Bridger for a time.
The comments of Susannah Stone (Lloyd) summed up the feelings of many of the handcart survivors. Although her frosted feet gave her “considerable trouble for many years,” she said, “this was forgotten in the contemplation of the many blessings the Gospel has brought to me and mine.”52
Thus ended “one of the great tales of the West”—the story of a prophet, rescuers, and Saints in the Salt Lake Valley who provided of their scarcity to care for the immigrants until they could care for themselves. The rescue had come about through the courage of the rescuers and the prophetic leadership of Brigham Young. United by their testimonies of the gospel, the immigrants were, as Alma said of his converts, “desirous to come into the fold of God, and to be called his people, and … willing to bear one another’s burdens, that they may be light; [and] … willing to mourn with those that mourn; … to stand as witnesses of God at all times … , even until death, that [they] may be redeemed of God, and be numbered with those of the first resurrection, [and] have eternal life” (Mosiah 18:8–9).
“Now, I am grateful that today none of our people are stranded on the Wyoming highlands. But I know that all about us there are many who are in need of help and who are deserving of rescue. Our mission in life, as followers of the Lord Jesus Christ, must be a mission of saving. …
“If we are to build that Zion of which the prophets have spoken and of which the Lord has given mighty promise, we must set aside our consuming selfishness. We must rise above our love for comfort and ease, and in the very process of effort and struggle, even in our extremity, we shall become better acquainted with our God.
“Let us never forget that we have a marvelous heritage received from great and courageous people who endured unimaginable suffering and demonstrated unbelievable courage for the cause they loved. You and I know what we should do. God help us to do it when it needs to be done.”
President Gordon B. Hinckley, “Our Mission of Saving,” Ensign, Nov. 1991, 59.