Journey by Handcart (Part Two)


A true story retold from Janetta Ann McBride’s journal and her family’s history
Why should we think to earn a great reward If we now shun the fight? (Hymns, no. 30.)

Janetta Ann McBride and her family were early members of the Church. They have traveled from England on their way to the Salt Lake Valley. Their journey was delayed in Iowa because their handcarts were not ready. But finally, as part of the Martin Handcart Company, they are on their way across the plains. In Florence, Nebraska, some members think it is too late to continue the journey. However, it is finally decided that they will all continue on to the Salt Lake Valley.

It was the 25th of August, almost the end of summer, when we left Florence, Nebraska, and headed for Salt Lake City. Everything went fine until Mother became really sick. It was hard to see her ill. She had to ride in one of the handcarts, and I took her place pulling. Heber also was pulling a cart.

Traveling by handcart isn’t bad if you have enough food and the weather stays nice. Many Saints traveled that way and found it a healthy and quick way to get to the Salt Lake Valley. On September 7, a group of missionaries returning to Salt Lake passed us. When they saw how late in the season we were traveling and that the weather was unseasonably cold, they said that they would hurry on to Salt Lake and report to Brigham Young that we would be needing help to get to the valley. We later learned that they had arrived in Salt Lake on October 4. The next day, the 5th, Brigham Young called upon the bishops to immediately organize supplies, wagons, and men to go out and help us reach the valley. The first group left Salt Lake City on October 7th. But, of course, we didn’t know that.

When we arrived at Fort Laramie, we were starting to run low on food. Members of the company purchased what additional food they could. Our rations were also cut from 1 pound of flour a day per person to 3/4 pound. Later it was cut to 1/2 pound, and finally to 1/4 pound per person.

On October 17, just before crossing the North Platte River for the last time, we were told to lighten our loads so that we could travel more quickly. Blankets, extra clothing, and utensils were left behind. How I missed the clothing and bedding a few days later!

The North Platte River was freezing cold, deep, and swift. On October 19th, Father helped us across, then helped others. We were all wet and cold and hungry. No sooner were we across, than the first snowstorm hit us. Father worked hard helping set up camp, and he gave away much—too much—of his food to those in greater need. Most of the men worked too hard and ate too little. They couldn’t bear to see the suffering of the women and children.

The night of October 21st was especially bitter cold and stormy. Nobody had enough clothing or blankets to stay warm. Sometime during the night, Father died of exhaustion, starvation, and the cold. Twelve others also died that night. They were all buried in the same grave. The ground was so frozen that digging in it was almost impossible. How hard it was to leave him out there on the frozen prairie. I felt sad and lonely.

Mother was still ill, Father was dead, and I was now in charge of getting our family to Salt Lake. There was no time to sit down and cry or wait for help. None of us had any choice but to keep moving toward Zion and safety. I used our family’s flour to make a kind of biscuit. I kept pieces from my share of the bread in my pockets. When I couldn’t get the boys or Margaret to keep going, I’d offer them a crumb of bread. Even though they were cold and exhausted, they were so hungry that it worked.

At the end of October, Brother Joseph A. Young and Brother Stephen Taylor arrived in our camp from Salt Lake City. They had wagons of food and clothing! We greeted them as angels of mercy. For the first time in many days, there was joy in our camp. They told us more food, clothing, and bedding were waiting for us at Devil’s Gate.

We kept traveling through the snow to Devil’s Gate and ran into the other wagons with provisions for us. How I wished for a pair of shoes, as my feet froze in the icy slush. But even shoes were less important than food. We left Devil’s Gate with a single handcart for our family. Many of the handcarts were left behind. Those that had brought the provisions from Salt Lake City traveled with us.

At the Sweetwater River, I pulled our handcart through the slushy ice water, then went back for my brothers and sister. I carried them across one at a time. The river wasn’t too deep, but it was many yards wide. It was so cold that my skirts froze around my legs. I wondered if I’d ever be warm again.

The snowstorms continued, and it was bitter cold at night. Sometimes we’d wake up in the morning with our hair frozen to the ground. One night, we thought my little brother Peter was dead, because he was frozen to his quilt. But he finally woke up and, after thawing out his hair, continued the journey.

Although we were much better off now, there still wasn’t enough food or clothing to go around. It was still cold, it was still stormy, and I still had no shoes. Our company found a ravine that we later named Martin’s Ravine, and we set up camp there. For three days there was a terrible blizzard. It was so cold! Even after the storm ended, we had to wait several days before we could travel over the fresh snow. Although there were now wagons and horses, I walked every step of the way. Only those who had frozen feet got to ride.

We camped at Fort Bridger for a few days of rest. More help came at that time. We kept right on traveling. We reached Salt Lake City on November 30, 1856, eleven months after we had left our home in England. Of the 576 people who had started with our company, about 150 of them had died and were buried along the trail, including my father.

We found a place to stay in Ogden with a family named Ferrin. Mother got better and cooked for this household of grown men in return for our board and room. I fell in love with one of the Ferrin brothers, Jacob Samuel. We were married in the Endowment House, and we moved to Provo with my brother Heber.

Later my husband and I moved to Arizona, where we were once again pioneers in an unknown territory.

Do I regret any moment of following the call of the prophet? No! Despite all the hard times, we made it to Zion. We had the gospel, and we were with the Saints. Jacob and I were married for eternity. It was what we had left England for, to obtain the blessings of the gospel. No matter what it cost, it was worth it! All my life I bore testimony of my thankfulness that I made that journey, no matter how hard it was.

[illustrations] Illustrated by Scott Greer