Handcart Pioneer

(A true story)
Adapted from the “Autobiography of Agnes Caldwell,” typescript of an interview conducted by her daughter, Veara Southworth Fife.

Agnes Caldwell thought she had the smartest, thriftiest mother alive. Agnes knew it was no easy task for her widowed mother, Margaret, to raise three boys and two girls by herself.

Just before Agnes was born, her father, William Caldwell, was lost at sea. A few years later, her mother had the enormous job of getting her family safely from Scotland to America and then across America to the Salt Lake Valley.

In 1856, when Agnes was nine years old, she and her family boarded the ship Thornton and arrived in America seven weeks later. In Iowa, they joined the James G. Willie Handcart Company. Their company suffered greatly on their way to the valley as they pushed and pulled their heavy handcarts through terrible snowstorms and freezing temperatures. Agnes knew her mother’s hard work and careful planning saved their lives many times.

One day when they had very little to eat, Agnes’s mother sold a quilt and a bedspread and used the money to buy food. She often traded trinkets and gifts to the Native Americans for dried meat, which proved to be a great help, especially when the cold wind was blowing and they couldn’t build a fire to cook food. On such days, she would give each of her children a piece of dried meat and some bread. Sometimes she took a small piece of meat and made a stew, thickening it with a little flour and some salt. It tasted so good on a cold night!

Agnes marveled as she watched her mother find a way to bake food out on the prairie. Mother dug a hole in the ground, placed the food in a heavy iron kettle with a tight lid, then set it in the hole and covered it with burning buffalo chips or small pieces of wood. She prepared many meals in this way.

One day, when the handcart company stopped in Laramie, Wyoming, Mother and others in the company visited an officer at a command post. She wanted to trade some jewelry and silver spoons for flour and meat. The officer said he could not use any of these items but told her where she could make the trade. After Mother left, he told the others they were foolish to make this dangerous journey. He tried to persuade some of them to stay with him in Wyoming, but they insisted they wanted to be with the other Latter-day Saints in the Rocky Mountains. When Mother returned, he gave them a large cured ham and wished them well on their adventure to Utah.

Agnes wrote of one incident that took place shortly before they got to the Salt Lake Valley: “Just before we crossed the mountains, relief wagons reached us, and it certainly was a relief. The infirm and aged were allowed to ride, all able-bodied continuing to walk. When the wagons started out, a number of us children decided to see how long we could keep up with the wagons, in hopes of being asked to ride. At least that is what my great hope was. One by one they all fell out, until I was the last one remaining, so determined was I that I should get a ride.

“After what seemed the longest run I ever made before or since, the driver, who was William Henry ‘Heber’ Kimball, called to me, ‘Say, sissy, would you like a ride?’ I answered in my very best manner, ‘Yes sir.’ At this he reached over, taking my hand, clucking to his horses to make me run, with legs that seemed to me could run no farther. On we went, to what to me seemed miles. What went through my head at that time was that he was the meanest man that ever lived or that I had ever heard of, and other things that would not be a credit nor would it look well coming from one so young. Just at what seemed the breaking point, he stopped. Taking a blanket, he wrapped me up and lay me in the bottom of the wagon, warm and comfortable. Here I had time to change my mind, as I surely did, knowing full well by doing this he saved me from freezing when taken into the wagon.”

The Caldwell family arrived safely in the Salt Lake Valley on 9 November 1856. Agnes later married Chester Southworth and became the mother of 13 children. They lived in Dingle, Idaho; Cardston, Alberta, Canada; and Gridley, California. After becoming a widow, Agnes moved to Brigham City, Utah, to be close to some of her children. She died on 11 September 1924, at age 77.

[illustrations] Illustrated by Paul Mann