Teenager Patience Loader watched the large chunks of ice float down the freezing North Platte River in the fall of 1856. There was no other choice; James Martin, captain of their company of Mormon emigrants, said that they had to ford the river at Last Crossing. The cold October wind made unbearable the task of pushing and dragging the hand-drawn carts across. Patience, her sister and mother had no change of clothes, and there would be no time to stop and dry their drenched and freezing garments until they stopped for the night, many more miles and hours away. Exhibiting the great virtue her name symbolized, Patience and her family entered the icy flow. Later, she recorded her experience:
‘The water was deep and very cold and we drifted out of the regular crossing and we came near beign drounded the water came to our arm pits poor Mother was standing on the bank screaming as we got near the bank I heard her say for God Sake some of you men help My poor girls…Several of the brethren came down the bank of the river and pulled our cart up for us. Mother was there to meet us her clothing was dry but ours was wett and cold and verey soon frozen Mother took of one of her under skirts and put it on one of us and her apron for another to Keep the wett cloth from us for we had to travle several miles before we could camp.’
Freezing and nearly drowned as she was, Patience nevertheless was saddened by the sight of a less fortunate handcart member: ‘When we was in the middle of the river I saw a poor brother carreying his child on his back he fell down in the water I never Knew if he drowned or not I fealt sorrey that we could not help him but we had all we could do to save ourselves from drownding….’
Young Patience Loader was one of nearly 3,000 Mormon pioneers who made the difficult and dangerous trek west in the most arduous and unusual manner–pushing or pulling small handcarts from Iowa City, Iowa, to the Great Salt Lake Valley, nearly 1,500 miles. Most other emigrants of the time used covered wagons for the long haul to Oregon or California. Only 10 handcart companies used this cheaper but more onerous means of traveling the trail between 1856 and 1860. Although the venture proved to be a folly, the rich heritage of sacrifice, austere determination and selfless charity became a legend among the migrating peoples of the West. For the emigrants who began the venture in the last two companies of 1856, Morman leader Brigham Young’s experiment became an ordeal of starvation and death, never to be forgotten.
The byword and motto of the Mormon faith, more properly known as the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, before the turn of the century was to ‘gather to Zion.’ From 1847 when the church first settled in Utah, tens of thousands made the trying trek to the Rocky Mountain ‘Kingdom.’ Some sold all of their possessions in order to finance the trip. ‘Saints’ from Britain and Europe crossed the Atlantic and joined ox-wagon trains heading for ‘Zion.’ For some Saints, however, the seemingly small amount necessary to become part of a wagon train–$45–was an unobtainable goal. Mill workers in England and coal miners in Wales would save for years to earn the money necessary to make the journey. Many became disillusioned at the delay and would leave the faith. In 1850, the church felt the urgent need to bring these faithful poor to the promised land. To meet this need, Young and his associates established the Perpetual Emigration Fund, which would provide the cost for an individual to make the trip, but then it was the individual’s responsibility to reimburse the fund to assist others with the same need. It was a 19th-century form of indentured servitude. The Fund survived for more than two decades, but more from individual contributions than installment paybacks.
In 1851, Brigham Young, as president of the church, devised a new and cheaper method of travel. He was inspired the year before when he observed hundreds of gold seekers walking to California. At the time, he said, ‘Yes, start from the Missouri River with cows, handcarts, wheelbarrows, with little flour and no unnecessaries and come to this place quicker, and with less fatigue, than by following the heavy trains with their cumbrous herds which they are often obliged to drive miles to feed.’ Yet, even the prophet had problems convincing his own people to travel by this new method, which, despite Young’s words, sounded more exhausting. Soon the handcart idea fell by the wayside, displaced by more pressing matters.
The Great Salt Lake Valley and the other mountain valleys experienced a devastating grasshopper plague in 1855. That winter was one of the worst to ever hit the Rockies. Hundreds of horses and cattle died from the severe cold and deep snows. In the spring of 1856, the church leadership found itself too low on funds to bring thousands of converts across the Great Plains.
Again the idea of constructing cheap, small handcarts surfaced, and this time the church took a very active interest. Mission leaders in Britain and Europe preached the necessity of gathering to Zion by any means available; to walk across the Plains pulling a handcart was blessed as a demonstration of faith and sacrifice. Many Europeans who could not afford the more expensive ox-wagon travel enthusiastically volunteered for the handcart approach. The church agents in the Midwest began promoting the use of handcarts, and soon the first ones appeared.
The handcart was of simple design–a small, 5-foot-long bed or box set between two narrow, lightweight wheels. Extending from the bed were two shafts connected at the end by a crossbar that one would lean against one’s chest or waist. Most carts were made of hickory with white oak for the spokes and wheel rims, elm for the hubs, though some had iron tires and axles. These vehicles could normally carry up to 400 or 500 pounds of provisions and stores. Some of the wealthier migrants could afford to have a hooped cover, like a wagon, called a ‘family cart.’ While iron axles and tires were great advantages for the long trek over rugged terrain, the most important factor in a handcart’s construction was the use of seasoned lumber and not green wood, which would not endure the dry, arid climate. The use of unseasoned wood proved to be one of the major underlying causes of the handcart companies’ tragedies along the trail.
In the late 1850s, the nation’s westward expansion of its railroads ended with the Rock Island Railroad terminals at Iowa City, Iowa. There was the beginning of the trail for all the westward-bound handcart companies and a good many wagon trains. Across Iowa, at present-day Omaha, Neb., was the great Mormon settlement of Winter Quarters–later called Florence. The famous Mormon Trail began there and followed the Platte River to the North Platte, then went cross-country to the Sweetwater, over the high summit of South Pass, down through the Bridger Basin area to Echo Canyon, and eventually through Emigration Canyon to the Great Salt Lake Valley.
After nearly 10 years in the Rocky Mountains, the Mormons had produced such capable and daring frontiersmen as Orrin Porter Rockwell, Levi Savage and Hyrum Kimball. They and others developed a reputation for crossing and conquering the Plains. When a new emigrant company organized in the Midwest, the ‘captain’ was normally a presiding elder or even one of the church’s Twelve Apostles returning from a mission to Britain or Europe. Every few weeks a new company began the trek across the Plains. The size of the groups varied from 100 to more than 600. In 1855, 4,225 Mormons made the trip. Then, from November 1855 to June 1856, some 4,395 gathered in Iowa City (or Florence) and organized into various companies, including the first handcart company.
Edmund Ellsworth led the first of the handcart companies. With some 274 migrants and 52 handcarts, Ellsworth struck out from Iowa on June 9; Daniel McArthur followed two days later with 221 people and 48 carts and four wagons. The companies had enough provisions to take them to Florence, where they would be restocked by the Mormons who farmed large tracts of land there and had provided assistance for the exodus for many years.
After Florence, the handcart travelers learned to follow the edict of transporting 17 pounds of luggage and belongings in each handcart, with the remaining space allotted to flour and other food. Before the companies set out, dishes, clocks, mirrors and silk dresses were sold and traded for provisions. Once the migrants were on the way, progress was slow and difficult at first, as many of them were mill workers and miners from the great industrial centers of Europe.
Brigham Young’s enthusiasm for the handcart experiment inspired others. As one optimistic forecast predicted: ‘Fifteen miles a day will bring them through in 70 days, and after they get accustomed to it they will travel 20, 25, and 30 with ease…the little ones and sick, if there are any, can be carried on the carts, but there will be none sick in a little time after they get started.’
The Ellsworth and McArthur companies both arrived jubilantly in Great Salt Lake City the same day, September 26. A brass band and Brigham Young himself, along with hundreds of others, gathered at the mouth of Emigration Canyon and welcomed the handcart companies with hymns and a feast. The entire population considered the handcart an overwhelming success and a viable means of transporting thousands of less-privileged Mormons. Captain Ellsworth had succeeded in leading the company through with fewer deaths and problems than a normal ox train. He had also walked with and courted both Mary Ann Bates and Mary Ann Jones, who he would soon marry and bring to his home. There already was an earlier wife named Mary Ann Dudley.
The third handcart company to make the trek was under the direction of Edward Bunker, a veteran of the Mormon Battalion in the Mexican War. It arrived in the Salt Lake Valley on October 3, 1856, which was considered to be late in the season for such travel. Any train leaving Florence later than the end of June was risking tragedy in the Wyoming passes.
With the arrival of Bunker’s company, three handcart companies had made the crossing with minimal losses, in record time and for considerably less cost than a normal ox train. The timing could not have been better for the last company to arrive, as it was only two days before the semiannual general conference of the church. In the old tabernacle, now replaced by the famous domed oval structure, President Brigham Young would publicly give thanks for bringing more travelers to Zion and out of ‘Babylon.’ However, Brigham’s elation would soon be dashed with the news that more than 1,000 handcarters were struggling through blizzards in Wyoming on the verge of starvation and death.
The initial delay of these two companies occurred because of two late-arriving vessels from Europe. Thorton arrived June 26 in New York, and Horizon July 8 in Boston, with a combined total of 1,620 passengers. It would be several weeks before these emigrant groups reached Iowa City–later than most experienced frontiersmen would dare to attempt the trek.
The church agents in Iowa City were not at all prepared for the unexpected arrival of some 1,600 converts. They hastened to make contracts to buy and build handcarts, but because of the short notice, only green lumber could be obtained.
The lateness of the year concerned several of the brethren, but with faith in God and their leaders the fourth handcart company left Iowa City July 15. Captain James G. Willie led his company of 500 people, 120 handcarts and five wagons west toward Zion. On July 26, Edward Martin followed suit with 576 people, plus 145 handcarts and seven wagons.
Willie arrived in Florence (Omaha), Neb., on August 11 and rested for repairs and restocking provisions. While at Florence, some of the pioneers began to voice concerns about the lateness of the year, the long march ahead, the low provisions on hand and the constant need for repairs of the handcarts because of the green lumber used in their construction. William H. Kimball and George D. Grant, two of the agents from Iowa, were on hand to press the travelers on to Zion. Many felt that they would rather risk the dangers on the Plains than spend a winter in a dugout on the Missouri River.
One strong voice opposed the continuation of the march. Experienced plainsman Levi Savage argued that it was far too late in the year; there were too many women, children and elderly mixed in the group; and the handcarts would not endure the rigorous trail. A vote was taken, and Savage was the only dissenting hand. The other leaders were determined to make it to Zion. The Lord would calm the winter winds and provide sufficient game to feed the company. Savage nobly cast in his lot with his fellow Mormons by saying: ‘Brethren and sisters, what I have said I know to be true; but seeing you are to go forward, I will go with you, will help you all that I can, will work with you, will rest with you, will suffer with you, and if necessary I will die with you.’
Thus, the members of the Willie handcart company departed Florence on August 18 with a prayer in their hearts and singing a marching song some anonymous Mormon had composed: ‘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, ho.’
As the Willie company left, the Martin company was arriving at Florence. Then on August 21, Apostle Franklin D. Richards arrived from his mission in England. Richards strongly encouraged the emigrants to make the trip and rely upon the providence of God. Richards, putting more faith in God and ignoring the realities of the American frontier, fortified the emigrants in their desire to winter in the Great Salt Lake Valley. The people were almost intoxicated in their belief that they would be preserved if they manifested their faith and followed the counsel of their leaders.
Richards, Grant, Kimball and the other missionaries boarded faster moving horse teams and carriages and headed for Utah. A few days later, they passed the Willie company at North Bluff Fork and again exhorted the pilgrims to their goal. Richards, for some unknown reason, bought a few dozen buffalo robes at Fort Laramie and asked that they be held for the handcart ‘Saints.’ Why he did this was never explained and was out of character with his earlier attitude and his expressed belief that the companies would have no trouble crossing the Plains.
Resupplied and rested, the Martin company was ready for its long march to the Salt Lake Valley. Each cart had an extra 100 pounds of flour–communal provisions and not just for the particular party that provided the space. As dawn broke on August 25, the last handcart company of 1856 lined up in Florence and began its trek to the promised land.
The Martin company was not, however, the last group to leave for Utah. On September 2, W.G. Hodgett with 33 ox wagons and John A. Hunt with 50 wagons, having 385 Mormons between them, started their own march. Of course, the wagon travelers would have an easier journey, riding most of the way and carrying more supplies; however, it was seriously late in the season even for wagons.
As the handcart companies progressed across the Plains, the dull routine of camp life continued. Each morning, the dreaded bugle signaled the beginning of another day of toil and sore feet. After the evening prayers, the bugle announced time for the company to retire. During the first few weeks, a musician or two would join in to get the people to dance and enjoy an evening of music and fun; then, as their feet and muscles became more and more sore, the people had little time or energy for dancing.
Predictably, the calamities of frontier travel first claimed the weak and the old. But there also were happier moments, as when the Loader family celebrated one day with a newborn.
The first major setback occurred when a buffalo stampede ran off the cattle of the Willie company. There were not enough animals now to haul all the supply wagons. There were few horses, and it was impossible to round up the missing stock. The provisions in the wagons were transferred to the handcarts.
The farther west the companies marched the more problems they had with axles and wheel hubs. In the humid Midwest, the climate better preserved the green wood, but as the air became drier, the unseasoned material dried too quickly and cracked. Also, the Mormons unwittingly added grease to the wooden axles to stop the loud, irritating squeaking noise the wheels made. The grease collected dust, which became almost like sandpaper and severely eroded the axles and hubs. The extra weight from the abandoned supply wagons also contributed greatly to the many breakdowns.
Captain Willie soon realized there were not enough provisions to last the entire trip at their present rate of speed. At Chimney Rock, he decreased the ration of flour to 10 ounces and more stringently rationed other foods. About this same time, he received a letter from Elder Richards saying that there were no supplies available until they reached South Pass–still hundreds of miles away.
On October 1, the Willie party arrived at Fort Laramie, the halfway mark for the journey. There they found no flour to buy, so rations had to be cut again. Because of the abnormally warm Indian summer they were experiencing, many began discarding their heavy coats and bedding to make more space for provisions.
Again the Willie company struck out for the Great Basin. The Martin company was just over a week behind them and making good progress. However, the leaders of both groups were concerned about the rapidly disappearing supplies and the many hundreds of miles yet to travel. They also knew that a change in the weather could bring tragedy.
Ominously, the first snow of the season fell as the Willie company was trekking along the Sweetwater and the Martin group was just a few miles past Fort Laramie. The first snow did not seem formidable, but soon the freezing temperatures began to take a toll.
Each morning more and more people would be found dead, frozen in their sleep. The low rations, miserable cold, and constant struggle to make good progress each day were now taking their toll on the men in the party more often than on the women and children.
As the companies left the North Platte and worked their way up higher ground to the Sweetwater, the temperatures dropped markedly. John Chislett, a member of the Willie company, began to doubt the wisdom of the journey. He wrote his impressions of the Sweetwater, noting that it ‘was beautiful to the eye, as it rolled over its rocky bed as clear as crystal; but when we waded it time after time at each ford to get the carts, the women and the children over, the beautiful stream, with its romantic surroundings…lost to us its beauty, and the chill which it sent through our systems drove out from our minds all holy and devout aspirations, and left a void, a sadness….’
More snow made the road slushy, slowing travel to a near-crawl. The dwindling food supply, freezing temperatures, and the constant strain of pulling the carts through 6 to 8 inches of snow took a heavy toll. The morning prayer meeting became a morning funeral service as more and more dead were collected from the night before. The losses provided more food for the living but reduced manpower for the handcarts. Many of these contrivances were abandoned.
Finally, on October 18, the Willie company simply stopped, unwilling and unable to proceed any farther. Stranded on the Sweetwater by deep, new snow at Fifth Crossing, Willie ordered one of the few remaining animals butchered. The next morning 12 people were found dead and, after the burial, James Willie and Joseph Elder took the last mule and struggled west for help. Willie knew that by now the Mormons in Salt Lake had to know of his company’s dire condition. Ten days behind, the Martin company was fighting its way up the long ascents to the Sweetwater; it would be just a matter of days before they too would stop and await starvation and death.
As James Willie struck west, the rescue effort was already two weeks in progress; Brigham Young had acted quickly and dispatched a relief column.
On October 4, the day before the general conference, Apostle Franklin D. Richards had arrived in Great Salt Lake City. He had made a courtesy call on Brigham Young and reported on his mission to Britain. During the conversation, Richards mentioned that two handcart companies and two ox trains were on the Plains still en route to Zion. Young was aghast, knowing full well the hazards of such a journey so late in the year.
The next day, Mormons from all over the territory gathered to hear the sermons at the conference. Apostle Richards, still oblivious to the precarious circumstances of the handcart companies, said in his address that the Lord would ‘overrule the storms that may come in the season thereof, and turn them away, that their path may be freed from suffering more that they can bear.’ Fortunately, Young had no illusion as to the realities of a thousand people walking in the snow across the unforgiving land that would become known as Wyoming.
There was no better forum for the immediate call for goods and volunteers. In sharp contrast to Richards’ optimism, Brigham Young called for 60ñ65 horse teams, 12ñ15 wagons and 40 teamsters to haul 12 tons of flour and clothes, to include ‘hoods, winter bonnets, stockings, shirts, garments and almost any description of clothing. You may rise up now and give your names.’ Young had hardly finished his remarks when hundreds stood and volunteered. Several of the returning missionaries, including William Kimball and Joseph Young, son of Brigham, and others volunteered to assist in the rescue. Many of the travelers were converts that these men had brought into the church. With Franklin Richards sitting in the congregation, Brigham Young publicly denounced the tragic decision to urge the companies to make the attempt that season. Although Richards was never dropped from his position in the church, he would suffer Young’s wrath and never again have the full confidence of the councils of the church.
By October 7, George D. Grant and William Kimball led the first rescue group of a half-dozen wagons loaded to overflowing with goods. They made good time and reached Fort Bridger on October 13. There they cached flour and other goods with the Mormons who owned the fort, thereby saving some of the provisions for the last leg of the return journey. Soon afterward they left Fort Bridger, braving the severe storms of the high Plains.
After a few more days of exhausting struggle, Joseph Young split the party and sent a wagon and a few men in advance to locate the handcart companies and notify them that a rescue effort was in progress. Young, Kimball, Grant, Abel Garr and Cyrus Wheelock pushed on ahead with a wagon and a few mounts.
But on October 19, even the rescuers were forced to stop and wait out a raging blizzard. The next day, James Willie and Joseph Elder wandered into their camp after a heroic march. Contact had finally been made with the handcart people. Within minutes the camp was struck, and the men hastened through the storm to find the starving and freezing members of the Willie company.
Nine people in the company had been found dead that morning and dozens more were freezing. The only food remaining was two day’s rations of crackers. Soon fires were burning, and potatoes and beef were cooking in soup pots. Blankets, buffalo robes and clothing were distributed. Chislett recorded the immediate effect the rescuers had on the miserable travelers: ‘That evening for the first time in quite a period, the songs of Zion were to be heard in the camp, and peals of laughter. The change seemed almost miraculous, so sudden was it from grave to gay, from sorrow to gladness.’
William Kimball stayed with some provisions to nurse the Willie company on toward Utah. George Grant and others left, through deepening snow, to find the Martin company, believed to be at Devil’s Gate.
Another week passed before Grant was forced to stop. His rescue party had passed Devil’s Gate and was several days beyond the point where they had expected to find the Martin company. Grant sent Young, Garr and Daniel W. Jones ahead with saddled horses and packed mules to make one final effort to locate Martin. Two days later, October 28, they located the Martin and Hodgett companies, both stranded for days in the snow. The Willie company had been in bad enough condition, but now finding the Martin company, Young and the others could find no words to describe the awful sight. Fifty-six people had already been lost. At first no one seemed to realize that rescue was at hand. Young had no food, only good news for the freezing travelers. The only thing left to do was to get the company moving again–which would be no easy task.
Jones and Garr left the Martin company to find the Hunt wagon train, still two days east. After finding and getting the Hunt company moving, they returned and helped lead the handcarters struggling up Avenue Hill toward the Sweetwater River. Jones captured the scene in his own words: ‘A condition of distress here met my eyes that I never saw before or since. There were old men pulling and tugging their carts, sometimes loaded with a sick wife or children–women pulling along sick husbands–little children six to eight years old struggling through the mud and snow. As night came on, the mud would freeze on their clothes and feet. There were two of us and hundreds needing help. What could we do?’
Far away in the Salt Lake Valley, Brigham Young had wasted no time gathering and organizing a much greater effort. Some 250 wagons loaded with goods had already departed. The companies slowly struggling westward would soon meet the eastward-bound relief wagons–but not before still more died on the way. At Willow Creek, the Willie company lost 15 people in one night.
On November 2, the Willie company survivors entered the valley, exhausted, but safe at last. The company had lost some 62 members. The Martin company would arrive in broken groups through the end of November, with 130 to 150 fewer people than had started back in July. Many survivors would bear the scars of amputated feet, fingers and toes. Stories of individual efforts to help and rescue the handcart travelers would be told and retold for generations.
Perhaps one of the most poignant stories showing the emotions of a handcart survivor involves Margaret Dalglish, a Scot from the Martin company. Upon reaching an overview point of the Great Salt Lake Valley, Dalglish pulled her cart to the rim of the canyon, and with a mighty effort pushed it over and watched as it crashed, scattering hundreds of pieces far below.
This article was written by Sherman L. Fleek and originally appeared in the June 1997 issue of Wild West.
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