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In 1856 the Martin and Willie handcart companies of Mormon pioneers lost more than 200 people to the weather, exhaustion, starvation and illness while crossing the Great Plains to Salt Lake City, Utah. (Illustrations courtesy of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Salt Lake City, Utah)

‘Let the emigration foot it and draw upon them [the carts] the necessary supplies.…They can come just as quick, if not quicker, and much cheaper—can start earlier and escape the prevailing sickness which annually lays so many of our brethren in the dust’ —Brigham Young

Elizabeth Whittear Sermon found herself in a struggle for her very life in the fall of 1856 as she walked toward Utah Territory with her family, pushing and pulling a two-wheeled cart. An English convert to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 37-year-old Elizabeth had prayed for the opportunity to follow her Mormon faith to America, though her husband, Joseph, 54, was not so certain the move was best choice for the family.

Prior to leaving England, the Sermons had a comfortable home and Joseph steady work. But at Elizabeth’s insistence they sold their property, packed up their children (Henry, 5, John, 8, Robert, 6, and Marian Elizabeth, 3) and in February 1856 traveled to the United States on the sailing ship Caravan. They were among the more than 1,200 Mormons bound for America that year. Once in New York they purchased tickets on a westbound train. Ultimately they reached Florence, Nebraska Territory, site of a previous Mormon encampment and still known as Winter Quarters by the Mormons. At first they rented a house, but when money grew tight, they bought and moved into a tent.

That summer the Sermons looked on as other church converts passed through Florence. Many of the travelers used provisions of the Perpetual Emigration Fund (PEF), a Mormon program instituted in 1849 when the church allocated $5,000 to aid impoverished converts on their westward migration. The goal was to help them reach the State of Deseret (supplanted by Utah Territory on September 9, 1850). Once established, they would repay what they had received in aid and thus keep the fund solvent. The PEF stemmed from the “covenant” of 1846 when the Mormons abandoned Nauvoo, Ill., and relocated farther west, pledging to never desert “the poor who are worthy.”

In intervening years the PEF had helped Mormon converts travel by wagon train across the Great Plains to Great Salt Lake City. The premise that those taking advantage of the fund would in turn replenish it did not pan out, however, as settlers’ reimbursements couldn’t keep up with new emigrants’ demands.

With declining money and material available for the PEF, in September 1855 Brigham Young fell back on an old plan—“to make handcarts, and let the emigration foot it and draw upon them [the carts] the necessary supplies, having a cow or two for every 10. They can come just as quick, if not quicker, and much cheaper—can start earlier and escape the prevailing sickness which annually lays so many of our brethren in the dust. A great majority of them walk now, even with the teams which are provided.”

The emigrants would travel under their own power, hauling their meager possessions—just 15 to 17 pounds of goods per person—on small two-wheeled carts. Each cart was expected to accommodate five people and would be loaded with food, primarily flour plus a bit of salt and bacon.

Young believed that with their carts and 90 days’ rations the travelers could make the long journey to Utah Territory within 70 days, covering some 20 to 30 miles each day. The December 1, 1855, edition of The Mormon reported, “There is nothing very pleasing nor inviting about this journey; but we think, after all, it is better to go there among friends, poor, than to endure the buffetings of a cold, heartless world in poverty.”

The handcart treks began in the spring of 1856 when Edmund Ellsworth and 274 members of the First Company crossed the Atlantic on Enoch Train and Samuel Curling. Daniel D. McArthur’s Second Company, which comprised 497 people, was also packed aboard Samuel Curling with the 320 members of the Third Company, Welsh emigrants led by Edward Bunker.

The ocean leg of the journey ended in Boston, New York or Philadelphia. There the travelers boarded trains that would take them west to the jumping-off camps, mainly in Iowa, where they would pick up their handcarts and begin walking. The Mormons then faced several weeks of grueling travel, laboriously manhandling what later Danish handcart captain John A. Ahmanson called “tohjulede Menneskepiner.” Although this has been translated variously as “two-wheeled human tormentors” or “two-wheeled human sorrows,” historian Will Bagley says it “might be bettered rendered as ‘two-wheeled torture devices.’”

The first death on the trail for these self-propelled travelers occurred on the seventh day out when William Lee, 14-year-old son of John Lee, succumbed to consumption (tuberculosis). Another child, Lora Preator, who was just 2 years old, died the following morning of whooping cough. The party buried both youngsters at Little Bear Creek, just 35 miles west of the overland starting point in Iowa City, Iowa.

The third victim of the trail was the 19-month-old son of Job Welling. His parents took the body with them the next morning as the handcarts rolled west. After traveling 9 miles in just over three hours, Ellsworth halted the company, allowing the women an opportunity to wash clothes and the Welling family the chance to bury their baby. There would be challenges, more deaths, a few triumphs, and, finally, rejoicing when the first three companies rolled into Great Salt Lake City in September.

While Brigham Young, the president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, might have believed that year’s migration had concluded, and quite successfully, in fact two more handcart brigades had already begun their push over the prairies. James Grey Willie, leading more than 500 travelers of the Fourth Company, left Iowa City in mid-July and departed from Winter Quarters in August. Following him days later was Edward Martin and the Fifth Company, accompanied by two Mormon wagon trains.

Elizabeth and Joseph Sermon had watched the earlier handcart companies and other traveling parties organize and depart from Florence. Joseph was hesitant to take his family any farther west, but Elizabeth ultimately persuaded him to continue toward Zion. They bought a wagon and mule team for the journey. Then fate stepped in as Elizabeth listened to church elders. The elders convinced her it was God’s will the Sermons sell their wagon and animals and use the proceeds from these “treasured possessions” to help other families also travel to Utah Territory. Handcarts would furnish the transportation.

The decision made, the Sermons joined Martin’s handcart company when it pulled away from Cutler’s Park in Florence on August 25, 1856, carrying provisions expected to stretch for 60 days. In all there were about 576 people pulling 146 poorly built handcarts, plus seven wagons and a carriage for Martin, a freight wagon loaded with church goods and some 50 head of milk cows and beef cattle.

Shadowing them were the wagon companies led by Benjamin Hodgetts and John A. Hunt. Hodgetts had 33 wagons pulled by 84 yoke of oxen and a contingent of around 150 people. Hunt had about 240 people on 50 wagons and another four wagons filled with freight, all pulled by 297 oxen and cows and seven horses and mules.

Out on the Great Plains, when it became necessary to haul more flour on the carts, the children had to walk. “The way was rough and the travel slow and hard,” Elizabeth Sermon later wrote. The traveling wore on Joseph Sermon, and his health began to fail. One day, on realizing he was seriously ill, Elizabeth stopped her cart and discarded the flour. “I told the Captain Martin that if I and my children could not eat some of it, I would not draw it any further.

“I was beginning to think the handcart system was not very pleasant,” Sermon reflected, “and I felt it was the fault of the captains, but I had yet to learn that on which I had not calculated. On some days we made good time—other days a cart or two would break down, a child would be missing or a death, sometimes more than one, would happen.…Our food was giving out, our bodies growing weak.”

Fellow traveler John Bond recalled, “The saints began to show weariness of the journey by the sunken eyes and emaciated forms from constant travel.” At times they did not reach camp until near midnight, pulling and tugging the carts, wearing shoes so worn their toes protruded “in a bleeding condition.”

On October 8 Martin’s company reached Fort Laramie (in what would become eastern Wyoming), but unlike earlier westbound travelers they did not lay over to rest. After selling (or exchanging) watches and other valuables for provisions, they pushed on, no doubt driven by the company leaders, who must have known the weather could change at any time.

Heber McBride, a 13-year-old traveling with his family, had enjoyed the ocean crossing from England to America, but he did not like the overland journey with Martin. As food grew scarce and the temperatures dropped, the young emigrant recalled, “the men began to give out, teams gave out, and so many [people were] sick and dieing [sic] that they couldent [sic] all ride.” The boy’s mother was already ill, and soon his father, Robert McBride, began struggling from the travel. The responsibility for the family soon fell to Heber and his 16-year-old sister, Janetta.

“Sometimes we would find Mother laying by the side of the road,” Heber recalled. “We would get her on the cart and haul her along till we would find Father, lying as if he was dead, then Mother would be rested a little, and she would try and walk, and Father would get on and ride.…We used to cry and feel so bad.” Many days the McBride family did not reach camp until after dark.

Reaching camp late one rainy night, Heber feared for his mother’s life. “We thought she was going to die, and we had gathered a few sunflower stalks and wet buffloo [sic] chips and had just got a little fire started when all hands were ordered to attend prayers, and because we did not go to prayers, Daniel Taylor [Tyler] came and kicked our fire all out and spilled the water that we was trying to get warm to make a little tea for Mother. I then told him if I ever got to be a man, I would whip him if it was the last thing I ever did on this earth.”

Elizabeth Sermon felt some of the company captains had unfair advantages over her family and friends. “By our going around camp at night where cooking pots of some of the captains could be seen, they looked pretty full and smelled quite savory. In fact the captains fed well while we drank ours in porridge, for I could not make bread with the small allowance of flour.”

The Hunt and Hodgetts wagon trains bookended Martin’s handcart company, with Hodgetts out ahead and Hunt following behind. These weary travelers noted with alarm the sight of snow on Laramie Peak and the monotonous howling of wolves that followed the trains. “The snow caped [sic] Peaks bring much alarm,” wrote Bond, who was traveling with Hodgetts’ company. The handcart pioneers feared the cold above all, as they lived in tents and had only worn bed coverings and clothes. “God pity them,” Bond wrote. “He knows of their wounded and aching hearts.”

At the final crossing of the North Platte River (near present-day Casper, Wyo.) many women tied up their skirts and waded through the icy water, while men carried those too small or weak to cross. Some handcart pioneers pleaded with Martin to unload a wagon so they could ride across. “The Saints pleaded so earnestly,” Bond said, “we could hear their appeals on the opposite side of the river.” But they cried out in vain. “[Martin] still gave them a deaf ear to their pleadings. The captain repeated, “Have faith in God, and you will not take cold,” while he sat on his mule and saw those innocent ones who had pleaded so fall in the river as the current was carrying the weak ones off of their feet.”

The travelers had barely made it to the other side and set up camp when the temperature plummeted, and a piercing north wind brought snow, sleet and hail. The following day they struggled a few miles west to a new camp near Red Buttes, where the bitter storm forced another halt.

“The evening we crossed the Platte River for the last time,” Heber McBride recalled, “it was very cold, and the next morning there was about 6 inches of snow on the ground, and then what we had to suffer can never be told.” After the river crossing Robert McBride could no longer move, so Heber found a place for him to ride in one of the wagons. The children pulled the handcart carrying their mother to the camp at Red Buttes and pitched the family tent. After making their mother as comfortable as they could, the siblings sought out their father, but high wind and blowing snow had delayed the wagons, so the McBride children returned to their tent.

About a foot and a half of snow fell on the Red Buttes camp that night. When Heber searched for his father the following morning, he found the man “under a wagon, with snow all over him, and he was stiff and dead. I felt as though my heart would burst. I sat down beside him on the snow and took hold of one of his hands and cried, ‘Oh, Father! Father!’ There we was away out on the plains with hardly anything to eat and Father dead and Mother sick.”

Snowbound in what would become central Wyoming, the suffering company could barely manage to keep fires burning and make meager meals. “It seemed as though death would be a blessing,” McBride recalled. “Our clothing almost worn out and not enough of bedclothes to keep us warm, we would lay and suffer from night till morning with the cold.”

Martin’s weary party had stalled just west of the North Platte crossing. The weather was too cold, their food too meager, their bodies and wills giving out as winter storms dumped more snow on their camp. “Captain Martin looked sorrowful and careworn,” wrote Bond, “but was as firm as the hills that assistance would soon arrive to help all the famishing ones.” Although these people didn’t lose faith, still hundreds of miles from Utah Territory they did begin to lose hope they would ever see Great Salt Lake City. “We used to pray that we might die to get out of our misery,” wrote McBride.

Ahead of Martin’s company, the Willie handcart company (Fourth Company) also suffered in the early cold and snow. Lacking food and adequate clothing, the weaker among them began to fall. As John Chislett, who wrote the official journal, recorded: “Every death weakened our forces. In my hundred I could not raise enough men to pitch a tent when we camped.”

They were about 100 miles farther west on the trail, following the Sweetwater River, when the storm hit them. After eating the last of their food supply, they huddled in their crudely pitched tents, praying for help.

A party of missionaries had overtaken both the Martin and Willie companies on the Nebraska Territory plains. This group, traveling with a light wagon and faster horses, reached Great Salt Lake City in early October. They informed Brigham Young of the plight of the handcart companies, and he organized an immediate rescue effort. Calling for young men with fresh teams and wagons, he implored the women of the territory to bring warm clothing, blankets and food.

The rescue wagons set out within days, traveling back along the trail to Fort Bridger and the Green River, expecting daily to encounter one or both of the companies. Instead they met a Mormon freight wagon train led by Abraham Smoot, which was carrying goods to the Salt Lake valley, including a heavy steam engine Young had ordered. The rescue company shared food and relief supplies intended for the handcart pioneers with Smoot’s wagon train before continuing along the trail.

As they neared South Pass with still no sign of the handcarts, an advance rescue party split from the main force, riding faster horses as they sought the missing travelers. These men found Willie’s party huddled in starving misery at the sixth crossing of the Sweetwater, two days’ travel east of South Pass. The relief wagons soon reached them, providing the food and aid necessary for Willie and company to resume their western pilgrimage to Zion.

The advance riders then continued backtracking. Day after day they expected to find Martin’s company. No sign of it at Split Rock, nor at Devils Gate. Finally the rescue guard came upon the suffering pioneers, still encamped near Red Buttes. Told of the advancing wagons with food and warm clothing miles to the west, the McBrides, Sermons and others picked up their carts and again took to the trail, crossing the Rock Avenue (aka the Devils Backbone) and passing Willow Springs to camp at Horse Creek, where, finally, the rescue wagons met them.

Nourished by the food, and with the benefit of blankets and clothing, including shoes, they again took up their handcarts, following the trail past Independence Rock to Devils Gate and the abandoned buildings of an old trading post known as Seminoe’s Fort. Here they went into camp, as the weather again turned bitterly cold. They remained only briefly near the fort—which was too small to shelter all of the exhausted travelers—before wading the icy Sweetwater River and seeking refuge in the Rattlesnake Mountains at a place later known as Martin’s Cove.

The rescuers were eager to help, but they had far too little food and too few wagons. To overwinter at Devils Gate or Martin’s Cove would mean almost certain death for all, so when the weather broke, the company again set out for Great Salt Lake City. Abandoning many of the handcarts, the able-bodied loaded the weakest and sickest among them into the wagons (the rescue wagons and, after unloading cargo, the Hunt and Hodgetts wagons). The remainder walked, a determined few still dragging carts with supplies.

Heber and Janetta McBride were among those on foot, while their mother and siblings rode in a wagon. Elizabeth Sermon and her children also walked, but Joseph’s health had failed such that he remained in a wagon until they had crossed the Sweetwater for the last time. That very day Joseph Sermon and eight other men died. Elizabeth sewed her husband’s body into a quilt, leaving it clothed but taking his boots, which she wore herself as she continued toward Great Salt Lake with the children. Young Robert Sermon froze his feet, and his mother used scissors to trim away dead skin “until the poor boy’s feet were nearly all gone.” Others were less fortunate; by the time additional rescue wagons reached them, the Martin company had buried 144 people. Another 30 people would die before they reached Great Salt Lake City.

In the Willie company some 70 people died on the crossing, nine of them within days of reaching the city and after Mormon officials had diverted the rescue wagons to Fort Bridger to aid Abraham Smoot’s freight wagon train. Brigham Young had ordered the rescue group to leave Willie and instead help Smoot bring in the freight on his wagons, even though Smoot himself had suggested leaving the goods at the fort for the winter.

The Willie company reached Salt Lake on November 9, while Martin’s company, in which about 170 people died, did not arrive until November 30.

Twenty of the rescue party had remained behind at Devils Gate to guard the goods left there by the Hunt and Hodgetts wagon trains, which continued traveling with the Martin company. Those Mormon rescuers almost starved to death that winter, making it through in part thanks to aid provided by Shoshone Indians.

Despite the disastrous crossings of Willie and Martin—the worst single tragedies to befall any overland travelers—the church continued to support the handcart scheme. From 1857 through 1860 another five companies of obedient Mormons from Britain and Scandinavia trudged the trail with their two-wheeled carts. More would die, but the majority of the faithful would reach Utah Territory.

Wyoming resident and Western Writers of America executive director Candy Moulton traveled with the Mormon Trail Sesquicentennial Wagon Train in 1997, pushing and pulling a handcart for part of the journey. She is working on a book about the handcart migration. For further reading Moulton suggests Handcarts to Zion: The Story of a Unique Western Migration, 1856–1860, by LeRoy R. Hafen and Ann W. Hafen, and Devil’s Gate: Brigham Young and the Great Mormon Handcart Tragedy, by David Roberts.