Westward They Go to God: The Handcart Pioneers

If you’ve ever had computer classes while attending elementary schools in the mid-1990s, then you’ve more than likely played the original survival game, The Oregon Trail, on your Apple II computer. You start in Independence, Missouri with your team of oxen, wagon supplies, ammunition, and pray that at least one member of the company makes it to the Willamette Valley. The dangers faced in the game were no less real than in true life; venomous snakes, disease, harsh weather, accidents, and drowning were all endured by those who braved the Oregon Trail. Simultaneously, another group of pioneers moving west encountered the same struggles, but they were more motivated by a religious calling to build a new Zion in the American West. The same group also traveled overland by handcarts rather than the larger, more expensive Conestoga wagon. They were the Mormon Pioneers and they prevailed through hardships more unforgiving than anyone could imagine.

Church pioneers making their way west. The Willie and Martin handcart companies were two of ten companies that would eventually make it to Salt Lake City via handcart (Image courtesy of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints)

In 1847, Brigham Young and a vanguard company of pioneers entered the Salt Lake Valley and decreed that a new home for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints was to be built in the valley. Discussions amongst the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles and local church leaders declared that Saints should make their way to the Salt Lake Valley by whatever means necessary. Between 1848 and 1890, large companies of pioneers were established and made their way across the Great Plains and into the Rocky Mountains. Before railroads ventured into the Utah territory, the Church made a distinctive choice with their method of travel; handcarts. Only ten percent of pioneers made the long trek by handcarts, they have become an iconic symbol of the pioneer resilience, determination, and sheer strength in their journey to the newly established Zion.

The year 1856 saw the trek of arguably the two most famous handcart companies in church history, the Willie and Martin companies. Three prior companies departed Iowa City in June 1856 (Ellsworth, McArthur, and Bunker), but due to the long trans-Atlantic communication lines, word did not reach Iowa City that the Willie and Martin companies were still planning to travel that summer. They had not even left England yet. By the time they arrived in Iowa City, church members frantically assembled handcarts from whatever leftover materials were available and gathered as many provisions as possible. Many urged that the two companies settle down in Winter Quarters, Nebraska that winter because they were ill-equipped and too far behind schedule to safely make it through the mountains. Church members were limited by the amount of weight they could carry on each cart; food, blankets, and protective gear were all they could carry. Despite the shortcomings, the two companies agreed to strike out for the Salt Lake Valley in July 1856, one month later than planned. What ensued were harsh trials challenging their fortitude, faith, and future in the West.

The Handcart (Mormon) Trail from Iowa City to Salt Lake City (Image courtesy of the National Park Service)

In the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, an important commandment is keeping a faithful record of the church and its people. Since the early days of Joseph Smith’s ministering work, he wrote about received revelations, religious experience, doctrine, contemporary events, and correspondence with a large number of people. Keeping a journal is a common practice in the church and during the course of the westward migration, the pioneers also kept a record. These journal entries recount everyday activities, births, deaths, landmarks, and other events that occurred in the handcart companies. They provide a glimpse into what the pioneers felt about their excursion and how they overcame their obstacles with the help of other company members and their religious conviction. Of course, what one can expect when reading these entries as the company enters the mountains and the bitter cold winter, the optimism declines and the desperation shows.

The companies made their way across the long stretches of Nebraska, battling the harsh summer heat and attacks by wildlife. People rejoiced at the sights of significant trail landmarks used by other pioneers such as Chimney Rock, Scotts Bluff, and Fort Laramie. William Southwell of the Martin Company writes this account when they arrived in sight of Chimney Rock:

“…This was an ideal place. Plenty of grass, plenty of wood, and all the requisites of a good camp. We were now on the side where the formed Chimney Rock stands. It was a great sight. A sight that once seen is never forgotten. It stands on the Laramie Plains and is visible one hundred miles.”

John William Southwell, Martin Company, 1856

However, the prejudices faced by the Saints back east followed them west. Other pioneers harassed them for food, livestock, weapons, and military outposts meant to have stockpiles of supplies were either sold out or refused to sell the the impoverished companies of Saints. The first wave of snowstorms hit the Saints when they ventured into Wyoming crossing the Platte River for the final time:

“…We have scarcely crossed the river when we were visited with a tremendous storm of snow, hail, sand, and fierce winds. It was a terrible storms from which both the people and teams suffered. After crossing the river, my husband was put on a handcart and hauled into camp; and indeed after that time he was unable to walk, and consequently provision had to be made for him to ride in a wagon…From this time my worst experience commenced.”

Elizabeth Horrocks Jackson, Martin Company, October 19, 1856

Church historians will tell you that the lowest point in the Saints westward migration was when they came to Martin’s Cove in the winter of 1856. By this stage many members of the company were starving and racked with illness. Their daily rations were reduced to only a handful of flour and many substituted by chewing on leather or tree bark. Winter had come with a vengeance in the mountains and claimed many lives of the Saints. John Kirkman of the Martin Company aptly summarizes the Martin’s Cove experience:

“Death had taken a heavy tool; the ravine was like an overcrowded tomb; no mortal pen could described the suffering.”

John Kirkman, Martin Company, 1856
Members of the Martin Handcart Company burying the dead. The ground was frozen so hard that they could only be buried a couple feet down, enough to keep wild animals from digging up the graves (Image courtesy of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints)

Despite the hardships, the companies were not completely without hope. Church President Brigham Young dispatched a network of scouts carrying supplies to reach pioneers within a few days reach of Salt Lake City. Wagon trains filled with rations, blankets, and other items were sent out for the struggling companies and they were godsends for sure. Not only did they bring material relief, but they shepherded spiritual relief also and a sign that their journey was coming to an end.

“As we were resting for a short time at noon, a light wagon was driven into our camp from the west. Its occupants were Joseph A. Young and Stephen Taylor. They informed us that a train of supplies was on the way, and we might expect to meet it in a day or two. More welcome messengers never came from the courts of glory than these two young men were to us. They lost no time after encouraging us all they could to press forward, but sped on further east to convey their glad news to Edward Martin and the fifth handcart company who left Florence about two weeks after us, and who it was feared were even worse off than we were. As they went from our view, many a hearty ‘God bless you’ followed them.”

John Chislett, Willie Company, 1856

I reached the ill-fated train just as the immigrants were camping for the night. The sight that met my gaze as I entered their camp can ever be erased from my memory. The starved forms and haggard countenances of the poor sufferers, as they moved about slowly, shivering with cold, to prepare their scanty evening meal, was enough to touch the stoutest heart…When I saw the terrible condition of the immigrants on first entering their camp, my heart almost melted within me. I rose up in my saddle and tried to speak cheering and comforting words to them. I told them also that they should all have the privilege to ride into Salt Lake City, as more teams were coming.

Ephraim K. Hanks, Rescuer, 1856

On November 30, 1856, the last of the Willie and Martin handcart companies made it into Salt Lake City. Over two hundred people died en-route to the valley and many more arrived half-starved with nothing more than their handcarts and the clothes they were wearing. They were warmly welcomed by the Saints and had their stories recorded for posterity for the church. Five more companies would traverse the plains by 1860 before the outbreak of the Civil War when guerrilla warfare ravaged the West. With the completion of the first Trans-continental railroad in 1869, the era of wagons and handcarts ended. Historians and church leaders still debate on the fundamental planning and policies of the handcart companies; whether or not they were truly prepared and if more deaths could have been avoided. What remains strong though is the resilient spirit and fortitude of the pioneers who pushed their way to a new homeland beyond the mountains and made a new Zion on Earth. American West historian Wallace Stegner memorializes their convictions by stating:

“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 and eating their dead to keep their own life beating, as both the Fremont and Donner parties did. … But if courage and endurance make a story, if humankindness and helpfulness and brotherly love in the midst of raw horror are worth recording, this half-forgotten episode of the Mormon migration is one of the great tales of the West and of America.”

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