Willie and Martin Handcart Companies

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Depiction of the handcart pioneers by Minerva Teichert

The tragedy of the Willie and Martin handcart companies was caused by a series of missteps that cumulatively resulted in the suffering and death of many British and Scandinavian members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Handcarts were a low-cost, quicker way for the early Saints to travel across the plains to the Salt Lake Valley. Those traveling by handcart were limited in what they could carry. Only 10 of the more than 350 emigrating companies traveled by handcart.[1]

Both the Willie and Martin handcart companies left England late and consequently left Iowa City, Iowa, and Florence, Nebraska, late. The handcarts they traveled with had been made a short time previously so the wood was green and after a short time the handcarts began to shrink and crack. This brought them to Wyoming at the time that winter was setting in, and they encountered a heavy, early storm on October 19.

A Timeline

On May 4, 1856, The Thornton sailed from England, carrying most of the people who comprised the Willie handcart company. The Thornton arrived in New York City on June 14, 1856. They then reached Iowa City on June 26, three days after the third handcart company had departed. (Each of the previous three handcart companies arrived successfully that year, with the help of supply wagons coming out from Salt Lake City. Timing was the crucial difference.)[2]

On May 25, The Horizon sailed from England carrying most of the people who would make up the Martin handcart company and the Hodgetts and Hunt wagon companies. The ship arrived in Boston, Massachusetts on June 30 and the Martin, Hodgetts and Hunt companies arrived in Iowa City on July 8.[3]

The Deseret News provided a timeline of the overland journey of the Willie and Martin Companies. The Hunt & Hodgett Wagon companies traveled behind the two handcart companies and suffered similar hardships.

  • July 15, 1856: The Willie Company, under the direction of James G. Willie, left Iowa City. The Martin Company, led by Edward Martin, left on July 26. Traveling behind the handcarts were the Hunt & Hodgett Wagon companies, including both immigrants and teamsters hauling freight.

At a meeting held to decide whether the companies should remain at Winter Quarters, Levi Savage advised against a journey so late in the year, especially since there were so many elderly, and women and children, among the group. But he was outvoted. He said: "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 I can, will work with you, and rest with you, will suffer with you, and if necessary, I will die with you."

  • Aug. 18: The Willie Company left Florence, Neb.; the Martin Company on Aug. 25; the Hunt & Hodgett companies, Sept. 2.

For the first 200 miles, all was well; company members commented on beautiful scenery and an abundance of wild game.

  • Sept. 4: Some of Willie's cattle were run off by Indians. Some 300 miles west of Florence, a thunderstorm and buffalo stampede drove away the rest.

Food was low by the time the Willie Company reached North Bluff Creek, and rations were cut. There, Franklin D. Richards and a group of returning missionaries met up with the company. The elders, who were on horseback, decided to hurry on to Salt Lake City to get help.

  • Sept. 30: Willie's Company reached Fort Laramie, with 500 miles still to go. No one was expecting them, however, and anticipated provisions were not there.
  • Oct. 12: Willie cut rations, to 10 ounces of flour for men, nine for women, six for children and three for infants. On Oct. 19, at the North Platte crossing, the last of the flour was used. The Martin Company, several hundred miles behind, still had cattle. But limited foraging meant they were scrawny and tough — little better than nothing.
  • Oct. 20: Both companies woke to find 18 inches of snow on the ground and sub-zero temperatures. Because a lot of the clothing and bedding had been left behind to lighten the load, they were unprepared for the cold.
  • Meanwhile, on Oct. 4, Richards arrived in Salt Lake City and told Brigham Young of the companies' plight. In his next day's conference address, Young called for volunteers. "We want 20 teams by tomorrow morning to go to their relief. It will be necessary to send two experienced men with each wagon. . . . Go and bring in those people now on the plains!"
  • Oct. 25: The Willie Company, which had struggled on to South Pass, met five teams from the valley. But they sent those teams on to help the Martin Company. The Willie group continued to meet rescue wagons almost daily, and arrived at Fort Bridger on Nov. 2.
  • Oct 26: Rescue teams had met up with the Martin and Hunt & Hodgett companies near Devil's Gate. But continuing bad weather forced them to seek refuge in a sheltered cove, about 3 miles away — still 350 miles from Salt Lake City.
  • Nov. 9: The Willie Company reached Salt Lake City. On this day, the Martin Company left its cove. Most of them reached the Salt Lake Valley at the end of November.[4]
The Carriers Courtesy of J. Kirk Richards

The Rescue

Sometime in late summer, supply convoys from Salt Lake City were sent east, but failed to meet the emigrants. Records are sketchy and the reason is still unclear; it appears that these supply trains, after waiting some time for the expected handcarters, turned back when the emigrants did not show up.
But in early October, a party of fast-traveling missionaries returning to Utah from Europe, who had passed the Willie and Martin companies on the trails, arrived in Salt Lake City and reported that the two large handcart parties were still on the way. Church President Brigham Young and his counselors in Utah immediately sent relief parties in wagons well stocked with extra food, to find the latecomers and bring them in.
On October 19, [the rescuers] found the stalled and starving Willie group camped in the snow on the Sweetwater River near South Pass. Half the rescue party stayed with the Willie Company. The other half pushed on, and on October 28, three scouts for the rescue party found the Martin company about 100 miles further east, at Red Buttes on the North Platte. In the nine days since the freezing river crossing, the Martin Company, exhausted and nearly out of food in the bitter cold, had moved only a few miles. One of the scouts later noted that fifty-six people in the Martin Company died during that desperate time.
Hanks and the other two scouts got the Martin Company moving again 60 more miles to Devil’s Gate. There, the rest of the rescuers waited for them at some abandoned traders’ cabins called the Seminoe Fort.
Exhaustion, exposure and lack of food had weakened the emigrants of both the Willie and Martin companies, and many died even after rescue efforts had begun.

The Martin Company camped for several days in a small cove in the rocks that must have given some shelter from the wind, a mile or two east up the Sweetwater from Devil’s Gate. They still had very little food. Two small Latter-day Saint wagon trains that had been traveling close behind the large handcart company, meanwhile, arrived at Devil’s Gate about the same time. The people with these trains were also in bad shape and nearly out of food, though better off than the handcarters.[5]

Besides personal belongings, the smaller trains were also carrying commercial freight bound for Utah. A solution became obvious: empty these trains of most of their goods, leave the goods behind at the traders’ cabins, abandon the handcarts, and give the weakest members of the Martin Company a ride the rest of the way. Twenty men stayed at Devil’s Gate to guard the wagon-train goods for the rest of the winter.

Summary

Historian Richard E. Turley Jr. summed up the experiences of these companies: They were “starving to death and freezing to death.”[6]

In 1856 winter storms trapped the Willie and Martin companies, along with the Hunt and Hodgetts wagon companies, on the plains of present-day Wyoming. Close to 1,500 people were stranded along the trail, approximately 250 of whom died after suffering exposure, frostbite, and starvation. A rescue effort enlisted thousands of Church members in Utah to provide food and aid, and over 300 rescuers risked their own safety to meet the companies en route and help them reach the Salt Lake Valley, saving over 1,200 lives. Although some accounts of the rescue and its aftermath exaggerated details of the story, this rescue has inspired generations of Latter-day Saints for the Saints’ rapid response, the rescuers’ heroic willingness to take personal risks, and the community’s support and care for the survivors.[7]
It was by far the worst non-military disaster on the emigrant trails. Of the 60,000 or so emigrants who traveled to Utah across what’s now Wyoming before the completion of the Union Pacific Railroad in 1869, about 3,000 used handcarts. Still, the image of a pioneer family pulling a handcart has become a symbol central to the [Church’s] sense of the power of its faith.[8]

One Survivor’s Testimony

Some years ago President David O. McKay (1873–1970) told of the experience of some of those in the Martin handcart company. Many of these early converts had emigrated from Europe and were too poor to buy oxen or horses and a wagon. They were forced by their poverty to pull handcarts containing all of their belongings across the plains by their own brute strength. President McKay related an occurrence which took place some years after the heroic exodus:
“A teacher, conducting a class, said it was unwise ever to attempt, even to permit them [the Martin handcart company] to come across the plains under such conditions.”
Then President McKay quoted an observer who was present in that class: “Some sharp criticism of the Church and its leaders was being indulged in for permitting any company of converts to venture across the plains with no more supplies or protection than a handcart caravan afforded.
“An old man in the corner … sat silent and listened as long as he could stand it, then he arose and said things that no person who heard him will ever forget. His face was white with emotion, yet he spoke calmly, deliberately, but with great earnestness and sincerity.
“In substance [he] said, ‘I ask you to stop this criticism. You are discussing a matter you know nothing about. Cold historic facts mean nothing here, for they give no proper interpretation of the questions involved. Mistake to send the Handcart Company out so late in the season? Yes. But I was in that company and my wife was in it and Sister Nellie Unthank whom you have cited was there, too. We suffered beyond anything you can imagine and many died of exposure and starvation, but did you ever hear a survivor of that company utter a word of criticism? …
“‘I have pulled my handcart when I was so weak and weary from illness and lack of food that I could hardly put one foot ahead of the other. I have looked ahead and seen a patch of sand or a hill slope and I have said, I can go only that far and there I must give up, for I cannot pull the load through it.’”
He continues: “‘I have gone on to that sand and when I reached it, the cart began pushing me. I have looked back many times to see who was pushing my cart, but my eyes saw no one. I knew then that the angels of God were there.
“‘Was I sorry that I chose to come by handcart? No. Neither then nor any minute of my life since. The price we paid to become acquainted with God was a privilege to pay, and I am thankful that I was privileged to come in the Martin Handcart Company.’”[9]