Ephraim Knowlton Hanks was one of the early leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints who helped rescue those pioneers of the Martin Handcart Company during the Western Migration. T. C. Christensen made a film about him in 2013, entitled Ephraim’s Rescue.
Hanks was born in Madison, Lake County, Ohio, on March 21, 1826. He left home at age 16 and worked on the Erie Canal and served in the U.S. Navy. After he returned home, he joined The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in 1845.
When the main body of the Saints were forced to leave Nauvoo, Illinois, Hanks headed west with them to the Salt Lake Valley. He was part of the group that marched toward San Diego as part of the Mormon Battalion, and then rejoined the Saints in Utah Territory.
In 1856, after the Martin and Willie Handcart companies were delayed because of a lack of handcarts and extreme winter weather conditions, word was brought to Brigham Young that the company was on the plains, and not waiting for Spring weather as he had supposed. Young called for rescuers to gather supplies and head to Wyoming to rescue the party.
- Ephraim was visiting a friend when just before he went to bed he heard a voice call his name. The voice told him three separate times that the handcart Saints were in trouble and asked if Ephraim would help them. Each time he replied that he would if he were called. Two days after this experience, Ephraim arrived in Salt Lake City, just in time for Brigham Young’s call for volunteers to help the handcart companies. Ephraim did not ask for a few days to prepare like many of the volunteers did, but obediently declared, “I am ready now!” He began his journey over the plains the very next day.
Hanks recorded his experience in his journal.
- Being deeply concerned about the possible fate of the immigrants, and feeling anxious to learn of their condition, I determined to start out on horseback to meet them; and for this purpose I secured a pack-saddle and two animals (one to ride and one to pack), from Brother Allred, and began to make my way slowly through the snow alone.
- After traveling for sometime I met Joseph A. Young and one of the Garr boys, two of the relief company which had been sent from Salt Lake City to help the companies. They had met the immigrants and were now returning with important dispatches from the camps to the headquarters of the Church, reporting the awful condition of the companies.
- In the meantime I continued my lonely journey, and the night after meeting Elders Young and Garr, I camped in the snow in the mountains. As I was preparing to make a bed in the snow with the few articles that my pack animal carried for me, I thought how comfortable a buffalo robe would be on such an occasion, and also how I could relish a little buffalo meat for supper, and before lying down for the night I was instinctively led to ask the Lord to send me a buffalo.
- Now, I am a firm believer in the efficacy of prayer, for I have on many different occasions asked the Lord for blessings, which He in His mercy has bestowed on me. But when I after praying as I did on that lonely night in the South Pass, looked around me and spied a buffalo bull within fifty yards of my camp, my surprise was complete; I had certainly not expected so immediate an answer to my prayer. However, I soon collected myself and was not at a loss to know what to do. Taking deliberate aim at the animal, my first shot brought him down; he made a few jumps only, and then rolled down into the very hollow where I was encamped.
- I was soon busily engaged skinning my game, finishing which, I spread the hide on the snow and placed my bed upon it. I next prepared supper, eating tongue and other choice parts of the animal I had killed, to my heart's content. After this I enjoyed a refreshing night's sleep, while my horses were browsing on the sage brush.
- Early the next morning I was on my way again, and soon reached what is know as the Ice Springs Bench. There I happened upon a herd of buffalo, and killed a nice cow. I was impressed to do this, although I did not know why until a few hours later, but the thought occurred to my mind that the hand of the Lord was in it, as it was a rare thing to find buffalo herds around that place at this late part of the season. I skinned and dressed the cow; then cut up part of its meat in long strips and loaded my horses with it.
- 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 never 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 they saw me coming, they hailed me with joy inexpressible, and when they further beheld the supply of fresh meat I brought into camp, their gratitude knew no bounds. Flocking around me, one would say, “Oh, please, give me a small peace of meat”; another would exclaim, “My poor children are starving, do give me a little”; and children with tears in their eyes would call out, “Give me some, give me some.” At first I tried to wait on them and handed out the meat as they called for it; but finally I told them to help themselves. Five minutes later both my horses had been released of their extra burden—the meat was all gone, and the next few hours found the people in camp busily engaged in cooking and eating it, with thankful hearts.
Hanks told the pioneers that they should all have the privilege to ride into Salt Lake City because more teams were coming to their aid.
Not as well known is Hanks’s experience in the days that followed.
- After dark, on the evening of my arrival in the handcart camp, a woman passed the camp fire where I was sitting crying aloud. Wondering what was the matter, my natural impulse led me to follow her. She went straight to Daniel Tyler's wagon, where she told the heartrending story of her husband being at the point of death, and in pleading tones she asked Elder Tyler to come and administer to him. This good brother, tired and weary as he was, after pulling hand-carts all day, had just retired for the night, and was a little reluctant in getting up; but on this earnest solicitation he soon arose, and we both followed the woman to the tent, in which we found the apparently lifeless form of her husband. On seeing him, Elder Tyler remarked, “I cannot administer to a dead man.” Brother Tyler requested me to stay and lay out the supposed dead brother, while he returned to his wagon to seek that rest which he needed so much.
- I immediately stepped back to the camp fire where several of the brethren were sitting and addressing myself to Elders Grant, Kimball and one or two others, I said, “Will you boys do just as I tell you?” The answer was in the affirmative. We then went to work and built a fire near the tent which I and Elder Tyler had just visited. Next we warmed some water, and washed the dying man whose name was Blair, from head to foot. I then anointed him with consecrated oil over his whole body, after which we laid hands on him and commanded him in the name of Jesus Christ to breathe and live. The effect was instantaneous. For the man who was dead to all appearances immediately began to breathe, sat up in his bed and commenced to sing a hymn. His wife unable to control her feelings of joy and thankfulness ran through the camp exclaiming: “My husband was dead but is now alive praise be the name of God. The man who brought the buffalo meat has healed him.”
- This circumstance caused a great general excitement in the whole camp and many of the drooping spirits began to take fresh courage from that very hour. After this the greater portion of my time was devoted to waiting on the sick. “Come to me, help me, please administer to my sick wife, or my dying child,” were some of the requests that were being made of me almost hourly for sometime after I had joined the emigrants, and I spent days going from tent to tent administering to the sick.
He often had to help treat frozen limbs and perform amputations.
Hanks later led a militia company in scouting expeditions during the Utah War in 1857 and 1858. He helped with mail service on the Mormon Trail as station master for the Pony Express. He was also a U.S. mail carrier.
Hanks practiced plural marriage and had four wives and 26 children; his fourth marriage was dissolved in 1856. He died on June 9, 1896.