James G. Willie

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James Grey Willie is well-remembered as a leader of the handcart pioneers. He was known for much of his life as “the Willie of handcart fame.”[1]

Willie was born on November 1, 1814, in Murrell-Green, Hampshire, England. The family moved to the city of Taunton where he was educated. He moved to Bristol to work as a dry goods clerk. He immigrated to the United States when he was 21 years old. He worked in a government tanning operation.

He heard the message of the restored gospel in 1841 while in Connecticut and was baptized in 1842. He began his first mission to Vermont, Connecticut, and New York in 1843. When he completed his mission, he joined the exiled Saints in Winter Quarters, Nebraska.

Willie and his wife Elizabeth had planned to travel with Samuel Brannan on the Brooklyn to California. He had married them in 1846. However, Elizabeth had become ill and the couple were concerned that a long voyage would be difficult so they did not travel with him.

They traveled to Utah Territory in 1847 in Jedediah M. Grant’s pioneer company and he again worked as a tanner. In 1852, he was called to serve a mission to England. While on his mission, he inherited a large sum of money due to the death of his brother John who owned a shipping business. He used the inheritance to pay his mission expenses and donated the rest to the Perpetual Emigration Fund to help emigrants gather with the Saints. Franklin D. Richards appointed him leader of these Saints who were traveling by way of the ship “Thornton” from Liverpool to New York City.

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.)

Willie was named the leader of the fourth handcart company. The Willie handcart company left Iowa City on July 15, 1856. Although advised to stay in Winter Quarters for the winter, the group voted to press on. The company left Florence, Nebraska, on August 18 and encountered many difficulties. (See Willie and Martin Handcart Companies for details.)

On October 20, 1856, the Willie Company had come to a grinding halt with the severe snowstorm. The last of the meager rations had been given out the night before. James Willie knew that he must go ahead to find the relief wagons he was sure were out there. He was weak and half starved, but knew he must save his company. He chose Joseph B. Elder to go with him.

Joseph Elder writes of this, "Brother Willie, who was the Captain of the Company, left the charge of the camp in the hands of Brother Atwood and we started ahead in search of our brethren. We rode 12 miles where we expected to find them but they [were] not there. We ascended Rocky Ridge. The snow and an awful cold wind blew in our faces all day. We crossed the Rocky Ridge and upon the west bank of the North Fork of the Sweetwater [probably a reference to Rock Creek] we found a friendly guide post which pointed us to their camp down upon the Sweetwater in amongst the willows. When they saw us, they raised a shout and ran out to meet us. Great was their joy to hear from us for they had long been in search of us. They could scarcely give us time to tell our story they were so anxious to hear all about us, their camp being 27 miles from ours."

Captain Willie now had the awesome task of traveling back over the 27 miles he had just come to bring relief to his beloved company. John Chislett (24), wrote: "On the evening of the third day after Captain Willie's departure, just as the sun was sinking beautifully behind the distant hills, on an eminence immediately west of our camp, several covered wagons, each drawn by four horses, were seen coming towards us. The news ran through the camp like wildfire, and all who were able to leave their beds turned out en masse to see them. A few minutes brought them sufficiently near to reveal our faithful captain slightly in advance of the train. Shouts of joy rent the air, strong men wept till tears ran freely down their furrowed and sun-burnt cheeks, and little children partook of the joy which some of them hardly understood, and fairly danced around with gladness. Restraint was set aside in the general rejoicing, and as the brethren entered our camp the sisters fell upon them and deluged the brethren with kisses . . . that evening . . . the songs of Zion were to be heard in the camp, and peals of laughter issued from the little knots of people as they chatted around the fires."
Somewhat revived, the Willie company pushed on, as the relief wagons with more provisions were waiting at Rock Creek On October 23, 1856, the company had their greatest trial, the crossing of Rocky Ridge. It took 27 hours to get everyone to Rock Creek, a distance of 12 miles through deep snow and a raging storm. At about 11:00 p.m., it was reported by Chislett that there were many people that had still not arrived into camp. Captain Willie and others "immediately got up some horses, and the boys from the Valley started back about midnight to help . . ." The brave and courageous Captain Willie went back again! The very last of his company was not brought in until 5:00 a.m. Thirteen people had died and were buried in a common grave at Rock Creek that morning. Two men who helped dig the grave died a few hours later and were buried nearby.[2]

The Willie Company arrived in Salt Lake City on November 9, 1856.

James Willie was one of the early settlers of Mendon, Utah Territory. He served as mayor of the town three times and was postmaster, watermaster, pound custodian, notary public, and co-op store manager. In the 1860 census record, he described himself as a dairy farmer.

He founded the first Sunday School in 1863. He served as a counselor in the bishopric. In 1892, he was ordained a patriarch.

Willie died on September 9, 1895. He had three wives: Elizabeth Ann Pettit Willie, Elizabeth Tuttle Willie, and Charlotte Ann Stillwell Gregory Willie. Neither the second or third wife moved to Mendon with James.