A Handcart Pioneer Testifies of Spiritual Growth and Divine Help
A Mormon pioneer that walked across the plans with the Martin Handcart Company testifies of the sacrifices he made and the angelic help he received.
According to the Encyclopedia of Mormonism, many of the Mormon Pioneers that treked across the country to Utah were too poor to travel by wagon train, so instead they pulled handcarts. Many of these handcart company traveled uneventfully to Utah. But a few found extreme hardships in their travels. One of these ill-fated companies, under James G. Willie, left Iowa City on July 15, crossed Iowa to Florence (Omaha), Nebraska, then, after a week in Florence, headed out onto the plains. The last company, under Edward Martin, departed Florence on August 25. Three independent wagon companies, carrying 390 more immigrants, also started too late in the season.
One of the earliest blizzards on record struck just as both the handcart companies and the independent wagon companies were entering the Rocky Mountains in central Wyoming. After several days of being lashed by the fierce blizzard, people in the exposed handcart companies began to die.
When Brigham Young received word that there were handcart companies stranded in the snow he dispatched a rescue party. The rescue party found the Willie Company on October 21 in a blinding snowstorm one day after they had run out of food. But the worst still lay ahead, when, after a day of rest and replenishment, the company had to struggle over the long and steep eastern approach to South Pass in the teeth of a northerly gale. Beyond the pass, the company, now amply fed and free to climb aboard empty supply wagons as they became available, moved quickly, arriving in Salt Lake City on November 9. Of the 404 still with the company, 68 died and many others suffered from severe frostbite and near starvation.
Those of the Martin Company, three-fourths of them women, children, and the elderly, suffered even more. When the storm hit on October 19, they made camp and spent nine days on reduced rations waiting out the storm. The rescue party, after leaving men and supplies with the Willie Company, plunged farther east through the snow with eight wagons in search of the Martin Company. A scouting party sent out ahead of the wagons found them 150 miles east of South Pass.
The company, already in a desperate condition, was ordered to break camp immediately. The supply wagons met them on the trail, but the provisions were not nearly enough and, after struggling 55 miles farther, the company once again went into camp near Devil's Gate to await the arrival of additional supplies.
In the meantime, the rescue effort began to disintegrate. Rescue teams held up several days by the raging storm turned back, fearing to go on and rationalizing that the immigrant trains and the advance rescue party had either decided to winter over or had perished in the storm.
The Martin Company remained in camp for five days. When no supplies came, the company, now deplorably weakened, was again forced out on the trail. It had suffered fifty-six dead before being found, and it was now losing people at an appalling rate.
Relief came barely in time. A messenger ordered back west by Rescue Party Leader, George Grant, reached and turned around some of the teams that had abandoned the rescue. At least thirty wagons reached the Martin Company just as it was about to attempt the same climb to South Pass that had so sorely tested the Willie Company. Starved, frozen, spent, their spirits crushed, and many unable to walk, the people had reached the breaking point. But now warmed and fed, with those unable to walk riding in the wagons, the company moved rapidly on. The Martin Company, in a train of 104 wagons, finally arrived in Salt Lake City on November 30. Out of 576, at least 145 had died and, like the Willie Company, many were severely afflicted by frostbite and starvation.
William R. Palmer writes of a Sunday School class he attended which, years later, was discussing Sister Ellen Pucell Unthank (a 9-year-old handcart pioneer who lost and buried her parents on the plains, and lost her feet to frostbite) and others in the ill-fated handcart companies. Members of the class were speaking critically of Church leaders for permitting the company of converts to start so late in the season. An old man listened in silence and then rose to speak.
Palmer recorded that he said in substance, "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. A 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? Not one of that company ever apostatized or left the Church, because every one of us came through with the absolute knowledge that God lives, for we became acquainted with Him in our extremities.
"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. ... 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."
Elder Joseph F. Smith, who was a wagon train pioneer when he was a young boy, commented on the faith of the handcart companies saying,
"In conversation last evening with some brethren, some remarks were made respecting those who came in early days to this country pulling and pushing the handcart, and a comparison was drawn between that mode of immigration to Zion and the manner in which our people are gathered today. Did you ever hear of a man or a woman apostatizing that pushed or pulled a handcart across the plains? Did you ever hear of them becoming dissatisfied soon after they got here, and at once expressing their desire and intention to go back to the old country? If you have, it has been a rare exception to the rule. As a rule, and almost the universal rule, those who tramped the plains with the handcarts, and next those who came with the ox-teams, have been rooted and grounded in the faith. They had occasion to put their trust in God, and their faith was developed, their love for the truth was brought out, and they have been, as a rule, stable and steadfast in the Gospel of Christ. While today many who come from distant lands by steamship and by railroad, soon after they get to Zion become dissatisfied and discontented and they long for the leeks and the onions and the flesh-pots of Egypt; and frequently people who have emigrated here in that way have within a week from the time they landed in this city, or in other places, wanted to return, and some of them have returned. They came too easy; they did not gain experience in coming; their faith was not tried; they had nothing to develop within them the principle of integrity to the truth, and they were discouraged and wanted to go back at the least difficulty."
"Encyclopedia of Mormonism", Vol.2, HANDCART COMPANIES
William Palmer, quoted in David O. McKay, "Pioneer Women," Relief Society Magazine, Jan. 1948, 8.
Collected Discourses, Vol.5, Joseph F. Smith, April 4, 1897