Handcart Company Factual Account
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The Perpetual Emigration Fund was started in 1849 to help defray the costs of Mormon converts traveling to the Great Salt Lake Valley. By 1855, the thousands of converts from England and Europe had depleted the Perpetual Emigration Fund (PEF) to the point there was not enough money to defray the costs of Mormon converts coming to the Salt Lake Valley. Brigham Young decided the easiest, cheapest, and fastest way for the large numbers of converts was to pull handcarts.
Five persons were assigned to each cart. A family with small children used a covered handcart. The use of these two-wheeled handcarts was a feature unique to Mormon Trail migration. Modeled after carts used by street sweepers in New York, the wooden handcarts were six- to seven-feet long, and wide enough to span a narrow wagon track. The small box on the cart was four foot long and eight inches high. A handcart loaded with personal belongings and provisions carried four- to five-hundred pounds.
An adult was allowed seventeen pounds of personal belongings and a child ten pounds…personal belongs included bedding, family keepsakes, clothes, cooking utensils, etc. The belongs were closely weighed for each individual and anything beyond the seventeen pounds was discarded, or in case of a family, anything beyond the total weight allowed for the family members…imagine discarding all of your worldly goods down to seventeen pounds. Even though the converts had little, there were many heirlooms and keepsakes discarded on the prairie outside of Iowa City. In addition to the carts, a wagon drawn by two yoke of oxen was provided for a “company” of one hundred persons. The wagons carried extra provisions, primarily flour, and five tents. Twenty people were assigned to each tent.
Five handcart companies were organized in 1856 to make the thirteen hundred mile trip from the end of the railroad at Iowa City, Iowa, to Salt Lake City. The first three Handcart Companies made the thirteen hundred mile journey faster and with less problems than had been experienced with wagon trains. The last two companies, the Willie Company and Martin Company were an entirely different story.
Due to a host of unforeseen delays, the Willie Company left Iowa City, Iowa, on July 15th, and the Martin Company on July 28th, 1856. The Willie Company had five hundred emigrants with one hundred and twenty handcarts, five wagons, twenty-four oxen, and forty-five head of cattle. The Martin Company had five hundred and seventy-six people with one hundred and forty-six handcarts, seven wagons, thirty oxen, and fifty head of cattle.
After the two hundred and twenty-seven mile journey from Iowa City to Florence, Nebraska both companies held meetings about proceeding on to the Salt Lake Valley. Several of the leaders, especially Levi Savage, warned starting so late in the year increased the chance of snow storms while crossing the mountains. A few of the converts left the companies, but the overwhelming majority voted to continue on to the Valley. Following the vote of the Willie Company, Levi Savage 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, will rest with you, will suffer with you, and if necessary I will die with you. May God have mercy bless and preserve us.
Not far beyond Fort Laramie was the first site of the mountains to the west.Two wagon trains, the Hodgett and Hunt, followed the Martin Company. The two wagon trains carried three hundred and eighty-five emigrants, and were usually too far behind to be of much help until snow storms stranded both wagon trains and the Martin Handcart Company at Seminoe Post near Devil’s Gate.
Brigham Young was informed by Franklin D. Richards on the evening of October 4th, that the Martin and Willie handcart companies were still on the trail. Astonished by the news, Brigham Young announced the next morning at the Church’s General Conference two handcart companies were in dire straits.
Willie and Martin Handcart Rescue:
The next morning Brigham announced:
I shall call upon the Bishops this day. I shall not wait until tomorrow nor until the next day, for sixty good teams and 12 or 15 wagons. I do not want to send oxen. I want good horses and mules. They are in the territory and we must have them. Also twelve tons of flour and 40 good teamsters beside those that drive the wagons.
A party of twenty-seven men, led by George D. Grant, left the Salt Lake Valley on October 7th, with the first sixteen of what ultimately amounted to two hundred and fifty wagons full of food, clothing, shoes, and blankets by the end of October. Grant reached the Willie Company October 21st. They were snow-bound at the Sixth Crossing of the Sweetwater River. A couple of days before being found by the Rescue Party, the Willie Company’s food supply consisted of six emaciated beef animals and four hundred pounds of hard biscuits.
Leaving men and supplies with the Willie Company, the rest of the rescue party struggled on east through wind-blown snowdrifts with eight wagons in search of the Martin Company.
Hoping for more supply wagons, the Willie Company waited until October 23rd before undertaking the worst ordeal of their journey…the five mile climb over Rocky Ridge in a howling snow storm with eighteen- to twenty-four inches of snow on the ground. The total distance between campsites was approximately twelve miles and took some emigrants over twenty hours. Wagons and handcarts were taken back to help many who had given up and lay beside the roadside.
The morning after the exertion of Rocky Ridge, thirteen bodies were buried in a shallow grave in Rock Creek Hollow. Two of the men helping dig the circular grave in the morning died during the night and were buried in the common grave the next morning.
There is strong evidence the camp site and burial place is not at Rock Creek Hollow, but at the confluence of Rock Creek and the Sweetwater River, near Willow Creek (Deseret News).
Among the dead were eleven-year old James Kirkwood and nine-year old Bodil Mortenson, and six-year old Jen Nielson Jr.. James Kirkwood had carried his four-year old brother part of the way. Staggering into Rock Creek Hollow, James carefully put his brother down by the fire; he then laid down and died. Bodil Mortenson cared for Jens Nielson Jr., while his mother pulled his father over the last part of Rocky Ridge in the handcart…Jens Nielson’s feet were so badly frozen he sit down beside the trail and begged to be left. At the start of the trek, Jens weighed over two hundred pounds and Elsie weighed around one hundred….When Bodil reached the camp, she gathered sage for a fire. Exhausted from the ordeal of Rocky Ridge, she leaned against one of the cart wheels to rest. She died…the sage still in her hand.
The next day October 25th, the Willie Company moved on. As they approached South Pass, the company was met by Reddick Allred with fresh teams and supply wagons. There were now enough wagons to carry the sick and those with frozen feet. The last of the Willie Company handcarts were abandoned at Fort Bridger. The Willie Company arrived in Salt Lake City on November 9th, 1856, with a loss of sixty-seven members.
Two days prior to the last crossing of the North Platte River, the bedraggled Martin Company was in such terrible condition baggage on the handcarts was reduced to ten pounds per adult and five pounds per child under eight years old. Most of what was discarded was clothing and heavy blankets. On October 19th, the company pulled handcarts across chest deep, freezing water of the North Platte River. Just as the last handcarts reached the opposite riverbank, a raging blizzard struck them. The frozen emigrants were forced to move on where there was wood for fires. Unable to put up the tents, many of them slept under the stiff frozen canvas. The next morning, thirteen bodies were left under the snow as the company struggled on. About twelve miles from the North Platte Crossing, the Martin Company with Hodgett’s wagon train nearby was snowbound for nine days.
The North Platte Crossing was the Martin Handcart Company’s “Rocky Ridge”. It is very difficult to determine the actual number that died. Some journals and books state fifty-six died by the time they left Red Bluff, but did this include the thirteen buried at the North Platte Crossing? Even many of the deaths at Martin’s Cove could be attributed to the “last crossing” of the Platte.
A scouting party sent out ahead of the rescue wagons found the Martin Company on October 28th, sixty-five miles east of Devil’s Gate at Red Buttes. Despite the fact the scouting party had brought no food or clothing, the starving, benumbed handcart company struggled forward with renewed hope. At this point the rations were reduced to four ounces of flour a day.
Three days later they were met by Grant’s wagons and helped on to Semino’s Trading Post near Devil’s Gate. The trading post was abandoned between 1852 and 1855. The abandoned post offered little shelter for the Martin, and the Hodgett and Hunt wagon companies.
After locating both Handcart Companies, Grant sent an urgent dispatch to Brigham Young for more wagons and supplies.
…men, women, and children worn down by drawing handcarts through snow and mud are fainting by the wayside; falling chilled by the cold; children crying, their limbs stiffened by cold, their feet bleeding and some of them bare to snow and frost. The sight is almost too much for the stoutest of us, but we go on doing all we can, not doubting or despairing. Our company is too small to help much, it is only a drop in a bucket, as it were, in comparison to what is needed. I think that not over one-third of Mr. Martin’s company is able to walk. This you may think is an extravagant, but it is nevertheless true….
Still unable to move on, the company moved two and a half miles northwest to a sheltered cove with a good wood supply.
In order to reach the cove, the handcarts crossed the Sweetwater River. At this point the river was only knee deep, but chunks of ice were floating on the river. Many of the gaunt-faced handcart men and women sat on the bank and pulled tattered blankets around themselves; a few started to sob. After the North Platte crossing, the handcart people could not face wading another river. All of the rescue party helped, but four young men were singled out in one journal for carrying people across on their backs. The tireless young men waded back and forth in the icy water until all of the converts were on the other side of the Sweetwater River.
The Martin Company remained in Martin’s Cove for five days and was losing people daily. The Company suffered fifty-six dead before the supply wagons reached them.
Both wagon trains were unloaded of any non-essential items and stored in the abandoned buildings at Semino’s Trading Post. Dan Jones and several men were detailed to guard the stored goods until wagons could come after them in the spring. The converts that could not travel on their own were put into the wagons. This allowed for many dilapidated handcarts to be left behind.
A messenger sent by 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 climb over Rocky Ridge.
Warm, fed, and those unable to walk riding in the wagons, the company moved rapidly on. In one hundred and four wagons the Martin Company reached Salt Lake City on November 30th, 1856. Out of five hundred and seventy-five members of the Martin company, one hundred and forty-five had died.
Percentage wise the highest death rate was among fathers who gave up part of their meager rations to their starving children. Many a father literally worked himself to death pulling the handcarts. John Chislett of the Willie Company wrote:
Cold weather, scarcity of good, lassitude and fatigue from over-exertion, soon produced their effects. Our old and infirm people began to droop, and they no sooner lost their spirit and courage than death’s stamp could be traced upon their features. Life went out as smoothly as a lamp ceases to burn when the oil is gone. Death was not long confined in its ravages to the old and infirm, but the young and naturally strong were among its victims. Men who were, so to speak, as strong as lions when we started on our journey, and who had been our best supports, were compelled to succumb to the grim monster. These men were worn down by hunger, scarcity of clothing and bedding, and too much labor in helping their families. It was surprising to an unmarried man to witness the devotion of men to their families and to their faith, under these trying circumstances. Many a father pulled his cart, with his little children on it, until the day preceding his death. I have seen some pull their carts in the morning, give out during the day, and die before next morning…
With the loss of so many men, the burden fell on the women and young people to pull the carts and put up the tents.
In additions to the deaths, there were many left handicapped from amputation of frozen feet and fingers. No one paid a higher price to live in the West than the people of the Martin and Willie Handcart Companies. I have not seen a factual reference to one of the actual survivors complaining or blaming anyone for the ordeal they endured.
Three statues, by Russell Bowers of Mesa, Arizona, were erected near the Sweetwater River and the mouth of Martin’s Cove to commemorate the 2006 sesquicentennial celebration of what is known as the Sweetwater Rescue.
Personal Note: I have been to Martin’s Cove several times, my only interest is in the history. The small area of Martin’s Cove is leased by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints from the BLM. Except to answer a direct question, there is absolutely no mention of religion by the LDS missionaries stationed there, or at the Martin’s Cove Visitor Center which is on Church owned land. The Missionaries assigned there are courtesy, very friendly, and knowledgeable, but do not hand out any LDS literature unless you ask for it. This is far different from what you read, or hear, from the news media, ACLU, and activists about the BLM leasing Martin’s Cove to a Church; some claim it is nothing but an area for the Mormon Church to proselyte new members.
With all the garbage put out by the print and television media and radical political activists about how bad this country is and was, everyone should visit Martin’s Cove, especial those with families. There is no better place to feel your heritage. Over five hundred thousand people struggled by this area on the Mormon, Oregon, and California trails in search of a better life…it is estimated there is a grave for every one hundred and sixty-seven yards on the combined Mormon, Oregon, and California trails. All of these pioneers are our heritage, and our heritage is what makes America great.
And yes, this greatness brought tragedy to a great many Native Americans. It has been written in several books the Martin Handcart Company tragedy was the worst disaster in the history of western overland travel…one hundred and forty-five died. In one way this is true, in another way it is not. The worst overland tragedy was the State of Georgia with the help of the United States Army force marching approximately twelve thousand Cherokee Indians to Oklahoma in the winter of 1838-39. Four thousand Cherokee men, women, and children froze, or starved, to death on the Trail of Tears…there is a wide variation in the number deaths depending on who is doing the counting. Not quite the same, but over two hundred Navajo perished on the “Long Walk” to Bosque Redondo.
The Martin Handcart Company article was written by O. Ned Eddins of Afton, Wyoming. Permission is given for material from this site to be used for school research papers.
Citation: Eddins, Ned. (article name) Thefurtrapper.com. Afton, Wyoming. 2002.
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