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Willie - Martin Handcart Companies -
A list of the ten Handcart Company members is published in Handcarts to Zion by Leroy and Ann Hafen.
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 number of converts from England and Europe reached the point the Perpetual Emigration Fund (PEF) did not have enough money to pay the costs for the thousands of poor Mormon emigrants wanting to come to the Salt Lake Valley. Brigham Young decided the easiest, cheapest, and fastest way for large numbers of converts to reach the Salt Lake Valley was by pulling 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 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 handcarts, a wagon drawn by two yoke of oxen was provided for a "company" of 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,
West of Fort Laramie, the handcart immigrants had the first sight of the mountains.
The Hodgett and the Hunt wagon trains followed the Martin Company. The two wagon trains carried three hundred and eighty-five emigrants, and were usually too far behind 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, 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 these people were in dire straits.
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 snow drifts with eight wagons in search of the Martin Company. After locating both Handcart Companies, Grant sent an urgent dispatch to Brigham Young for more wagons and supplies.
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 Willie Company waited two days hoping for more supply wagons before undertaking the worst ordeal of their journey...the five mile climb over Rocky Ridge in a howling snow storm. 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 gave up and laid 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 digging the grave died during the night, and were buried the next morning with the others in the common grave.
In Rock Creek Hollow is a stone maker for the members of the Willie Company...there is strong evidence the burial site was at the confluence of Rock Creek and the Sweetwater River, near Willow Creek, not at Rock Creek Hollow (Deseret News). Among the dead who perished on the struggle over Rocky Ridge were eleven-year old James Kirkwood and nine-year old Bodil Mortenson. James Kirkwood 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 six-year old Jens Nielson Jr. while his mother pulled his father in the handcart...Jens Nielson's feet were so badly frozen he sit down beside the trail and begged to be left. Before starting the handcart trek, Jens weighed over two hundred pounds and Elsie weighed around one hundred....When Bodil reached the camp, she gathered sage for a fire. Exausted 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 met Reddick Allred with fresh teams and supply wagons. There were enough wagons to carry the sick and those who couldn't walk. 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 their handcarts across the chest deep, freezing water of the North Platte River. Just as the last handcarts reached the opposite riverbank, a raging blizzard struck them. The stiff frozen emigrants moved on to where there was wood for fires. That night many of them laid out the frozen canvas tents and slept under the 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 snow bound for nine days.
The North Platte Crossing was the Martin Handcart Company's "Rocky Ridge". It is very difficult to determine the actual number who died. Some journals and books state fifty-six had 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 at Red Buttes, which is sixty-five miles east of Devil's Gate.
Despite the fact the scouting party had no food or clothing, the starving, benumbed handcart company struggled forward with renewed hope. At this point the rations had been reduced to four ounces of flour a day. Three-days later they were met by Grant's wagons, and were helped on to an abandoned trading post (1852-1855), Semino's Trading Post , near Devil's Gate. The abandoned post offered little shelter for the combined Martin, Hodgett, and Hunt companies. Still unable to move on, it was decided to move two and a half miles northwest to a sheltered cove with a good wood supply.
In order to reach the cove, the handcarts had to be pulled across the Sweetwater River. At this point the river was only knee deep, but chunks of ice were floating on the water. Many of the gaunt-faced handcart men and women set on the bank and pulled tattered blankets around themselves; a few started to sob; after the North Platte crossing, they could not face wading across 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 emigrants were on the other side of the Sweetwater River.
In the meantime, the rescue effort began to disintegrate. Rescue teams held up several days by raging snow storms turned back. Fearing to go on, they rationalized the immigrant trains and Grant's advance party had either decided to winter over, or perished in the storms.
The Martin Company remained in the camp at Martin's Cove for five days. It had suffered fifty-six dead before being found and was now losing people daily. Starved, frozen, many unable to walk, their spirits were crushed. The Mormon emigrants had reached the breaking point, but nearly out of food, they must take the trail again or starve to death.
The two wagon trains were unloaded and any non-essential items stored in the abandoned buildings at Semino's Trading Post...Dan Jones and several men spent the winter guarding the stored goods until wagons could come in the spring. The converts who could not travel on their own rode in the wagons. Many of the dilapidated handcarts were left behind.
A messenger sent back by Grant reached and turned around some of the teams. At least thirty wagons reached the Martin Company at the base of Rocky Ridge. Warm, fed, and those unable to walk riding in the wagons, the company moved rapidly on. The Martin Company in one hundred and four wagons arrived in Salt Lake City on November 30th, 1856.
The Martin Handcart Company tragedy is written as the worst disaster in the history of western overland travel...one hundred and forty-five died. The highest death rate was among fathers giving up part of their meager rations to their starving children; many a father literally worked himself to death pulling the handcarts. 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, many were left handicapped from amputation of frozen feet and fingers...Jens Nielson walked with one foot at a right angle the rest of his life. John Chislett wrote:
The emigrants of the Martin and Willie Handcart Companies fording the North Platte River, or climbing Rocky Ridge in a Wyoming blizzard, paid a high price to live in the Great Salt Lake Valley. I have not seen one reference to a man or woman complaining or blaming others for the suffering they endured...after some of the young grew up they complained about the ordeal, but not their parents.
Three statues, by Russell Bowers of Mesa, Arizona, were erected of the rescuers carrying people across the Sweetwater River. The statues commemorate the 2006 sesquicentennial celebration of what has become known as the Sweetwater Rescue.
The small area of Martin's Cove is leased by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints from the Bureau of Land Management. 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. This is far different from what you read in the Casper Star Tribune, or hear from other 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 media and 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, and it is not just Mormon heritage. Over four hundred thousand people struggled passed there on the Oregon and California trail in search of a better life...it is estimated there is a grave 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.
This 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) Mountainsofstone.com. Afton, Wyoming. 2002.
Cornwall, Rebecca, and Leonard J. Arrington. Rescue
of the 1856 Handcart Companies. Vol. 11 of the Charles Redd Monographs in
Western History. Provo, Utah 1981. Hafen, LeRoy R., and Ann W. Hafen. Handcarts to
Zion: The Story of a Unique Western Migration, 1856-1860. Vol. 14 of the Far
West and the Rockies Historical Series. Glendale, Calif., 1960. Lund, Gerald N. Fire Of The Covenant. Bookcraft, Salt Lake City, Utah. 1999.
- an excellent book.
Internet Sites: Schindler, Harold. Camp of Israel. Salt
Lake Tribune web site, 1997.
Cornwall, Rebecca, and Leonard J. Arrington. Rescue of the 1856 Handcart Companies. Vol. 11 of the Charles Redd Monographs in Western History. Provo, Utah 1981.
Hafen, LeRoy R., and Ann W. Hafen. Handcarts to Zion: The Story of a Unique Western Migration, 1856-1860. Vol. 14 of the Far West and the Rockies Historical Series. Glendale, Calif., 1960.
Lund, Gerald N. Fire Of The Covenant. Bookcraft, Salt Lake City, Utah. 1999. - an excellent book.
Schindler, Harold. Camp of Israel. Salt Lake Tribune web site, 1997.