Sunday, September 1, 2013
Doctrine and Covenants Lesson #35 "A Mission of Saving"
With the conversion of many Europeans to the church, the necessity of gathering them to Zion was a great problem. The conditions in the big cities of Europe were deplorable. Evacuation was essential to the salvation of these saints, yet many of them were very poor and could never afford the tremendous expense of a covered wagon and team of oxen. Looking for a less-expensive solution, the idea of traveling by handcarts was presented and approved.
Handcarts were not invented for pioneers, but were common in big cities, used by the street vendors. It was a crazy idea to use these for crossing the plains, but it was an inspired crazy idea. It made it possible for many desperately poor Saints to gather.
January 12, 1856, The Millennial Star, the Church magazine in England, published instructions for gathering, and subsequent later articles elaborated.
Traveling by handcart was, however, a knife-edge plan at best, with no room for error. It was based on the bare minimum. Each company of saints would charter a ship to America and then cross by rail to the Iowa City, where handcarts would have been prepared for them. The companies were to be led by the missionaries who had served in Europe and who were now traveling home. There were 5 people to a handcart, with 17 pounds baggage each. 20 people (or 4 handcarts) were assigned to one tent. 100 people (or 16 handcarts) were assigned to one Chicago wagon which carried their tents and their food. 90 days rations (rations being the operative word here—the bare minimum) were to be brought. Each person was allowed one change of clothing plus their own bedding and cookware. The estimated travel time was 70 days and was quite optimistic, although one of the first companies, full of converts from Wales, did it in 65. Handcart companies were to be resupplied with food and provisions at Fort Laramie from the saints in Salt Lake City.
Mission President Franklin D. Richards published this advice to those who would join the handcart companies: “It is our constant desire not to mislead the Saints concerning the difficulties of the journey to Utah. We wish them calmly to make up their minds that it is not an easy task, and to start with faith, trusting in Israel’s God for success…” (LeRoy R. Hafen and Ann W. Hafen, Handcarts to Zion: The Story of a Unique Western Migration, 1856-1860, p. 42-43)
The prospect of affordable travel to Zion overjoyed the poor Saints of Europe so much so that hundreds of them signed on. And things went quite well for the first two companies. They crossed the plains more quickly than oxen could. They arrived in Salt Lake destitute, but they had left Europe destitute, and here their brothers in the gospel could help them, and opportunity for improvement abounded.
The next two companies however, led by missionaries James Willie and Edward Martin, had a multiplicity of problems.
The system was flooded with potential immigrants and it was difficult to book passage for them all. During the 7-month sailing season of 1855-1856, almost 5,000 Mormon converts crossed the sea, some with wagon companies, most with handcart companies. Many of the saints joyously, but not wisely, quit their jobs as soon as they heard of the handcart plan. Now they had no choice but to move ahead, and no funds with which to purchase supplies. President Brigham Young was alarmed at the late departure of some of these ships when he received the report by mail on July 31, and wrote to new mission president Orson Pratt, “They should be landed early in May, and not much, if any after the first of that month, in Boston or New York. You will please to attend to this matter in the season there of.” The Thornton hadn’t left England until May 3, and the Horizon on May 25.
When they reached Florence, Nebraska, some of the saints stayed behind, waiting for better passage. It was well-known that to cross the plains safely, you must reach Independence Rock in central Wyoming by Independence Day (July 4). But the majority of the intrepid converts felt they should push on. Unfortunately, rather than sticking with sound advice of their Church president, as well as that of the travel guide books available, they decided to make a democratic decision and vote on whether to cross. Of course, not having ever crossed the plains, and being mostly city-dwellers, they were not in a position to make an objective decision. Their faith carried the vote and there was only one vote of descent: Levi Savage. Having crossed the plains many times, and seeing the poor health and old age of many of the company, he advised them to stay back for the winter, but when they refused and questioned his faith, he famously stated, “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 in his mercy bless and preserve us.” (Hafen, p. 96-97)
There were not enough handcarts ready for them, so they built more hastily and didn’t wait for seasoning of the wood. By the time the Willie Company embarked on the trek it was August 18th! The Martin Company left August 25th! And the Hunt wagon train left September 2nd, particularly dangerous for a wagon train as wagons were much slower.
President Richards, having been released from his mission, caught up with them just before they left and said, “From the beginning we have done all in our power to hasten matters pertaining to emigration, therefore we confidently look for the blessing of God to crown our humble efforts with success, and for the safe arrival of our brethren the poor Saints in Utah, though they may experience some cold.” (Hafen, p. 98)
In addition to their terribly late start across the plains, the companies crossed more slowly than others. The Willie Company did not arrive in Salt Lake until Nov. 9 (84 days), the Martin arrived Nov. 30 (97 days) and the Hunt and Hodgett wagon trains arrived on Dec. 11-15 (104 days)! They had many equipment difficulties, hastily-constructed handcarts falling apart, oxen dying or getting lost, fatigue striking and causing them to discard their warm clothing and bedding in order to make their carts lighter, and no resupply at Fort Laramie because Brigham Young assumed they would have wintered in Nebraska.
But the Lord did bless them and rescue them, despite their follies, and because of their faith. Although they suffered exposure, fatigue, illness, starvation, and injury and came across an early winter storm (early, but not at all unusual for Wyoming where still to this day there are actually large gates that are used to block entrance to the Interstate highway during blizzards), approximately 82% of the saints in these four companies survived and arrived in Zion. 82%! They should have all died! (This percentage is by my own calculation, using the rosters provided in the book, Remember: The Willie and Martin Handcart Companies and Their Rescuers—Past and Present, compiled and edited by the Riverton Wyoming Stake.) In fact, I counted on those rosters 22 families with from 4 to 7 children who arrived intact, not having lost a member!
The story of the handcart pioneers should be a great encouragement to all of us, whatever our trek through life may be. Many times we make foolish, although well-meaning, decisions. Sometimes we disregard important counsel because it doesn't meet our agenda. Often we are ill-equipped for the storms that come upon us. But in every instance, if we are true to our faith, the Lord will see us through.
T.C. Christensen has undertaken the project of chronicling these saints on the silver screen. Those of you in Utah are familiar with his movies, but those of you elsewhere may not be. I highly recommend both of them: 17 Miracles, about the ordeals of the handcart companies, and Ephraim’s Rescue, retelling the story of their rescue. The movies are now out on DVD and most accurately and beautifully depict the events of 1856. Children will enjoy counting the miracles in 17 Miracles, which are all well-documented, but bear in mind, these 17 are by no means all the miracles that the handcart companies experienced. They are too many for one feature-length film!
Another nice website is http://tellmystorytoo.com/, where books and stories and artwork are available. Julie Rogers is the artist, and has painted my own ancestors, Elizabeth Simpson Bradshaw and her youngest child Richard, which painting now hangs on my wall.
The Rest of the Story
There is another fascinating aspect of the handcart pioneer story that is much lesser known: that of the intrepid Daniel Webster Jones (not the Welsh missionary Dan Jones) and his group of 20 men who came as part of the rescue team, and then volunteered to stay the winter at a tiny fort on the trail near Martin’s Cove in order to guard the belongings of these poor Saints, since all wagon space was used to carry people back to Salt Lake and anything left along the trail was considered abandoned and free for the taking. Theirs is a story of tremendous loyalty, kindness, obedience and bravery, as they suffered on guard duty all through the long winter. They were organized into a small branch of the Church before they were left behind, and they carried on with church meetings and fast days, although they had a lot of extra fast days as well. They nearly starved to death on several occasions, and even learned to boil cowhide to create a gelatin that they could subsist upon until the next miracle arrived. Fortunately, his personal recollections are available online (Forty Years Among the Indians) and includes this particular adventure, beginning with Chapter XIII. Wallace Stegner, a non-Mormon historian who specialized in Mormon history, chronicled the story in an interesting narrative, and that is also available at that site as "The Man That Ate His Pack Saddle."