Mormon Handcart Companies
In 1855, members of the Mormon Church were still being encouraged to gather with the rest of the members of the Church in the Utah area. However, there were many members, especially those traveling from Europe, who had limited funds for such a long journey. Brigham Young suggested that these saints walk, pulling their luggage in a cart. These Saints traveled from Liverpool by boat to New York then took the train to its most western point, Iowa City. From Iowa City, these Mormon pioneers walked and pulled handcarts 1,300 miles.The first two Mormon handcart companies successfully arrived in Salt Lake City on September 26, 1856. These two companies included 486 saints and 96 handcarts. They made the journey in sixteen weeks. A third company arrived on October 2, with 320 people. However, there were still two companies that had left Iowa City late and still had not arrived in Salt Lake City. These two companies are the well-known Martin and Willie Handcart companies.
A group of missionaries following the trail, led by Franklin D. Richards, passed the two late Mormon handcart companies. They arrived in Salt Lake on October 4, and reported the large number of people still on the trail so late in the season. Many were shocked, especially because they knew that the handcart companies had little extra supplies. Because it was so late in the season, the members had also stopped sending supply wagons out onto the trail, because they thought that no more companies would be coming.
President Brigham Young feared the worst, and immediately began organizing a rescue effort. Twenty-seven men left on October 7, with sixteen wagons of supplies. Eventually 200 wagons of supplies were gathered and sent. Unfortunately the weather was not on the Saint’s side; two weeks after learning of the late-coming companies, one of the earliest blizzards on record began dropping snow on the ill-supplied handcart companies, which had just reached the Rocky Mountains in central Wyoming. The extreme conditions began to cause deaths.
The first rescue party found the Willie Handcart Company on October 21, just one day after the company had run out of food. The rescue team provided food and rest out of the storm, but the company still had to struggle over the dangerous passes in the Rocky Mountains. The Willie Company arrived in Salt Lake on November 9. They suffered the loss of 68 members of their company, and many others suffered severe frostbite.
The Martin Handcart Company suffered worse losses. Three-fourths of the company were women, children, or the elderly. They made camp when the storm hit on October 19 and waited nine days for it to end. After finding the Willie Company, many of the men of the rescue party were sent on ahead to search for the Martin Company. They found them east of South Pass. The supplies that were available were not enough for the desperate company. They struggled 55 miles more on the trail then camped again near Devil’s Gate.
However, the storm was making it difficult to get supplies to the company. After five days of waiting and losing many more of their company, they broke camp again and continued on the trail. Just as the Martin Handcart Company was about to make the climb over South Pass, thirty wagons of supplies arrived from the Mormon Church in Salt Lake City. Once they had food, they were able to make the rest of the trip quickly and arrived in Salt Lake on November 30. Of the 576 members of the company, 145 died on the trek, and many suffered from frostbite.
President Brigham Young severely reproved those who had allowed the Mormon handcart companies to leave so late. This however, did not stop the use of handcart companies. In the following years, six more handcart companies successfully made the trip from Iowa City to Salt Lake City. In all, more than 2,962 people walked to Salt Lake City in Mormon handcart companies. Of this 2,962, 250 died on the trail; only 30 of these people were not members of the late-starting Willie and Martin Handcart Companies.
Those who came to Utah with the Mormon handcart companies were not bitter about what had happened to them, and their stories have been a source of strength to many. One member of the Martin Company recorded,
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 (Relief Society Magazine, Jan. 1948, p. 8).