Doctrine & Covenants/Church History
“A Mission of Saving”
President Brigham Young guided the rescue of the Martin and Willie handcart
The Savior rescues us through His atoning sacrifice.
As Latter-day Saints, we are to rescue those in need.
A study of this lesson will us teach about the rescue of the Martin and
Willie handcart companies, to show that the gospel of Jesus Christ is a message
of rescue, and to encourage us to help rescue those in need.
Scripture references for study:
3 Nephi 18:31–32;
Our Heritage, pages 77–80
Note: Underlined scripture references have been hyperlinked
to the LDS Scriptures at LDS.org and will open in a new window.
Lesson 35 Handout (PDF)
The Martin & Willie Handcart Companies
President Gordon B. Hinckley, in speaking about the pioneers, said: "I
will never get over being thankful to them; I hope you never get over being
thankful to them. I hope that we will always remember them. … Let us read
again and again, and read to our children or our children’s children, the
accounts of those who suffered so much." (Church News, 31 July
In reference to the suffering encounter by these pioneers, President Hinckley
stated: "Stories of the beleaguered Saints
and of their suffering and death will be repeated again and again. … Stories
of their rescue need to be repeated again and again. They speak of the
very essence of the gospel of Jesus Christ." (Ensign, Nov. 1996,
The Handcart Pioneers.
Following the arrival of the vanguard company of pioneers, additional companies
of Saints made their way across the plains each year. The Church
continued to grow, particularly with success in the British Isles and in
Scandinavia. These new converts were eager to join the Saints in
Utah, but the cost was often more than they could afford. The idea
of using handcarts had been discussed as early as 1851, but was not made
a serious option until the migrations of 1856.
In 1855, the First Presidency sent out an epistle recommending this means
of migration to Utah: "Let them pursue the
northern route from Boston, New York, or Philadelphia, and land at Iowa
City or the then terminus of the railroad; there let them be provided with
handcarts on which to draw their provisions and clothing, then walk and
draw them, thereby saving the immense expense every year for teams and
outfit for crossing the plains.
"We are sanguine that such
a train will out-travel any ox train that can be started. They should have
a few good cows to furnish milk, and a few beef cattle to drive and butcher
as they may need. In this way the expense, risk, loss and perplexity of
teams will be obviated, and the saints will more effectually escape the
scenes of distress, anguish and death which have often laid so many of
our brethren and sisters in the dust.
"We propose sending men
of faith and experience, with suitable instructions, to some proper outfitting
point to carry into effect the above suggestions." (CHC, 4:84-85)
1,900 European Saints signed up to cross the plains with handcarts in 1856. They sailed from Liverpool to New York and Boston, took the railroad to
Iowa City, where they were outfitted for the journey.
The handcarts were built at Iowa City. They were intended to service
four or five persons and carry about 100 pounds of food, clothing, and
They were organized into companies of about 100 wagons with 400 to 500
They traveled across Iowa to Florence, Nebraska, where they rested before
continuing the journey west to Salt Lake.
Five handcart companies were organized in 1856.
The Ellsworth company left on June 9. The McArthur company left on
June 11. A smaller company of Welsh converts, led by Edward Bunker,
left on June 23.
These first three companies made it to the Salt Lake valley without serious
incident, although they worked hard and were tired. The first two
companies arrived on September 26. Bunker's company arrived on October
Upon the arrival of these companies, the brethren were pleased with this
experiment of using handcarts for less expensive and faster migration.
The Deseret News reported: "This journey has been
performed with less than the average amount of mortality attending ox trains;
and all, though somewhat fatigued, stepped out with alacrity to the last,
and appeared buoyant and cheerful. They had often traveled 25 and 30 miles
in a day, and would have come through in a much shorter time, had they
not been obliged to wait upon the slow motion of the oxen attached to the
few wagons containing the tents and groceries." (CHC, 4:87)
What the Saints in the valley did not know was that there were still two
companies on the trail.
Two other companies were outfitted that year, one led by James G. Willie,
the other by Edward Martin.
These two companies totaled about 900 persons.
Those who who comprised the Willie company arrived in Iowa City on June
26, 1856, only three days after the Bunker company had begun their journey
west. The members of the Martin company, the larger of the two, did
not arrive until early July.
When these Saints arrived in Iowa City, they found that handcarts had not
been built due to a misunderstanding between the Liverpool and American
agents. They had to wait until new carts were built. The Willie
company left Iowa City on July 15. The Martin company didn't leave
until July 28.
The fact that these handcarts were built with unseasoned wood, caused them
to break down and required numerous repairs. Thus, both companies lost
precious time as they moved west into the fall season. The roughness
of the road pounded the handcarts and tested them to the limit.
The Willie company crossed Iowa to Florence, Nebraska (previously known
as Winter Quarters) in twenty-six days, arriving on August 11th.
The chief hardship of this stage of the journey was the midsummer heat,
the dust; and muddy roads when the heavy summer rains fell.
There were additional delays at the Florence staging area. There
were concerns about traveling into the wilderness this late in the year,
especially from the experienced frontiersmen. The majority voted
The chief opponent to continuing the journey in 1856 was Levi Savage. He argued that these pioneers could not cross the mountains so late in
the season without much suffering, sickness, and death. After the
vote was taken to continue Brother Savage said: "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, will die with you. May God
in mercy bless and preserve us" (CHC, 4:89-91).
August 19: The Willie company left the Missouri River and began their
journey across Nebraska.
August 25: The Martin company begins their journey west from Florence.
September 5: The Willie company was 265 miles west of Florence. Here
they lost 30 head of cattle, probably to Cheyenne Indians. They spent
two precious days in search of the cattle, without success.
September 12: The Willie company was overtaken by a group of returning
missionaries from Europe in carriages and wagons, including the former
mission presidency of Franklin D. Richards, Daniel Spencer, and C. H. Wheelock.
September 17: The Willie company encountered their first frost of
September 30: The Willie company arrived at Fort Laramie, still 500
miles from Salt Lake City.
October 1: The Willie company met Parley P. Pratt and a company of
missionaries heading eastward. This was Pratt's last mission as he
was killed in Arkansas seven months later.
October 8: The Martin company arrives at Fort Laramie. Here
they traded any personal items they could spare for additional food supplies.
The carrying capacity of these handcarts was limited. From the start
they began rationing their supplies. They started with one-pound
of flour per person per day, a little less for children. As they
continued their journey, they continued to reduce their rations knowing
that their supplies would not last.
As these companies continued west, the weather became colder and more severe.
When the Willie company reached the Sweetwater River, in Wyoming, they
encountered extremely cold weather and severe snow storms.
They were cheered by news from two messengers heading east, Joseph A. Young
and Stephen Taylor. They indicated that a supply train was on their
way to meet them and should arrive within a couple days. They continued
east to pass the news on to the Martin company.
The snow storms continued, along with fierce winds.
The Willie company was so exhausted from lack of food and struggling through
the cold that they sought shelter in hollows and willow thickets and awaited
the coming of the relief trains.
Dysentery broke out in the camp, partially as a result of eating fresh
meat from the broken down oxen that they killed.
The number of deaths increased. On one day, while awaiting the rescuers,
fifteen Saints died at Willow Creek on the Sweetwater. Many others suffered
The situation was desperate.
One member of the relief party, when seeing the situation of these handcart
pioneers remarked "that in all the mobbings and drivings of the 'Mormons'
he had seen nothing like it" (CHC, 4:98-99).
Consider the following eyewitness accounts:
Elizabeth Horrocks Jackson Kingsford - October 1856: "I
was six or seven thousand miles from my native land, in a wild, rocky,
mountain country, in a destitute condition, the ground covered with snow,
the waters covered with ice, and I with three fatherless children with
scarcely nothing to protect them from the merciless storms. I will not
attempt to describe my feelings at finding myself thus left a widow with
three children, under such excruciating circumstances. I cannot do it.
But I believe the Recording Angel has inscribed in the archives above,
and that my sufferings for the Gospel's sake will be sanctified unto me
for my good." (Faith In Every Footstep)
Jens Pederson, Willie Company - October 23, 1856: "When
they were having such hard times with low rations and cold weather, one
man decided he didn't want to put up with any more so just said he wasn't
going another step. Different ones tried to talk to him and urge him to
go on, but had no effect upon his decision. Grandpa, Jens O. Pederson asked
for permission to talk to the man. Some told him it wouldn't do any good,
so they went on and grandpa tried to reason with him, but that did no good.
Finally he said, 'Well, if you are not going, I'm going to give you a whipping
before I go on,' and he slapped him quite hard on the face, and started
running to catch up with the company. It made the man angry and he started
after grandpa and both of them caught up to the company. The man went on
and later thanked him for saving his life." (Faith In Every
Elizabeth Sermon, Martin Company - November 1856: "My
husband's health began to fail and his heart almost broken to see me falling
in shafts. Myself and children hungry, almost naked, footsore and himself
nearly done for. Many trials came after this. My oldest boy had the mountain
fever, we had to haul him in the cart, there was not room in the wagon.
One day we started him out before the carts in the morning to walk with
the aged and sick, but we had not gone far on our journey before we found
him lying by the roadside, unable to go any farther. I picked him up and
put him on my back and drew my cart as well, but could not manage far,
so put him in the cart, which made three children and my luggage. My husband
failing more each day, the Captain put a young man to help me for a short
time. My other son Henry walked at 7 years old, 1300 miles with the exception
of a few miles.....
"My husband's sufferings
have always pained me and I can never forget them. Poor Rob's (age 5) feet
began to freeze. I cannot remember the place's; it was after wading a very
deep river (Platte?) the freezing commenced. We had no wood but sagebrush.
I went out and cut the sage to keep the fire all night. Covered them up
with their feet to the fire and cut some more and kept the fire as well
as I could. My clothes froze stiff. Well, we got through that night. Your
father would not walk now. He would get into wagon after wagon, only to
be turned out. The cattle were giving out and everyone had their friends,
but the friend death, would soon end his sufferings. John (age 9) and Rob
had to ride, Henry (age 7) walked, your father would take my arm and walk
a little distance, fall on his knees with weakness. We moved from Devil's
Gate. I believe it was brother David Kimball who carried us over a river
(Sweetwater) and a great many more besides us. My poor husband blessed
him for so doing." (Faith In Every Footstep)
Martin Handcart Company—Bitter Creek, Wyoming, 1856 (LDS.org)
Later in October, the express group of immigration officials arrived in
Salt Lake City reporting that there were still a thousand handcart pioneers
on the road heading west. Brigham Young immediately organized relief
parties to carry food, clothing, and wagons to immigrants.
The severe weather slowed the progress of the relief company. It
was so bad that the relief company went into encampment, awaiting the arrival
of the handcart company or the passing of the storm. They did not
know it, but they had camped only a few miles west from the Willie company.
The Willie company was so desperate, that Captain Willie with one companion,
started westward in search of the relief train. Fortunately, they
found it and three days later, fourteen well loaded wagons arrived at the
Willie encampment. These handcart pioneers were not far from suffering
extinction when the relief train arrived. Eight of the wagons went
on to aid the Martin company.
Brother Chislett wrote of the arrival of the relief train: "On
the evening of the third day after Captain Willie's departure, just as
the sun was sinking beautifully behind the distant hills, on an eminence,
immediately west of our camp, several covered wagons, each drawn by four
horses, were seen coming towards us. The news ran through the camp like
wildfire, and all who were able to leave their beds turned out en masse
to see them. A few minutes brought them sufficiently near to reveal our
faithful captain slightly in advance of the train. Shouts of joy rent the
air; strong men wept until tears ran freely down their furrowed and sunburnt
cheeks, and little children partook of the joy which some of them hardly
understood, and fairly danced around with gladness. Restraint was set aside
in the general rejoicing, and as the brethren entered our camp the sisters
fell upon them and deluged them with kisses. The brethren were so overcome
that they could not for some time utter a word, but in choking silence
repressed all demonstration of those emotions that evidently mastered them.
Soon, however, feeling was somewhat abated, and such a shaking of hands,
such words of welcome, and such invocation of God's blessing have seldom
been witnessed!" (CHC 4:93-94)
Eight of the relief wagons passed on to the Martin camp and six remained
with Captain Willie's company.
Fortunately, after moving beyond South Pass and descending into the Green
River valley, the weather moderated and more relief companies were met.
67 of 500 in the Willie company died and 135 of 576 in the Martin company,
almost one in five persons between the two companies. With more than 200 dead,
it was a worse disaster than the Donner Party expedition of 1846.
The Willie company arrived in Salt Lake on November 9. Brother Willie wrote
of their reception, "On our arrival, the bishops
of the different wards took every person who was not provided with a home
to comfortable quarters. Some had their hands and feet badly frozen but
everything which could be done to alleviate their suffering was done, and
no want was left unadministered to. Hundreds of the citizens flocked around
the wagons on our way through the city, cordially welcoming their brethren
and sisters to their mountain home." (CHC 4:94-95)
The Martin company did not reach the Salt Lake valley until November 30. It was a Sunday and President Young was leading services in the old Tabernacle. When President Young learned of their arrival, he said to the congregation,
afternoon meeting will be omitted, for I wish the sisters to go home and
prepare to give those who have just arrived a mouthful of something to
eat, and to wash them, and nurse them up.... Prayer is good, but when (as
on this occasion) baked potatoes, and pudding, and milk are needed, prayer
will not supply their place. Give every duty its proper time and place....
I want you to understand that I desire this people to nurse them up; we
want you to receive them as your own children, and to have the same feelings
for them.... Now that the most of them are here, we will continue our labors
of love until they are able to take care of themselves, and we will receive
the blessing. You need not be distrustful about that, for the Lord will
bless this people." (CHC, 4:100-101)
The brethren still considered handcart migration a viable means of bringing
more Saints to the valleys. The disaster of the Willie and Martin
companies occurred because of the late start.
Over the next four years, there were four additional companies that came
by handcart. Over the few years that handcarts were used, about 3,000
Saints migrated to the valley pushing and pulling the carts.
Gerald N. Lund, in the preface to his wonderful novel on the handcart companies,
wrote a wonderful tribute to these people who suffered so deeply.
In doing research for the book he says, "I went
back to the journals again, this time reading with new eyes, this time
searching for new insights....
"There was evidence
of the marvelous sustaining power of God. The storms were not turned
aside, nor did manna rain down from heaven, but neither were those hapless
emigrants forgotten by the Lord....
"Gradually I came to realize
that there was an incredible miracle taking place here, a miracle largely
unseen and passed over without comment by those who experienced it. It was not only that the marvelous sustaining power of God was there, but
that these exhausted, starving, freezing emigrants never lost faith in
that power, not even in the hour of their greatest extremity....
"I found the fire of faith
burning in hearts of the people so brightly that no amount of cold, no
amount of hunger, now amount of suffering could extinguish it. In
like manner, it burned in the hearts of those who left their homes and
mounted one of the most amazing rescue efforts in American history."
(Fire of the Covenant, pp xiv-xv)
Author, Wallace Stegner, not a member of the Church, wrote: "Perhaps
their suffering seems less dramatic because the handcart pioneers bore
it meekly, praising God, instead of fighting for life with the ferocity
of animals and eating their dead to keep their own life beating, as both
the Fremont and Donner parties did. But if courage and endurance make a
story, if human kindness and helpfulness and brotherly love in the midst
of raw horror are worth recording, this half-forgotten episode of the Mormon
migration is one of the great tales of the West and of America."
(Faith In Every Footstep)
Rescued By The Atoning Sacrifice of Jesus Christ
We have only scratched the surface of the story of the Willie and Martin
handcart companies. It is clear from the various eyewitness
accounts that their situation was extremely precarious. I think
it is safe to say that if there had been no rescue party most, if not
all, of the emigrants would have perished. They were hundreds of miles
from civilization. Their food stores were almost exhausted.
The weather was freezing cold. Their clothing and bedding was insufficient. As it was, about
twenty percent of the emigrants in the Willie and Martin companies
died. They were in a situation in which they did not have the power
to rescue themselves. It was only through the remarkable rescue launched
from Salt Lake City that they survived.
In a similar manner, we have come down to this earth as mortals. We have found ourselves in a situation which we cannot get out of
on our own.
The eternal trail takes us through mortality where we take upon us a physical
body that makes us subject to the natural tendencies of the flesh. Said Paul, "For all have sinned, and come
short of the glory of God" (Romans 3:23). Along this eternal
trail we all come to a great chasm, which we cannot cross on our own. The trail picks up on the other side of the chasm, but the chasm is so
deep and so wide that no man or woman can cross it without divine intervention.
The handcart pioneers did all they could to get
to Salt Lake City, but it wasn't enough. They needed help. So it is with us. We are required to keep the commandments, but it
isn't enough. Wrote Nephi, "For we know that it
is by grace that we are saved, after all we can do"
(2 Nephi 25:23). Jesus Christ has come to our rescue if we are willing
to go as far along the trail as we are able.
President Gordon B. Hinckley: "It is because
of the sacrificial redemption wrought by the Savior of the world that the
great plan of the eternal gospel is made available to us, under which those
who die in the Lord shall not taste of death but shall have the opportunity
of going on to a celestial and eternal glory.
"In our own helplessness,
He becomes our rescuer, saving us from damnation and bringing us to eternal
"In times of despair, in
seasons of loneliness and fear, He is there on the horizon to bring succor
and comfort and assurance and faith. He is our King, our Savior, our Deliverer,
our Lord and our God." (Ensign, Nov 1991, p54).
The Savior is there to rescue and comfort us.
Precious Savior, dear Redeemer,
We are weak but thou art strong;
In thy infinite compassion,
Stay the tide of sin and wrong.
Keep thy loving arms around us;
Keep us in the narrow way.
Precious Savior, dear Redeemer,
Let us never from thee stray.
As Latter-day Saints, we are to rescue those in need.
President Gordon B. Hinckley: "I am grateful
that those days of pioneering are behind us. I am thankful that we do not
have brethren and sisters stranded in the snow, freezing and dying, while
trying to get to this, their Zion in the mountains. But there are people,
not a few, whose circumstances are desperate and who cry out for help and
"There are so many who
are hungry and destitute across this world who need help. … Ours is a great
and solemn duty to reach out and help them, to lift them, to feed them
if they are hungry, to nurture their spirits if they thirst for truth and
"There are so many young
people who wander aimlessly and walk the tragic trail of drugs, gangs,
immorality, and the whole brood of ills that accompany these things. There
are widows who long for friendly voices and that spirit of anxious concern
which speaks of love. There are those who were once warm in the faith,
but whose faith has grown cold. Many of them wish to come back but do not
know quite how to do it. They need friendly hands reaching out to them.
With a little effort, many of them can be brought back to feast again at
the table of the Lord.
"My brethren and sisters,
I would hope, I would pray that each of us … would resolve to seek those
who need help, who are in desperate and difficult circumstances, and lift
them in the spirit of love into the embrace of the Church, where strong
hands and loving hearts will warm them, comfort them, sustain them, and
put them on the way of happy and productive lives." (Ensign,
Nov 1996, p86)
As the early Saints in Salt Lake City were willing to risk their lives
to rescue the stranded handcart pioneers, we need to consider the counsel
of President Hinckley and find ways where we can rescue those in need.
- IN WHAT WAYS CAN WE BE RESCUERS?
Gospel Doctrine Notebook
Record your thoughts on the experience of the Martin and
Willey handcart companies. In what ways can you reach out to those in need?
Resources Used In This Lesson
Comprehensive History of the Church of Jesus Christ
of Latter-day Saints by B.H. Roberts (CHC).
Faith In Every Footstep, CD-ROM published by The
Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Fire of the Covenant by Gerald R. Lund.
Gospel Doctrine Class
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Changes last made on:
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