Doctrine & Covenants/Church History
Lesson 35
“A Mission of Saving”

Lesson Highlights

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:  D&C 4:3–7; 18:10–16; 52:40; 81:5–6; 138:58; 3 Nephi 18:31–32; Moroni 7:45–48; Our Heritage, pages 77–80
    Note: Underlined scripture references have been hyperlinked to the LDS Scriptures at 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 1999, p5)

The Handcart Pioneers.

Two other companies were outfitted that year, one led by James G. Willie, the other by Edward Martin.

Consider the following eyewitness accounts:

Martin Handcart Company—Bitter Creek, Wyoming, 1856 (

The Rescue

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.

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, "The 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.

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.

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.

As Latter-day Saints, we are to rescue those in need.

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

Church News.

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.

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