Western Short Story
Foot Soldiers of Zion
The sad but true story of the handcarts and heartaches of the West's greatest emigrant disaster
Dennis Goodwin

Western Short Story

"Brethren and sisters, what I have said, I know to be true… " The lone voice of Levi Savage had just warned the hundreds of other Latter Day Saints about the hazards of continuing their journey during the summer and into the late fall. He had graphically described the dangers and suffering that would likely befall them. But as he surveyed his companions in the 1856 meeting, he knew his warning had been eclipsed by their burning religious fervor

The trail-wise Savage shared the enthusiasm of the others in Captain James Willie's party. But he realized that continuing the arduous trek on foot, so late in the season, could lead to disaster as they neared the snow-shrouded mountain regions. After all, it was already the eleventh of August and they had only reached the town of Florence in the territory of Nebraska. Most likely they wouldn't make Salt Lake City until late October. Savage knew they should over-winter in the Midwest and depart the next spring.

After issuing his warning and staunchly voting against setting out, he nevertheless allied himself with his friends. "I will go with you," he asserted, "will work with you, will rest with you, will suffer with you, and if necessary I will die with you." Fortunately, Levi Savage's destiny would not include dying along the Mormon trail. Sadly, that would not be the case for many of his companions.

The plan they followed was actually conceived several years previously in the mind of Mormon leader, Brigham Young. For years after the 1847 founding of Salt Lake City, thousands of converts had trekked across the Mormon Trail. A communal fund had been set aside for emigrant loans to cover their expenses. But in the summer of 1855, a grasshopper infestation wiped out many of Utah's crops. In addition, that year's unusually severe winter took its toll on many weakened farm animals. As a result, donations to the fund had plummeted.

Young was suddenly faced with a dilemma. Thousands of newly converted Latter Day Saints, primarily from England, were anxious to join his gathering. Yet there simply wasn't enough money to set them up with wagons and oxen. In response, Young rekindled an earlier idea. He had sent out a message to his followers in October of 1851, stating an opinion that would eventually become a reality. He determined that if gold seekers could walk to California with their belongings on their backs or in wheelbarrows, "then Saints seeking a higher god than gold ought to be able to do as well."

In October of 1855, in another message or "Epistle" to the Saints, Young turned the idea into a challenge. "Let them come on foot, with handcarts or wheelbarrows;" he proclaimed, "let them gird up their loins and walk through, and nothing shall hinder or stay them." Unfortunately, as the concept transformed from words on the paper into handcarts on the trail, there would be plenty to "hinder or stay them."

Those hindrances emerged during the very first stages of the project. Mormon missionaries had recently converted thousands of new Latter Day Saints in England. Despite the obvious difficulties involved in crossing hundreds of miles of wilderness without wagons, they swarmed to the docks in Liverpool to begin their journey to their "new Zion." But exceptionally stormy weather delayed the chartering and departure of their ships. By early June, when they should have been in Missouri setting out across the plains, two of their four ships were still thousands of miles away.

Their luck didn't improve when they reached America. According to plan, they boarded the Rock Island Line railroad in New York City and took the train to its termination point at Iowa City. When they arrived, however, they were shocked to find that hundreds of handcarts were yet to be built. Labor in Iowa City had been scarce and seasoned lumber was hard to find. They remained there for weeks as some of their own craftsmen helped build the carts.

During their delay, the curious emigrants inspected the handcarts they were expected to transport across the wilderness. Some were basically boxes on wheels, while other larger "family carts" sported hooped tops like covered wagons. Side rails extended in the front and were connected with a crossbar. The back rim of the cart was smooth so those behind could help push. They were originally intended to rest on iron axles and wheels. But due to sparse materials and time-pressures, many of the axles and wheels were crafted from unseasoned wood.

At last some of the anxious pilgrims were ready to begin their journey. They divided into smaller companies; each led by a returning missionary who was familiar with the trek. The first two groups, headed by Edmund Ellsworth and Daniel McArthur, pulled out during the second week of June. Despite the lateness of their start and the obvious rigors that awaited them, their spirits were high. In the evenings they sang and danced to the Birmingham Band, whose members had joined the emigration.

Their singing and dancing, however, would not continue throughout their excursion. As they tugged their carts across the arid prairie, the unseasoned wood began to warp. The sand slowly ground down the unprotected wooden wheels and axles leaving them wobbly and difficult to push. The already strenuous ordeal was becoming even more demanding.

Week by week, the exhausted pilgrims slogged past the well known landmarks of the Mormon Trail - the forks of the Platte River, Chimney Rock, Scott's Bluff and the rest. Like the oxen they had replaced, the emigrants numbly lowered their heads and pushed or pulled their burdens. Along the way, they sometimes had to stop to bury one of their members who would never make it to their new Zion.

Despite fatigue, short rations, the searing sun and rickety handcarts, the Ellsworth Company trudged into Salt Lake City on September 26th. The city's entire population swarmed to welcome those they dubbed the "foot soldiers of Zion." They sang and broke open melons to cool the traveler's parched lips. Before the celebration had completely faded, the McArthur company plodded in and the festivities were revived.

As Brother Brigham Young personally met them and Captain Pitt's Brass Band filled the air, many likely proclaimed the handcart concept a roaring success. When the third company, under Edward Bunker arrived a week later, the Saints again broke open the melons and fired up the brass band. Bunker's assistant, David Grant, had predicted that, "the Saints would be crossing with handcarts for years to come."

The arrival of the two remaining companies, under Captains James Willie and Edward Martin, would not elicit celebrations. Two grueling months later, as the surviving pilgrims were carried in, heartfelt tears and medical supplies replaced the melons and brass bands. Not only would the Saints not be using handcarts "for years to come," for them the very word "handcart" would forever be enshrouded in dark sorrow.

Captain Willie's company of 500 Saints finally left Iowa City on July fifteenth. The 576-strong Martin Company crept out on July twenty-sixth. Behind them trailed two smaller wagon trains under W. B. Hodgett and John Hunt containing an additional 385 emigrants. Despite their delayed start, the first few weeks were uneventful as they slowly advanced toward the Missouri River.

On August 11, the Willie Company camped near that river in Florence. This was the site of their fateful group meeting when Levi Savage voiced his fears about traveling into the late fall. Like the Willie party, those under Martin as well as the two smaller companies decided to move on toward Salt Lake City. The Willie Company left Florence on August 18, the Martin Company on August 25 and the last two wagon trains finally pulled out on September second.

Franklin Richards, the president of the Saints' European Mission, overtook them while returning from England. He visited with them for a while, then he and several other high-ranking Mormon elders passed them in route to Salt Lake City. He noted that he was confident they would arrive safely, "though they may experience some cold."

That prediction turned out to be perhaps the greatest understatement in Western history. As the exhausted pilgrims fought against the calendar, the inevitable hazards of late-fall travel lurked ahead of them. The unseasoned wood on their handcarts, as it had for the previous companies, began to warp and wobble. At Wood River, a herd of buffalo stampeded through the Willie Company's camp. No one was hurt, but most of their cattle bolted and vanished.

Soon after, another group of high-ranking returning Saints also overtook the struggling handcart companies. After greeting the wearied travelers of the Willie Company, one of them said he had heard about Levi Savage's opposition to their leaving this season. He reminded Savage that the handcart project had come from the mouth of Brother Brigham Young and was therefore "God's plan."

According to John Chislett of Willie's company, he then "rebuked him very severely in open meeting for his lack of faith in God." Before they left, the missionaries said they were short of beef. Despite their own shortage, Captain Willie killed their fattest calf for them. "I am ashamed for humanity's sake," an embittered John Chislett later wrote, "to say they took it."

As the Willie Company watched the elder's carriages vanish on the horizon, they were still seven hundred miles from their destination. By October 1, they finally reached Fort Laramie. Earlier in the season, the fort had been a source of fresh supplies. But by that late date they were completely out of flour and had only a couple barrels of crackers to offer. With a grim understanding of their predicament, captain Willie cut the company's flour rations.

Day by day their strength waned. The wobbly handcarts became life-sapping burdens. Finally, despite the daily drop in temperature, they threw away most of their belongings...including much of the heavy clothing and bedding. Nearing exhaustion, they trudged past Independence Rock then waded through the bone-chilling Sweetwater River. Some of the newly converted Saints began to seriously question whether Brigham Young's handcart scheme was indeed "God's Plan" as the icy water engulfed them. "The chill which it sent through our systems," John Chislett noted, "drove out of our minds all holy and devout aspirations, and left a void, a sadness..."

Throughout the next few weeks, that void would be filled to overflowing with the dangers and suffering that Levi Savage had predicted. As the temperature dropped, so did the emigrant's spirits. Chislett's recollections paint a grim picture of Captain Willie's group. The frigid weather, teamed with total exhaustion, began to take the life of one poor soul after another. "Life went out," Chislett wrote, "as smoothly as a lamp ceases to burn when the oil is gone."

In early October, Captain Willie issued the last rations of flour. "We traveled on," Chislett noted, "in misery and sorrow..." Mid-October brought additional torments - blinding flurries of sleet and snow. The dispirited emigrants sadly recalled the piles of warm clothing they had left behind to lighten their loads. The Martin Company was almost a hundred miles behind Willie's outfit. As their frozen members gazed dejectedly at the last crossing of the Platte River, they too reflected upon their decision to discard most of their protective clothing. Summoning their remaining strength, they bravely waded into the chest-deep icy water, pushing aside drifting chunks of slushy ice.

Patience Loader, one of the Martin company survivors, recalled the experience - with more anguish than spelling skills: "After we all got out of the water, we had to travle in our wett cloths untill we got to camp, and our clothing was frozen on us..." By late-October, total fatigue, sickness and severe frostbite had mutated God's plan into Satan's nightmare.

A few weeks previously, on October 4, Franklin Richards and his fellow missionaries had reached Salt Lake City. He informed Brigham Young that he had overtaken two large handcart companies as he left Florence. Young was astonished. He thought the year's emigration was over. Apparently the first three companies were not aware the Willie and Martin companies had even considered forging ahead on the late-season trip.

Richards tried to calm Young, saying he had every confidence they would arrive safely. Young, however, didn't share his confidence and called an emergency meeting that evening. "The object of my wanting the brethren here," he announced, " is to find out what we need to do tomorrow." He asked for donations of wagons and teams, clothing and food supplies. "If the teams are not voluntarily furnished," he pressured, "there are plenty of good ones in the street, and I shall call upon Brother J. C. Little, the marshal, to furnish them."

He didn't need to repeat his request. Volunteers marched toward the pulpit offering to drive their wagons and teams for the rescue mission. Upon Young's request for donated clothing, the sisters reportedly "stripped off their petticoats, stockings and everything they could spare, right there in the Tabernacle."

Although keenly aware that his plan had been the motivation behind the disaster, Young had never intended for the poor hand-carters to trudge through ice and snow. "A portion of our immigration is very late," he wrote a fellow Saint in England, "It was a great mistake to start them so late." The following morning he convened the general church conference. "Urgency," he informed them, was the "dictation of the Holy Ghost" to him.

By the time Young learned of the plight of the Willie and Martin companies, their nightmare had already begun. Fortunately his dictation of urgency could be carried out. The Latter Day Saints maintained Mormon militias trained to snap into action against the frequent Indian attacks. As the militias were mobilized, they were joined by both Mormon and non-Mormon volunteers who instinctively sensed the tragic state of the imperiled handcarters.

Throughout the day of October 7, only two days after Young's call for action, wagon after wagon headed east filled with anxious volunteers and needed supplies. Franklin Richards had estimated they would find the Willie Company about 130 miles east of Salt Lake City, near Green River. On October 15, George D. Grant, the relief team's co-leader, wrote, "Our hearts began to ache when we reached Green River and yet no word of them."

Grant sent a four-man express party with a light wagon and fast horses to hunt down the emigrants and tell them help was on the way. As Grant and the main group continued to backtrack the Mormon trail, their worse fears were materializing - not only was there no sign of the handcarters, but a severe snowstorm blasted through the wilderness. Grant left several men with wagons at the Sweetwater River to re-supply them on their return trip...hopefully accompanied by the emigrants.

On October 18, Grant halted his group at Willow Creek. He decided not to venture further through the blinding snowstorm until he knew of a specific destination. They moved off the trail into a nearby hollow for shelter. Had he known that the pitiful Willie Company was only a one-day drive further east, he would have forged ahead overnight.

By this time, Captain Willie and one companion, brother Elder, left their endangered group and headed west on mules. They hoped to come in contact with the rescue party they had been praying for. Willie knew that a rescue team would be their only hope for salvation. All of the animals in his camp had previously been slaughtered and eaten, and sixty-six Saints had already perished.

Apparently the four-man express team blindly crossed paths with Willie and Elder in the raging storm. In fact, if it weren't for Harvey Cluff, of Grant's party, Willie and his companion would have likely drifted right past them as well. After Grant had relocated his group to the hollow, they could not be seen from the main path. Cluff marched back through the snow flurries to post a direction sign. Fortunately, as Willie and Elder toiled through the blizzard, they noticed the marker.

When Willie and his companion slogged into the camp, waves of relief pulsed through Grant. Long before daylight, Grant ordered his men to break camp and head out through the storm. They drove nonstop for twenty-five miles until they saw Willie's company. The express team had already discovered them. But after informing them help was on the way and leaving a small amount of food, they struck out toward the lagging Martin Company.

The main rescue team had tried to prepare themselves for witnessing hungry and exhausted people. But they were shaken to the core as they surveyed the pitiful mass of frostbitten humanity. After their initial shock, they snapped into action and built fires with the wood they carried. As the trembling recipients felt the warmth of the flames and smelled the potatoes and onions their rescuers were cooking for them, tears streamed down their frozen faces.

Although those already near death would not survive, fate had at least seen fit to save most of the pathetic company. After furnishing the warmth and food, Grant and his team prepared to transport Willie's group back to Salt Lake City. The extremely sick were put into the wagons but many of the fatigued emigrants, now with help from the rescue team, once again lugged their handcarts westward through the deepening snow. They eventually ran across more wagons and supplies that had been stored along the path. After discarding their last handcart on November 2, they finally rolled into their new Zion on November ninth.

As the citizens of Salt Lake City shed tears of relief for the survivors of captain Willie's group, they were acutely aware that hundreds of freezing souls remained trapped in the snow-pelted wilderness. Once Grant's rescue team assisted Willie's party, he and a group of about eight wagons and fifteen volunteers had forged ahead to find brother Martin's troop. After observing the grim condition of Willie's company, their mission took on an increased urgency.

Grant sent out an express team to locate the Martin Company just as he had for Willie's troop. The three members of that team were instructed to travel as far as Devil's Gate and stop if they hadn't yet found them. Grant hoped the Martin Company had stopped there since it contained a log stockade and several cabins where they could find some shelter. His disappointment was profound as he arrived at Devil's Gate only to find the saddened express group waiting for him.

Grant again sent out an express party of three -Abel Garr, Daniel Jones and Joseph Young, one of Brigham's sons. Garr and Young had both been on the first team. This time they left with instructions not to return until they located the emigrants. Grant and the rest of the larger group waited at Devil's Gate. During their first two day's travel, the express party found only desolate snow-covered wilderness. The third day seemed much the same when suddenly, during mid-afternoon, Joseph Young spotted a shoe track in the road. "We put our animals at the utmost speed and soon came in sight of the camp," Young later reported.

As with the Willie camp, the condition of the Martin Company sent shock waves through their rescuers. They learned that fifty-five had already perished. Many of the survivors were suffering from traumatic shock and Young was told that several had succumbed to a "state of dementia." Despite their pathetic condition, several staggered forward to shake hands with the express team. Daniel Jones reported that, "Many declared we were angels from heaven."

The "angels" unfortunately brought no supplies, but informed the emigrants that ten wagons awaited them three days away. The frigid weather had been a greater enemy than hunger for the Martin group. There was still some flour and a few cattle left so Joseph Young instructed them to increase their rations to build up their stamina. The three then continued on to locate the two wagon trains that had followed behind the Martin Company. Those groups not only could use their wagons for shelter, but also had found the winter cabins of some old trappers and were in much better shape than the poor handcarters.

Partially energized by the increased food and the hope of survival, the Martin party, along with the wagon trains, once more headed west. The storm had diminished but the bitter cold continued. "As night came on," Daniel Jones reported, "the mud would freeze on their clothes and feet." Nevertheless, they made good time.

Joseph Young rode ahead to inform the main group back at Devil's Gate that they were coming. When Grant heard the good news, he left two men to prepare the stockade and cabins for the emigrants, then headed his troop east and met them. Unfortunately, Grant's company had nearly exhausted their own supplies so food still had to be rationed. But as they escorted the Martin party to Devil's Gate, the poor handcarters found the first shelter they had known for months.

Although the group briefly considered wintering at Devil's Gate, they decided they must head back to Salt Lake City. For one thing, many needed medical attention they could only receive there. They decided to move as soon as the storm broke. As fate would have it, another northern blizzard smashed into them dropping the temperature to eleven below zero and piling up deep snowdrifts.

When the weather finally improved and the huge assembly began lumbering west, Grant expected to run into reinforcements momentarily After all, they were only the lead rescue company. There were plenty more behind them. As soon as the other groups arrived, there would be enough wagons to carry the poor broken emigrants, who had already suffered so much. Each day he scanned the horizon for them. Each evening he was bitterly disappointed.

Sadly, the reinforcements Grant was desperately searching for had already turned back. Over seventy teams had traveled as far as Fort Bridger and holed up to weather the storm. Two volunteers, C. N. Spencer and John Van Cott ventured a day's drive further east then returned to the fort. Van Cott took it upon himself to conclude that the Martin Company had either camped safely somewhere early in their trip, or had all perished...likely along with Captain Grant's relief team. Incredibly, all of the other parties followed his lead and dejectedly headed back to Salt Lake City.

Fortunately, someone at Fort Bridger thought to send a courier to Salt Lake City to let Brigham Young know everyone had turned around. When Young received the message on November 11, two days after the pathetic Willie company had arrived, he was enraged. Mormons simply did not give up on each other. He immediately wrote a letter to Van Cott demanding he turn around and to instruct all the other teams to do the same. They were not to return until they found the Martin company, With this letter, Brigham Young, the originator of the plan that led to the hand-carter's disaster, also became their savior.

He dispatched an express team with his message. Once they reached Van Cott and the others, Young's order was emphatically delivered. The entire troop turned around and traveled day and night until they again reached Fort Bridger. This time the fort was not vacant. They met the two men Grant had left behind to prepare for the Martin Company. Then the entire caravan of wagons headed east to Devil's Gate. Finally, on the evening of November 18, they ran across Grant and the struggling rescuers and emigrants. The handcarts could at last be discarded and the surviving members of the Martin Company would finally ride in wagons to their destination.

At noon Sunday, November 30, 1856, as the Mormon Tabernacle congregation exited their morning services, they bore witness to a string of 104 wagons carrying the Martin company survivors. Within an hour, all of the handcarters had been "adopted" by various families and were sitting down to hearty meals or resting in the warmth of soft beds.

As the years progressed, the abandoned handcarts strewn along the trail slowly disintegrated. Their splintered skeletons bore testimony to future pioneers that potential tragedy lurked along the way. When the country matured and sprouted cities and roads along the old Mormon Trail, the vivid images of the sad incident began to fade into the history books. Those books recorded the sad facts and statistics of the ill-fated excursion. None of them, however, could fully portray the unthinkable sacrifices and the raw courage of the 1856 "foot soldiers of Zion."