Mormon Handcart Tragedy of 1856

Handcart Company across the Sweetwater River

Handcart Company across the Sweetwater River

As the companies continued on, they began to run out of food and encounter bitterly cold temperatures. On October 19th a blizzard struck the region, halting the two companies and the relief party. The Willie Company was found along the Sweetwater River approaching the Continental Divide. A scouting party sent ahead by the main rescue party found the emigrants, gave them a small amount of flour, and encouraged them that rescue was near. The scouting party then rushed onward to try to locate the Martin Company.

At that time, the Martin Company was about 110 miles further east, making its last crossing of the North Platte River near present-day Casper, Wyoming, where the trail left the river headed across country toward Independence Rock and Devil’s Gate. Shortly after completing the crossing, the blizzard struck and many members of the company suffered from hypothermia or frostbite after wading through the frigid river. The company set up camp at Red Bluffs, unable to continue forward through the snow.

One emigrant, Patience Loader, would later write:

We had to travel in our wet clothes until we got to camp and our clothing was frozen on us and when we got to camp. . .it was too late to go for wood and water the wood was to far away that night the ground was frozen to hard we was unable to drive any tent pins in. . .we stretched it open the best we could and got under it until morning.”

Meanwhile, the members of the Willie Company quickly reached the end of their flour supplies and began slaughtering some cattle that still remained. On October 20, Captain Willie and Joseph Elder traveled ahead of the pioneers by mule to locate the supply train and inform them of the company’s desperate situation. The pair arrived at the rescue party’s campsite near South Pass, Wyoming that evening, and by the next evening the rescue party reached the Willie Company and provided them with food and assistance. Leaving half of the rescue party to assist the Willie Company, the other half pressed forward to assist the Martin Company. Beyond the pass, the Willie company, now amply fed and free to climb aboard empty supply wagons as they became available, moved on quickly.

But the difficulties of the Willie Company were not yet over. Just two days later, on October 23, the Willie Company faced the most difficult section of the trail—the ascent up Rocky Ridge. The climb took place during a howling snowstorm through knee-deep snow. That night 13 emigrants died.

Meanwhile, the Martin Company remained in the camp at Red Bluffs for nine days until three scouts finally arrived on October 28. By that time, 56 members of the company had died.

The scouts urged the emigrants to begin moving again. One of the first rescuers from Salt Lake City, Ephraim Hanks, soon arrived and provided buffalo meat to the starving party.

As the company moved from day to day, Hanks continued to kill many buffalo. He also performed many blessings and helped in some amputations to stop the progression of the frostbite and gangrene that would have otherwise killed more members of the company. Three days later the main rescue party met the Martin Company and the Hodgett and Hunt wagon companies and helped them on to Devil’s Gate, Wyoming.

Devil's Gate, Wyoming on the Oregon Trail

Devil’s Gate, Wyoming

At Devil’s Gate the rescue party unloaded the baggage carried in the wagons of the Hodgett and Hunt wagon companies that had been following the Martin Company so the wagons could be used to transport the weakest emigrants.

The Martin Company continued on but severe weather forced them to halt at Martin’s Cove, where they stayed for five days. After they continued, a backup relief party of 77 teams and wagons was making its way east to provide additional assistance. After passing Fort Bridger, the leaders of the backup party concluded that the Martin Company must have wintered east of the Rockies, so they turned back. When word of the returning backup relief party was communicated to Young, he ordered the courier to return and tell them to turn back east and continue until they found the handcart company, but several days had been lost.

In the meantime, the Willie Company arrived in Salt Lake City on November 9. Of the 404 still with the company, 68 died and many others suffered from severe frostbite and near starvation.

On November 18 the backup party met the Martin Company with the greatly needed supplies. The 104 wagons carrying the Martin Company arrived in Salt Lake City on November 30. At at least 145 members of the company had lost their lives. Many of the survivors had to have fingers, toes, or limbs amputated due to severe frostbite.

After the companies arrived in Utah, the residents generously opened their homes to the arriving emigrants, feeding and caring for them over the winter. The emigrants would eventually go on to Latter-day Saint settlements throughout Utah and the West.

Despite the tragedy, the Mormon church did not give up on the handcart plan. It sent a missionary company east with handcarts early in 1857, and sponsored five more westbound handcart companies by 1860. Once the church finances had recovered, Young’s followers returned to using conventional wagons.

Although fewer than 10 percent of the 1846–68 Latter-day Saint emigrants made the journey west using handcarts, the handcart pioneers have become an important symbol in Mormon culture, representing the faithfulness and sacrifice of the pioneer generation.

Mormon Handcart Pioneers by C.C.A. Christensen

Mormon Handcart Pioneers by C.C.A. Christensen

By Kathy Weiser-Alexander, April 2018.


Encyclopedia of Mormonism


Wyoming History

Also See:

Brigham Young – Leading the Mormons

Mormons in the West

Mormon Trail

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