“Some Must Push and Some Must Pull,” Ensign, July 2006, 38–47
Sarah Goode Marshall (inset) had no formal education as a youth in Abenhall, England. However, she was a devoted reader of the Bible. “There is more in the Bible than the ministers understand,” she often remarked. After she learned of the gospel, she walked 20 miles with her baby in her arms to hear the missionaries. But her husband, Tom, was strongly opposed to her new beliefs and her desire to join the Saints.
In the summer of 1854 her husband died, leaving her penniless with six small children. She was baptized and worked for two years as a “lady’s maid” during the day and made kid gloves at night to earn enough money to emigrate.
The night before she left England with her children, all under the age of 12, her extended family and friends gathered to say good-bye. Some of the presiding elders of the British Mission were also invited. During the gathering Sarah’s family begged her not to leave, telling her that she and her children would die. One of the elders heard the discouraging remarks. He rose to his feet and, by the power of God, promised her that she would complete the journey successfully and not lose one of her children on the way. (The elder’s promise was fulfilled.)1
On Saturday, April 19, 1856, Sarah and her young family boarded the ship Samuel Curling and sailed from Liverpool, England. After five weeks they arrived in Boston, Massachusetts, where they went by train to Iowa City, Iowa. Here they became part of the Ellsworth company, the first handcart company to cross the plains to the Salt Lake Valley.
Sarah Goode Marshall’s story is similar to those of hundreds of emigrants from England, Wales, and other parts of Europe, who made up the majority of the 10 handcart companies that crossed the plains from 1856 through 1860. Eight of the 10 companies traveled with little mishap, but the Willie and Martin companies were caught in early snowstorms in 1856 that led to the deaths of more than 200 Saints.
What follows is a sampling of events involving the handcart companies as they traveled to the Salt Lake Valley.
1856: Mr. Charles Good, a store owner in Des Moines, Iowa, was compassionate toward children. A life sketch says that “he could not see them in want or suffering.”
On July 31, 1856, the Willie handcart company passed through downtown Des Moines, likely within a block or two of Mr. Good’s store. Apparently Mr. Good’s decision to donate 15 pairs of children’s boots from his store shelves to the handcart company came from his seeing the pioneer children as they passed through town that morning.
Of the 500 members of the Willie handcart company, at least 84 were children between the ages of 3 and 12. No doubt some were barefoot. Charles knew they had a long walk ahead of them and that many of those small feet would need protection sooner or later. So he went to where they were camped and offered the boots to children who needed them.2
1856: Priscilla M. Evans, a woman from Wales, traveled with the Bunker handcart company. Her words reflect the optimism felt by the handcart pioneers, even amid their many hardships: “People made fun of us as we walked, pulling our carts, but the weather was fine and the roads were excellent and although I was sick and we were very tired at night, still we thought it was a glorious way to go to Zion.”3
1860: Six-year-old Mary Ann Stucki from Switzerland traveled with the Stoddard company. She remembers the mosquitoes that gave them a “hearty welcome” the first night out from Florence, Nebraska. Weeks later it was the rain that affected them. She wrote: “A cover on the handcart shielded the … younger children [from the rain]. … At night, when the handcarts were drawn up in a circle and the fires were lighted, the camp looked quite happy. Singing, music, and speeches by the leaders cheered everyone.”4
1856: Ellen Perks was nearly 12 years old when her father sent her ahead to the Salt Lake Valley alone with the Bunker handcart company. One day she and two other girls “took a handcart and filled it with little children, too small to walk.” When they became tired of pulling through the sand, they moved off the trail to rest with the handcart full of children and missed the rest of the company. “We traveled until dusk, then seeing the campfires down near the river, found they had had supper and that a few men were ready to start out to hunt for us. We were very tired and received a lecture never to be forgotten.”5
1856: One evening at about 11:00 p.m., Sarah Goode Marshall of the Ellsworth company was preparing her rations for the next day. She was “in a very lonely state,” listening “to the strange cries of prowling beasts and birds.” She was startled from her thoughts by a young man from their company who asked her for something to eat. She shared her limited rations with him, but “he was found dead in his bed the next morning.” Sarah told her granddaughter that she thanked the Lord many times that she had shared her food with this young man. “Should I not have done so,” Sarah said, “my conscience would have condemned me the rest of my days.”6
1857: The cycle of life continued unbroken on the trek west. Anna Marie Sorenson, from Scandinavia, was with the Christiansen company in 1857. At Wood River, Nebraska, she “retired from the camp, and under some willows gave birth to a baby girl. In the morning she appeared with the baby in her apron. … The baby survived, as well as the mother.”7
James and Honor Welch Reeder traveled with the Evans company in 1857. After James died, Honor “plodded on with her [five-year-old] son and cart. Six weeks after arrival in the Valley she gave birth to a baby girl who lived to maturity.”8
1860: If food became scarce, the pioneers suffered. John Stucki from Switzerland was nine years old when he traveled with his family in the Stoddard company. At one point, the company was placed on half rations. When a buffalo was shot, the meat was divided. John’s father put their small share in the back of the cart. John later wrote: “I was so very hungry all the time, and the meat smelled so good … and having a little pocketknife, I could not resist, but had to cut off a piece or two each half day.” When his father brought out what was left of the meat on Sunday, “instead of giving me the severe scolding … he did not say a word but started to wipe the tears from his eyes.”9
1857: A little known fact is that handcart companies sometimes received help from others traveling west who were not Latter-day Saints.
In August 1857, as the Christiansen company passed by Fort Laramie, Wyoming, they met a detachment of the army going west to impose federal control on the Saints. An ox belonging to the soldiers became “disabled when a heavy wagon ran over and crushed its foot. The military captain came over to the hungry [immigrants] and said: ‘You may have the ox, I guess you need it.’ The fresh meat was gratefully devoured.”10
1856: On Wednesday, November 5, 1856, James Bleak of the Martin handcart company wrote: “No travelling. Weather very severe. … Our ration of flour was reduced to 4 oz and 2 oz for the children making 1 lb a day for the 6 of us. Through the blessing of our Father we felt as contented as when we had 1 lb per head.”11
1859: Helena Roseberry, her husband, and twins traveled with the Rowley company. “I had to walk and carry one of my babies and help to pull the cart for many weeks until my feet began to swell up so I had to ride some [in the wagon]. … I cannot tell all I suffered on that journey, but the Lord knows it. One day they tipped the wagon over and injured my hip so they had to carry me to the tent every night and there I lay on the ground with a few things under my head and a baby on each arm.” At Green River “an old woman that rode in the wagon … saw I was nearly dead and she took my babies from me and [cared for] them. … This enabled me to live.”12
1856: As Elder Parley P. Pratt of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles traveled to his mission to the eastern states in September 1856, he met a handcart company coming west at Green River. “They had travelled [for some 1,200 miles] twenty miles a day and sometimes more. Their faces were much sunburnt and their lips parched; but cheerfulness reigned in every heart, and joy seemed to beam on every countenance. The company gathered around us and I tried to address them, … but my utterance was choked, and I [tried three times] before I could overcome my emotions.”13
1859: A well-provided party of wagons going west to Colorado, which was a part of the big “Pike’s Peak or Bust” gold rush, passed a caravan of handcarts and killed a big buffalo. They took one-fourth of it, covered the remaining three-fourths with the hide, and put up a notice that read, “This is for the handcarts.” This was the only fresh meat the Rowley company had.14
1860: Daniel Robinson, captain of the ninth handcart company, wrote of a time when “arriving at the Sweetwater River we found the bottom of the river covered with fish. Everyone had all they could eat, which was a treat after having to eat salty bacon from the time we started until now.”15
1856: After three months and 17 days of pulling her handcart, Sarah Goode Marshall was camped with her six children and the Ellsworth and McArthur handcart companies. All were ready to enter the Salt Lake Valley the next day. Sarah asked Captain Ellsworth if she and her children could start out ahead of the company. Permission was granted, and early on the morning of September 26, 1856, Sarah and her six children left.
Meanwhile, the news had spread in the Salt Lake Valley that the first two handcart companies were arriving on the 26th. Preparations were made to meet them and celebrate their arrival.
As Sarah and her children headed toward the valley, they encountered the men on horseback. Some of the men (with Sarah’s permission) scooped up her children on horseback and galloped back to the valley. Sarah was now free to pull the handcart the rest of the way.16
President Brigham Young and Heber C. Kimball and many citizens, with a military detachment of the Lancers (a cavalry unit carrying lances) and brass bands, went out to meet the companies and escort them into the city. They met the two handcart companies at the foot of Little Mountain.
Elder Wilford Woodruff wrote of the joyous occasion: “After the meeting and salutations were over, amid feelings which no one can describe, the escort was formed, a party of Lancers leading the advance, followed by the bands, the Presidency, the Marshal, and citizens; then came the companies of handcarts, another party of Lancers bringing up the rear. … I must say my feelings were inexpressible to behold a company of men, women, and children, many of them aged and infirm, enter the city of the Great Salt Lake, drawing 100 handcarts, (led by Brother Ellsworth, who assisted in drawing the first handcart) with which they had travelled … and to see them dance with joy as they travelled through the streets. … This sight filled our hearts with joy and thanksgiving to God.”17
Edmund L. Ellsworth
Daniel D. McArthur
James G. Willie
Oscar O. Stoddard
Original research by Melvin Bashore, Senior Librarian, Church History Library.
The handcart companies were organized with about five persons per handcart. Each person was limited to 17 pounds of clothing and bedding.
The handcart pioneers slept in round tents, each supported by a center pole. The 20 occupants per tent slept with their feet to the center, like spokes on a wheel.
The occupants of each tent were under a president, or tent captain; five tents were supervised by the captain of a hundred.
The tent captain “was expected to give all his time and attention to his company,” to oversee the rationing of provisions (one pint of flour for each person every 24 hours), and to help equalize the labor.
A wagon to haul provisions, drawn by three yoke of oxen, was assigned to each hundred pioneers.
Source: LeRoy R. Hafen and Ann W. Hafen, Handcarts to Zion (1960), 157, 58–59.
In 1851 President Brigham Young suggested traveling by handcart as a less expensive and faster way to cross the plains than oxen-drawn wagons.
A carpenter by trade, President Young prepared instructions on how to build what came to be known as the 1856 Economy Model handcart. The following are some of his instructions given in letters written in September 1855: “I will give you my plan for building the carts. … You will need not a particle of Iron. … Prior to the time of starting[,] some mechanics accustomed to working in wood with a turning lathe, making wheels, etc., should be picked up to go to the outfitting point and gather good timber for the purpose, and commence turning hubs, spokes, etc.”
President Young recommended that hubs be made from “Iron Wood” or “Hard Hack”; axles, spokes, and rims from hickory. Rims were to be split “something like spinning wheel rims only thicker, and fasten them through and through with green hide and cover them also with the same when it can be done … in order to be light.”
A handcart cost about four or five dollars to build.
The handcart bed was four feet long, three feet wide, and eight inches deep. A strip of bed ticking was sewed across the bars of the bed of the cart. Some handcarts had a canvas cover similar to the covers used on wagons.
The wheels on either side of the handcart were nearly five feet in diameter. The hubs were lined with sole leather. The axles were four and a half feet from point to point, making them the same width as a covered wagon.
Running along each side of the bed were seven-foot pull shafts ending with a three-foot crossbar connecting them at the front. The crossbar was used to push or pull the 60-pound cart.
When the sand on the trail, especially in Nebraska, ground away at the unprotected wooden spindles of the axles, the pioneers used tin plates, kettles, buckets, or a piece of iron to prevent the wheel from wearing away the wooden spindle.
Due to the lack of proper lubricants to grease the axles of the handcarts, some pioneers used bacon or soap to help keep their cart wheels turning.
The great majority of handcarts were loaded with about 250 pounds of provisions. However, on rare occasions, handcarts were loaded with 400 or 500 pounds of flour, bedding, extra clothing, cooking utensils, and a tent.
Source: Excerpted from Pratt Wagon Works, “Pioneer Handcarts, 1856–1860” (1989), typescript, Archives of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1–4.
“We stand today as the recipients of [the pioneers’] great effort. I hope we are thankful. I hope we carry in our hearts a deep sense of gratitude for all that they have done for us. … As great things were expected of them, so are they of us. We note what they did with what they had. We have so much more, with an overwhelming challenge to go on and build the kingdom of God. There is so much to do.”
President Gordon B. Hinckley, “True to the Faith,” Ensign, May 1997, 66–67.