“Baked Potatoes and Milk,” Friend, Jan. 1983, 3
The bugle blared, and Elizabeth knew it was time for morning prayers. The night had seemed so short, and her weary little body shook in the chilly autumn air. She quickly pulled her long ragged dress over her head and tugged her worn boots over her tired feet. Mother met her with little John, and together they walked to the center of the handcart circle where her father, John, stood with his bugle.
Father was the bugler for the company. Each morning he called the company to prayer. Afterward, his bugle call started the carts on the trail. At night he called them to a halt. It was also his job to ration out the flour.
How sad he looks today, Elizabeth thought as she longed for the time when things would be nice again. Her body was always tired now, and her stomach was never full.
Everyone had been happy that day in August when Edward Martin had led this band of 576 handcart-pulling Saints on the first leg of their overland journey to Zion. They were so confident the Lord would protect them that they ignored President Brigham Young’s advice to start their journey early in the warm season with carts made of well-seasoned wood.
Because of a misunderstanding between English and American agents, the handcarts for the last two companies, headed by Captains Martin and Willie, had not been ready when the immigrants arrived in Iowa City from England. Ignoring warnings from experienced frontiersmen, the enthusiastic Saints stocked their small boxlike carts with flour, bedding, cooking utensils, and clothing for the long journey. Only seventeen pounds of personal belongings were allowed for each person; even that would be difficult to push and pull up steep hills and through cold rivers.
The green wood the carts were made from soon dried out on the long, hot journey and fell apart. When supplies were shifted to other carts, badly needed clothing and bedding were discarded.
The sound of sobs and sighs brought Elizabeth’s thoughts back to the present. Elizabeth could see tears running down her father’s face, too, as he reported to the company that he had just rationed out the last of the flour. Elizabeth knew that the Lord had always taken care of them before, and she prayed that somehow they would be taken care of now.
Gathering their strength, the pioneers pushed forward, and the faint strains of a familiar hymn could be heard above the creaking wheels of the carts. The snow that had begun to fall as they crossed the partially frozen North Platte River had turned into a blizzard. Father took Elizabeth and John into his arms and explained to them that the exhausted Saints could no longer go on. They would rest here until the Lord found a way to take care of them.
Father and Mother took out their battered tin plates and dug away at the deep snow to make a clearing for their tent. With great effort Father pounded the tent pegs into the frozen ground. Here the family waited with uncertainty.
As the days dragged on, a number of the Saints died from hunger, cold, and exhaustion. The food supply was now completely gone. Elizabeth and the other children had begun to scavenge the area for anything they could find to eat.
One day the children wandered among the willows, eating the bark from young trees to take the edge off their hunger. Suddenly a group of horsemen appeared at the top of a nearby hill. Indians! was Elizabeth’s first thought, but the frightened children were too weak to scamper off. As the horsemen approached, Elizabeth saw that the riders were members of a rescue party. The children were happy to see them and happier still to taste the crackers they had brought. The crackers weren’t a feast, but they were enough to keep the emigrant company alive until wagons loaded with more nourishing provisions arrived four days later.
Finally Elizabeth’s tired and ragged family, together with the rest of their company, straggled into Salt Lake Valley. Word of their arrival preceded them, and Brigham Young had sent the local members home from worship meeting early. After announcing that the afternoon meeting would be omitted, President Young said, “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. You know that I would give more for a dish of pudding and milk or a baked potato and salt, were I in the situation of those persons who have just come in, than I would for all your prayers, though you were to stay here all afternoon and pray. Prayer is good, but when baked potatoes and milk are needed, prayer will not supply their place.” (Deseret News, December 10, 1856, p. 320.)
That night as Elizabeth snuggled down in a cozy warm bed at the home of one of the kind sisters, she dreamed of the delicious dinner she had just eaten. Her stomach was full for the first time in months. The aroma of warm food still clung to the air, and her eyes began to close. Elizabeth knew that prayer had seen her family safely across the long frozen plains. She thanked the Lord now for baked potatoes and milk!