Church History
16 Not Doubting nor Despairing

“Not Doubting nor Despairing,” chapter 16 of Saints: The Story of the Church of Jesus Christ in the Latter Days, Volume 2, No Unhallowed Hand, 1846–1893 (2020)

Chapter 16: “Not Doubting nor Despairing”

Chapter 16

Not Doubting nor Despairing

snow-covered feet dangling from handcart

As the first rescue teams hurried east, Edward Martin’s company camped near Jesse Haven and the Hodgetts wagon train at Fort Laramie, a military outpost halfway between Florence and Salt Lake City. The emigrants’ food supply was dwindling, and there were no relief teams from the valley in sight.

The man in charge of the fort opened his stores to the Saints, who sold their watches and other goods to purchase a little more flour, bacon, and rice. But even then their provisions would not be enough to satisfy their needs for the remaining five hundred miles of the journey.1

Jesse Haven feared for the handcart Saints. A pound of flour per day was not enough to sustain a person pulling a handcart over sandy trails and rocky bluffs, and that allotment would soon have to be reduced. The strain was especially hard on the elderly Saints, who had begun to die in alarming numbers.

“They are truly a poor and afflicted people,” Jesse reported in a letter to Brigham Young. “My heart bleeds for them.”2

The emigrants struggled on. Jesse’s wagon company traveled close to the Martin company, lending help where they could. The handcart emigrants were moving more slowly. Not long after leaving the fort, Aaron Jackson, the British silk worker, came down with a fever. The sickness sapped his strength, and he seemed to lose the will to go forward.

Aaron wanted to eat more than his ration, but there was no food to spare. After surveying the company’s food stores, Captain Martin had reduced the daily ration in his company to three-fourths of a pound of flour per person. Aaron’s family and friends tried to keep him moving, but the exertion wore him down even more.3

On the morning of October 19, Aaron sat down to rest beside the trail while the others in the company pressed on to the North Platte River. By noon, he still felt too weak to move. The temperature had dropped drastically over the last few days, and snow was beginning to fall. If he did not get up and rejoin his company soon, he would freeze to death.

Sometime later, two men from the company found Aaron, put him in a wagon with other sick Saints, and brought him to the North Platte. He found his family at the edge of the river, preparing to pull their handcart across. Since the wagon’s oxen were too weak to pull their load safely through the current, Aaron had to climb out to cross the river on foot.

He stepped feebly into the icy water as his wife, Elizabeth, and sister-in-law Mary stayed with the children and the handcart. He managed to walk a short distance, but then he stepped onto a sandbar and collapsed from exhaustion. Mary quickly waded out to him and pulled him to his feet while a man on horseback rode over, picked him up, and carried him to the other side of the river.4

A north wind blew through the company, and hail began to fall. Mary returned to the handcart, and she and Elizabeth pulled it across the river. As other emigrants struggled to cross, women and men stepped back into the river to rescue friends. Some carried the Saints who were too old, too young, or too sick to cross on their own. Nineteen-year-old Sarah Ann Haigh waded into the freezing water again and again, helping several people across.

Unable to walk any farther, Aaron Jackson was placed on a handcart and carried to the evening’s campsite, his feet dangling over the back of the cart. Elizabeth and Mary followed soon after, ready to attend to him once they reached camp. Behind them, Saints staggered on into the fading afternoon, their tattered clothes freezing stiff against their bodies.5

That night, Elizabeth helped her husband to bed and fell asleep beside him. When she awoke a few hours later, she listened for Aaron’s breathing and heard nothing. Alarmed, she placed her hand on him and found his body cold and stiff.

Elizabeth cried out for help, but there was nothing anyone could do. She thought about lighting a fire so she could look at Aaron, but she had no way to kindle it.

Lying down beside her husband’s lifeless body, Elizabeth could not sleep. She waited and prayed, grieving as she watched for the first signs of daylight. The hours passed slowly. She knew she still had her children to take care of—and she still had her sister Mary to help her. But even Mary was getting sick. The only person Elizabeth could truly rely on was the Lord. That night she asked Him for help, trusting that He would comfort her and aid her children.

When morning came, the emigrants were discouraged to find several inches of snow on the ground. A group of men carried Aaron away with thirteen other people who had died overnight. Since the ground was too hard to break, they wrapped the dead in blankets and covered them with snow.6

Captain Martin instructed the company to move on, despite the weather. The emigrants pushed and pulled their handcarts through a few miles of deepening snowdrift and bitter winds. The wet snow stuck to the wheels, making the handcarts heavier and harder to pull.7

The following day, the company trudged on through still deeper snow.8 Many did not have adequate shoes or boots to protect against the cold. Their feet turned raw and bloody from frostbite. The Saints tried to keep their spirits up by singing hymns.9 But four days after crossing the North Platte, they had made little progress.

Feeble and emaciated, the emigrants struggled to keep moving. The flour was now almost gone. Cattle were dying off but were too lean to provide much nourishment. Some people did not have enough strength to set up their tents, so they slept in the snow.10

On October 23, Captain Martin decided to rest the company at a place called Red Buttes. As the days passed, the situation in camp only got worse. The temperature continued to drop, and deaths in the company soon totaled more than fifty. At night, wolves crept into camp, dug through the graves, and fed on the bodies.11

Every day, Captain Martin called the Saints together to pray for deliverance and ask a blessing on the sick and suffering in camp. He looked tired and sorrowful, but he assured the Saints that help was coming.12

On the evening of October 27, Elizabeth sat down on a rock and held her children close. Thousands of miles from England, destitute and snowbound in a rocky mountain country, she was growing despondent. She was now a widow. Her children were fatherless. They had nothing to protect them from the winter storms but threadbare clothes and some blankets.

Sometime in the night, she fell asleep and dreamed that Aaron was standing beside her. “Cheer up, Elizabeth,” he said, “deliverance is at hand.”13

The next day, after eating their meager breakfast, the emigrants spotted three figures coming down a nearby hill on horses. As the figures got closer, the Saints recognized Joseph Young, the twenty-two-year-old son of Brigham Young who had served as a missionary in England for three years. With him were Daniel Jones and Abel Garr, two men from the Salt Lake Valley. They rode into camp, called everyone together, and distributed the food and supplies they carried on their animals.

“There are plenty of provisions and clothing coming for you on the road,” Joseph announced, “but tomorrow morning you must make a move from here.” Other rescuers were forty-five miles away in wagons stocked with food, clothes, and blankets. If the emigrants pressed on, they would meet up with them in a few days.14

The emigrants cheered, threw their arms around the men, and kissed their cheeks. Families laughed and embraced each other as tears poured from their eyes. “Amen!” they shouted.

The company sang a hymn and retired to their tents when night came. They would start west in the morning.15

Three days later, on October 31, the Martin company met the other rescuers on the trail. George D. Grant, the leader of the small team, was stunned by what he saw. Five or six hundred Saints tugged and pulled their handcarts in a ragged line some three or four miles long. He could see they were worn down after pulling their handcarts all day through the snow and mud. Some people lay in the carts, too sick or exhausted to move. Children were crying, some as they struggled alongside their parents in the snow. Everyone looked cold, and some people’s limbs were stiff and bleeding from exposure to the snow.16

Over the next few days, the rescuers helped the Martin company move west. Hoping to protect the emigrants against the weather, the rescue team wanted to move them to a cove not far from two high cliffs called Devil’s Gate. But to get there, the emigrants had to cross the icy Sweetwater River. With the horror of their last river crossing still fresh in their minds, many emigrants were terrified to cross. Some of them were able to cross the river in wagons. Others went over on foot. Several rescuers and a few of the emigrants carried people over the icy current. Five young rescuers—David P. Kimball, George W. Grant, Allen Huntington, Stephen Taylor, and Ira Nebeker—spent hours in the frigid water, heroically helping the company make the crossing.

Once the emigrants were settled in the cove, which they later named Martin’s Cove, it began to snow again. The camp became unbearably cold, and more people died. One emigrant described the cove as “an overcrowded tomb.”17

By November 9, Jesse Haven and the other Saints in the remaining two wagon companies were with the Martin company at the cove. The weather had cleared, and the rescuers decided to keep moving the company west, despite not having enough supplies and provisions to sustain every emigrant for the remaining 325 miles to Salt Lake City. The emigrants discarded most of their handcarts and nearly all their possessions, keeping only what they had to fight off the cold. Only about a third of the Saints in the Martin company could walk. The rescuers placed others in wagons.18

George D. Grant understood that the emigrants needed more help than his men could offer. “We go on doing all we can, not doubting nor despairing,” George reported in a letter to Brigham. “I have never seen such energy and faith among the ‘boys,’ nor so good a spirit as is among those who came out with me.”

“We have prayed without ceasing,” he testified, “and the blessing of God has been with us.”19

Ephraim Hanks, Arza Hinckley, and other rescuers found the company west of Martin’s Cove and supplied additional food and support for the emigrants. Ten more rescue wagons reached the emigrants at a place called Rocky Ridge, still about 250 miles from Salt Lake City. By then, more than 350 men from the valley had ventured into the deepening snow to help. They set up camps along the trail, cleared away snow, lit fires, and provided more wagons so no one had to walk. Rescuers also cooked meals for the emigrants and danced and sang to distract them from their suffering.20

The weather remained harsh, but the Saints felt God supporting them. “Almost every day angry storms arise very threatening, and judging from their appearance one would think that we should be unable to withstand the tempest,” wrote Joseph Simmons, one of the rescuers, to a friend in the valley. “Without the help of high heaven, we should have been snowbound in the mountains long ago.”21

As Brigham learned more about the Saints still on the trail, he struggled to focus on anything but their suffering. “My mind is yonder in the snow,” he told a congregation on November 12. “I cannot go out or come in but what in every minute or two minutes my mind reverts to them.”22

On November 30, as he presided over a Sabbath meeting in Salt Lake City, Brigham learned that relief wagons carrying the members of the Martin company would arrive later that day. He quickly canceled the rest of the day’s meetings. “When those persons arrive,” he said, “I want to have them distributed in the city among the families that have good and comfortable houses.”23

The emigrants came into the city at noon. By then, they were utterly destitute. Over one hundred people in the company had died. Many of the survivors had frostbitten hands and feet, some needing amputation. Had the rescuers not come when they did, many more people would have perished.

The Saints in the territory welcomed the new emigrants into their homes. Elizabeth Jackson and her children moved into her brother Samuel’s home in Ogden, north of Salt Lake City, where they rested and recuperated from their brutal journey.24

Jesse Haven, who arrived in Salt Lake City two weeks after the Martin company, wept when he saw the valley for the first time in four years. He went straight home to see his wives, Martha and Abigail, and his son, Jesse, who had been born while he was in South Africa. He then visited Brigham Young, grateful that the prophet had sent the rescue parties out to save the Saints.

“The fall of 1856 will long be remembered by me,” he wrote in his journal soon after arriving in the valley. “I have been in this Church nineteen years. I saw more suffering last fall than I ever saw before among the Saints.”25

Patience Loader, a member of the Martin company, later recalled how the Lord had blessed her with strength to endure the journey. “I can say we put our trust in God,” she testified. “He heard and answered our prayers and brought us through to the valleys.”26