“Handcart Companies,” Church History Topics
Latter-day Saint pioneers traveled to the Salt Lake Valley primarily by wagon train until the mid-1850s, when the need for a low-cost and more efficient mode of transportation persuaded Brigham Young to direct leaders to organize handcart companies. Instead of using wagons that were typically pulled by oxen, handcart pioneers pulled wooden carts themselves. Handcarts cost less, and handcart companies could travel faster than wagon companies.
Handcart travel began in 1856 and continued through 1860. The Perpetual Emigrating Fund Company (PEF) provided loans to help those who could not afford to make the journey. Only 10 of the more than 350 Latter-day Saint emigrating companies traveled by handcart.1
Most handcart companies made the journey without major incident. The two companies led by James G. Willie and Edward Martin, however, are remembered among Latter-day Saints for their tragic late-season journey. In 1856 winter storms trapped the Willie and Martin companies, along with the Hunt and Hodgetts wagon companies, on the plains of present-day Wyoming. Close to 1,500 people were stranded along the trail, approximately 250 of whom died after suffering exposure, frostbite, and starvation. A rescue effort enlisted thousands of Church members in Utah to provide food and aid, and over 300 rescuers risked their own safety to meet the companies en route and help them reach the Salt Lake Valley, saving over 1,200 lives. Although some accounts of the rescue and its aftermath exaggerated details of the story,2 this rescue has inspired generations of Latter-day Saints for the Saints’ rapid response, the rescuers’ heroic willingness to take personal risks, and the community’s support and care for the survivors.
In contrast with the ordeal of the Willie and Martin companies, the fatality rate of the other handcart companies did not exceed that of wagon companies, and PEF administrators continued to assist handcart travel. By 1860 about 3,000 handcart pioneers had successfully made the trek.