“Beyond the Buffalo,” Tambuli, Oct. 1989, 19
One unforgettable day in the fall of 1856, a group of some 500 Latter-day Saint pioneers were steadily pulling their handcarts toward Zion, when they found themselves surrounded by buffalo. At first, the Saints viewed the buffalo as a blessing; they needed to add to their meat supply. But the large animals thundered through the ranks of the pioneers scattering their possessions and stampeding their cattle. Without the necessary firearms, the Saints were able to kill only two buffalo.
The battle between pioneer and buffalo was described in the diary of Joseph Benson Elder, a 21-year-old, who saw the event, but was too far away from the handcart company at the time to be of any help.
Joseph had been traveling with the company for only a short time. It had been earlier that year, just two day after he had been ordained to the Melchizedek Priesthood, and a year after his baptism, that he had decided to help the Saints who were gathering to Zion, and to join them himself.
Through the summer of 1856, Joseph and several other young Latter-day Saint men were occupied with the hard and dangerous task of herding cattle, mules, horses, and oxen to meet the various emigrating groups who were making their way across America’s plains to Zion. It wasn’t until mid-August that Joseph Elder was assigned to the handcart group that was already on the way to Winter Quarters from Iowa City, where the emigrants from European mission fields had gotten off the train. Led by Captain James G. Willie, the company had waited for more than a month in Iowa City for their handcarts to be finished. Some of the leaders of the Church Emigration organization wondered if it wasn’t too late in the year for another group to head to Utah, but enthusiasm was high and they decided to go ahead.
On Saturday, August 17th, Joseph Elder wrote in his diary:
“We organized ourselves for the march to Salt Lake City, more than [1,600 kilometers] away. It was quite an interesting sight to see the carts roll out in their several divisions and to see the people in such good faith. Although the Plains had never been crossed by handcarts, they believed they could accomplish it.”
Joseph was assigned to drive one of the extra supply wagons and to help with the livestock that was taken along for food. The entire company included, by his estimate, “about 450 people, with about 120 handcarts and six supply wagons.” They were divided into groups of tens and hundreds.
As they left the area of Florence, Nebraska, or the Winter Quarters camp, there were three other handcart companies ahead of them on the trail, and the Martin Handcart Company was just a few days behind them. These 1856 companies were the first to try to cross the plains with only handcarts and tents. When the Willie Company left Winter Quarters, the three earliest groups were still four weeks away from Salt Lake City. No one had yet proven that a large group of men, women, and children, including the aged and sick, could walk to Zion. But they wanted to try, even if it was late in the year.
But as time passed, the pioneers faced serious problems. The handcarts for the Willie and Martin companies had been hastily made and breakdowns were frequent. Stopping for repairs meant that food supplies had to last longer, and that the pioneers would be traveling through the mountains later in the season.
Even though Joseph Elder was diligent in his assignment to hunt buffalo for the handcart company, the animals were not always available, and all provisions became scarce. Cattle and some oxen had been lost to the stampeding buffalo. Flour had to be rationed, and there was little other food left. Some of the Saints began to weaken with hunger. The company relied heavily on the promises they had that Church leaders in Salt Lake City would be sending supply wagons to meet them.
By September 26 the first three handcart companies reached the Salt Lake Valley, but the Willie Company was still far behind in mountainous country. Joseph Elder records that they reached Fort Laramie, Wyoming, about October 1. Every day from Fort Laramie on they were climbing higher into the mountains. On the day that they traveled twenty-five kilometers without water, they also gave out the last of their flour. They were still hundreds of kilometers from Salt Lake City with no word yet on when help might be coming with more food.
A major setback for the handcart company was an unusually early and heavy winter snow storm. The pioneers tried to shelter themselves from the storm, but their tents were useless in such bad weather. “It was very bad, because the people were weak, having been on small rations of food,” wrote Joseph. But, as the storm passed, a great shout arose from the camp. They caught sight of a wagon. Two men from Salt Lake City were bringing word that teams of horses and wagons and provisions were onto their way. “It was glorious news,” wrote Joseph, but news alone did not feed the hundred of hungry Saints or keep them warm in this hour of critical need.
“The next morning when we got up, the pioneers were hungry and cold. To rush them into the snow would be certain death to a great many of them, for we had not yet met the relief wagons, only the one wagon which passed us and went on the Martin Company.”
Joseph recorded in his diary that Captain Willie then decided to take Joseph with him to go in search of the relief wagons. The company would make a camp and try to shelter themselves as best they could. Each pioneer had been allowed a maximum of only eight kilograms of clothing and bedding to keep the handcart light. In the severe cold, it wasn’t enough. Many Saints were literally freezing.
“We started ahead in search of our brethren,” wrote Joseph, and they rode on old and tired mules for [eighteen kilometers] with the snow and bitter wind blowing in their faces all day. The next day they found a guidepost where they were directed to their rescuers, who had been delayed in the storm. “Great was their joy in seeing us for they had been searching for us for a long time.”
It was another day and a half of difficult traveling until Captain Willie and Joseph Elder could lead the rescuers back to the camp to help. They found the cold had taken a terrible toll.
Joseph recorded: “That was an awful day. Many can never forget the scenes they witnessed that day. Men, women and children weakened by cold and hunger, weeping, crying, and some even dying by the roadside. … Oh how my heart did quake and shudder at the awful scenes which surrounded me. The next morning we buried nine, all in one deep grave.”
The fate of the Willie Handcart Company would be remembered as one of the saddest trials of all those endured by Mormon pioneers. But with fresh supplies of food and clothing, the health of the group gradually improved and even the weather got better. “We continued a steady march and at last to our great joy we arrived at Great Salt Lake City on November 9, 1856.” But our of the 450 Saints who had started the trek, sixty-seven died along the way.
Just two weeks after the group’s arrival, Joseph heard Church President Brigham Young issue a call for volunteers to go out and help the 600 members of the Martin Handcart Company still in the mountains in deep snow.
Joseph left that day with the other volunteers.
In the mountains the snow was almost three meters deep, and the wagons couldn’t get through. The volunteers had to carry the supplies on their backs to the handcart company. With the others, Joseph helped set up a camp to prepare the members of the company for the final effort to reach Salt Lake City.
Finally, all the handcart pioneers were safely gathered to Zion, where they went about the business of starting new lives.
Joseph found employment teaching school and driving a carriage for Brigham Young. He soon met Margaret Joiner, a lovely young English convert who had come to Utah with a wagon train of pioneers. In time they were married and became the parents of seven children, only two of whom lived to adulthood. Joseph served a short mission in Illinois, and, in 1878, at the age of forty-three, he served a mission to Europe.
Joseph Benson Elder lived a long life filled with Church service, in which he found much satisfaction.