Lesson 150: Handcart Pioneers, 1856–1860

“Lesson 150: Handcart Pioneers, 1856–1860,” Doctrine and Covenants and Church History Seminary Teacher Manual (2013)

“Lesson 150,” Doctrine and Covenants and Church History Seminary Teacher Manual

Lesson 150

Handcart Pioneers, 1856–1860


The Saints who arrived in the Salt Lake Valley in 1847 went to work to develop agricultural and other resources for future immigration. In September 1851, Brigham Young and his counselors in the First Presidency reiterated the call for all the Saints living in Iowa and around the world to gather in the Salt Lake Valley. Many Latter-day Saints responded to President Young’s call at great sacrifice. Members of the Twelve were sent to oversee the migration, and in 1852 more Saints traveled the trail to the Salt Lake Valley than in any other year. Additionally, many Saints journeyed to the Salt Lake Valley in handcart companies between 1856 and 1860.

Suggestions for Teaching

Saints obey the counsel to gather in the Salt Lake Valley

Ask students to imagine that they have been asked to travel 1,300 miles (about 2,090 kilometers) on foot while pulling a cart and that they are allowed to bring only 17 pounds (about 7.7 kilograms) of personal belongings. Ask who in the class would volunteer for the journey.


Show students a picture of a handcart or draw the accompanying illustration on the board. Explain that in 1856, President Brigham Young proposed that emigrants should travel using handcarts instead of wagons because of financial hardships. Handcarts were much less expensive and would allow more of the Saints to emigrate. Between 1856 and 1860, almost 3,000 Saints chose to travel west across the plains of the United States to Utah, pulling their belongings in handcarts. Most of the handcart companies loaded provisions, personal items, and some food into handcarts and walked from Iowa City, Iowa, to Salt Lake City, Utah. The last three companies began their journey in Florence, Nebraska.

map, handcart route

Display a box or bucket with items weighing a total of 17 pounds (about 7.7 kilograms). Allow a few students to lift the items. Explain that an adult traveling in a handcart company was allowed to bring 17 pounds of belongings. Each child could bring 10 pounds (about 4.5 kilograms). Personal belongings included clothes and other items. The belongings were weighed for each individual, and anything that exceeded the weight limit was discarded.

  • If you had been one of these handcart pioneers, what material possessions would you have chosen to bring? Why?

  • Why do you think the Saints were willing to sacrifice so much to get to Utah?

Handcart Pioneers Approaching the Salt Lake Valley

Though travel was difficult, eight of the ten handcart companies between 1856 and 1860 completed the journey successfully. But in 1856, the fourth and fifth handcart companies started late in the season and experienced severe trials. They were the Willie handcart company, led by James G. Willie, and the Martin handcart company, led by Edward Martin. After traveling almost 1,000 miles (about 1,600 kilometers) west from Iowa, the companies were dangerously low on food and supplies. In October, both companies were caught in severe winter storms on the high plains of Wyoming that halted their progress. These Saints suffered terribly in the extreme cold and snow. (Consider displaying pictures of handcart pioneers, such as Handcart Pioneers Approaching the Salt Lake Valley [Gospel Art Book (2009), no. 102; see also].)

If possible, provide students a copy of the following account of Aaron and Elizabeth Jackson. Explain that the Jacksons were traveling in the Martin company, which was usually about 100 miles (about 160 kilometers) behind the Willie company. Invite a student to read the account aloud. Ask the class to follow along, looking for evidence of Aaron and Elizabeth’s faith.

On October 19, 1856, members of the Martin handcart company had to cross a wide river during a winter storm. Many members of the company, including Aaron Jackson, were weak and sick, and the river crossing took a terrible toll on them. Elizabeth Jackson described what happened to her husband a few days later:

“About nine o’clock I retired. … I slept until, as it appeared to me, about midnight. I was extremely cold. The weather was bitter. I listened to hear if my husband breathed—he lay so still. I could not hear him. I became alarmed. I put my hand on his body, when to my horror I discovered that my worst fears were confirmed. My husband was dead. … I called for help to the other inmates of the tent. They could render me no aid. … When daylight came, some of the male part of the company prepared the body for burial. … They wrapped him in a blanket and placed him in a pile with thirteen others who had died, and then covered him up in the snow. …

“I will not attempt to describe my feelings at finding myself thus left a widow with three children, under such excruciating circumstances. I cannot do it. But I believe the Recording Angel has inscribed in the archives above, and that my sufferings for the Gospel’s sake will be sanctified unto me for my good” (Leaves from the Life of Elizabeth Horrocks Jackson Kingsford [1908], 6–7; see also

  • What did Elizabeth say her suffering for the gospel’s sake would do for her? What do you think the phrase “sanctified unto me for my good” means? (Her suffering would be made sacred and holy for her benefit.)

  • What can happen to us if we need to suffer patiently for the gospel’s sake? (Write the following principle on the board: If we suffer patiently for the gospel’s sake, it can sanctify us for good. [See D&C 122:7; 2 Nephi 2:2.])

  • Even though you may not suffer like Elizabeth Jackson did, in what ways might you have to suffer for the gospel’s sake? How might you be blessed through these experiences?

Explain that during the next few days after Aaron Jackson died, the Martin company pushed forward about 10 miles (about 16 kilometers). Many people died during this time. One night during this part of the journey, no one had sufficient strength to pitch the tents. Elizabeth Jackson sat on a rock with one of her children in her lap and a child on each side of her. She remained in that position until morning. Elizabeth became discouraged. Then on the night of October 27, she had an experience that gave her hope of rescue. Invite a student to read the following account aloud, and ask the class to listen for what Elizabeth learned in a dream.

“It will be readily perceived that under such adverse circumstances I had become despondent. I was six or seven thousand miles from my native land, in a wild, rocky, mountain country, in a destitute condition, the ground covered with snow, the waters covered with ice, and I with three fatherless children with scarcely nothing to protect them from the merciless storms. When I retired to bed that night, being the 27th of Oct., I had a stunning revelation. In my dream, my husband stood by me and said—‘Cheer up, Elizabeth, deliverance is at hand’” (Leaves from the Life of Elizabeth Horrocks Jackson Kingsford, 8; see also

Tell students that the dream was fulfilled when rescuers from Salt Lake City reached the Martin company the next day.

Explain that on October 4, 1856, weeks before the winter storms hit the handcart companies, travelers reported to President Brigham Young that pioneer companies were still on the plains and hundreds of miles away. The next day, in a Sunday service, Brigham Young spoke of saving these handcart pioneers. Invite a student to read the following segments of his address. Ask the class to listen for a principle President Young was teaching the Saints. (If possible, provide students with a copy of this statement so they can follow along.)

President Brigham Young

“Many of our brethren and sisters are on the plains with hand-carts, and probably many are now 700 miles [about 1,100 kilometers] from this place, and they must be brought here, we must send assistance to them. …

“That is my religion; that is the dictation of the Holy Ghost that I possess, it is to save the people. … This is the salvation I am now seeking for, to save our brethren that would be apt to perish, or suffer extremely, if we do not send them assistance.

“I shall call upon the Bishops this day, I shall not wait until to-morrow, nor until [the] next day, for 60 good mule teams and 12 or 15 wagons … [as well as] 12 tons of flour and 40 good teamsters, besides those that drive the teams. …

“I will tell you all that your faith, religion, and profession of religion, will never save one soul of you in the celestial kingdom of our God, unless you carry out just such principles as I am now teaching you. Go and bring in those people now on the plains” (“Remarks,” Deseret News, Oct. 15, 1856, 252).

  • What did President Brigham Young teach the Saints? (Students may identify a variety of principles, but be sure they understand that as disciples of Jesus Christ, we are to help those in need.)

Explain that many men and women responded, and within two days of President Young’s sermon, men left to find the immigrants, driving wagons loaded with supplies.

  • How might this rescue effort have been a sacrifice for the Saints in the Salt Lake Valley?

  • What are some sacrifices we can make to help those with physical needs?

  • What are some sacrifices we can make to help those with spiritual needs?

Invite a student to read aloud the following statement by President Gordon B. Hinckley. Ask the class to listen for additional ways we can help those in need.

President Gordon B. Hinckley

“I am grateful that today none of our people are stranded on the Wyoming highlands. But I know that all about us there are many who are in need of help and who are deserving of rescue. Our mission in life, as followers of the Lord Jesus Christ, must be a mission of saving. There are the homeless, the hungry, the destitute. Their condition is obvious. We have done much. We can do more to help those who live on the edge of survival.

“We can reach out to strengthen those who wallow in the mire of pornography, gross immorality, and drugs. Many have become so addicted that they have lost power to control their own destinies. They are miserable and broken. They can be salvaged and saved. …

“It is not with those on the high plains of Wyoming that we need be concerned today. It is with many immediately around us, in our families, in our wards and stakes, in our neighborhoods and communities” (“Our Mission of Saving,” Ensign, Nov. 1991, 59).

  • When have you seen someone help those in spiritual or physical need? How did they help?

Invite students to ponder and pray to know how they can help someone else. You might give them a moment to write their thoughts in their class notebooks or scripture study journals.

To help students see that we are blessed when we endure trials with faith, invite a student to read the following account:

In 1856, Francis and Betsy Webster had enough money to travel to Utah in a wagon, but they donated their money to a fund created to help the Saints emigrate to Utah (the Perpetual Emigrating Fund). Their donation allowed an additional nine individuals to travel by handcart. Francis and Betsy, who were expecting a baby, traveled to Salt Lake City with the Martin handcart company and suffered along with the rest of the company.

Years later, as Brother Webster sat in a Sunday School class, he listened to some Church members criticize Church leaders for the handcart tragedy. Unable to constrain himself, he arose and testified of the blessings of being in the Martin handcart company. Invite a student to read Francis Webster’s testimony aloud, and ask students to identify one way in which those who suffered with the handcart companies were blessed.

“I ask you to stop this criticism for you are discussing a matter you know nothing about. Cold historical facts mean nothing here for they give no proper interpretation of the questions involved. Mistake to send the handcart company out so late in the season? Yes. But I was in that company and my wife was in it. … We suffered beyond anything you can imagine and many died of exposure and starvation. But did you ever hear a survivor of that company utter a word of criticism? …

“I have looked back many times to see who was pushing my cart but my eyes saw no one. I knew then that the Angels of God were there.

“Was I sorry that I chose to come by handcart? No. Neither then nor one moment of my life since. The price we paid to become acquainted with God was a privilege to pay and I am thankful that I was privileged to come to Zion in the Martin Handcart Company” (in William R. Palmer, “Pioneers of Southern Utah,” The Instructor, vol. 79, no. 5 [May 1944], 217–18).

  • What principle can we learn from Francis Webster’s testimony? (Students should identify the following principle: If we endure suffering faithfully, we can become acquainted with God.)

  • What types of attitudes or behaviors have you seen in those who have endured suffering faithfully? In what ways have you become acquainted with God through the trials you have faced?

Invite a few students to share their testimonies of one of the principles learned in the lesson today. You may want to add your own testimony.

Commentary and Background Information

Where can trials and affliction lead?

Contemplating the sacrifice of the early Latter-day Saint pioneers, President James E. Faust of the First Presidency observed:

President James E. Faust

“In the agonies of life, we seem to listen better to the faint, godly whisperings of the Divine Shepherd.

“Into every life there come the painful, despairing days of adversity and buffeting. There seems to be a full measure of anguish, sorrow, and often heartbreak for everyone, including those who earnestly seek to do right and be faithful. The Apostle Paul referred to his own challenge: ‘And lest I should be exalted above measure … , there was given to me a thorn in the flesh, the messenger of Satan to buffet me’ [2 Corinthians 12:7].

“The thorns that prick, that stick in the flesh, that hurt, often change lives which seem robbed of significance and hope. This change comes about through a refining process which often seems cruel and hard. In this way the soul can become like soft clay in the hands of the Master in building lives of faith, usefulness, beauty, and strength. For some, the refiner’s fire causes a loss of belief and faith in God, but those with eternal perspective understand that such refining is part of the perfection process. …

“… Trials and adversity can be preparatory to becoming born anew” (“Refined in Our Trials,” Ensign, Feb. 2006, 4).

Staying faithful in a cultural wilderness

Elder Neal A. Maxwell acknowledged the adversity that is part of our personal trek in today’s world:

Elder Neal A. Maxwell

“If we are faithful the day will come when those deserving pioneers and ancestors, whom we rightly praise for having overcome the adversities in their wilderness trek, will praise today’s faithful for having made their way successfully through a desert of despair and for having passed through a cultural wilderness, while still keeping the faith” (If Thou Endure It Well [1996], 28).