Unit 30: Day 4, Handcart Pioneers, 1856–60

    “Unit 30: Day 4, Handcart Pioneers, 1856–60,” Doctrine and Covenants and Church History Study Guide for Home-Study Seminary Students (2017)

    “Unit 30: Day 4,” Doctrine and Covenants and Church History Study Guide

    Unit 30: Day 4

    Handcart Pioneers, 1856–60


    The Saints who arrived in the Salt Lake Valley in 1847 went to work to develop agricultural and other resources for future emigration. In September 1851, President 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 Quorum of the Twelve Apostles 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.

    Saints Obey the Counsel to Gather to the Salt Lake Valley

    Imagine that you were asked to travel 1,300 miles (about 2,090 kilometers) on foot while pulling a cart and that you were allowed to bring only 17 pounds (about 7.7 kilograms) of personal belongings. Would you volunteer for this journey?

    handcart pioneers

    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.

    If possible, gather some items in your home that you would consider taking with you if you had been one of the handcart pioneers. Weigh the items on a scale to get a sense of how much you could take with a 17-pound (about 7.7-kilogram) weight limit.

    As you study this lesson, ponder the following question: Why do you think the Saints were willing to sacrifice so much to get to Utah?

    Most Church members, including those living outside of the United States, wanted to gather with the Saints in Utah. However, many did not have enough money or supplies to get there. For this reason, President Brigham Young established the Perpetual Emigrating Fund in 1849. The fund gave emigrants a loan to help them pay for travel and supplies. Because of a variety of financial problems, the fund was depleted in 1855, and President Young was concerned that it would not be sufficient to assist the Saints who wanted to emigrate in 1856. He proposed that emigrants who needed assistance from the fund should travel using handcarts instead of wagons. Handcarts were much less expensive and would allow more of the Saints to emigrate.

    map, United States

    Though travel was difficult, 8 of the 10 handcart companies between 1856 and 1860 completed the journey successfully with a mortality rate of about 3 percent, which is comparable to that of a typical wagon company. 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. Both companies were also caught in severe winter storms that halted their progress. These Saints suffered terribly in the extreme cold and snow.

    handcart pioneers

    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. The ground was frozen so hard that they could not dig a grave” (Leaves from the Life of Elizabeth Horrocks Jackson Kingsford [1908], 6–7; see also history.lds.org).

    1. journal icon
      If you could have written a letter for Elizabeth Jackson to read during this difficult time, what would you have said to encourage her not to give up? Write a short letter to Elizabeth in your scripture study journal.

    Look for evidence of Elizabeth’s faith in the rest of her account:

    “He was left there to sleep in peace until the trump of the Lord shall sound, and the dead in Christ shall awake and come forth in the morning of the first resurrection. We shall then again unite our hearts and lives and eternity will furnish us with life forever more.

    “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, 7; see also history.lds.org).

    1. journal icon
      Answer the following questions in your scripture study journal:

      1. From Elizabeth’s account, what is one purpose for our suffering and sacrifices for the gospel’s sake?

      2. The phrase “sanctified unto me for my good” means that Elizabeth’s suffering would be made sacred and holy for her benefit. Even though you may not suffer like she did, in what ways might you have to suffer for the gospel’s sake? How might you be blessed through these experiences?

    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:

    “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, 8; see also history.lds.org).

    Elizabeth’s dream was fulfilled. The first of the rescuers from Salt Lake City reached the Martin handcart company the next day.

    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:

    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 is one principle that President Brigham Young taught the Saints?

    Many men and women responded to the prophet’s invitation to help the suffering Saints. Within two days of President Young’s sermon, men left to find the immigrants, driving wagons loaded with supplies.

    1. journal icon
      Answer the following questions in your scripture study journal:

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

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

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

    On October 21, 1856, the first rescue wagons reached the Willie handcart company. Some of these wagons remained there, but most of them continued on to help the Martin handcart company. On October 23, the Willie company traveled about 15 miles [24 kilometers] through blizzard conditions. The first 3 miles [5 kilometers] included a 600-foot [180-meter] climb up a hill called Rocky Ridge.

    President James E. Faust of the First Presidency described the valor of young pioneer children in the Willie company:

    President James E. Faust

    “Thirteen members of the Willie Company who perished from cold, exhaustion, and starvation are buried in a common grave at Rock Creek Hollow. … Two of those buried at Rock Creek Hollow were heroic children of tender years: Bodil [Mortensen], age [eleven], from Denmark, and James Kirkwood, age eleven, from Scotland.

    “Bodil apparently was assigned to care for some small children as they crossed Rocky Ridge. When they arrived at camp, she must have been sent to gather firewood. She was found frozen to death leaning against the wheel of her handcart, clutching sagebrush.

    “Let me tell you of James Kirkwood. James was from Glasgow, Scotland. On the trip west, James was accompanied by his widowed mother and three brothers, one of whom, Thomas, was nineteen and crippled and had to ride in the handcart. James’s primary responsibility on the trek was to care for his little four-year-old brother, Joseph, while his mother and oldest brother, Robert, pulled the cart. As they climbed Rocky Ridge, it was snowing and there was a bitter cold wind blowing. It took the whole company [twenty] hours to travel fifteen miles. When little Joseph became too weary to walk, James, the older brother, had no choice but to carry him. Left behind the main group, James and Joseph made their way slowly to camp. When the two finally arrived at the fireside, James ‘having so faithfully carried out his task, collapsed and died from exposure and over-exertion’” (“A Priceless Heritage,” Ensign, Nov. 1992, 84–85).

    President Thomas S. Monson explained how we could live the principle of helping those in need in our day. As you read what he taught, look for additional ways we can help others today.

    President Thomas S. Monson

    “Throughout my years as a General Authority I have emphasized a need for the ‘rescue’ of our brothers and sisters from many different situations which may be depriving them of all the blessings the gospel can provide. Since becoming President of the Church I have felt an increased urgency for us to be engaged in this rescue effort. As faithful members of the Church have reached out with love and understanding, many have returned to full activity and are enjoying added blessings in their lives. There is yet much to do in this regard, and I encourage all to continue to reach out to rescue. Said the Lord, ’When thou art converted, strengthen thy brethren’ (Luke 22:32)” (“Reach Out to Rescue”; LDS.org).

    1. journal icon
      In your scripture study journal, write about a time you saw someone help those in spiritual or physical need. How did that person help? In what ways did the service bless both the person and those who were served?

    Take a moment to consider who around you may need spiritual or physical help. How can you assist them?

    The following account can help you identify some of the blessings these Saints received because they endured their suffering faithfully:

    pioneers and angels in snow

    In 1856, Francis and Betsy Webster had enough money to travel to Utah in a wagon, but they donated their money to the Perpetual Emigrating Fund. Their donation allowed an additional nine individuals to travel by handcart. Brother and Sister Webster, 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:

    “I ask you to stop this criticism for you are discussing a matter you know nothing about. Cold historic 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? … Everyone of us came through with the absolute knowledge that God lives for we became acquainted with him in our extremities [extreme needs].

    “I have pulled my handcart when I was so weak and weary from illness and lack of food that I could hardly put one foot ahead of the other. I have looked ahead and seen a patch of sand or a hill slope and I said I can go only that far and there I must give up for I cannot pull my load through it. I have gone on to that sand and when I reached it, the cart began pushing me. 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, May 1944, 217–18).

    One principle we can learn from Francis Webster’s testimony is that if we endure suffering faithfully, we can become acquainted with God.

    1. journal icon
      Answer the following questions in your scripture study journal:

      1. What attitudes or behaviors have you seen in those who have endured suffering faithfully?

      2. In what ways have you become acquainted with God through the trials you have faced?

    2. journal icon
      Write the following at the bottom of today’s assignments in your scripture study journal:

      I have studied the “Handcart Pioneers, 1856–60” lesson and completed it on (date).

      Additional questions, thoughts, and insights I would like to share with my teacher: