James G. Willie was born in England in 1814 and was well-educated at an English boarding school. After learning the mercantile business, he left for America at age 21 to seek his fortune and lived in New York. He joined the Church six years later and the next year, served a mission in the Eastern states. Shortly after his mission, he became engaged to Elizabeth Pettit and they traveled to Nauvoo where they planned to be sealed in the temple. When they arrived, they found nearly everyone gone due to persecution. So James and Elizabeth were married civilly and spent the winter of 1846-47 in Winter Quarters. The next summer they arrived in the Salt Lake valley.[i]
Five years later in 1852, Bro. Willie found out from the pulpit that he was called to serve a mission in his native country of England. The next month he left his wife and three young children and did not return for over four years. When he did, it was after much suffering and hardship as he led one of the handcart companies through early snows in Wyoming with little food.
President Franklin D. Richards, serving as the mission president of Europe at that time, had appointed Bro. Willie to be in charge of a group of 764 saints leaving England to join Zion. When a smaller group of them reached Florence, Nebraska, and discussed whether to proceed because of the lateness of the season, Captain Willie bore his testimony and urged the saints forward, even if it meant suffering and death. After Levi Savage warned the people of the terrible suffering they would likely endure, Bro. Willie felt compelled to declare that “the God he served was a God that was able to save to the uttermost, . . . .”[ii] He had great faith that God would watch over the saints as they journeyed to Salt Lake.
After the saints decided to proceed and were in the middle of Nebraska, 30 head of cattle strayed during the night, never to be found again. This led to some strife and complaining. Captain Willie encouraged the people to be unified, obedient and forgiving. At one point, he reproved Levi Savage and others for “rebellious talk” and not supporting the leaders. Although some may have felt this was an inaccurate and unfair characterization, it shows Bro. Willie’s desire for himself and others to do all in their power to obey their leaders.
Bro. Willie’s position as leader of the company left him with difficult decisions. When food grew scarce, he decided in Fort Laramie to reduce rations from one pound of flour per day to three-quarters of a pound which was a great trial to the saints. When they were “surrounded by snow a foot deep, out of provisions, many of [the] people sick, and [the] cattle dying” Bro. Willie decided to press forward in the snow with one other man to search for the rescuers and hasten them on.[iii] He thought he would find them only a few miles away but did not. The two men were forced to ascend Rocky Ridge in snowy, freezing weather and did not discover the rescuers until nightfall after traveling about 27 miles when they saw a marker pointing them off the trail to a thicket of trees (see story of Harvey Cluff).
James Willie was an obedient man who sacrificed much to help the people in his company reach the valley. When he finally arrived at Emigration Canyon, he was met by his eight-year-old son whom he had not seen in four years. His son probably noticed that his father’s feet and legs were badly frozen and wrapped in burlap sacks. His legs were saved after some uncertainty as to whether they needed to be amputated.
James Willie was a great leader and exhibited many Christ-like qualities. The young George Cunningham stated: “Our captain . . . did his duty. He was badly frozen and came very close to dying. . . . [H]e showed us all a noble example. He was furnished a mule to ride on our start from Iowa City, but he said, ‘I will never get on its back. I shall show the example; you follow it.’ He did so, and the captains of hundreds followed him. They would crowd on ahead to be the first into the streams to help the women and children across. . . . They waded every stream . . . a dozen times . . . . [Toward the end] they were completely exhausted and had to be hauled the balance of the way, some of them not being able to stand on their feet.”[iv] Mary Hurren paid her tribute thus: “’We all loved Captain Willie. He was kind and considerate and did all that he could for the comfort of those in his company. Many times he has laid his hands upon my head and administered to me.’”[v]
Although Bro. Willie had served as a missionary for four years and then suffered the trials of the four-month handcart journey, he was called right back into a three-year service upon his return as the bishop of the Salt Lake 7th Ward. Brigham Young then called him to help settle Cache Valley which is where he lived the last 36 years of his life. He served there in many civic positions, including mayor, and in a bishopric and as a patriarch. He spoke often in Sacrament Meeting and “was considered an inspirational speaker whose life matched his words . . . .”[vi] He said in one talk: “’My earnest desire is that the Spirit of God may direct all my actions in life. It is highly necessary for us to set such an example before our youth that we will be pleased to see them follow our example. The gospel penetrates behind the veil and reaches into eternity.’”[vii]
When Bro. Willie died at age 80, nearly everyone in Mendon where he lived “closed their stores and came in from their fields” to honor him at his funeral.[viii]