Levi Savage

Levi SavageUnlike many of the handcart saints, Levi Savage was born in America, in Ohio in 1820.  His father and some of his family were baptized when he was 23.  Levi was not baptized for another three years, just before he joined the Mormon Battalion.

After his service in the Battalion, and upon his return the next year to the Salt Lake Valley over the Sierra Nevada range, he “encountered the grisly remains of the Donner Party.”[1]  This group, headed toward California, had become snowbound and about half the party had died from exposure and starvation.  Bro. Savage came upon the scene, described as “ghastly,” and where “some of the dead still had not been buried,” so a few of the soldiers buried them. When he finally made it to Salt Lake, he was not reunited with his mother who had died in Iowa on her way to Zion.[2]

Bro. Savage married Jane Mathers in 1848 and had a son about three years later.  His wife died less than a year after his son’s birth, and shortly before his son turned two years old, he was called on a mission to Thailand.  He left his little one with his sister and sailed from California to India to Burma.  He served in Burma for two years because of obstacles in getting to Thailand.  Preaching the gospel was very difficult when he had a hard time learning the language and had no Church materials in the native language.  After two and a half years away from his young son, he informed President Franklin D. Richards that his labors were “under the most adverse and trying circumstances, with no other view but the advance of our Redeemer’s cause, but with very little success.  My faith has failed me, and I have become discouraged, and intend to leave for Zion as soon as possible.”[3]

While Levi was returning from his mission, he was appointed by Pres. Richards as a subcaptain over 100 people in the Willie handcart company.  He sailed from Burma to Boston and traveled to Iowa City, meeting the saints four days before they began their trek.  He was one of the few to keep a daily journal.

When the saints reached Florence, Nebraska and faced the decision of whether to proceed so late in the season, Levi Savage was perhaps the most vocal about the dangers of pressing forward.  This is understandable, considering his several thousand miles of trail experience and the memory of the Donner remains.  He was a man with faith in God, but he also believed people should exercise good judgment based on reason and experience.  His own journal records the following:  “I . . . then related to the Saints the hardships that we should have to endure.  I said that we were liable to have to wade in snow up to our knees and shovel at night, lay ourselves in a thin blanket and lie on the frozen ground without a bed. . . .  The lateness of the season was my only objection to leaving . . . .  I spoke warmly upon the subject, but spoke truth.”[4]  The young George Cunningham remembers, “He counseled the old, weak, and sickly to stop until another spring.  The tears commenced to flow down his cheeks, and he prophesied that if such undertook the journey at that late season of the year, . . . their bones would strew the way.”[5]

After Bro. Savage’s tearful advice, other leaders publicly called into question his faith and essentially promised the saints a safe voyage if they continued.  They “prophesied in the name of God that we should get through in safety” and that “[e]ven the elements he would arrange for our good.”[6]  The saints perceived this response as a “rebuke” to Levi Savage.[7]  Later, when President Richards and other leaders met up with the Saints further in Nebraska, George Cunningham recounts that Bro. Savage “was called up and was told that he would have to take back what he said at Florence . . . or be tried for his fellowship.  He was forced to do so.  But it reminded me of Galileo, the great Italian philosopher, who discovered that the sun stood still [but was forced to recant that truth].”[8]

It is interesting to note that nowhere in Bro. Savage’s journal does he report feelings of resentment or indignation at this treatment.  And there is no record that Bro. Savage responded with the normal human emotions of pride, rebellion, bitterness, or anger as he experienced public reproof and the realization that many had misunderstood his words as a lack of faith and a condemnation of the handcart system.[9]  Instead he said, “Brethren and sisters, what I have said I know to be true, but seeing you are to go forward, I will go with you, will help you all I can, will work with you, will rest with you, will suffer with you, and if necessary, I will die with you.  May God in his mercy bless and preserve us.”[10]

Bro. Savage lived to prove his words true.  He showed optimism after the cattle were lost and the saints had yoked every cow they could find, including their cattle for beef and milk and young cattle:  “Surely the hand of the Lord is with us yet.”[11]  He grew weak and exhausted and hungry with the rest of the saints as their food began to wear out.  When he saw John Linford in an extremely weakened condition, he gave up his own very last ration of flour to the man.[12]  This was the last meal John Linford ate.

When the saints climbed Rocky Ridge, Levi Savage assisted many up that hill, working hard all the way.  Some would undoubtedly have perished were it not for the help he and others rendered.[13]  He buried the dead and worked tirelessly to aid the sick and slow, the grief-stricken and the frozen.  He said of the night after climbing Rocky Ridge:  “Just before daylight [the wagons] returned, bringing all with them, some badly frozen, some dying, and some dead.  It was certainly heartrending to hear children crying for mothers and mothers crying for children.  By the time I got them as comfortably situated as circumstances would admit, . . . day was dawning.  I had not shut my eyes for sleep, nor lain down.  I was nearly exhausted with fatigue and want of rest.”[14]

“Levi Savage had the thankless task of overseeing the company’s slow, deteriorating animals.  On the night of October 31, after the rest of the company had crossed the Green River, the journal records, ‘Brother Savage, with ox and cow teams, did not get to camp this evening.”[15]

Levi Savage has been called one of the great heroes of the trek.[16]  After being publicly criticized for his warning in Florence, his statements turned out to be true.  Yet there appears to be no record that he ever reacted with pride.  Instead, he humbly suffered in meekness alongside his fellow saints, accepting any assignment given him, even if unpleasant or undesirable, even at the cost of great personal risk and suffering.

Bro. Savage remained faithful until the end of his days.  His suffering did not end with the trek.  Once reunited with his little boy in Salt Lake, they had to live with his sister and her husband as Bro. Savage owned only the ragged clothes on his back.  At one point, he couldn’t even find a way to buy himself a new pair of pants.[17]  He eventually married Ann Cooper, a widow of the Willie company with two small girls.  Life was not easy for them and they lost much of what they managed to accumulate but Bro. Savage died “strong in the faith at nearly 91 years old.”[18]


[1] Andrew D. Olsen, The Price We Paid, 85 (2006).

[2] Id. at 67.

[3] Id. at 68.

[4] Id. at 80-81.

[5] Id. at 81.

[6] Id. at 83.

[7] Id. at 84.

[8] Id. at 97.

[9] Id. at 96.

[10] Id., citing John Chislett, “Mr. Chislett’s Narrative,” in T.B.H. Sternhouse, The Rocky Mountain Saints:  A Full and Complete History of the Mormons (New York:  D. Appleton and Co., 1873) 317.

[11] Id. at 91.

[12] Id. at 137.

[13] Id. at 150-151.

[14] Id. at 153.

[15] Id. at 164-165.

[16] Id. at 181.

[17] Id. at 182.

[18] Id. at 183.