Journey of the Edward Martin Handcart Company

Edward Martin
Edward Martin

The Edward Martin handcart company consisted of 856 persons, mostly from the British isles and a few other countries, enthusiastically responding to President Brigham Young’s call to emigrate to the Salt Lake Valley.  They left Liverpool, England on May 25, 1856.  Franklin D. Richards, an apostle and president of the European Mission appointed Edward Martin, a returning missionary, to preside over the saints on the ship Horizon.  The Horizon transported the highest proportion of people receiving financial help from the Perpetual Emigration Fund.  This group of people were poor and had an unusually high number of old, young, women, and infirm.  But they were generally long-time members of the Church who had proven faithful.[1]  On the voyage, the close community of saints experienced marriages, births, deaths, storms, seasickness, and songs of joy.

A little over a month later, the saints arrived in Boston.  Their spirits were high as most of them (about 700) traveled for about a week by train to Iowa City to obtain their handcarts and provisions for the journey.  Many items had to be sold cheaply or left behind as each handcart could only hold 17 lbs. of weight.

The company left Iowa City between July 22-25, facing challenges on the way to Florence, Nebraska (Winter Quarters): a rainy night without tents, some murmuring, discouragement, fatigue, pain from walking, heat, thunderstorms, and some unkind treatment from Iowa residents.  But the beautiful countryside helped compensate.

They arrived in Florence a few days after the Willie company had left.  They repaired handcarts and prepared for the next leg of the journey.  The saints were cheered by the arrival of President Richards.  He called them together and one point of discussion was whether they should remain there for the winter or continue to Salt Lake.  After a vote was taken, one man recalled, “Unfortunately, warm enthusiasm prevailed over sound judgment and cool common sense, and it was determined to finish the journey the same season. . . .  The results . . . were fraught with disaster and death.”[2]  Some remembered that President Richards urged them forward and promised them safe passage; others remembered that President Richards advised them to remain in Florence.  His own recollection states: “When we had a meeting at Florence, we called upon the Saints to express their faith to the people, and requested to know of them, even if they knew that they should be swallowed up in storms, whether they would stop or turn back.  They voted, with loud acclamations, that they would go on.”[3]

The Martin company left Florence on August 25 after three days of preparations.  They faced a 522-mile trail to Fort Laramie in Eastern Wyoming.  The trail through Nebraska was more difficult for many reasons.  After hearing rumors of Indian hostility and witnessing one scene, “[f]ear held the whole camp in its grip as they all expected to be annihilated.”[4]  There were many older and infirm members of the company to be looked after, often by one man in particular, George Waugh, who died later in the journey.  The men often experienced extreme exhaustion after taking turns standing guard all night only to walk the next day.  Some, having lost hope and strength, would sink down to the ground, seeming to care little if they were helped up.  The saints became hungry, weak, sick, and discouraged.  Twenty died before reaching Fort Laramie.

Upon arriving at Fort Laramie on October 8 and finding no resupplies from Salt Lake, some “sold their watches and anything else of value to buy what they could at Fort Laramie.”[5]  Soon after leaving Fort Laramie, rations were reduced to stretch the food supply.  Describing the hunger they experienced, John Jacques recalled: “It [was] an appetite that could not be satisfied. . . .  You feel as if you could almost eat a rusty nail or gnaw a file.  You are ten times as hungry as a hunter . . . all the day long and every time you wake in the night.”[6]  Twelve-year old John Bond of the Hodgetts wagon company which followed the Martin company wrote: “Their bed clothing is badly worn from lying on the campground, and it is now getting damp and cold to lie on.  Their wearing apparel is in very bad condition, and their toes are protruding from worn out shoes.  It is a shocking and heart-aching sight to see them with their skeleton-like and emaciated forms, the tears rolling down their sunburned cheeks.  God pity them: he knows of their wounded and aching hearts.”[7]  Seeing the snow-capped peaks of the mountains before them struck fear into their hearts, a foreboding of more suffering ahead.  A week after leaving Fort Laramie, the Martin company was so weak that they burned blankets and outer clothing to reduce the weight of the carts.  This was a terrible hardship for the saints.

pioneers-crossing-river-37725-galleryOn October 19 the Martin company reached the Last Crossing of the Platte River.  “When we came to the large streams that had to be crossed . . . it seemed almost too much for human nature, . . . and some would tremble at it.”[8]  The daunting task of crossing the river was compounded by the arrival of the first winter storm.  President Gordon B. Hinckley described, “The river was wide, the current strong. . . .  Bravely they waded through [it].  A terrible storm arose with fierce winds bringing drifting sand, hail, and snow.  When they climbed the far bank of the river, their wet clothing froze to their bodies.  Exhausted, freezing, and without strength to go on, some quietly sat down, and while they sat, they died.”[9]  That night, fourteen people died.  Some who died had used the last bit of their strength helping others to cross.  Some worked all day helping people cross.  Some of the women also helped, including Sarah Ann Haigh, age 19, who carried 16 people to the other side.  Wet and cold after crossing, the saints could not get warm or dry.  At the other side, “snow, hail, and sleet began to fall, accompanied by a piercing north wind.”[10]

martin-handcart-pioneer-burial-272491-galleryAfter burying their dead, the Martin company forged ahead through the three-day storm to travel only ten miles to Red Buttes.  The next 40 miles were away from a fresh water source and they delayed at Red Buttes for six days, too weak to face the challenge.  Flour rations fell to four ounces a day and the cattle that were killed had little meat on them.  The company was greatly afflicted with diarrhea and dysentery.  “Some died ‘lying side by side with hands entwined, showing the last agonies and suffering of life with a gasp of love and affection, facing each other in death’s embrace. . . .  In other cases, they were found as if they had just offered a fervent prayer and their spirit had taken flight while in the act. . . .  Some died sitting by the fire; some were singing hymns or eating crusts of bread.’”[11]

On the fifth day at Red Buttes (October 28), the express rescuers finally reached the company.  “It is impossible to describe the joy and gratitude that filled every heart upon the arrival of such messengers of Salvation.”[12]  One described them as “angels from heaven.”[13]  The saints were encouraged enough by the message of help-on-the-way that they left the next morning in an effort to reach it sooner.  Two days later on October 31 they met the main rescue team at Greasewood Creek and were welcomed into camp with a dozen big fires burning.  “’This was [a] time of rejoicing. . . .  [S]ome stockings, boots, and other clothing were distributed, . . . also a few onions, which were highly prized, and a pound of flour ration was served out. . . .  This was the beginning of better days as to food and assistance, but the cold grew more severe and was intense much of the way.’”[14]

The rescuers later described the appearance and condition of the saints: “gaunt form, hollow eyes, and sunken countenance;” “fretful, peevish, childish;” provisions nearly gone, clothing almost completely worn out, scanty bedding; and shattered spirits.[15]   Since the Last Crossing of the Platte, 56 persons had died.

Devil's Gate
Devil’s Gate

The saints pressed ahead to Devil’s Gate through over a foot of snow.  Two days later on November 3 another foot of snow fell and temperatures fell below zero.  The rescuers decided that day to move them to what is now known as Martin’s Cove for better protection from the elements and more firewood.  In order to get to Martin’s Cove, the saints had to cross the Sweetwater River.  With the horrors of the Last Crossing of the Platte fresh in their minds, many felt they could not do it.  “Men and women shrank back and wept.”[16]  As they crossed “’. . . sharp cakes of floating ice below the surface of the water struck against the bare shins of the emigrant, inflicting wounds . . . .’”[17]  The rescuers carried many across, among them four young men: David P. Kimball, age 17; George W. Grant, age 17 (son of Captain Grant); C. Allen Huntington, age 25; and Stephen W. Taylor, age 22.  Night was beginning to fall by the time all were across and these young men had spent hours in the water.  “’We wanted to thank them, but they would not listen to [us],’” wrote one woman.[18]  They all suffered varying degrees of long-term effects on their health afterward.

Martin’s Cove

The saints, along with the people of the wagon companies traveling behind, remained at Martin’s Cove for five long days.  Death still followed them as temperatures reached 11 degrees below zero on November 6.  “’It was a fearful time and place,’” recalled Elizabeth Jackson.  “’It was so cold that some of the company came near freezing to death.  The sufferings of the people were fearful, and nothing but the power of a merciful God kept them from perishing.’”[19]  Tents blew over in the winds, leaving people to constantly battle snow and ice.  Wolves waited to dig up the buried as food rations were reduced to four ounces since the rescuers’ resupplies were not enough to feed some 900 persons.  James Bleak wrote in his journal, with frozen feet and his wife and children suffering amidst snowstorms, “’Through the blessing of our Father, we felt as contented as when we had 1 lb. per head.’”[20]  Many lost their lives at Martin’s Cove.

As most of the Martin company by this point could not pull their handcarts, let alone walk, rescuers decided to empty the contents of 40 wagons from the wagon companies and store the goods in some old cabins at Devil’s Gate.  This way, most could ride while the rest walked until they met up with other rescue wagons.  The handcarts were left behind.  Dan Jones was appointed to stay with the stored wagon goods until they could be recovered, for many weeks living on boiled rawhide during the six-month-plus period he remained.

Although the saints were happy to ride the remainder of the journey, they still battled illness, diarrhea, death, and the freezing cold which caused many to lose body parts.  They were grateful for the help they received along the way from trailing rescue wagons.  Patience Loader recalled, “’I can well remember how kind the brethren were to us poor distressed-looking creatures.  I think we must have looked a very deplorable set of human beings to them when they first met us camped in the snow. . . .  What brave men they must have been to start out from Salt Lake City in the middle of winter in search of us poor folks. . . .  They did not know how fare they would have to travel in the snow before they would find us.’”[21]  The Martin company finally arrived in Salt Lake on November 30 after losing between 103-150 people.

[1] Andrew D. Olsen, The Price We Paid (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2006), 220.

[2] Ibid., 287.

[3] Ibid., 290-291.

[4] Ibid., 296-297.

[5] Ibid., 312.

[6] Ibid., 313.

[7] Ibid., 313-314.

[8] Ibid., 317.

[9] Ibid., 318.

[10] Ibid., 319.

[11] Ibid., 335.

[12] Ibid., 340.

[13] Ibid.

[14] jIbid., 348.

[15] Ibid., 345.

[16] Ibid., 359.

[17] Ibid., 359-360.

[18] Ibid., 360.

[19] Ibid., 362.

[20] Ibid., 364.

[21] Ibid., 395.