Overview of the Willie and Martin Handcart Companies

(See also Remembering the Rescue)

About 70,000 converts to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints moved to Utah by overland trail between 1847 and 1869.  Most came in wagons but 4 percent of them—about 3,000—traveled by handcart.  There were ten handcart companies between 1856 and 1860.  Eight of them traveled more quickly and with fewer deaths than the typical wagon company.  But in 1856, the Willie company and the Martin company paid a “terrible price” for leaving late in the season.[1]  (It is helpful to understand that the Willie company and the Martin company were two separate groups which were almost never in the same place at the same time.  The Willie company traveled ahead of the Martin company, often by 100 miles.)

President Brigham Young
President Brigham Young

From the time the saints first arrived in Utah in 1847, Church leaders encouraged converts to gather to Utah.  Sometimes this call was described as a commandment.  The prophet Brigham Young needed faithful people with skills and resources to help establish Zion.  The zeal to emigrate grew quickly because many converts saw an opportunity to improve their social and economic conditions.  They longed to worship freely, to raise their families in communities of saints, and to help build the kingdom of God.

HandcartMany converts could not afford to emigrate.  The Church instituted the Perpetual Emigration Fund to help pay their passage.  But after economic hard times in Utah, the Fund was in debt and Brigham Young announced that emigrants should come by handcart.  He encouraged those who could afford wagons to travel by handcart instead and use their wagon monies to pay for handcarts for the poor.  He stated that traveling by handcart would be “as quick, if not quicker, and much cheaper . . . .”[2]

Franklin D. Richards
Franklin D. Richards

Franklin D. Richards, apostle and president of the European Mission, oversaw the emigration of saints from Europe to Utah.  Church emigration leaders chartered sailing vessels to leave from English ports and arrive in New York City or Boston.  Emigrants then traveled over 1,000 miles by rail, steamboat, and ferry to Iowa City where they were outfitted with handcarts, tents, a few supply wagons, and necessary animals.  The saints were allowed only 17 lbs. of weight on each cart, as opposed to 100 lbs. per person for the sea voyage.  They then traveled 270 miles to Florence, Nebraska (Winter Quarters) where they were to receive additional support and supplies before trekking the final thousand miles to Salt Lake through Nebraska and Wyoming (see Maps).  From Florence, there was little chance of resupply since the few forts that were scattered along the way had modest amounts of supplies, usually at high prices.  Any substantial help after Florence must come from Salt Lake.

Handcart pioneers relied primarily on flour for their food, with adults usually receiving one pound a day.  One pound of flour has only about 1,600 calories while pulling a handcart requires about 4,000 calories per day.[3]  The pioneers also ate meat from the cattle they brought with them and wild game.

Emigration leaders were responsible for having all necessary supplies ready for the saints in Iowa City and Florence.  Due to several obstacles, they were ill-prepared for the Willie and Martin companies upon their arrival in Iowa City to pick up their supplies.  With slow communications in the era before the transatlantic telegraph, Church agents did not know exactly how many emigrants were coming and were prepared for far fewer than arrived.  In addition, the proper wood needed to build handcarts was in short supply.  This meant that many carts had to be built with unseasoned wood and inexperienced hands.  And the workload upon the leaders was tremendous: in the six weeks before these companies arrived, leaders had outfitted about 800 pioneers.  These factors, combined with the logistical challenge of preparing and organizing hundreds of saints for the trek west, resulted in a three-week delay in Iowa City for both the Willie and the Martin companies. Although this delay was shorter than the earlier handcart companies experienced, it contributed to the greater tragedies suffered by these companies for leaving later in the summer.

Both the Willie and Martin companies left Iowa City in mid to late July and traveled about a month’s time to Florence.  During this time, they experienced smaller flour rations, heat, storms, missing animals, handcart breakdowns, a few deaths, and some negative treatment by residents of Iowa, the most populous part of the handcart route.  Some Iowans shared food or goods with the saints but others “would mock, sneer, and deride us on every occasion for being such fools as they termed us, and would often throw out inducements to stop. . . . When we went through a town or settlement pulling our handcarts as we always had to do, people would turn out in crowds to laugh at us, crying ‘gee-haw’ as if we were oxen.”[4]

Trail through Iowa and Nebraska
Trail through Iowa and Nebraska

In Florence, both companies faced the decision whether to continue on to Salt Lake or stay in Florence for the winter.  Church emigration officials knew that to leave Florence in late August was risky.   The Church had advised early departures from the Midwest.  One member of the Willie company, Levi Savage, gave a particularly sobering warning against continuing, saying, as another member recalled, “their bones would strew the way.”[5]  The majority of both companies decided to proceed.  Why?  They were anxious to get to “Zion,” in many cases to be reunited with loved ones.  And there were most likely not enough resources such as food, fuel, shelter and employment opportunities to support them in Nebraska for the winter.  They were probably also unaware of the harshness of the climate and territory ahead.  Church leaders in Florence encouraged them to “go forward regardless of the consequences,” rebuked those of little faith, and promised that the faithful would “get through in safety,” that God would “arrange” the elements for their good, and that “heat nor cold nor any other thing should have power to seriously harm any in the camp but that [they] should arrive in the valleys of the mountains with strong and healthy bodies.”[6]

Deciding to press forward, the saints received resupplies from Church leaders in Florence.  Leaders had decided they could pull 60 days worth of flour, enough to get them much of the way to Salt Lake.  Since leaders acknowledged the likelihood that the companies would need more food (the fastest company made it in 65 days while the Willie company took 83 days)[7], they planned to send supplies to meet them in Wyoming.  The first three handcart companies were resupplied in Wyoming as planned.

President Franklin D. Richards met up with the Martin company in Florence and the Willie company further ahead in Nebraska.  He had supervised the departure of most of these people from England and left for Salt Lake himself.  He arrived in Florence after 26 days of travel.  This same journey took the handcart saints three months.  After meeting with each company briefly, he departed in his carriage, promising to send more supplies as soon as he could.  Statements he made led the people to hope and believe that supplies would be waiting for them at Fort Laramie and beyond.[8]

The Willie company left Florence on August 16 and 17 and the Martin company on August 25.  For many reasons, the journey from Florence to Fort Laramie in Eastern Wyoming was more difficult than from Iowa City to Florence.  Not only were the carts harder to pull through the sandy Platte River trail the pioneers followed across Nebraska and into Wyoming, but they were heavier too.  In Florence, a 100 lb. bag of flour had been loaded into each cart.  Additionally, the terrain rose in elevation and the climate became more arid, resulting in less grass for their animals and fewer trees for fuel.  Fresh water was sometimes hard to come by, a new experience for the saints from the greener, more lush countries of Great Britain and northern Europe.  Some cattle were lost—reducing their food stock and making the few wagons they had harder to pull.  And, although largely needless, the saints feared Indians.

The Willie and Martin companies arrived at Fort Laramie, Wyoming on October 1 and October 8, respectively, about 6 ½ weeks after leaving Florence.  Six Willie members and 20 Martin members died between Florence and the fort.  Both companies had used about 75% of their food supply by this point.  If they continued their average speed and flour rations, they would run out of food in a little over two weeks.  They would be over 300 miles away from Salt Lake, a three or four week journey.  Unfortunately, they found no supplies waiting for them at Fort Laramie as they had hoped.  As a result, they began reducing the daily flour ration.  They also attempted to cover more ground each day but their weakness from lack of food made this almost impossible.  They continued to hope for fresh supplies but none came until about three weeks later.Map WY UT Trail

The saints would later learn that for many weeks Salt Lake did not know of the companies’ decisions in Florence to continue to Salt Lake rather than remain in the Midwest for the winter.  Although Church officials in Salt Lake knew of the saints’ arrival in Iowa, they assumed church officials in Iowa would not allow the travelers to continue. From the beginning of the handcart plan, leaders had encouraged saints not to leave late in the season.  But church officials in Iowa assumed Salt Lake was planning for the arrival of these companies since they had been alerted of the companies’ arrival in Iowa. “Each group made assumptions about the decisions of the other.”[9]

At about the same time that the Willie and Martin companies arrived at Fort Laramie, President Richards arrived in Salt Lake.  The news he brought of some 1300+ people still on the trail was sobering.  President Brigham Young immediately understood the risk involved and the next day in the general conference, he directed the Salt Lake saints to send immediate assistance to the handcart pioneers: “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, and attend strictly to those things which we call temporal . . . otherwise your faith will be in vain . . . .”[10]

That day and the next, President Young asked the people to provide teams, wagons, blankets, clothing, shoes, and food.  Some didn’t wait for the conference to end, taking off the clothing they could spare right there to add to the wagons.  Shortly after, President Young instructed emigration authorities that, in the future, they were never to allow saints to leave Florence for Salt Lake later than August 1 and if they did, they would be excommunicated.[11]  He described a late immigration as an “evil” because, not only did it risk the lives of the travelers, but it put a burdensome task upon the saints in Salt Lake to resupply them with food which sometimes was scarce in the valley.[12]  “In summary, the call to rescue illustrates a fundamental characteristic of Brigham Young. . . .  [He] . . .  looked for help from heaven, but he was not a person who waited upon such miracles.”[13]

The first rescue team of 27 men and 16 wagons full of food and supplies left Salt Lake on October 7 and was led by Captain George D. Grant.  By the end of October, about 250 such wagons would be headed east to assist in the relief.  Some of the men in the first rescue team had just returned from long service abroad.  Some were also leaders that had urged the saints on in Florence.  When the rescue team reached South Pass, Captain Grant instructed Reddick Allred to remain with some supplies there to help when called upon.  For Bro. Allred, this meant waiting for weeks in the cold storms at one of the highest elevations of the journey.

President Richards had estimated that the saints would be no farther than the Green River crossing, 169 miles away.  When the first rescue team reached the Green River crossing on October 15, Captain Grant saw no sign of them.  Worried, he decided to send four men ahead as an express team to find them and let them know that help was coming.  The team included Cyrus Wheelock, Joseph Young, Stephen Taylor, and Abel Garr.  The rescuers would not find the first of the companies until they were east of Rocky Ridge, about 270 miles away.[14]

martin-handcart-pioneer-burial-272491-galleryAfter leaving Fort Laramie, the saints traveled toward the Sweetwater River, facing some of the most difficult trails of the journey and little water.  On reduced rations, the people were becoming more weak and failing quickly, especially as the weather grew colder.  The animals were also becoming weaker.  Knowing they were running out of food, the rations were reduced further.  Wolves followed, often howling, as the people grew frailer and the winds blew harder.  The clothing of the saints was wearing thin and shoes often exposed feet.  After pulling into camp in the evening, exhausted and starving, the people had to hunt what little fuel they could find for a fire.  The rivers had to be crossed many times which left them cold and wet.  “Cold weather, scarcity of food, lassitude, and fatigue from over-exertion soon produced their effects.  Our old and infirm people began to droop, and they no sooner lost spirit and courage than death’s stamp could be traced upon their features.  Life went out as smoothly as a lamp ceases to burn when the oil is gone.  At first the deaths occurred more slowly and irregularly, but in a few days at more frequent intervals, until we soon thought it unusual to leave a campground without burying one or more persons.”[15]

Devil's Gate
Devil’s Gate

The first winter storm of the season blasted in part-way through the day on October 19.  The Willie company had left the Fifth Crossing of the Sweetwater that morning on their last ration of flour.  The Martin company was struggling 100 miles behind at the Last Crossing of the Platte River.  Just past the Fifth Crossing, the Willie company met up with the express rescue team.  The four men of the team passed out a very few items of food and a good measure of hope to the cold, fatigued, and starving group.  The main rescue team was about 40 miles away.  The express rescue team continued on to find the Martin company.  After reaching Devil’s Gate, they remained and waited for the main rescue team as they had been told to do.  When the main rescue team arrived at Devil’s Gate on October 26, Captain Grant sent out a second express team to find the Martin company.  These men were Joseph Young, Abel Garr, and Dan Jones.  They found the Martin company on October 28 at Red Buttes.  Again, their message of a rescue team cheered the saints.  The main rescue team reached the Martin company at Greasewood Creek on October 31.  The saints rejoiced.

The rescue effort brought some relief to the Willie and Martin companies, but did not end the trials.  The supplies they brought were limited and often not enough to go around.  The saints still faced sickness, fatigue, the wind and snow of early winter, and miles of difficult terrain to cross.  Most notably, the Martin company had to cross the Sweetwater to get to Martin’s Cove to wait out a storm for five days.  And both companies had to climb Rocky Ridge, one of the most difficult sections of the trail.  Many people continued to die or experience frostbite.  So many could not walk that unneeded supplies in the wagons were unloaded and cached so that the most infirm could ride.  The circumstances were extreme but the aid of the rescuers kindled renewed hope.  Express teams from both companies were sent to inform Salt Lake of the dire situation.

In the meantime, Salt Lake continued to send many wagons with supplies for the saints.  Many gave up hope of finding the companies and started for home.  When President Young learned of this, he sent an express team to turn them around.  Express teams racing toward Salt Lake with news of the companies did the same.


After the first rescuers reached the Willie company, Reddick Allred was asked to leave South Pass and bring supplies.  He met them at Rock Creek and helped them back on their way.  They received help along the way and at South Pass.  At Fort Bridger, they met up with enough wagons that all were able to ride the final 113 miles to Salt Lake.  The Martin company received substantial reinforcements from ten wagons the day they crossed Rocky Ridge.[16]  Two days later when they reached South Pass, all were able to ride to Salt Lake in rescue wagons waiting for them.  Although better fed, the saints could not escape the cold and sickness.  The Willie company finally reached the Salt Lake Valley on November 9 and the Martin company on November 30 after enduring many weeks of severe cold, lack of food, frostbite, illness, and death.  The Willie company had lost 74 souls since leaving England, about a 15% mortality rate.  Estimates of the death toll for the Martin company range from 103 to 150, a mortality ranging between 18% and 26%.

Once the saints arrived in Salt Lake, residents “received[d] them as [their] own children” per Brigham Young’s encouragement, housing, clothing, feeding, and caring for them.[17]  Once on their feet, trials for the handcart pioneers were not over.  Many lost limbs or suffered physical effects from the trek for the remainder of their lives.  Many faced the challenge of finding employment and supporting their families through difficult times.  Many were called upon to settle other parts of Utah, often inhospitable and barren.  They exhibited faith and sacrificed until old age, receiving many great blessings in return.  In the end, their trials of faith and suffering gave them the opportunity, as Francis Webster declared, to know “that God lives, for we became acquainted with Him in our extremities. . . .  The price we paid to become acquainted with God was a privilege to pay . . . .”[18]

[1]Gordon B. Hinckley, Discourses of President Gordon B. Hinckley, Volume 1: 1995-1999 (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2005), 366.

[2]Millennial Star, 22 Dec. 1855, 813-14.

[3] Andrew D. Olsen, The Price We Paid (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2006), 74.

[4] Ibid., 73.

[5] Ibid., 81.

[6] Ibid., 83, 94.

[7] Ibid., 104.

[8] Ibid., 105-106.

[9] Ibid., 109.

[10] Ibid., 117.

[11] Ibid., 168, 286.

[12] Ibid., 120.

[13] Ibid., 121.

[14] Ibid., 123.

[15] Ibid., 127.

[16] Ibid., 391.

[17] Ibid., 399.

[18] Ibid., 3.