Journey of the James G. Willie Handcart Company

On Sunday, May 4, 1856 the ship Thornton departed from Liverpool, England carrying 764 members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.  Leading them was James G. Willie, a returning missionary assigned to preside over the saints.   Within three days time there had been a birth, a marriage and one death.  Janet McNeil gave birth to a son before they had even left the dock.  Allan Findlay married Jessie Ireland the first day at sea and Rachel Curtis died on the third day.  These experiences, both joyful and tragic, helped to unite the saints who had come from many different countries.  After the six-week-long journey they arrived in New York City.  On his arrival 15-year-old George Cunningham said, “How well I remember the first step that I took on American soil.  How thrilled I was to be in the land of the free-the land of promise! . . . I felt like thanking God for the blessing I then enjoyed.”[1]

The saints traveled from New York 1,200 miles by train and boat to Iowa City arriving on June 26.  They were delayed in Iowa City because sufficient handcarts had not been constructed and tents had not yet been sewn.  The saints had to sleep without shelter.  Compounding the problem were daily thunderstorms, which left the saints soaked.  Illness was also a part of their struggles.  Thirteen-year-old Betsey Smith lay sick with scarlet fever.  She said, “Mother, they think I am dying; I want to live and go to the Valley.” [2]  Her mother sent for the Elders who administered to her.  “[They] rebuked the disease commanding it to leave both me and the camp.  My recovery was rapid.  I was able to travel.”[3]  Some 500 Saints, organized into the Willie handcart company, left Iowa City on July 15.  When the company reached Florence, Nebraska time was lost making repairs to the poorly built carts.

Prior to departing Florence, the Willie Company met to debate the wisdom of such a late departure.  Because the emigrants were unfamiliar with the trail and the climate, they deferred to the returning missionaries and Church agents.  One of the returning missionaries, Levi Savage, urged them to spend the winter in Nebraska.  He argued that such a late departure with a company consisting of elderly, women and young children would lead to suffering, sickness and even death.  All of the local Church elders argued that the trip should go forward, expressing optimism that the company would be protected by divine intervention.  Although Levi Savage was severely rebuked for lack of faith 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.”[4]  Some members of the company decided to spend the winter in Florence or in Iowa, but the majority, about 404, continued the journey west.  The Willie Company left Florence on August 16 and 17.

Trail of Sacrifice Valley of Promise
Trail of Sacrifice Valley of Promise

A storm came through the camp near Wood River, Nebraska, on September 3.  Emma James, a 16-year-old wrote, “As the sun went down, a terrible storm came up.  A strong wind tore the tents out of our hands and sent everything flying in all directions.  The thunder and lightning was like nothing we had ever seen before.  We had all we could do to keep track of each other . . . the rain came down in torrents, and in a matter of minutes we were soaked to the skin.”[5]  That night they lost 30 of their best cattle, mostly the oxen that pulled their supply wagons.  The storm caused buffalo herds to stampede, which frightened away the cattle.  The loss of cattle was devastating to the Willie Company.  Not only did they lose three days of precious time looking for the cattle, but they were left without enough cattle to pull all of the wagons, requiring each handcart to take on an additional 100 pounds of flour.  They resorted to using milk cows to help pull the wagons.  Ann Rowley said of the events, “This was the beginning of our great hardships and probably was the cause of most of them. . . . Our handcarts were not designed for such heavy loads and were constantly breaking down.”[6]

Levi Savage showed great optimism and was pleased with the cows’ ability to help in pulling the wagons.  He said, “Surely the hand of the Lord is with us yet.” [7]

Apostle Franklin D. Richards caught up with the Willie Company on September 12.  He was returning from Europe where he had served as the Church’s mission president and had overseen the emigration of saints.  He addressed the saints and promised, “though they might have some trials to endure . . . [neither] heat nor cold nor any other thing should have power to seriously harm any in the camp but that we should arrive in the valleys of the mountains with strong and healthy bodies.”[8]  He pressed on to Utah to obtain supplies and help for the emigrants.

The Willie Company reached Fort Laramie, Wyoming, on Wednesday, October 1st where they expected to be restocked with provisions.  No provisions were there for them.  The company was forced to cut back food rations, hoping that their supplies would last until help could be sent from Utah.

They were running out of food and encountering bitterly cold temperatures.  Ann Rowley was a widow with eight children.  She wrote, “Night was coming and there was no food for the evening meal.  I asked God’s help as I always did.  I got on my knees, remembering two hard sea biscuits that . . . had been left over from the sea voyage.  They were not large, and were so hard they couldn’t be broken.  Surely, that was not enough to feed 8 people, but 5 loaves and 2 fishes were not enough to feed 5,000 people either, but through a miracle, Jesus had done it.  So, with God’s help, nothing is impossible.  I found the biscuits and put them in a dutch oven and covered them with water and asked for God’s blessing.  Then I put the lid on the pan and set it on the coals.  When I took off the lid a little later, I found the pan filled with food. I kneeled with my family and thanked God for his goodness.  That night my family had sufficient food.”[9]

On Sunday, October 19th a blizzard struck the region, halting the company and the relief party.  The Willie Company was along the Sweetwater River in Wyoming approaching the Continental Divide.  A scouting party sent ahead by the main rescue party found and greeted the emigrants, gave them a small amount of flour, and encouraged them that rescue was near.  The members of the Willie Company had just reached the end of their flour supplies.  They began slaughtering the handful of broken-down cattle that still remained while their death toll mounted.  On October 20 Captain Willie and Joseph Elder went ahead by mule through the snow to locate the supply train and inform them of the company’s desperate situation.  They arrived at the rescue party’s campsite near South Pass that evening, and by the next evening the rescue party reached the Willie Company and provided them with food and assistance.  Mary Hurren who was seven years old at the time recalled, “I could hear the squeaking of the wagons as they came through the snow before I was able to see them.  Tears steamed down the cheeks of the men, and the children danced for joy.  As soon as the people could control their feelings, they all knelt down in the snow and gave thanks to God for his kindness and goodness unto them.” [10]

On Thursday, October 23rd, the second day after the main rescue party had arrived, the Willie Company faced an extremely difficult section of trail—the ascent up Rocky Ridge.  The climb took place during a howling snowstorm through knee-deep snow.  Rocky Ridge at 7,300 feet is the highest point on the Mormon Trail with a gain of 700 feet in elevation.  That night 13 emigrants died.  Joseph Elder describes the scene, “That was an awful day.  Many can never forget the scenes they witnessed that day.  Men, women, and children weakened down by cold and hunger, weeping, crying, and some even dying by the roadside.  It was very late before we all got into camp.  Oh, how my heart did quake and shudder at the awful scenes which surrounded me.”[11]

Ann Rowley recalled, “I was grateful for my faith in God, for it was only through this faith that I was able to carry on at all.  I confess, it seemed at times, the Lord had deserted us. . . . However, the Lord had not deserted us, and I was ashamed for thinking for a moment he had.” [12]

The Willie Company moved on to Fort Bridger, Wyoming where the immigrants left their handcarts behind and rode in wagons.  Lightweight ambulance wagons took the most seriously ill and drove from before sunrise to far past sunset each day, arriving in Salt Lake City on November 3.

The remainder of the Willie Company entered Salt Lake City on November 9, 1856 with 74 members having lost their lives since their departure form England.  The last entry of the Willie Company journal said, “Hundreds of persons were around the wagons on our way through the city, welcoming the company safely home.” [13]  Joseph Elder sums up the arrival this way, “At last we emerged from amongst the mountains, and the beautiful valley with all its loveliness spread itself out before our view.  My heart was filled with joy and gratitude.”[14]


[1] Andrew D. Olsen, The Price We Paid (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2006), 11.

[2] Ibid., 63.

[3] Ibid., 63.

[4] Ibid., 84.

[5] Ibid., 89.

[6] Ibid., 91.

[7] Ibid., 91.

[8] Ibid., 94.

[9] Ibid., 113.

[10] Ibid., 142.

[11] Ibid., 147.

[12] Ibid., 153.

[13] Ibid., 174.

[14] Ibid., 175.