The rescue of the Willie and Martin handcart companies as a symbol of the spiritual rescue called for by the gospel of Jesus Christ.
D&C 4:4-7; 18:10-16; 52:40; 81:5-6; Moroni 7:45-48; Our Heritage, 77-80
Gathering to Zion in Utah posed significant challenges to the Church during the 1850’s. Not only did many Saints in the States desire to head west, but also thousands of members in England and other European countries hoped to unite with the main body of the Church. It is interesting to note that in 1850, Utah had 11,380 members, while the British Isles had over 30,000. In 1849 the Perpetual Emigration Fund provided for many to travel to Utah, particularly those camped in Iowa. However, due to a grasshopper plague in the summer of 1855, the Utah economy was struggling, and the resultant financial difficulty caused the Church leaders to look for ways to cut the costs of immigration (see Church History in the Fulness of Times, Religion 341-43 Institute Manual, 356-61).
Franklin D. Richards, president of the European Mission, wrote to Brigham Young in the fall of 1855: “We cannot afford to purchase wagons and teams as in times past, I am consequently thrown back upon my old plan–to make hand-carts, and let the emigration foot it, and draw upon them the necessary supplies, having a cow or two for every ten. They can come just as quick, if not quicker, and much cheaper–can start earlier and escape the prevailing sickness which annually lays so many of our brethren in the dust” (“Foreign Correspondence,” Millennial Star, 22 Dec. 1855, 813; cited in Church History in the Fulness of Times, 358). Consequently, the First Presidency read a letter detailing instructions on handcart travel in October of 1855. The following summer, three handcart companies successfully, though not without incident, trekked to Salt Lake City, arriving in late September and early October.
“Go and Bring in those People now on the Plains”
Meanwhile, unbeknownst to the leadership in Utah, more Saints were en route to Zion, having made an ill-advised decision to leave England without understanding the dangers of starting late to cross the plains. In early October, many of the Saints had gathered to Salt Lake City and were preparing for general conference. They had naturally assumed that the arrival of the three handcart companies signaled the end of that year’s emigration. However, President Richards, also arriving in Utah for the conference, informed Brigham Young that two more companies of handcarts (and two ox-cart trains with supplies) had started late and were still on the plains–placing them in need of significant help. President Brigham Young immediately addressed the conference one day earlier than planned (October 5), poignantly and powerfully calling them to mount a rescue into Christ-like service. “The response was impressive. Sixteen wagon loads of food and supplies were quickly assembled; and on the morning of 7 October, sixteen good four-mule teams and twenty-seven hardy young men (known as Brigham Young’s ‘Minute Men’) headed eastward with the first provisions. More help was solicited and obtained from all parts of the territory. By the end of October, two hundred and fifty teams were on the road to give relief” (details from Hafen and Hafen, Handcarts to Zion, 124-25; quoted from Church History in the Fulness of Times, 360). In this way, President Young’s impassioned call for rescuers in those terrible circumstances gave almost unparalleled opportunity for selfless service.
Books have been written about the intervening suffering, courage, and blessing that arose out of those terrible days. Before it was through, more than two hundred men, women and children from the Willie and Martin handcart companies lost their lives before they arrived in Salt Lake City on November 2 and November 30 respectively.
Heroes of the Rescue
At the time and over the years, many have questioned why this tragedy occurred. Why were these last two teams allowed to press forward from Iowa City as late and as ill prepared as they were for the journey? We may never know in mortality–nor care in eternity, who is to blame. Thankfully, many of the 1856 Saints were less concerned with blaming than with helping.
Two historians recently wrote: “A lesser-known aspect of the handcart immigration, however, provides one of the most satisfying episodes in Mormon history. The rescue effort mounted by Brigham Young before anyone in Utah suspected the critical situation of the companies, the munificent response of the communities throughout the territory, and the courage and endurance of the rescue parties make a heartening story. In many immigrant journals, memory of the rescue and the welcome in Salt Lake City dominates other experience; the drama and the timelines of the deliverance is dwelt on far more often than grief and disillusionment over the predicament. Those embittered were in the minority; and even these, decades later, wrote emotionally, gratefully, of the heroic men who saved them from starvation and death” (Rebecca Bartholomew and Leonard Arrington, Rescue of the 1856 Handcart Companies, 3).
Bartholomew and Arrington give brief biographical data on forty-eight of the handcart rescuers (Rescue, 45-49). Following are several specific individuals whose bravery and character stand worthy of note.
Levi Savage was a sub-captain in the Willie Company and one of the dissenters in the Iowa City Councils against forging ahead to let the handcart companies cross the plains so late in the season. After being vociferously voted down, he declared, “Brethren and sisters, what I have said I know to be true [that the risks were too great]; 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” (Handcarts to Zion, 96-97). Brother Savage’s sentiments echo an earlier leader, Mormon, whose people were facing overwhelming odds as recorded in Mormon 2-4. Mormon couldn’t resist trying to help his people either, though he knew the difficulties from the start.
When the Martin company reached the ice clogged Sweetwater River in early November the specter of crossing it under those conditions nearly broke their hearts and spirits. Due to the unusually early winter season that year the normally undaunting stream was became a formidable obstacle. Reportedly three eighteen-year-old boys, who had come from Salt Lake as part of the relief party, literally carried nearly every handcart company member across the river. When several of those being assisted offered to thank them, one of the youths said, “We don’t want any of that. You are welcome. We have come to help you” (Rescue, 27). Upon hearing of this bravery and selflessness, Brigham Young declared, “That act alone will ensure C. Allen Huntington, George W. Grant, and David P. Kimball an everlasting salvation in the Celestial Kingdom of God, worlds without end” (Handcarts to Zion, 132-33; also President Monson, Ensign, May 1990, 46-47).
Reddick N. Allred, a relative of mine, was also part of the relief effort. The details surrounding his resolve and determination to the mission are inspiring and instructive. He had taken seven fresh teams and provision wagons with men from Utah and camped at South Pass, just west of Devil’s Gate in Wyoming. There on October 25 he helped to give relief to the Willie Company by allowing for the weary to ride in the wagons and discard their carts.
The intervening weeks waiting for the Martin Company [who were behind the Willie group] to materialize apparently caused some of the rescuers to feel that they should abandon the effort. Ephraim K. Hanks later explained that Allred and his men had resisted the efforts of some to return to Salt Lake when the immigrants were not immediately or conveniently located. Listen to the account, and the lesson, in the words of Elder Henry B. Eyring:
“There are few comforts so sweet as to know that we have been an instrument in the hands of God in leading someone else to safety. That blessing generally requires the faith to follow counsel when it is hard to do. An example from Church history is that of Reddick Newton Allred. He was one of the rescue party sent out by Brigham Young to bring in the Willie and Martin Handcart Companies. When a terrible storm hit, Captain Grant, captain of the rescue party, decided to leave some of the wagons by the Sweetwater River as he pressed ahead to find the handcart companies. With the blizzards howling and the weather becoming life threatening, two of the men left behind at the Sweetwater decided that it was foolish to stay. They thought that either the handcart companies had wintered over somewhere or had perished. They decided to return to the Salt Lake Valley and tried to persuade everyone else to do the same.
“Reddick Allred refused to budge. Brigham had sent them out and his priesthood leader had told him to wait there. The others took several wagons, all filled with needed supplies, and started back. Even more tragic, each wagon they met coming out from Salt Lake they turned back as well. They turned back 77 wagons, returning all the way to Little Mountain, where President Young learned what was happening and turned them around again. When the Willie Company was finally found, and had made that heartrending pull up and over Rocky Ridge, it was Reddick Allred and his wagons that waited for them. (See Rebecca Bartholomew and Leonard J. Arrington, Rescue of the 1856 Handcart Companies , 29, 33-34.)
“In this conference you will hear inspired counsel, for instance, to reach out to the new members of the Church. Those with the faith of Reddick Newton Allred will keep offering friendship even when it seems not to be needed or to have no effect. They will persist. When some new member reaches the point of spiritual exhaustion, they will be there offering kind words and fellowship. They will then feel the same divine approval Brother Allred felt when he saw those handcart pioneers struggling toward him, knowing he could offer them safety because he had followed counsel when it was hard to do. While the record does not prove it, I am confident that Brother Allred prayed while he waited. I am confident that his prayers were answered. He then knew that the counsel to stand fast was from God. We must pray to know that. I promise you answers to such prayers of faith” (Henry B. Eyring, “Finding Safety in Counsel,” Ensign, May 1997, 26).
Ephraim K. Hanks met up with the Martin company on November 11. “Hank’s heart almost melted within him at the sight of the immigrants. That evening he went about the camp administering to the sick and dying. One man had been pronounced dead by Daniel Tyler.
Hanks said to George Grant, Jr., and William Kimball, ‘Will you do just as I tell you?’ They brought warm water and helped him wash the man from head to foot and then anoint him with consecrated oil…. Then they ‘laid hands on him and commanded him in the name of Jesus Christ to breathe and live.’ The man sat up and ‘commenced to sing a hymn'” (Rescue, 29). Thankfully this servant of the Lord did not rely on his own strength, but instead exercised himself and others in the priesthood to rescuing even the dead.
“Perhaps thou shalt say … his punishments are just…”
When we consider the selfless and courageous efforts of the rescuers, we must also consider the “natural man” reaction to situations like the Willie and Martin handcart companies. We imagine there were those then who felt that these two companies brought on their own suffering–not that they deserved it, but that their own mistakes brought it on. Such reasoning, while justified in the world many times, has no place in the kingdom of God. King Benjamin warned against such self-righteous stinginess in his marvelous benedictory speech.
“And also, ye yourselves will succor those that stand in need of succor; ye will administer of your substance unto him that standeth in need; and ye will not suffer that the beggar putteth up his petition to you in vain, and turn him out to perish. Perhaps thou shalt say: The man has brought upon himself his misery; therefore I will stay my hand, and will not give unto him of my food, nor impart unto him of my substance that he may suffer, for his punishments are just–But I say unto you, O man, whosoever doeth this the same hath great cause to repent; and except he repenteth of that which he hath done he perisheth forever, and hath no interest in the kingdom of God” (Mosiah 4:16-18).
The Lord confirms in modern revelation that interest in His kingdom is shown by true service, regardless of how the need arose. “And remember in all things the poor and the needy, the sick and the afflicted, for he that doeth not these things, the same is not my disciple” (D&C 52:40).
Isn’t the whole point that someone is in need, rather than how that need came about? King Benjamin further declared: “…are we not all beggars? Do we not all depend on the same Being, even God, for all the substance which we have, for both food and raiment, and for good, and for silver, and for all the riches which we have of every kind?” (Mosiah 4:19).
Perhaps the greatest needs are produced by personal weaknesses at any rate. Consider the greatest need we have–forgiveness and refreshing from the Lord’s spirit.
“And behold… ye have been calling on his name, and begging for a remission of your sins. And has he suffered that ye have begged in vain? Nay; he has poured out his Spirit upon you, and has caused that your hearts should be filled with joy, and has caused that your mouths should be stopped that ye could not find utterance, so exceedingly great was your joy” (Mosiah 4:20).
Clearly, the Lord, having every justification to withhold blessings from us because of our rebellious wills and weaknesses before him, is the great example of service! He gives ‘liberally, and upbraideth not’ (James 1:5). I am grateful beyond words for such a Father and such a Savior.
Pray with all the Energy of Heart
How do we move from the natural man tendency to selfishly scapegoat and shirk our way out of Christ-like service? For years as a youth I struggled with the Apostle Paul and Moroni’s beautiful descriptions of charity. Every thing about charity seemed to be everything I was not! I literally tuned out when I would hear these words spoken, embarrassed and frustrated at my lack.
As frustrating as anything was the fact that several people around me (especially my parents) seemed to have this “charity.” I pretty much concluded that one was either born with it or was not. No doubt because I was tuning out during those potential learning moments when Moroni was read, it was several years before I came to understand that Moroni had also given a key to how uncharitable individuals can become ‘converted’ into a Christ-like persons filled with His kind of love.
“Wherefore, my beloved brethren, pray unto the Father with all the energy of heart, that ye may be filled with this love, which he hath bestowed upon all who are true followers of his Son, Jesus Christ; that ye may become the sons of God; that when he shall appear we shall be like him…” (Moroni 7:48).
When I read this and the Spirit bore witness to me that this was true, I did pray, and continue to pray, that He will bestow that love upon and in and through me. While there is much converting left to do, I gratefully acknowledge His rescue of me from my fallen and self-centered state. I know that humbling following the Savior in selfless service–inspired by those wonderful examples of those who helped the Lord rescue his children in the past–and asking in faith for his love to become in me, He will purify us “even as he is pure” (Moroni 7:48). Thereby allowing us the sweet experiences of being “saviors on mount Zion” (Obadiah 1:21).