In 1856, more than 1,200 people, mostly from Scandinavia and the British Isles, began a journey to gather to “Zion” in the valley of the Great Salt Lake. For the most part, they were poor, necessitating a more economic method of travel – pulling handcarts.
Five companies traveled that year. Three arrived safely, but the last two, the Willie and Martin handcart companies, left too late in the season. More than 200 perished in the worst overland migration tragedy in 19th century America. All would have likely died except for a rescue effort launched by Brigham Young in Salt Lake City.
Eventually, more than 300 men would be involved in one of the greatest rescues of the century.
Documentary filmmaker Lee Groberg had been fascinated with this story ever since he produced Trail of Hope for PBS Television in 1997. Then, the two hour documentary only devoted ten minutes to the handcart chapter of the Mormon Trail, and Lee felt cheated in never having told that story more completely.
Two years ago he set out to make sure that story would receive its dues, in commemoration of the 150th year since the tragic and heroic events occurred on the high plains of Wyoming.
The production of Sweetwater Rescue: The Willie and Martin Handcart Story spanned a period of 18 months. Sweetwater Rescue was filmed in five countries, and on location in Nebraska, Utah, and Wyoming. It was filmed in two different winter seasons to ensure ample snowy footage, a key to believability in the retelling of the snowy and cold events in October and November of 1856.
Groberg observed, “I personally visited the Wyoming segments of that trail more than a dozen times – and each time, it deepened my appreciation and respect for those who came west and those who went east to save them.”
The film crew experienced temperatures of 40 degrees below zero on the top of Rocky Ridge. They had to break through the Sweetwater River with a tractor because the minus 34 degree temperatures the week before had frozen the river in eight inches of ice.
In order to achieve believability, more than 200 extras were used to pull handcarts and ride in wagons over the plains of Nebraska and the wintry plains of Wyoming. The men grew their beards for three months in preparation for the filming. Many Wyoming residents of Lander, Riverton, and other smaller communities made up the hearty “pioneers” being filmed.
“The conditions were so harsh during some film segments that the look and feel of struggling handcart pioneers is very believable,” Groberg said. “They struggled, they were cold, and the pain in their faces was real.”
He added, “As we filmed more than 20 men, women and children in the Sweetwater River, trying to cross on a zero degree temperature late afternoon, we all experienced a very brief taste of what it might have been like for them when more than 600 members of the Martin Company and the Hunt and Hodgett wagon companies crossed over into Martin’s Cove on November 4th. It was a sobering experience to think that they did this to survive. We did it to capture a visual moment for the film.”
Groberg said there are many metaphors that can be drawn from this story. Some times in our lives, we need rescuing. Some times we have our Rocky Ridges to climb and our Sweetwater Rivers to cross. And the struggles of the Wyoming plains in winter are just as real today when we battle elements that they never experienced, but that are just as deadly.
“If I could summarize my experiences of the past 24 months, it would be a profound reverence and respect for those 1,000 emigrants who survived, and for the some 200 who did not – and for the 300 men and boys who risked their own lives to go save their fellow saints,” Groberg said.
A question that was asked often by Wyoming extras and film crew members each day they filmed in sub-zero temperatures was, “How did any of them make it? Why didn’t they all die?” Groberg said that personal experience reinforced for him that he was telling an amazing tale of the triumph of the human spirit.
The film was originally broadcast on Sunday in Utah. Nationwide broadcast is set for December 18 at 9pm EST, on PBS Television. The one-hour dramatized documentary will also be shown at the Museum of Church History and Art through January 2, 2007.
In addition, the documentary is available for purchase on DVD.
A companion book by the same name was written in collaboration with Heidi Swinton. In order to illustrate that companion book, Groberg decided to invite some of the top artists of the Church to paint new and original art to depict details of the handcart experience. With the help of seasoned artists and curators, he narrowed a huge list down to 35 names. He contacted them with the hope that he might end up with 25.
Little did he know how much enthusiasm his project would engender. Of the 35 artists who were invited to participate, 34 said yes outright. Some fell out because of other commitments and others got involved, moving the number of artists up to 45.
Groberg invited all of the artists who wanted to travel with him and the film crew to photograph the filming shoots as an inspiration for their artwork. “I went to a lot of expense and trouble to make the people, horses, wagons, handcarts and even the countryside look as it did in 1856,” he said. “It was a wonderful opportunity for artists to get it right and not guess as to how it might have looked.”