Martin Handcart Company

For those interested in the pioneer history of the Latter-day Saints (Mormons), here is a brief article about Author Carma Naylor’s ancestor as he migrated to Utah as part of the Martin Handcart Company (excerpted from A Mormon’s Unexpected Journey, Volume 1, Appendix A):

From the time of the church’s origin its leaders were very devoted to missionary work. As a result they gained hundreds of proselytes from England. These early converts were counseled to “gather to Zion.”

Zion was first designated at Kirtland, Ohio, the city where the LDS Church was located after leaving New York. Because of troubles in Kirtland, the Saints had gathered to Independence, Missouri, where Joseph Smith dedicated a spot for the building of the temple and the establishment of a New Zion. The Saints were driven by the populace from Independence and were given land in Caldwell County. Here, once again, Joseph designated Far West to be the location of Zion and dedicated a plot of land for the building of the temple in the last days.

At Joseph’s request, the Saints gathered to Far West, believing they were establishing Zion. The two pieces of property (in Independence and Far West) can be visited as historic Mormon sites, but a temple has never been built on either piece of land, nor was Zion established at either place. From Missouri, the Saints were driven to Illinois. Lastly, following the death of the Prophet Joseph Smith, the Mormons who followed Brigham Young as the succeeding prophet made their famous trek across Iowa, Nebraska, Wyoming and the Rocky Mountains into the Salt Lake Basin in Utah.

The first group arrived in 1847. Utah then became Zion—the new gathering place for these Saints. Several splinter groups started at this time and went in different directions geographically and theologically. The largest splinter group followed Joseph Smith’s son as the new prophet and remained in Illinois. Some remained in Missouri and still believe that the temple will be built on the land known as the Temple Lot, which Joseph Smith had prophesied would be the place to which Jesus would return. Members of this splinter group, known as “Church of Christ (Temple Lot),” are today still waiting to build a temple there; they presently do not have the funds to do so.

In a letter addressed, “To the saints scattered throughout the earth,” dated September 22, 1851, all LDS saints were admonished by Brigham Young to come to Utah, even if they did not have the necessary equipment to get there:

“O ye saints in the United States, will you listen to the voice of “the Good Shepherd”? Will you gather? Will you be obedient to the heavenly commandments? Many of you have been looking for and expecting too much; you have been expecting the time would come when you could journey across the mountains in your fine carriages, your good wagons, and have all the comforts of life that heart could wish; but your expectations are vain, and if you wait for those things you will never come . . . and your faith and hope will depart from you.

. . . Some of the children of the world have crossed the mountains and plains from Missouri to California with a pack on their back to worship their god—gold! Some have performed the same journey with a wheelbarrow, some have accomplished the same with a pack on a cow . . . and can you not do the same? Yes, if you have the same desire, the same faith!” (A Comprehensive History of the Church, B. H. Roberts, Volume 4, pages 83 and 84.)

B. H. Roberts tells us that another general epistle from the first presidency was sent out in October, 1855, giving definite instructions on the suggested method of immigrating: the wooden handcart. The Perpetual Emigration Fund Company was to help in providing the means for poor saints abroad who could not raise sufficient funds on their own to “gather to Zion.” Eight ships were made available to English Mormons for coming to America. From Boston, New York, or Philadelphia, the emigrants were to travel by rail to Iowa City, then the terminus of the railroad.

The saints were to receive their handcarts in Iowa City, along with a few cows for milk and beef cattle, as needed for food. They were then to walk the distance from Iowa City to the Great Salt Lake Basin. This was intended to save expenses and reduce problems that earlier pioneers had encountered. The following is a quote from the Epistle of the First Presidency:

“Let the saints, therefore, who intend to immigrate the ensuing year, understand that they are expected to walk and draw their luggage across the plains, and that they will be assisted by the fund in no other way” (ibid, page 85)

The saints in Europe responded, and the following year, 1856, the immigration was unusually large, amounting in all to 4,326 souls. Among these immigrants was William Stimpson, my great-great-grand-father, who had joined the church in 1849. He left Liverpool, England, on May 25, 1856, with his wife and two young sons, ages four and two. On arriving at Iowa City they had to wait for the handcarts to be made. They were organized into a company of 576 persons, 146 handcarts, 6 wagons for supplies, 6 mules and horses, 50 cows and beef cattle. Edward Martin was their leader.

Imagine 576 people, from infants to the aged, weak, as well as strong, starting a trek of more than a thousand miles by foot, with rivers to cross and mountains to traverse! They didn’t even have wagons to sleep in at night!

The Martin Handcart Company was the fifth company to cross the plains with handcarts that year. The first three companies of saints arrived in the Salt Lake Valley with great rejoicings in late September and early October, suffering the fatigue and toils that would be expected on such a hard journey. The last two companies, the Willie Company and the Martin Company, met with many more disasters and sorrows.

Because of the delay in waiting for the handcarts to be made (which should have been completed upon their arrival from England), they got off to a late start, leaving Iowa City on the twenty-eighth of July, 1856. Also, the construction of the handcarts was faulty because they had rushed in building them and had sacrificed durability for lightness, replacing iron axles and wheels with wooden ones. As a result the trek was delayed even more by broken handcarts along the way.

They arrived at Florence, Nebraska, on August 22. Here a debate ensued as to whether to venture on so late in the season to Salt Lake or to camp for the winter at some available location in Nebraska. One leader, who was acquainted with the country, was convinced, “that a mixed company of aged people, women and little children . . . could not cross the mountains so late in the season without much suffering, sickness, and death.” (ibid, p. 89) He was overruled, however, by the other leaders, and submitted to their decision—with the promise to go and even die with them if necessary. One narrative says, “No man worked harder than he to alleviate the suffering which he had foreseen, when he had to endure it.” (ibid, p. 90)

Unaware of the hazards and dangers that were before them, the emigrants trusted the judgment of their leaders. The influence the leaders had in this decision is clearly stated in B. H. Roberts’ history:

“But it had been represented to these saints in the handcart companies, and, indeed, to all the saints in Europe, that a special providence would attend this method of migration, and hence they would be apt to discredit any warning that might be given concerning dangers that might overwhelm them. ‘Know ye not,’ wrote Elder John Jacques, assistant editor of the Millennial Star, ‘Know ye not that it is the holy ordinance of the Lord revealed through his prophet, Brigham Young, for the redemption of the humble, faithful poor, and that it will be blessed and sanctified of him to the Salvation of thousands who are not too proud to be saved in his appointed way, while many who will despise that way will be left to perish in Babylon. The Lord has promised through his servant Brigham Young that the handcart companies shall be blessed with health and strength, and be met part way with teams and provisions from the valley. And I am not afraid to prophesy, that those who go by the handcarts, and continue faithful and obedient, will be blessed more than they have ever dreamed of.’ Religious enthusiasts imbued with these ideas of blessing and favor, would, of course, vote to continue the journey ‘to Zion’” (A Comprehensive History of the Church, B. H. Roberts, Volume 4, p. 90 and 91, quote from the Millennial Star, Volume xviii, p. 370)

They left Florence, Nebraska, on their treacherous journey at the end of the summer, August 25, and arrived at Fort Laramie on the eighth of October, still five hundred miles from the Salt Lake Valley. This part of the journey was extremely hazardous, crossing icy waters and rough mountain terrain ranging between 6,000 to 8,000 feet.

Severe snow storms and biting winds created an overwhelmingly helpless condition. Many of the already weak, starving, and fatigued emigrants did not survive. In order to lighten the loads of the flimsy handcarts on rugged mountain trails, they sacrificed bedding that was desperately needed in the freezing snowstorms. Nevertheless, for the months of October and November they struggled on. To summarize their struggles, I quote from a brief family history about William Stimpson, my great-great-grandfather, written by one of his descendants, Joseph H.Stimpson:

“As seen from this narrative, the early snows made the roads almost impassable and their journey most difficult. Their son, William B., died about the time they crossed the Platte River (October 19, 1856). Their food was getting low and the record says that their rations dropped to four ounces of flour per day per person. When they reached the Independence Peak on the Sweetwater River in Wyoming, his wife and a prematurely born child died and were buried near Fort Bridger. Relief trains were sent out from Salt Lake City to meet them. They found them undergoing extreme suffering. Half a slice of bread, or possibly a cup of flour mixed with water, was all the food they had to sustain him and his son for a day at a time. Finally they reached Salt Lake City on November 30, 1856. The experiences of this trip were of such a nature that William Stimpson refused to talk very much about them. The ground was frozen so that it was almost impossible to dig graves in the ground to bury those who died and they feared that they would be eaten by coyotes even before they could proceed further on the journey.” (Sketch of the Life of William Stimpson, by Joseph H. Stimpson, September 22, 1945)

This excerpt is from A Mormon’s Unexpected Journey, Volume 1, by Carma Naylor

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