Five Things You Might Not Know about the Handcart Rescue

Chad Orton and Curtis Ashton
19 March 2019

19 March 2019

The story of 3,000 Latter-day Saints pulling their belongings to Utah in handcarts has inspired people for over a century. This dramatic story includes efforts in 1856 to help rescue the Willie and Martin handcart companies and three wagon trains that were also late in the season. Although you may know the basic outline of the handcart rescue effort, the following five insights into this well-known story may still surprise you. These insights show the blessings that come when Latter-day Saints heed inspired counsel and work together to help others in need.

1. This Was Not the First Relief Effort

By 1856, sending help to immigrants on the trail was nothing new for the Saints living in Utah. Since 1849, Brigham Young had sent wagons of supplies to meet incoming companies. In 1856 there were at least five wagons loaded with flour on the trail in early September to meet the handcart companies. They resupplied the first three companies along the trail, then started back home. When Brigham Young made an urgent call for men, teams, and supplies to rescue the last two handcart companies that October, some in the congregation acted quickly but wrote in their journals as though this was a regular, unremarkable event.

However, differences between earlier efforts and the 1856 rescue do make it truly remarkable:

  • The group needing help was very large. Counting the Willie and Martin handcart companies and the Hodgetts, Hunt, and Smoot wagon companies, close to 1,500 people became stranded on the high plains of present-day Wyoming.
  • The dates of departure for the last companies of 1856 were later than usual. While there are cases of freight wagons leaving late in the year, those companies had experienced teamsters with few extra passengers. They generally experienced less hardship than the handcart pioneers.
  • The distance to find the Martin handcart company and the wagon companies traveling closely with them—about 380 miles (612 kilometers)—was the farthest that relief wagons had ever traveled so late in the season.
  • More wagons were needed than ever before because the handcart pioneers had so few wagons and so many people.
  • Snow and cold temperatures made travel difficult for much of the rescue. Part of the rescue effort included men and ox teams working to clear snow from the trail through the mountains.

2. The Weather Was Warm and Clear When Brigham Young Issued the Call to Rescue

Brigham Young called on the Saints to assist those still on the plains on October 5, 1856, the day after learning that companies were still on the trail. On that day, no snow was falling and the temperature in Salt Lake City was in the mid-70s. Yet Brigham Young declared:

“Many of our brethren and sisters are on the plains with handcarts. . . . I want the brethren who may speak to understand that their text is the people on the plains, and the subject matter for this community is to send for them and bring them in before the winter sets in [emphasis added].”

For a rescue effort of this scale, people may have expected to have several days to prepare. Yet the first relief company felt the urgency of the prophet’s words and left the valley just two days later. No one knew that the first snowstorm would hit so early—on October 19. That same day, express riders from the relief party reached the Willie handcart company. The travelers were on their last day of food rations. Without the rescuers’ quick response to Brigham Young’s prophetic call, more members of the Willie company, as well as the companies behind them, would have died because of exposure and lack of food.

3. Thousands Participated in the Rescue

Brigham Young’s first rescue call came the day before general conference, which members from wards hundreds of miles away from Salt Lake City would be attending. He called on bishops to pledge flour, wagons, and teams. Once they made their pledge, these men still had to gather supplies from their local congregations. So one bishop’s name on a donation list written during general conference could represent contributions from many individuals. For example, Bishop Elias Blackburn of Provo promised to deliver 2,000 pounds of flour and two wagons. On October 10 he reported from Provo that he had raised the amount and sent two men with horses and wagons to Salt Lake City.

Bishops did not manage the relief effort on their own. They called on “block teachers” (now known as ministering brothers) to help gather supplies and assess needs. Women in ward Relief Societies helped share the work. In this way, family and ward members at home supported men and young men on the trail.

Ward members often served together on the trail. For example, Anson Call led a group of 13 teams from his ward in Davis County. They met the Willie company near Fort Bridger on November 1, then hurried ahead to help the Martin company.

4. The Rescue Effort Went On for Months

As the weeks went by, Brigham Young and other Church leaders made repeated requests for more rescuers, sometimes even before messengers from the trail confirmed the need. The last rescue wagons did not return from the mountains until December 15.

Some teamsters turned their wagons around before reaching the companies, thinking the chance to help them had passed. When Brigham Young learned this, he sent men to turn these teamsters back around and point them back to the work they were sent to do.

The total number of wagons sent is hard to measure but was likely more than 200, with an estimated 300 wagon trips. For every 10 wagons, an average of about 16 men came along as teamsters. The Church History Biographical Database identifies 363 rescuers on the trail, but the total could have been over 400.

Rescue efforts continued after the handcart travelers arrived. Some handcart Saints went to the homes of family members who had previously settled in Utah. But other Saints had nowhere to go. Bishops took them into homes close by and as far away as Box Elder and Iron Counties for the winter. Priesthood leaders worked with Relief Society sisters to help the newcomers with food and medical attention and later with work so the immigrants could provide for their families.

5. The Rescue Fostered a Spirit of Unity among the Saints

The relief parties represented a diverse group of ages, ethnic backgrounds, and Church experience. Some were well-seasoned veterans of the Mormon Battalion, from 10 years earlier. Others were young men who had grown up in Utah. Still others were newcomers to frontier life, having just arrived a year or two before. Daniel Johnson was a Swedish-born rescuer; Thomas “Bankhead” Coleman was a former slave. Yet the rescuers came together to bring in those on the trail.

Rescuers approached their assignment as they would a mission call. The advance party called Cyrus Wheelock to serve as chaplain, with duties to see that the group met regularly for prayers. The effort was a spiritual undertaking as much as a physical one.

Rescuers brought optimism to the handcart pioneers. Their efforts helped many who had despaired of surviving to continue their journey, and their examples of selfless service inspired others to serve. For example, members of the wagon companies who were traveling closely with the Martin company heeded the counsel of George Grant and made space in their wagons for those who were too weak to travel when leaving Martin’s Cove.

As the handcart pioneers were integrated into the communities in Utah, a noticeable spirit of unity also grew among the Saints. Some of them had received help in years past and could now help others. There were even some marriages between handcart travelers and those who helped them. The unity that people felt was part of a promise Brigham Young gave as the members of the Martin company came into the Salt Lake Valley:

“Now that most of them are here we will continue our labors of love, until they are able to take care of themselves, and we will receive the blessing. You need not be distrustful about that, for the Lord will bless this people.”