On October 5, 1856, Brigham Young announced to the Saints in the Salt Lake Valley that the Willie and Martin handcart companies were facing trouble on the plains of Wyoming. He emphasized the need to quickly mobilize resources and rescuers.
The Relief Society had been disbanded 10 years earlier as part of the exodus from Nauvoo. Nevertheless, women throughout the territory played significant roles in saving the handcart pioneers, and their efforts indirectly led to the reestablishment of the Relief Society. While Churchwide reinstatement of the organization did not begin until 1867, the cry for handcart aid spurred many wards to formally reinstate Relief Societies locally.
Earlier, in 1853, Brigham Young had directed similar efforts after calling missionaries to preach among the American Indians. He encouraged the sisters to organize themselves into benevolent societies in order to clothe the Indians.1 He wanted to meet this particular need, but he did not reinstate a universal and ongoing organization at that time. However, these societies, established to various degrees, paved the way for universal reinstatement of the Relief Society.
The pioneer Relief Society women responded valiantly to President Young’s call for rescuers. For example, the Deseret Newsreported in late October 1856 that “a Female Relief Society was organized in Lake City [American Fork] for the benefit of the poor coming on this season; and not only for the poor now, but as long as humanity needs relief.”2
As the Lake City Relief Society sisters expressed, the 1856 relief effort was not merely about collecting supplies to take to those on the plains. It included caring for the Saints once they arrived in the Salt Lake Valley. On Sunday, November 30, the day the Martin handcart company finally arrived, Brigham Young declared: “I do not want to see them put into houses by themselves; I want to have them distributed in this city among the families that have good and comfortable houses. . . . Prayer is good, but when baked potatoes and pudding and milk are needed, prayer will not supply their place.”3
This revival of the Relief Society, sparked by the handcart rescue, led many Church leaders to see a long-term purpose for the organization. Between October 1856 and January 1857, the rescue efforts provided enough momentum to induce several local leaders to establish Relief Societies, organized once again “after the pattern of the priesthood.”4 The renewed partnership between sisters and priesthood bearers was a step toward the reinstatement of the Relief Society throughout the Church.
In Salt Lake City, the Fifth and Sixth Wards established a joint Relief Society in the “latter part of 1856. Sister [Sarah] Hickenlooper acted as Pres.” At that time, the focus of their Relief Society included providing clothing “for teamsters who were bringing in the poor.”5
The joint Provo Relief Society was not officially organized until January 1857; however, Lucy Meserve Smith, as de facto president, had organized the sisters in the community to assist in the relief effort weeks earlier. As she recalled, “We did all we could with the aid of the good brethern and sisters to comfort the needy as they came in with Hand Carts late in the fall. . . . As our Relief Society was short of funds then we could not do much. The four Bishops could hardly carry the bedding and other clothing we got together the first time we met.”6
“We did not cease our exersions til all were made comfortable,”7 she noted in another record.
After the bereft Saints arrived in Salt Lake City, the call to tend and care for them reached as far as Cedar City, about 250 miles (400 kilometers) away. There, too, local leaders organized a Relief Society.
At the meeting where the Cedar City Relief Society was organized, one priesthood leader said, “I have thought of organizing the Sisters into a Society for Benevolent purposes; the brethren only compose one half the Church; the Sisters have a mighty influence in the midst of this people.” He also observed, “The object of this association is for the relief of the needy and destitute, and for the sisters to provide something for the poor that are coming on this season.”8 In Cedar City, reinstating a Relief Society had been considered but was not put into practice until the 1856 handcart rescue provided the necessary momentum.
As women across the territory lost themselves in the service of others, they noticed that the purpose of their organizations was “not so much for the supplying of the poor, as for the advancement of the Sisters in the kingdom of God.”9 Their efforts fostered feelings of unity and purpose. “I never took more satisfaction and I might say more pleasure in any labor I ever performed in my life,” said Lucy Meserve Smith of the rescue effort. “Such a unity of feeling prevailed, I only had to go to the store and make my wants known and if it was cloth it was measured off without charge. [We] wallowed through snow a foot high untill our clothes were wet to get things together.”10These sacrifices provided immediate relief for the rescued pioneers, but they ultimately blessed and uplifted those serving as well.
It is impossible to quantify the good these societies accomplished. However, as one ward clerk concluded, “No doubt their names are engraved on the hearts of those to whom they ministered, and they will meet their reward promised in time to come.”11
The experiences of the Willie and Martin handcart companies were tragic, and yet they led to great blessings. Notable among those blessings was the reestablishment of organized Relief Societies and the powerful example these groups of women provided of the truth that would become their motto: Charity never faileth.