Between 1841 and 1868, about 450,000 people followed the Sweetwater River from Independence Rock to South Pass and crossed the Continental Divide through the Rocky Mountains.1 Most of them sought new opportunities in the fertile farmland of Oregon Territory or the gold mines of California. The time they spent in this valley was short compared to their entire journey from the Missouri River to the Pacific Ocean, but it was an important part of the trail because it provided plenty of water and good pasture for their livestock. The gentle slope of South Pass made the valley a good choice through the mountains. Signs at significant landmarks in the valley—such as Independence Rock, Devil’s Gate, Split Rock, and South Pass—show visitors that this wagon road is part of the nation’s heritage. Other landmarks—including Martin’s Cove, Sixth Crossing, and Rock Creek Hollow—hold special significance for Latter-day Saints.
The Handcart Experiment
About 70,000 of the immigrants who traveled the wagon road were Latter-day Saints.2 Like others moving west, they were looking for new opportunities. But they were also part of an organized gathering.
Out of about 450,000 travelers on the overland trail, only about 3,000 pulled handcarts.
Uniting with others of their faith, they had left their homes so they could make temple covenants and build up Zion, a community of the pure in heart. They expressed their faith in the sacrifices they made to heed a prophet’s counsel and in the help they gave each other along the way.
Compare one handcart company to a wagon company from the same year.
Before the railroad, most Saints crossed the continent by ox-drawn wagon. In 1855, Church leaders reasoned that people would save time and expense if they transported their belongings in small, two-wheeled carts and used a few wagons to carry most of the heavy equipment. They began a bold new experiment in overland travel. From 1856 to 1860, 10 companies, totaling about 3,000 people, used handcarts to travel to Utah. For eight of these companies, the experiment was considered a success. Handcart companies traveled more quickly and with less expense and fewer accidents than wagon trains.
Rescuing the Willie and Martin Handcart Companies
The Willie and Martin handcart companies, along with the Hunt and Hodgetts wagon trains, left late in the season. In October 1856, they were caught in early winter snowstorms. Over 200 people died from hunger, exposure, and fatigue—the greatest loss of life in the history of this overland trail.3
Like so many tragic stories in history, it is appropriate to ask how this might have been avoided. What if more people had postponed their travel until the following spring? What if they had been better prepared? What if supplies had come sooner? In asking these questions, it is also appropriate to honor some of the final resting places of those who died and to reflect on the physical hardship that they and many others were willing to face in seeking a better life.
But tragic suffering is not the only reason to remember this story. The rescue of these suffering Saints is also one of the finest examples of Latter-day Saints coming to the aid of those in need. Men and women across Utah Territory organized a massive relief effort when they learned that so many people were still on the trail so late in the season. Their service embodies the Christlike love each Church member strives to develop. It is an expression of the covenant made at baptism to be “willing to mourn with those that mourn; yea, and comfort those that stand in need of comfort, and to stand as witnesses of God at all times and in all things, and in all places that ye may be in, even until death” (Mosiah 18:9).
Albert W. Jones was 16 years old when he and his brother Samuel came west with their mother in the Martin handcart company. Years later, he remembered the joy in camp as the express riders rode in and assured them that help was on the way. He also recalled with gratitude his old friend William Binder, who had helped him cross the Sweetwater near Martin’s Cove.4
In 1906 Albert and Samuel Jones helped to organize a jubilee celebration at the Assembly Hall on Temple Square, marking 50 years since the arrival of the first handcart company to the Salt Lake Valley. In his remarks at the event, Albert told of a secret vow he had made after meeting the relief company to repay their kindness through service to others. “Should I and my people reach the valleys in safety—and a call should come to go out to rescue belated Saints in their incoming through the mountains, I would go out to help them,” he said. Albert then reported that he had kept his vow in an assignment to bring in immigrants in 1862, “and this effort is among the most pleasant of my life.”5
Since that jubilee in 1906, many others have found ways to remember those who gathered to Zion by handcart. A monument on Temple Square honoring the first handcart company is part of this tradition. So are the Church’s three historic sites along the overland trail in Wyoming. President Gordon B. Hinckley dedicated grave sites, monuments, and visitors’ centers in the Sweetwater Valley between 1992 and 1997. At the Martin’s Cove and Sixth Crossing sites, visitors have the opportunity to push and pull handcarts.
In his dedication of Rock Creek Hollow in 1994, President Gordon B. Hinckley prayed that “this area may be sacred to all who shall visit it, that such visits may have a sobering effect upon those who come, that having visited here they will leave with a finer sense of appreciation and gratitude and an increase in their faith.”6