Having started late from Iowa and suffered innumerable mishaps and miscalculations along the way, two handcart companies under the leadership of Captains Edward Martin and James G. Willie were caught in early snows near the Continental Divide in 1856. In one of the greatest tragedies in overland trail history, hundreds died of exposure and starvation before rescuers from the Salt Lake Valley brought them to this location a few miles west of Devil's Gate in early November.
Brigham Young, Salt Lake City
"I will now give this people the subject and the text of the Elders who may speak to-day and during the conference. It is this. On the 5th day of October, 1856, many of our brethren and sisters are on the plains with handcarts, and probably many are now seven hundred miles from this place, and they must be brought here, we must send assistance to them. The text will be, 'to get them here.' 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 winter set in.
"That is my religion; that is the dictation of the Holy Ghost that I possess. It is to save the people. This is the salvation I am now seeking for. To save our brethren that would be apt to perish, or suffer extremely, if we do not send them assistance.
"I shall call upon the Bishops this day. I shall not wait until tomorrow, nor until the next day, for 60 good mule teams and 112 or 15 wagons. I do not want to send oxen. I want good horse and mules. They are in this Territory, and we must have them. Also 12 tons of flour and 40 good teamsters, besides those that drive the teams. This is dividing my texts into heads. First, 40 good young men who know how to drive teams, to take charge of the teams that are now managed by men, women and children who know nothing about driving them. Second, 60 or 65 good spans of mules, or horses, with harness, whipple trees, neckyokes, stretchers, lead chains, &c. And thirdly, 24 thousand pounds of flour, which we have on hand. . . .
"I will tell you all that your faith, religion, and profession of religion, will never save one soul of you in the Celestial Kingdom of our God, unless you carry out just such principles as I am now teaching you. Go and bring in those people now on the plains. And attend strictly to those things which we call temporal, or temporal duties. Otherwise, your faith will be in vain. The preaching you have heard will be in vain and you, and you will sink to Hell, unless you attend to the things we tell you."
(Brigham Young's address reported in the Deseret News, 15 October 1856, as quoted in LeRoy R. Hafen and Ann W. Hafen, Handcarts to Zion[Glendale, Ca.: The Arthur H. Clark, Co., 1960], 120-21.)
"The terrific storm which caused the immigrants so much suffering and loss overtook me near the South Pass, where I stopped about three days with Reddick N. Allred, who had come out with provisions for the immigrants. The storm during these three days was simply awful. In all my travels in the Rocky Mountains both before and afterwards, I have seen no worse. When at length the snow ceased falling, it lay on the ground so deep that for many days it was impossible to move wagons through it.
"Being deeply concerned about the possible fate of the immigrants, and feeling anxious to learn of their condition, I determined to start out on horseback to meet them; and for this purpose I secured a pack-saddle and two animals (one to ride and one to pack), from Brother Allred, and began to make my way slowly through the snow alone.
"After traveling for sometime I met Joseph A. Young and one of the Garr boys, two of the relief company which had been sent from Salt Lake City to help the companies. They had met the immigrants and were now returning with important dispatches from the camps to the headquarters of the Church, reporting the awful condition of the companies.
"In the meantime I continued my lonely journey, and the night after meeting Elders Young and Garr, I camped in the snow in the mountains. As I was preparing to make a bed in the snow with the few articles that my pack animal carried for me, I thought how comfortable a buffalo robe would be on such an occasion, and also how I could relish a little buffalo meat for supper, and before lying down for the night I was instinctively led to ask the Lord to send me a buffalo.
"Now, I am a firm believer in the efficacy of prayer, for I have on many different occasions asked the Lord for blessings, which He in His mercy has bestowed on me. But when I after praying as I did on that lonely night in the South Pass, looked around me and spied a buffalo bull within fifty yards of my camp, my surprise was complete; I had certainly not expected so immediate an answer to my prayer. However, I soon collected myself and was not at a loss to know what to do. Taking deliberate aim at the animal, my first shot brought him down; he made a few jumps only, and then rolled down into the very hollow where I was encamped.
"I was soon busily engaged skinning my game, finishing which, I spread the hide on the snow and placed my bed upon it. I next prepared supper, eating tongue and other choice parts of the animal I had killed, to my heart's content. After this I enjoyed a refreshing night's sleep, while my horses were browsing on the sage brush.
"Early the next morning I was on my way again, and soon reached what is know as the Ice Springs Bench. There I happened upon a herd of buffalo, and killed a nice cow. I was impressed to do this, although I did not know why until a few hours later, but the thought occurred to my mind that the hand of the Lord was in it, as it was a rare thing to find buffalo herds around that place at this late part of the season. I skinned and dressed the cow; then cut up part of its meat in long strips and loaded my horses with it.
"Thereupon I resumed my journey, and traveled on till towards evening. I think the sun was about an hour high in the west when I spied something in the distance that looked like a black streak in the snow. As I got near to it, I perceived it moved; then I was satisfied that this was the long looked for hand-cart company, led by Captain Edward Martin.
"I reached the ill-fated train just as the immigrants were camping for the night. The sight that met my gaze as I entered their camp can never be erased from my memory. The starved forms and haggard countenances of the poor sufferers, as they moved about slowly, shivering with cold, to prepare their scanty evening meal was enough to touch the stoutest heart. When they saw me coming, they hailed me with joy inexpressible, and when they further beheld the supply of fresh meat I brought into camp, their gratitude knew no bounds. Flocking around me, one would say, 'Oh, please, give me a small peace of meat'; another would exclaim, 'My poor children are starving, do give me a little'; and children with tears in their eyes would call out, 'Give me some, give me some.' At first I tried to wait on them and handed out the meat as they called for it; but finally I told them to help themselves. Five minutes later both my horses had been released of their extra burden--the meat was all gone, and the next few hours found the people in camp busily engaged in cooking and eating it, with thankful hearts.
"A prophecy had been made by one of the brethren that the company should feast on buffalo meat when their provisions might run short; my arrival in their camp, loaded with meat, was the beginning of the fulfillment of that prediction; but only the beginning, for them as we journeyed along.
"When I saw the terrible condition of the immigrants on first entering their camp, my heart almost melted within me. I rose up in my saddle and tried to speak cheering and comforting words to them. I told them also that they should all have the privilege to ride into Salt Lake City, as more teams were coming.
"After dark, on the evening of my arrival in the handcart camp, a woman passed the camp fire where I was sitting crying aloud. Wondering what was the matter, my natural impulse led me to follow her. She went straight to Daniel Tyler's wagon, where she told the heartrending story of her husband being at the point of death, and in pleading tones she asked Elder Tyler to come and administer to him. This good brother, tired and weary as he was, after pulling hand-carts all day, had just retired for the night, and was a little reluctant in getting up; but on this earnest solicitation he soon arose, and we both followed the woman to the tent, in which we found the apparently lifeless form of her husband. On seeing him, Elder Tyler remarked, 'I cannot administer to a dead man.' Brother Tyler requested me to stay and lay out the supposed dead brother, while he returned to his wagon to seek that rest which he needed so much.
"I immediately stepped back to the camp fire where several of the brethren were sitting and addressing myself to Elders Grant, Kimball and one or two others, I said, 'Will you boys do just as I tell you?' The answer was in the affirmative. We then went to work and built a fire near the tent which I and Elder Tyler had just visited. Next we warmed some water, and washed the dying man whose name was Blair, from head to foot. I then anointed him with consecrated oil over his whole body, after which we laid hands on him and commanded him in the name of Jesus Christ to breath and live. The effect was instantaneous. For the man who was dead to all appearances immediately began to breathe, sat up in his bed and commenced to sing a hymn. His wife unable to control her feelings of joy and thankfulness ran through the camp exclaiming: 'My husband was dead but is now alive praise be the name of God. The man who brought the buffalo meat has healed him.'
"This circumstance caused a great general excitement in the whole camp and many of the drooping spirits began to take fresh courage from that very hour. After this the greater portion of my time was devoted to waiting on the sick. 'Come to me, help me, please administer to my sick wife, or my dying child,' were some of the requests that were being made of me almost hourly for sometime after I had joined the emigrants, and I spent days going from tent to tent administering to the sick.
"Truly the Lord was with me and others of his servants who labored faithfully together with me in that day of trial and suffering. The result of this, our labor of love certainly redounded to the honor and glory of a kind and merciful God. In scores of instances when we administered to the sick and rebuked the diseases in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, the sufferers would rally at once: they were healed almost instantly. I administered to many each day and to scores during the journey and many of the lives were saved by the power of God. . . .
"I have but a very little to say about the sufferings of Captain Martin's company before I joined it; but it had passed through terrible ordeals. Women and the larger children helped the men to pull the hand-carts, and in crossing the frozen streams, they had to break the ice with their feet. In fording the Platte River, the largest stream they had to cross after the cold weather set in, the clothes of the immigrants were frozen stiff around their bodies before they could exchange them for others. This is supposed to have been the cause of the many deaths which occurred soon afterwards. It has been stated on good authority that nineteen immigrants died one night.
"The survivors who performed the last acts of kindness to those who perished, were not strong enough to dig the graves of sufficient depth to preserve the bodies from the wild beasts, and wolves were actually seen tearing open the graves before the company was out of sight.
"Many of the survivors, in witnessing the terrible afflictions and loses, became at last almost stupefied or mentally dazed, and did not seem to realize the terrible condition they were in. The suffering from the lack of sufficient food also told on the people. When the first relief teams met the immigrants, there was only one day's quartet rations left in camp."
(Andrew Jenson, The Contributor, February, 1893, vol. XIL, pp. 202-5, as quoted by Stewart E. Glazier, ed., Journal of the Trail [Salt Lake City, Utah: 1996], 94-98.)
11 November 1856
"Before we left Iowa my dear Mother had given birth to a son, Peter. She was naturally weak with the care of a nursing baby and five other children. Father was weak from want of food, having denied himself for us. The terrible strain of the journey was too much for him and one night, near the Sweetwater, he passed quietly away at the age of 35. Our little brother, Peter, died the same night. They built a fire to thaw the ground so that a grave could be dug, then with my baby brother clasped in his arms, they wrapped him in a blanket and laid him tenderly away. My darling Mother had to take up the journey alone with us five children. Provisions were almost gone, desolation reigned.
"The company passed off the main road to 'Martin's Ravine' to escape the terrible blizzards and storms for we had little clothing and had given up all hope. Death had taken a heavy toll and the Ravine was like an overcrowded tomb. No mortal tongue could describe the suffering. Such was the condition when word was received that help was on the way."
(Virginia Kirkman Nielson, A Pioneer Woman of Faith and Fortitude, Mary Lawson Kirkman [Ephraim, Utah: October, 1994], 4.)