Dixon, Loleta Wiscombe, [Willie Handcart Company and William James].
of her ancester William James of
the Willey [Willie] Handcart. Co. 1856.
When the company saints from Liverpool on the ship Thornton arrived in Iowa Camp quite a stir was created
and of great concern for they were totally unexpected. Brother Chauncy Webb and his workmen had outfitted with carts in a hurry for the season was late. There was a scarcety of seasoned wood and other materials. They frantically gathered together what was available and went to work.
When William first saw the carts he wanted to laugh and then he wanted to cry. How could such a contraption get his family to Zion? As he watched the workmen he marveled at their workmanship. The carts was a unique vehicle. It was made for [from] hard wood, hickory and Oak. The axle must stand a lot of hard wear, so it was made of cured hickory. The shafts were about 5 to 6 feet long, with binding cross-bars from back to front. The[re] was a space from 3 to 4 feet for the person who was pulling the cart to stand, and because of a bar to lean on it was pushed rather than pulled. Two persons could lean on this bar and move a cart easily. The width of the cart was that of the wagon, so that the wheels could follow in the grooves made by the heavy wagons of previous wagon trains. Across the bars on the back part was sewn a canvas or ticking cover; and in this would be loaded the supplies such as flour, food, bedding, extra clothing, cooking utensils and tent. Jane [Haynes James] and her girls helped to sew these necessary parts on the carts. The family cart was of the same size as to width and much like it. but it had an iron axle over which was placed a box about 3 to 4 ft long, and 10 inches deep. Sometimes these carts were covered with a canvas canopy to keep off the rain in case of a sudden storm. This cart would be used to carry the young the old and the sick.
It was now 6 weeks since the companies had arrived in camp Iowa[.] Emma James remembers the Council meeting which was called. She says “We were called together in a meeting one evening and there was quite a bit of guessing as to the reason for it. It was a large group who gathered circling the leaded [leader]. The meeting was called to order, one of the brethern offered prayer, then we were told the reason for the Council meeting: We were told that it was 300 miles to
Florence (Council Bluff.) < Winter Quarters> which was the actual place for starting the trek and that was just a mite to what we had to go to reach the Valley. We would have carts such as they were—but the season was late and bad weather could prove dangerous to us if we were in the mountains. Even if we had no trouble we would be late getting to Utah. There had been much talk of these dangers by experienced men in the camp. but I think that the thing which I will remember for the rest of my life and wish that we had heeded what was said by a brother [Levi] Savage, with tears streaming down his cheeks he pleaded with the people. “Brothers and sisters, wait until spring to make this journey. Some of the strong may get through in case of bad weather but the bones of the weak and old will strew the way.”
“I can remember that when he finished there was a long time of silence. I was frightened. Father looked pale and sick. I turned to mother to see what she was thinking and all I saw was her old determined look. She was ready to go on tomorrow. There were many others like her. We realy didn’t have much choice. There was no work here for us to keep ourselves through the winter, and our family had to live.” “We must put our trust in the Lord as we have always done”. said mother and that was that
“There was nearly 100 people of the companies who decided to winter over and come in the spring. The majority voted to go on as soon as everything was ready.”
July 15 our company under the direction of Captain Willie with 500 people. 126 carts and 4 or 5 wagons left camp Iowa headed for our outfiting station at Council Bluff[s]. It was great fun pulling empty carts and imitating the wagon drivers with a “gee” and “Haw”. we got away ahead of the slow wagons and had to wait for them. We had plenty of time to see the country we were passing through. To run here and there to explore this and that. There were many things to catch the eye in this strange land.
At Council Bluff[s] the company outfitted for the journey west. It was orgenized much the same as the wagon trains had been. Captains were placed over hundreds. fiftys, etc. The saints were put on a strict schedule. Each member had his chores for the company as well as for his own family. The strong were to pull the Carts. Everyone over 7 years of age was expected to walk. The very old and the very Young could ride. The young men were expected to act as herders for the cattle and Reuben James was one of these. The young women and girls were expected to look after the children who were walking and to gather in the fuel for the camp at night. The girls in the James family had their chores. Sarah and Emma took turns with their parents in pulling the carts. Mary Ann and Martha watched over their little brother George. John Parley rode in the Cart. Mary Ann tells of what fun they had. She says.
“When we started out on the trail each morning there was always something new to see. Maby it was a bird running along the road which was chased but never did catch. The[re] were always flowers and pretty rocks to pick. This land was so different from the one in England that it kept us interested. We were constantly being warned not to go too far away from the trail but I can remember that we heeded the warning until we had one or two experiences which made us more careful.”
“One day as we were skipping along besides the Carts and singing, for we were always happy as I remember it, a group of Indians on horse back rode up and followed along with us for a while. We didn’t know the redman well enough to be too friendly so we quieted down and stayed close to our parents. One of the Indians seemed fascinated by the contraptions being pulled along by people. Finaly his curiosity got the best of him. He leaped off his horse, ran over to one of the carts which was being pulled by a woman and her daughter and gave it such a hard push that it nearly ran over them. The woman and girl screamed and got out of the shafts as fast as they could. The Indians pushed the cart for a little ways and then apparentely satisfied he jumped-on-his horse and rode off. He with some of his friends came back later to beg for food. We gave it to them because we were told that the Indians were our brethern and that we should treat them so. We never did have any trouble with them except that they never seemed to learn that it was stealing to take something which didn’t belong to them”.
Other travelers were not so fortunate in their relations with the Indians. Topping a rise one morning the Company came upon the remains of a small immigrant train. The people had been massacred, their cattle run off and their wagons burned. In the brush off the road was found the bodies of a woman and a child. They had escaped the tommahawk only to die of hunger and thirst. This small group had been very unwise to travel alone. The Indians had found them easy prey.
Another incident was to cause the timid and even the impulsive to watch warily for dust clouds and small black specks in the distence which could prove a menace very quickly[.] Emma tell[s] us.
“One evening as we prepared to stop for the night a large herd of buffalo came thundering toward us. It sounded like thunder at first then the big black animals came straight for our carts. We were so scared that we were rooted to the ground. One of the captains seeing what was going on, ran for the carts which were still coming in, jerked out some of the carts to make a path for the steady stream of animals and let them go through. They went passed us like a train roaring along. I’m sure that but for the quick thinking of these men that many of us would have been trampled to death. The animals acted as if they were craz[y] the way they ran. We hoped that we wouldnt meet such a large herd soon again[.] “After they had gone somebody called out that the cattle had gone with them. This was our only supply of meat so the men started right out after them. The men on foot soon lost the sight of the herd. Those of us who were left made preperation for the night hoping the men would be back with our cattle by dark. As the sun went down a terrible storm came up. A strong wind tore the tents out of our hands and sent everything flying in all direction. The thunder and lightening was like nothing we had ever seen before. We had all we could do to keep track of each other. The noise
was terrified the children so that they ran for any shelter that they could find. Soon we all did [the same] thing for the rain came down in torrents and in a matter of minutes. we were soaked to the skin. The men came in from the hunt empty-handed. but in time to help gather up our belongings and get ready for our meal. We all went to bed wet and cold.
The cattle were never found. Even the tracks had [been] washed away by the rain. This was to prove a serious thing for the company. With no oxen or mules to pull the wagons it was necessary to hitch the milk cows to the wagon. It was a sorry group which started out on the trail next morning. Now was the time when they needed their special song so they sang as they trudged through the mud.
“For some must push and some must pull,
as we go marching up the hill,
for merrily merrly on [way] we go
Until we reach the valley-o”
Mary Ann James said that was a wonderfull song and she sang it as loud as she could.
It was now September and heavy frosts lay on the ground every morning. The roads were deeply rutted from the storms and frost on it made it hard to walk for thoes who had poor shoes or none at all.
The carts which had been
for those giving trouble from the start were breaking down regularly, and causing delays along the way. Rawhide was used to hold parts together but the green wood gave trouble, especially the axles. One could [look] toward the west and see snow-caped mountains in the distance. Most of the party did not realize the seriousness of the situation—but—Captain Willie and his captains were well aware of it. Wm James was concerned. He had talked to some of the men who were familiar with the country. Quietly but with fear in his heart he worked harder to keep his cart in repair so that there would be no delays. Jane had a firm belief that “Father Willie” as the company called him would bring them through, with the help of the Lord.
Flour was rationed to 6 oz. per day per person and there wasn’t much to go with it. Many were weakening from the lack of nourishing food. The young and the old and the weak began to die quitely [quietly]. Even the strong men who were secretely giving their portion to their fanlies [families] pulling their carts til they died. Soon rat[i]ons were cut again. Clothing was in rags, especially shoes. Any piece of rags, burlap or canvas was tied around the feet. All too soon this was chewed through by the tortorus terrain. It was not uncommon to take the clothing from the dead to cover the living. Many lives were saved in this way. Storm after storm swept over the Company. The Saints became numb and apethetic. Most lost the desire to live and in many cases lay down to stay. To add to the misery a heavy snowstorm caught them at the last crossing of the Sweetwater. Sarah James who had just turned 19 in August tells this story.
“We were cold all the time. It was either rain, or Snow, or wind. Even when you wrapped up in a blanket your teeth chattered. Father Told us one night that the flour was gone and that the word was that we might not get help for some time. Father was white and drawn. I know that mother was worr[i]ed about him for he was getting weaker all the time and seemed to feel that there was no use in all the stuggle. Mother had taken as much of the load off his shoulders as she could in pulling the cart. We girls and Ruebin [Reuben] did most of the work so that father could rest a lot. Mother didn’t have much to say and I wondered if she remembered that council meeting in camp Iowa and wished that we had taken the adviced of more experienced people. I’m sure that many of us had those thoughts.
gathered grateful (one morning when we heard that the captain had ordered all the animals in the company killed so that we could have fresh meat. We were so hungry that we didn’t stop to think what it would do for our wagons. How good the soup tasted made from the bones of those cows although there wasn’t any fat on them. The hides we used to roast after taking all the hair off of them. I even decided to cook the tatters of my shoes and make soup of them. It brought a smile to my father’s sad face when I made the suggestion but mother was a bit impatient with me and told me that I’d have to eat the muddy things my self.”
“It snowed day after day and we managed to get a few miles each day. We were sort of dizzy and sleepy a lot of the time so I cant remembered too well just what did happen all of the time. Sometimes when we felt that we just had to rest for a time a captain would come up and help us pull our cart along for a time. I’m sure that we would have laid down and died if it hadn’t been for their help and encouragement. Sometimes they had to get cross with some people. I can remember the time when one of the men who was pulling a cart just ahead of us laid down in his shafts and started to cry. We all wanted to cry with him. One of the captains, I dont remember just who, came up to him and just slaped him in the face. It made the man so mad that he jumped right up and started to run with his cart. I remember that it was a mean way to treat the poor fellow but now that it saved his life.”
“The day we reached the last crossing of the Sweetwater river I will never forget as long as I live. It was a bitter cold morning in October as we broak camp. As usual there were dead to be buried before we could go on. Father and R[e]uben were with the burial detail. Mother who was helping to pull the heaviest cart had stayed behind until they could finish their sad work. After a short services we with light cart went ahead to catch the rest of the company and mother and Rueben started to follow. Father collapsed and fell in the snow. He tried two or three times to get up with mother’s help then finaly he asked her to go on and when he felt rested he would come on with R[e]uben. Mother knew in her heart that he had given out but perhaps she said in a few minutes with some rest he could come on[.] she took the cart and hurried to follow us.”
“She found us on the river-bank. We were too frightened and tired to cross alone. We had forded this river before many times but it had never seemed so far across. It was about 40 feet I guess to the other bank. Mother soon had us on our way. The water was icy and soon our clothing was frozen to our bodies. Our feet were frozen numb. Cold and miserable we reached the other bank, put on dry clothing and joined the rest of the company.”
“When we stopped for the night we made inquiries about our people but nothing had been heard of them. Since there were some who had been a few hours behind us we felt that they would come with the next group. All night we waited for word. Toward morning some of the captains who had gone out to gather up the stragglers came into camp bearing the dead body of my father and the badly frozen body of my brother Rueben. His injuries were so bad that he would suffer from them for the rest of his life. When morning came Father’s body along with others who had died during the night were buried in a deep hole. Brush was thrown in and then dirt. A fire was built over the grave to kill the scent to keep the wolves from digging up the remains.”
“I can see my mother’s face as she sat looking at the partly concious Ruebin [Reuben]. Her eyes looked so dead that I was afraid.” She didn’t sit long however for my mother was never one to cry. When it was time to move out Mother had her family ready to go. She put her invalid son in the cart with her baby and we joined the train. Our mother was a strong woman and she would see us through anything.”
“The time came when we were all too tired to move so we huddled in our covers, close to each other for warmth.
from It was snowing and we were so tired. Suddenly we heard a shout and through the swirling snow we saw men, wagons and mules coming toward us. Slowly we realized that help had come. The wagons broughts food and clothing. They hauled in wood for us and as we gathered around the huge fire and ate the delicious morsels of food we came alive enough to thank the Lord for his mercy to us.
“We heard later that one of the mishionary groups who had stoped over with us on their way home from the east had finally got word to the valley that there were companies on the plains who were starving and by now freezing to death. Word came to Brigham Young during the October conference. He called the saints together and instead of sermons he gave orders that they were to get help to the needy now. He called for food, clothing, wagons, mules and men to drive these outfits who could get through. In three days they were on their way and except to stop to rest their weary animals and feed them. they moved on day and night until they found the stranded companies. Father Willie and another brother had gone out to find help and nearly missed the rescue trains in the blinding snow.”
“Now that we had food and warmth for our bodies we realized that we would have to move on for the weather was getting worse as the days went on. It was decided that we would leave everything except some extra clothing, utensils to cook in and many of our carts which would be guarded until they could be brought on in the spring. Those who couldn’t walk would ride in the wagons and we would travel as fast as we could to the valley.”
[“]I remember the rest of the journey as being terrible with the cold and snow but we did have food and some hope of getting to Zion.”
“We arrived in Salt Lake City 9th of November having been on the plains for nearly 5 months. The saints took us in and were very kind to us.