Meeks, Mary Jane McCleve, Biography, "Personal Recollections of Mary Jane McCleve Meeks of Her Life 1840-1933," 9-18.
Some of the missionaries said goodby and headed for the Utah territory. "Come as quickly as you can," they encouraged. "Early fall snows in the rockies are dangerous. Try to leave with one of the next wagon trains."
We couldn’t find a wagon train heading west. Because there were so many converts, our leaders encouraged us to think seriously about using a handcart. It meant waking all the way but the carts would be cheaper and we wouldn’t have to wait until spring. To wait till spring was one thing none of us wanted to do, so we decided to look at a cart and its possibilities. We found that it consisted of two fairly large wheels with the box across the axel and shafts sticking out in front which were connected by a strong pole from the end of one shaft to the other. It wasn’t too heavy and quite strong. Each cart cost between ten to twenty dollars and weighed about sixty pounds.
We talked it over and decided to try to go that way rather than wait. We bought a handcart and signed up with the second company. When we received our instructions we were told that we could not take more than 500 pounds per cart. That included food, clothing and other necessities. Again that meant leaving much more precious belongings behind. We couldn’t even take much more than one change of clothing each because of the need of space for food. I began to wonder if we would reach our destination with anything but the clothes on our backs.
Our Captain was Brother Daniel D. McArthur. Our company consisted of 222 souls with 48 handcarts, 4 wagons, 12 yoke of oxen and 12 cows. We began making preparations to leave as soon as possible. I decided to paint a number 9 on each side of our cart.
We followed Captain Ellsworth’s company to Florence, Nebraska, where we had a chance to take a short rest and renew our supplies. Captain Ellsworth’s company left Florence on July 20, and we left the 24.
It was quite a sight to see the handcarts plodding along in a line with everyone walking by the sides or pushing or pulling. A wagon or two with oxen, accompanied each handcart company to help. They were sometimes used by the captain and his family although most of them walked, too. The wagons could help with foods and supplies and many times the sick were placed in them. We found that if we hadn’t needed the wagons that we could have made better time. The oxen were so slow.
The glamor of the adventure soon turned to tedious routine. The dust was always there except when it rained and then there was mud to slip and slide through. Often the sun beat down hot and stifling during the afternoons and many people fainted. Some even stopped and refused to go any further. A few turned back even. It was then while struggling along that we sang the handcart song that seemed to buoy up our spirits.
Some must push and some must pull
As we go marching up the hill,
So merrily on our way we go
until we reach the valley
We had been warned to be on the lookout for Indians and I’ll never for get my first sight of them. I had heard so many conflicting stories about them that, although I felt some fear, I seemed to understand that they were children of God and had the same feelings as we did. Here we were traveling through their lands, eating their food and yet they were generally kind and friendly.
We watched them apprehensively as they cautiously rode close to the side of the trail on their colorful ponies to stare at us. How I wished I owned one of those animals. Father told us to move to the other side of the carts and not to stop and try to talk to them.
I could see the puzzled looks some of them had on their faces. I guess we were a strange sight, and I’m sure most of them had no idea what we were doing out on the plains on foot with our carts. They made no move toward us although I had heard many stories of how they had stolen young girls. We had been cautioned to hide our faces and always be on the alert.
As I glanced at some of those handsome warriors I even thought of the romance of being carried away on one of their firey steeds and being taken to his lodge and there treated like a queen (if that is the title of a chief or warrior’s wife). At least I wondered if it wouldn’t be better than trudging along in the mud and dust and deep sands day after day. Sometimes we all got so very tired. We were weak from lack of food and often real thirsty.
An event happened to me one day that could have ended in tragedy. Our company had stopped to do some clothes washing. I had just turned sixteen and was washing some of our clothes in the stream. A fine buggy drove up. A man jumped out and asked me to go for a ride.
"No, thank you," I said.
"Do you have any folks?" he asked.
"Yes," I answered.
The other man who was still sitting in the buggy said. "Take this handkerchief and tie it over her mouth and throw her in."
Just then Father and one of my sisters appeared so the men put the whip to their horses and drove away. You see, even in those days men wanted to take young girls for a ride. Anyway that was one buggy ride that I was glad to miss.
As our journey continued, I longed for the sight of my beloved green, Ireland. What a contrast. Surely the Lord must have a purpose in bringing his Saints through this experience, I decided. I gained strength in my body and prayed every day for the courage to endure till we reached Zion.
It seemed we would never arrive at what they referred to as Chimney Rock, but one hot day the word was passed along to look toward the west through the heat waves and we could see that milestone. It meant we were near half way to Salt Lake City. It also meant that the trail would lead toward a steeper incline and eventually the South Pass where the pace would be slower and the terrain rougher. Many long hours I carried my little two year old brother on my back and I was soon to discover it would be a part of my daily chores. Alexander wasn’t the only one I helped carry, though. A couple traveling with us by the name of Heaton, had one child. He was also a two year old boy. I carried him part of the way, also. Walking every day was too much for those little lads and we stronger ones had to help them. Years later the Heatons moved to Orderville and we have lived side by side ever since.
It wasn’t many weeks until we were plodding up the Sweetwater. Father needed help constantly as the trail grew steeper every day. Usually some of us helped him while others of our family helped some of our fellow travelers. The hot sun and rougher trail began to prove too much for some of the handcarts. That meant that some days we did not travel many miles. Daily repairs were necessary on many of the carts as some had dried and shrunk so much in the hot sun and wind that they had to be fixed often or abandoned completely. The wagons hauled part of our tents and goods but other handcarts had to be overloaded to help.
One day when we started up a hill one of the smaller Elliker boys became ill and could not climb. When we camped that night the captain went back but could not find the lad who had been left to rest. He was never heard of again.
That was a heart rendering experience for the Ellikers. They were immigrating from Germany and knew little English. We tried to help them as we traveled and camped together. As they had no tent of their own they used ours with us. Some times in bad weather all ten of them and all nine of us stayed in our tent to keep out of the storm. Death and sorrow seemed to be part of the course for not many families escaped some sadness. However the Ellikers received more than their share for before we reached our journey’s end, Mr. Elliker and four of their eight children died on the plains.
Near the same time the Elliker’s boy was lost, another sad event took place. We had traveled without meat for days. It was not easy to preserve meat in that kind of weather so we only ate what we could secure along the way. Ever so often some of the men would leave camp in the late afternoon to hunt wild game. Late one day they spotted a small deer not far from camp. They shot it but when they reached the carcass to dress it out, they found the little deer had a leather strap around it’s neck. The men wondered about it but decided to bring the meat to camp where it was divided up. Not long after they returned a boy came walking over the hill. He said he was looking for his pet deer and asked if anyone had seen it. He said he put a strap around it’s neck so people could tell it was tame.
There were a lot of side glances and people looked from one to another. No one spoke for some time. Finally one of the men took off his hat and started collecting money for the boy. When the man handed him the money and explained what had happened, the boy refused to take the collected coins and started back over the ridge, crying.
Oftimes we had little to eat and meat was a special treat. Some people became ill from the poor diet. That only added to the perils of the journey. Everyone needed all his strength for many days we traveled through soft dirt where the carts mired to the hubs. Then they were so hard to pull.
Many nights we went to bed in wet bedding and clothing, too tired to fix anything to eat.
We knew that every mile traveled meant we were closer to Zion and that time was important so we literally put our shoulders to the wheels day after day and pushed on. The days were getting cooler as we neared the mountains which meant some relief from the hot sun. At the same time it meant cooler nights, too.
When we crossed the South Pass it was a relief, for as far as the eye could see it was all down hill. It was also a bleak sight to see that dry sagebrush terrain before us. It looked so forlorn. Oh! for just one view of my beloved Ireland. I couldn't help but wonder what we had given up for the gospel. Surely our destination looked better than what I could see today. "Please Lord, help me not to lose faith," I prayed.
We followed the trail for miles making good time. It was not so hot in the days now and we were over the top of the divide.
One day we came to where the road devided, - one fork continued south and west and the other fork turned toward the northwest. We followed the one going south. They told us the other road led to the Oregon Territory.
Seeing Indians was a common daily sight now. Most of the men would sit on their ponies and stare at us. They always stayed back and never bothered anyone. I guess we were a sight for them to see for we saw many Indians along the trail watching us. We were one of the first handcart companies and something new to them.
When we reached Fort Bridger some Indians were camped near by. We got to see each other more closely. What I had heard about them hadn't been too much, but it was also a little misleading.
They could smile and be friendly. They were not all after our scalps, I decided: The women dressed a little differently, but they looked as if they had been out in the sun and wind more and were really suntanned. I finally decided that they were all darker complexioned. That was to their advantage (I knew) for they no doubt could stand the hot summer suns and winds better than us sunburned, red headed Irishmen.
We only rested long enough to fix some of the carts and replenish a few supplies. There weren't many carts that didn't need repairs before our journey ended. Part of the way from here on to the Salt LakeValley would be steeper and rougher, they said. Therefore it was necessary to be prepared the best we could.
I knew Father was so tired that he could use some extra rest. In fact we were all very tired but we were anxious, also. We knew we were on the last leg of our journey and prayed for strength to complete it. We had almost caught up to the first handcart company as we could often see them just a few miles ahead.
Little did I realize then that one of my family members would not live to see Salt Lake City and our Zion. Two days before we reached the valley, Father died from a broken blood vessel he received while pulling the cart. He had said little about his leg hurting but I guess he suffered while he walked and pulled. Maybe the hard labors of the days had taken his attention away from his hurts and suffering. We thanked our Lord for not letting him suffer too long, But Oh! how I hated to leave him there in that lonely spot. Amid aching hearts and many tears, we burried him by the side of the road on the banks of the Bear River not too far from Evanston, Wyoming, and erected a little marker by his silent grave. I loved my kind Father and it was almost more than I could stand to go on without him.
That incident seemed to be a turning point in my life, for I pulled and pushed on that handcart every foot of the way from there on. Up and over the mountains toward and into the Salt Lake Valley. Oh! how I worked with tears streaming down my face, praying for understanding. Why? Why? Was it worth my Father's life? Oh! Lord, help me!
When we reached the place where we could look down into the City of Peace, a calm feeeling came over me and I seemed to understand that it isn't when we die that really counts, but how well we are prepared to meet our Maker. I knew that Father had given everything he could, even his life, for the gospel, and that is what counts.
I wanted to run down the mountain and reach our journey's end I was so thankful for being one of the chosen few. If only Father could have been there to enjoy that sight with us. Maybe he was, for I surely felt close to him that very moment.
Instead of hurrying down the mountain, we had to lock the wheels and hold our little cart back. That was different.
It was quite steep most of the way down to the mouth of the canyon. When we reached there we were met by some people on horses and we could see the valley in all directions. The horsemen welcomed us and motioned for us to follow them. From where we had stopped we could see it was all down hill.