The Second Rescue
by Maurine Jensen Proctor
In 1856 in Wyoming’s high mountains, members of the Willie and Martin handcart companies watched their rations disappear, their limbs freeze, and their friends die. The first rescue came in time to save most of them, the second rescue wouldn’t arrive for another 135 years.
Sweetwater River passes beneath Split Rock Mountain here in the Wyoming highlands.
The group who stood anxiously on the dock at Liverpool waiting to board ships to America shared two things in common. They were converts to the Mormon Church dreaming of going to Zion and they couldn’t afford wagons to get there. Instead they would discard their precious things, strip their belongings to the bear bones and pull handcarts to Zion. As the wind swept across their assorted bundles and bedding, Margaret and Samuel Pusell didn’t shrink before the arduous journey ahead. They had already tasted sacrifice for the gospel they loved, had even sent their children hungry to bed many times to feed the missionaries–and they had waited 19 years scraping the money together to leave.
But now ahead lay Zion. O Zion, dear Zion. Little did they know when they joined the Martin Handcart Company, that their journey would be plagued by excruciating difficulties they could not surmount. They would both die and be buried on the plains of a foreign country before they saw Zion and their ten year-old daughter, Nellie, would spend a lifetime waddling on bleeding, festering stumps after losing her frozen legs in an untimely winter storm in the Wyoming mountains.
Their life stories and those of hundreds of others were written in a series of misfortunes beginning with their tardy departure from England. The 764 passengers who would become the Willie company didn’t leave until May 4, the Martin company were not underway until May 25 and then when they arrived in Iowa City, ready to thrust into the wilderness, they would be disappointed to learn they had to wait another three weeks because their handcarts were not yet ready.
For years Robert Scott Lorrimer, President of the Riverton, Wyoming Stake, had been in the thick of pioneer trek youth conferences., an activity designed to give the people of his stake a deeper sense of their heritage. It was a natural activity since the rescue sites of both the Willie and Martin companies were in the stake boundaries. He had helped construct hand carts, eaten the pioneer diet of bread, milk and onions at the activities, and walked to Rock Creek where the Willie Company had faced their deepest ordeal. He did not know that the story would become much more personal to him.
Delay at Iowa City
Pulitzer Prize winner Wallace Stegner describes the handcart pioneers, “In all its history, the American West never saw a more unlikely band of pioneers than the four hundred-odd who were camped on the banks of the Iowa river at Iowa City in June 1856. They were not colorful–only improbable. Looking for the brown and resolute and weather-seasoned among them, you would have seen instead starved cheeks, pale skins, bad teeth, thin chests, all the stigmata of unhealthy work and inadequate diet. There were more women than men, more children under fifteen than either…Most of them, until they were herded from their crowded immigrant ship and loaded into the cars and rushed to the end of the Rock Island Line and dumped here at the brink of the West had never pitched a tent, slept on the ground, cooked outdoors, built a campfire. They had not even the rudimentary skills that make frontiersmen.” Yet, they had grit and faith, and in the weeks ahead when they were tested beyond human endurance, they would prove themselves well.
Of the handcarts constructed during that tedious three-week wait in Iowa City, John Chislett noted, “They were made in a hurry, some of them of very insufficiently seasoned timber, and strength was sacrificed to weight until the production was a fragile structure, with nothing to recommend it but lightness.” Still, as the Willie Company left Iowa City July 16, they were hopeful. They signed their carts with slogans like the “Merry Mormons”, they laughed together in the evenings around the campfire and they organized themselves according to a set of strict rules not only because it was the Mormon way, but also to safeguard against their own greenness.
If they were destitute before, they felt more so now. Five people shared a handcart and each of them were limited to 17 pounds of luggage, which amounted to a scanty, shivering allowance of bedding and clothing, all the flimsy carts could handle. They couldn’t have carried more, even if the people as they lumbered across the plains could have hauled more.
Ann Rowley whose family had lost everything after they joined the Church lamented, “There were many keepsakes that I wanted to take, but I couldn’t. But there was one thing I didn’t consider a luxury and that was my feather bed. I had hung onto that beloved item from the time of the auction in England and now clearly there was no room for it. It wouldn’t be bad to walk 1300 miles if one had a feather-bed to sleep on at night, but no matter how I folded it, it was too bulky… But a featherbed is a featherbed and when it came to choosing between Zion and a feather bed, well it was a little too late to turn my back on Zion, so I ripped it open and emptied the feathers on the ground and used the tick to cover the suplies on the handcart.”
Though he had been involved in pioneer activities for years, there came a time when strong , unexpected feelings about the Willie and Martin people began to fill President Lorrimer. Day and night something was urging him, nudging his spirit to think about their sacrifice and loss. He couldn’t shake them from his heart as he drove through the Wyoming highlands or went about life’s routine duties. He felt he was to do something for these people, but had no specific sense what that something was. Since Rock Creek was about to be sold, he wondered if these feelings had to do with helping the Church obtain that property.
Last Chance to Postpone
The Willie company arrived in Florence, Nebraska August 18, the last outpost of civilization before they started across the plains and also a last chance to postpone the trip until spring. They debated about it, heard Levi Savage who had taken this journey many times before plead with them through tears to stop for the winter. They didn’t. Perhaps they had already waited too long to join the Saints to hear the sense in Savage’s words. They stopped long enough to repair wagons, add another 98 pound bag of flour to each cart and were on their way, pulling carts that with every step felt heavier.
Each day they made from ten to twenty miles, drawing ever further away from civilzation into a landscape more arid and strange to their European eyes. Their shoes wore thin, their hands became blistered and their muscles ached at the end of long days of exertion. Levi Savage noted, “The flour on some carts draws very hard.” More than they could have ever anticipated, their green lumber carts were a plague. Sand pilled settled in the axles and ground down the wood, until wheels fell apart. Some of the travelers cut up their boots and nailed the leather to the worn axles, They had no lubricant, so they dipped into their small supply of bacon and sop to grease their wheels. This only served to worsen their situation as the lubricant attracted more sand to quicken the sandingnding process.
John Chislett noted, “When a cart collapsed it was difficult for the owner to see the long line move on without him while he remained behind with a few crude tools, struggling to repair the damage.”
Finally, President Lorrimer was so moved that he arose in stake conference and asked the stake to pray for the Willie project. As he sunk back into his seat, he thought, “I don’t even know what the Willie project is.”
Devil’s Gate on the Sweetwater was one of the major landmarks of the Trail. Between the Willie and Martin handcart companies, some two hundred people lay dead along the trail, their bones scattered by wolves before spring.
In the first week of September came an additional stroke of disaster as the pioneers looked to see what appeared to be a storm coming from the southwest. Soon it was accompanied by the pounding of hooves as a herd of buffalo stampeded, turning just before it reached camp. However, it ignited some primordial wild streak in their cattle, and thirty of the pioneers’ head joined the stampede. Though the men tried to follow them the next morning, their footprints had become obliterated in a rain storm. In a desperate two-day search for the cattle, they found nothing, heard nothing. What they had lost were the oxen that pulled their supply wagons, and they had no choice but to yoke up their beef cattle and milk cows. In a single accident they lost their milk and beef, and the remaining broken teams could not pull the hefty wagons. “The Saints, recognizing the need to get on wearily accepted another sack of flour each for their handcarts, and the thin column again moved off across the sandy plain.”
The progress was slow, breakdowns were frequent and exasperating. As they bowed their heads, eyes fixed, they trudged across Nebraska’s 500 miles of vast, monotonous, prairie. On dry days, they could taste the dust thrown up from the carts before them, on rainy days they could make little headway through the mud. Levi Savage’s journal through the rest of September reads like a compendium of misery. September 17: The heavy sand made our progress very slow and extremely laborious. Several were obliged to leave their carts and they with the infirmed , could scarcely get into camp. September 18: At dinner Sister Reade…was missing. She is not in camp and no one knows where she is. September 21: Sister Season’s little boy, two years old, died at eleven o’clock last night. September 22: Brother Empy departed this life at half past one p.m.. He has been having the ague for some time past, but no one thought him dangerous. September 23: The Saints slow in rising and getting breakfast early.
September 26: Today we traveled fourteen miles without water. Sister Ann Briant, who had been ill for sometime, but not thought dangerous, was found dead in the wagon in a sitting posture, apparently asleep. Sept. 27: The old appear to be failing consistently.
The movement in the Spirit that was prodding President Lorrimer was also affecting his counselor Kim McKinnon, only in a different way.
He had learned that the Church was going to start a pilot program in which some stakes would be given a computer and the CD roms that they might open a fully operating genealogy library . In a way he couldn’t explain, President McKinnon knew that the Riverton Stake had to be chosen to receive the program and made a trip to Salt Lake to request a computer. In fact, he felt they needed not just one computer, but two. This was an unusual thought since their stake had so few active genealogists. Why was his spirit so certain they needed computers to do genealogy?
Hunger stalked the trail with the handcart companies, their pound of flour ration a day inadequate to fill gnawing stomachs. Dysentery added to the ache and weakness. The longer they stayed on the plains, the more their energy flagged and the hungrier they grew. Patience Loader said, “You felt as if you could almost eat a rusty nail or gnaw a file. You were ten times as hungry as a hunter; yea, as ten hunters, all the long day, and every time you woke up in the night. Eating was the grand passion of the pedestrian on the plains, an insatiable passion, for he never got enough to eat.” Ann Rowley noted, “It hurt me to see my children go hungry. I watched as they cut the loose rawhide from the cart wheels, roasted off the hair and chew the hide.”
For some the weakness from hunger and exertion gradually overtook them. In the Martin Handcart Company, Patience Loader’s father, James, came to the day when he collapsed as he pulled the cart. Patience said, “‘Father, you are not able to pull the cart. You had better not try to pull. We girls can do it this afternoon.’ ‘Oh,’ he said…I must not give up…I want to go to the valley to shake hands with Brigham Young.'” That day his daughters pulled the cart, and that night Patience’s sister Zilpha groaned in childbirth, delivering an infant son while her sister Tamar was put to bed with Rocky Mountain spotted fever, her face hot with disease. The company had to move on, while the Loaders stoked all-night fires, a glow against the prairie darkness, to protect themselves against the roving wolves.
Not long after, James could pull no more and looking at his family with tears in his eyes, said with great difficulty, “You know I love my children.” These were his last words. Of Jame’s burial, Patience wrote, “We had to wrap my dear father in a quilt, all we had to wrap him in. No nice casket to lay him away in comfortable, but put into the grave and the earth thrown in upon his poor body. Oh, that sounded so hard I will never forget the sound of that dirt being shoveled onto my poor father’s body. It seemed to me that it would break every bone in his body. It did indeed seem a great trial to have to leave our dear father behind that morning, knowing we had looked upon his sweet, smiling face for the last time on earth; but not without a hope of meeting him again on the morning of the resurrection.”
The Riverton Stake received their two computers and the CD roms from the Church, but when they arrived the presidency members weren’t sure how to set them up or even how to look up a name in the genealogy files. Leaving counselor John Kitchen to figure it out, Presidents Lorrimer and McKinnon traveled out to the stake’s Lamanite branch.
Looking out upon Wyoming’s empty plains, Robert Lorrimer wondered again. Why am I so pushed about the Willie people? Why do they move me night and day? Why am I filled with thoughts about a people I really know nothing about?
Then it struck him and he knew. Knew why President McKinnon had his own urgings about getting computers for genealogy. “It came into my mind very clearly, that it was because of the Willie people,” said President Lorrimer.
Even without a howling snowstorm and the stinging northwest wind, five miles of ascent pulling the overloaded handcart to the 7,300 foot elevation here on Rocky Ridge could bring the strongest Saints to their knees.
Ironically, in some miserable law of diminishing returns, just as more was required of them, the way grew harder. At Fort Laramie, they weren’t able to get the quantity of supplies they needed and it was clear to Captain James Willie and Levi Savage that their supplies would be completely exhausted while they were yet 350 miles from the valley. With the willingness and unanimity of the Saints, it was resolved to reduce their allowance from a pound to 12 ounces of flour per day; at Independence Rock, this amount would be further cut so that working men received 12 ounces, women and old men nine ounces and children from four to eight ounces.
Beyond Fort Laramie and into the Black Hills, the road grew steeper, rockier and more rutted, wreaking havoc upon their fragile carts. For many, the laden carts became so difficult to pull that they dumped articles of clothing and bedding to be burned along the way, a sacrifice that made carts lighter, but left them shivering as the nights evolved from chilly to freezing. Elder Richards had left them 37 buffalo robes along the Platte, and even most of these had to be surrendered as weight too much to bear.
As the pioneers traveled up Wyoming’s Sweetwater, the severity of the nights increased. John Chislett wrote, “Nearly all suffered more or less at night from cold. Instead of getting up in the morning strong, refreshed vigorous and prepared for the hardships of another day of toil, the poor Saints were to be seen crawling out from their tents looking haggard, benumbed, and showing an utter lack of that vitality so necessary to our success. Cold weather, scarcity of good, lassitude and fatigue from over-exertion, soon produced their effects. Our old and infirm people began to droop, and they no sooner lost their spirit and courage than death’s stampe could be traced upon their features. Life went out as smoothly as a lamp ceases to burn when the oil is gone.
“Death was not long confined in its ravages to the old and infirm, but the young and naturally strong were among its victims. Men who were, so to speak, as strong as lions when we started on our journey, and who had been our best supports, were compelled to succumb to the grim monster. These men were worn down by hunger, scarcity of clothing and bedding, and too much labor in helping their families. Chislett, himself single, wrote, “It was surprising to an unmarried man to witness the devotion of men to their families and to their faith, under these trying circumstances. Many a father pulled his cart, with his little children on it, until the day preceding his death. I have seen some pull their carts in the morning, give out during the day, and die before next morning…These people died with the calm faith and fortitude of martyurs. Their greatest regret seemed to be leaving their families behind them, and their bodies on the plains or mountains instead of being laid in the consecrated ground of Zion.”
When President Lorrimer shared his impression with his counselors, they too felt he was right. The temple work for the Willie and Martin Handcart companies was incomplete. Somehow, through an unintended oversight, those who had sacrificed everything for the gospel had not yet received their temple blessings.. But the stake presidency didn’t even know a single name of the people in the companies. They had no way to check on the computer what they felt in their hearts.
Site of the Willie Company rescue just before the turn to climb Rocky Ridge, the most feared and difficult part of the Mormon Trail.
Day after day through the high country of what would become Wyoming they marched on in misery and sorrow, trudged like zombies as the shrill wind first pierced their flesh and then their bones and their exhaustion overtook them like the sea takes a drowning man. Then came the bleak, October morning near the Fifth Crossing of the Sweetwater when the cutting wind held more than cold; it was snow that came in blustery torrents. This day, too they were issued their last ration of flour. What was left were only six scrawny beef and 400 pounds of biscuits to provision 400 people and the valley was still three hundred miles away.
Afraid to stop, they still had enough faith to push on. Then at noon, pausing to rest, they looked up to see something coming toward them, a joyous sight, whose timing they took as the kindness of the Lord. It was a little, light express wagon driven by Joseph A. Young and Stephen Taylor, sent ahead to tell the immigrants that they would soon be delivered. A rescue team followed them not far behind.
That a rescue team was coming at all was thanks to Brigham Young’s insight. Elder Franklin D. Richards and a group of missionaries returning from England had passed the handcart pioneers on their way to the valley, and once in Salt Lake had gone immediately on October 4 to Brigham Young to tell him that 1200 people were still out on the plains. Until this time he had thought that the handcart company which had arrived in Salt Lake just two days before had been the last one on the trail for the season. With great alarm, he began rescue plans that very evening and told the Saints assembled in the Bowery the next day for General Conference, “I will now give this people the subject and the text..during the Conference, it is this…Many of our brethren and sisters are 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 wil be—to get them here!”
“I shall call upon the Bishops this day, I shall not wait until tomorrow, nor until thenext day, for sixty good mule teams and twelve or fifteen wagons. I do not want to send oxen. I want good horses and mules. ..I will tel you 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 Saints did not know these people on the plains, they had not felt their anguish or chewed on the bark of trees for relief from hunger pain, but they loved the Lord and they understood something of sacrifice and compassion, and their response to Brigham’s call was immediate. Women stripped off their petticoats and stockings right in the tabernacle and surrendered shawls to be packed into the wagons. Even though it was time for the fall planting of the winter wheat crop and it had been a lean year in the valley, men stepped forward to the pulpit to volunteer for the mission. The evening of October 6, the volunteers gathered in Brigham Young’s office for counsel and priesthood blessings and the next day the wagons were rolling out of town, already laden with provisions the bishops had collected.
By the time the rescue teams found the Willie camp, it was covered in a foot of snow and more people had died and been buried in a shallow, common grave. The rescue teams had expected to find misery, but the cries of starving children, the gaunt desperation of parents who had no way to help them, was more than they could have conceived. Chislett describes the relief of the handcart pioneers when the rescue teams arrived, “The news ran through the camp like wildfire, and all who were able to leave their beds turned out enmasse to see them. A few strong men wept till tears ran freely down their furrowed and sunburnt cheeks, and little children partook ofthe joy…and fairly danced around with gladness. Restraint was set aside in the general rejoicing, and as the brethren entered our camp, the sisters fell upon them and deluged them with kisses…That evening for the first time in quite a period, the songs of Zion were to be heard in the camp, and peals of laughter issued from the little knots of people as they chatted around the fires.”
The men with supply wagons were cautioned not to pass out the provisions too freely, as gorging with food would be unhealthy ofr those of the company who had been starving.
A Howling Blizzard
However much excitement they caused, twenty or so wagons full of food and clothing and a refreshed group of young men did not mark the end of the ordeal. On October 23, they awoke to a biting blizzard and what many of them would later describe as the worst day of their lives. This was the ascent of the highest point on the Mormon trail at 7300 feet, the killer known as Rocky Ridge. This windswept backbone of ragged rock was a rite of passage. Those who had the physical stamina to withstand the piercing wind, the jagged rocks hidden under the snow, the debility from weeks of malnlutrition would probably make it all the way to the valley. But many would fall here.
It was a ragtag group with thin clothes and worn shoes that started that five-mile climb up Rocky Ridge, shoving, pushing their carts, many who finally sat down by the side of the road, unable to push any farther through the knee-deep snow. The wagons were so over loaded with the sick and debilitated that Levi Savage “was fearful some would smother.”
In getting into camp that night, eleven year-old James Kirkwood was responsible for his four year old brother Joseph, carrying the little boy on his back as he slogged through the snow on frozen feet. His widowed mother could not help for she, with his brother, Robert, were pulling their crippled, 19 year-old brother Thomas and their meager belongings, on a cart that barely budged. Faithful to his charge and dutiful to the end, James staggered into camp with his percious load, put Joseph down by the fire and died, trying to get to Zion, of exposure and overexertion.
Else Nielsen could not care for her six-year old son Niels because she had to pull her husband, whose feet had badly frozen, in the cart. Instead, little nine-year old Bodil Mortensen, a Danish child who was planning to meet her older sister in the valley, was put in charge. She labored to get Niels to camp, then began gathering sage to build a fire, and exhausted, leaned against a cart wheel and died with the sage still in her hands.
It was an hour when sacrifice was called for and sacrifice was delivered, when the basest in human nature could have triumphed as each scrambled for survival, but instead each, at the peril of life, considered his fellows. As the blizzard raged that night John Linford’s wife took off her own flannel petticoat and tucked it around him. It was not enough to save him and he died before morning.
The next morning Chislett had the unhappy task of gathering the dead, “thirteen corpses, all stiffly frozen.” They were buried in the clothes they died in, laid in a shallow, common grave covered with willows and then earth and rocks to keep the wolves from disturbing them. Two, who helped dig the graves, died that day and were buried nearby.
When the rescuers arrived, little Mary Huren later wrote, “I could hear the squeaking of the wagons as they came through the snow before I could see them.” Even the men broke down and wept.
The stake presidency remembered that for his Eagle project, a boy in their stake had placed a stone at Rock Creek listing the names of the thirteen who had been buried there. They had a little snapshot of the stone and when they found it, they could clearly read the thirteen names.
President McKinnon took down the first name, James Kirkwood, and entered it into the computer. It showed that no temple work had been done for him. “If all this has been for one boy,” thought President Lorrimer, “that’s good enough.”
Then they entered the name of Bodil Mortensen. Again the computer reported that no temple work had been done. The Presidency were in tears as they continued down the list of those buried in that forgotten, common grave. Again and again they found that their temple work had not been completed. When they submitted the names to Salt Lake, the fact was verified. The three of them resolved together to find these thirteen people and any others whose work had been overlooked.
“We knew we had been given an assignment,” said President Lorrimer, and President Gordon B. Hinckley later asked him, “How does it feel to be the President of two stakes?”
“What do you mean,” asked Lorrimer.
“The Riverton stake and the responsibility you bear for the Willie and Martin people.”
“The dead ones are harder than the living ones,” quipped President Lorrimer. “They talk to you even when you ‘re asleep.”
A special stake-wide sacrament meeting was held at which everyone over the age of 12 was given a name of a member of the Willie and Martin handcart companies to research and be responsible for. Suddenly those computers which nobody had known how to set up were whirring all day as the Family History Libraries were open from 6 a.m to midnight. It was a flurry of activity as people researched names, submitted them and went to the temple.
The living were as blessed as the dead in this activity. One of the branches leaped from 18 active members to 120. As members of the stake became attached to the people whose lives they came to know, they erected monuments at the rescue sites in memory of the handcart pioneers. Six thousand letters poured in from all over the world from those who cared about or were related to the handcart pioneers. The stake collected mounds of journal entries describing the handcart journey. One member who had never sculpted before, created a life-size sculpture of the pioneers in his basement, a scene with Bodil dying and an angel lifting up her spirit beyond the place of suffering.
At the project’s end, the members of the Riverton Stake had completed over 4,000 ordinances for over 1,000 people., all members of the Willie and Martin handcart companies. Those who had died struggling to come to Zion needed 85% of their ordinance work completed. Those who had lived beyond the journey still needed 53% of their ordinance work finished.
It was a second rescue that matched the first in dedication and love.
From Rock Creek on, the way was easier. On 25 October, they approached South Pass where they met seven fresh teams and provision wagons. At Green River, ten more wagons came to rescue them and from the time they left Fort Bridger about fifty wagons were assisting them and they were able to discard their handcarts and ride. They arrived in Salt Lake City on a sunny November 9, a different group than had left England, marked and transformed by suffering. The Martin company followed some weeks later, having known even worse.
Years later, an old man summed up his experience as a member of the handcart company, “We suffered beyond anything you can imagine and many died of exposure and starvation, but did you ever hear a survivor of that company utter a word of criticism? No one of that company ever apostatized or left the church because every one of us came through with the absolute knowledge that God lives for we became acquainted with Him in our extremities.”
The God who was acquainted with them remembered the desires of their hearts and did not let them down.
2004 Meridian Magazine. All Rights Reserved.