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Mormon Pioneer Tragedy: The Martin/Willey Handcart Company - Hunt and Hodgett Wagon Company of 1856

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This is a sub project of Lost Along the Way: Mormon Pioneers on the Westward Journey, specifically for the three ill-fated companies of 1856 whose names are known to every Utah schoolchild: the Martin Handcart Company, the Willey Handcart Company, and the Hunt and Hodgett Wagon Company.

"That the struggles, the sacrifices, and the sufferings of the faithful pioneers and the cause they represented shall never be forgotten." - Winter Quarters Monument

The Mormon Migration has been called the largest human migration in American history. Between 1840 and 1869, about seventy thousand converts to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints emigrated from Great Britain, Scandinavia, Germany, Switzerland, Italy, France, Australia, the Hawaiian Islands, and elsewhere to the United States to gather with fellow members of the Church at their "Zion" - originally Nauvoo, Illinois, and eventually the Salt Lake Valley, Utah Territory.

"...Mormon pioneer immigrants of the nineteenth century experienced a monumental endeavor fraught with considerable difficulty and danger. Both transoceanic and transcontinental travel was attended with increased risk because of a wide variety of acute diseases, communicable illness, and accidental injury. It was not a journey to be taken lightly."

The Handcart Companies

During 1856, five handcart companies of nearly 1,900 people traveled from Iowa City, Iowa to Salt Lake City, Utah Territory. The first three companies arrived with limited problems. Less than 27 of the 816 members of those companies died during the journey of over 1,300 miles.

However, the Willie and Martin Handcart Companies and the Hunt and Hodgett Wagon Companies were late leaving Iowa City. They encountered fierce winter storms that began on 19 October 1856.

Wallace Stegner praised the examples of those of the handcart companies, particularly in comparison to other pioneer parties:

“Perhaps their suffering seems less dramatic because the handcart pioneers bore it meekly, praising God... But if courage and endurance make a story, if humankindness and helpfulness and brotherly love in the midst of raw horror are worth recording, this half-forgotten episode of the Mormon migration is one of the great tales of the West and of America.”

The Hunt and Hodgetts Companies were wagon companies that followed the handcart companies. They did all they could to help the pioneers who were on foot, and they also experienced a terrible number of fatalities.

“It is not of much use for me to attempt to give a description of the situation of these people, for this you will learn from [others]; but you can imagine between five and six hundred men, women and children, worn down by drawing hand carts through snow and mud; fainting by the wayside; falling, chilled by the cold; children crying, their limbs stiffened by cold, their feet bleeding and some of them bare to snow and frost. The sight is almost too much for the stoutest of us; but we go on doing all we can, not doubting nor despairing." - George D. Grant

Rescuers sent from Salt Lake City found the starving pioneers snowbound and stranded on the high plains of Wyoming and assisted them to Salt Lake City. Approximately 190 of the 1,076 members of these two companies died during the journey. Many of the survivors experienced terrible injuries from frostbite and gangrene, as well as long-term effects from starvation.

Many survivors of the tragedy refused to blame anyone. Survivor John Jacques wrote, "I blame nobody. I am not anxious to blame anybody... I have no doubt that those who had to do with its management meant well and tried to do the best they could under the circumstances." Another survivor, Francis Webster, was quoted as having said, "Was I sorry that I chose to come by hand cart? No. Neither then nor any minute of my life since. The price we paid to become acquainted with God was a privilege to pay and I am thankful that I was privileged to come in the Martin Hand Cart Company."

How to Participate

Please add profiles for members of the the Martin Handcart Company, the Willey Handcart Company, and the Hunt and Hodgett Wagon Company who did not survive the journey. Those who actually reached Utah should be added to one of the other Mormon Pioneer projects.

  • Try to include in the "About Me" section of each person a brief biographical sketch of their lives. See any of the pioneers on the 1847 Brigham Young project as an example.
  • Include a photograph of your ancestor if it is possible to do so without violating copyright restrictions
  • Your pioneer's profiles should be marked as "public" and not "private".
  • All included profiles should be as complete as possible, including birth and death dates as well as birth and death locations. It would also be very helpful if the immediate family of your pioneer ancestor, (their parents, siblings and children) profiles were public profiles also.
  • You may add links to project profiles in the Honor Roll, below, along with a brief (1-2 sentence) summary of their fate

Honor Roll

  • James Kirkwood - At 10 years of age, James’ primary responsibility on the trek was to care for his little four-year-old brother, Joseph, while his mother and oldest brother, Robert, pulled the cart. Left behind the main group, James and Joseph made their way slowly to camp. When the two finally arrived at the fireside, James “having so faithfully carried out his task, collapsed and died from exposure and overexertion.”
  • Bodil Mortensen - Bodil, age 9, apparently was assigned to care for some small children as they crossed Rocky Ridge. When they arrived at camp, she must have been sent to gather firewood. She was found frozen to death leaning against the wheel of their handcart, clutching sagebrush.
  • Samuel Gadd - from Orwell, Cambridgeshire, England, aged 10

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