The Hand-cart Tragedy

In 1855 the crops in Utah were almost a failure, and the church

authorities found themselves very much embarrassed by their

debts. A report in the seventh General Epistle, of April 18,

1852, set forth that, from their entry into the valley to March

27, of that year, there had been received as tithing, mostly in

property, $244,747.03, and in loans and from other sources

$145,513.78, of which total there had been expended in assisting

immigrants and on church buildings, city lots, manufacturing

industries, etc., $353,765.69. Young found it necessary therefore

to cut down his expenses, and he looked around for a method of

doing this without checking the stream of new-comers. The method

which he evolved was to furnish the immigrants with hand-carts on

their arrival in Iowa, and to let them walk all the way across

the plains, taking with them only such effects as these carts

would hold, each party of ten to drive with them one or two cows.

Although Young tried to throw the result of this experiment on

others, the evidence is conclusive that he devised it and worked

out its details. In a letter to Elder F. D. Richards, in

Liverpool, dated September 30, 1855, Young said: "We cannot

afford to purchase wagons and teams as in times past. I am

consequently thrown back upon MY OLD PLAN--to make hand-carts,

and let the emigration foot it." To show what a pleasant trip

this would make, this head of the church, who had three times

crossed the plains, added, "Fifteen miles a day will bring them

through in 70 days, and, after they get accustomed to it, they

will travel 20, 25, or even 30 with all ease, and no danger of

giving out, but will continue to get stronger and stronger; the

little ones and sick, if there are any, can be carried on the

carts, but there will be none sick in a little time after they

get started."*

* Millennial Star, Vol. VII, p. 813.

Directions in accordance with this plan were issued in the form

of a circular in Liverpool in February, 1856, naming Iowa City,

Iowa, as the point of outfit. The charge for booking through to

Utah by the Perpetual Emigration Fund Company was fixed at 9

pounds for all over one year old, and 4 pounds 10 shillings. for

younger infants. The use of trunks or boxes was discouraged, and

the emigrants were urged to provide themselves with oil-cloth or

mackintosh bags.

About thirteen hundred persons left Liverpool to undertake this

foot journey across the plains, placing implicit faith in the

pictures of Salt Lake Valley drawn by the missionaries, and not

doubting that the method of travel would be as enjoyable as it

seemed economical. Five separate companies were started that

summer from Iowa City. The first and second of these arrived at

Florence, Nebraska, on July 17, the third, made up mostly of

Welsh, on July 19, and the fourth on August 11. The first company

made the trip to Utah without anything more serious to report

than the necessary discomforts of such a march, and were received

with great acclaim by the church authorities, and welcomed with

an elaborate procession. It was the last companies whose story

became a tragedy.*

* The experiences of those companies were told in detail by a

member of one, John Chislett, and printed in the "Rocky Mountain

Saints." Mrs. Stenhouse gives additional experiences in her "Tell

it All."

The immigrants met with their first disappointment on arriving at

Iowa City. Instead of finding their carts ready for them, they

were told that no advance agent had prepared the way. The last

companies were subjected to the most delay from this cause. Even

the carts were still to be manufactured, and, while they were

making, many a family had to camp in the open fields, without

even the shelter of a tent or a wagon top. The carts, when

pronounced finished, moved on two light wheels, the only iron

used in their construction being a very thin tire. Two projecting

shafts of hickory or oak were joined by a cross piece, by means

of which the owner propelled the vehicle. When Mr. Chislett's

company, after a three weeks' delay, made a start, they were five

hundred strong, comprising English, Scotch, and Scandanavians.

They were divided, as usual, into hundreds, to each hundred being

allotted five tents, twenty hand-carts, and one wagon drawn by

three yokes of oxen, the latter carrying the tents and

provisions. Families containing more young men than were required

to draw their own carts shared these human draught animals with

other families who were not so well provided; but many carts were

pulled along by young girls.

The Iowans bestowed on the travellers both kindness and

commiseration. Knowing better than did the new-comers from Europe

the trials that awaited them, they pointed out the lateness of

the season, and they did persuade a few members to give up the

trip. But the elders who were in charge of the company were

watchful, the religious spirit was kept up by daily meetings, and

the one command that was constantly reiterated was, "Obey your

leaders in all things."

A march of four weeks over a hot, dusty route was required to

bring them to the Missouri River near Florence. Even there they

were insufficiently supplied with food. With flour costing $3 per

hundred pounds, and bacon seven or eight cents a pound, the daily

allowance of food was ten ounces of flour to each adult, and four

ounces to children under eight years old, with bacon, coffee,

sugar, and rice served occasionally. Some of the men ate all

their allowance for the day at their breakfast, and depended on

the generosity of settlers on the way, while there were any, for

what further food they had until the next morning.

After a week's stay at Florence (the old Winter Quarters), the

march across the plains was resumed on August 18. The danger of

making this trip so late in the season, with a company which

included many women, children, and aged persons, gave even the

elders pause, and a meeting was held to discuss the matter. But

Levi Savage, who had made the trip to and from the valley, alone

advised against continuing the march that season. The others

urged the company to go on, declaring that they were God's

people, and prophesying in His name that they would get through

the mountains in safety. The emigrants, "simple, honest, eager to

go to Zion at once, and obedient as little children to the

'servants of God,' voted to proceed." *

* A "bond," which each assisted emigrant was required to sign in

Liverpool, contained the following stipulations: "We do severally

and jointly promise and bind ourselves to continue with and obey

the instructions of the agent appointed to superintend our

passage thither to [Utah]. And that, on our arrival in Utah, we

will hold ourselves, our time, and our labor, subject to the

appropriation of the Perpetual Emigration Fund Company until the

full cost of our emigration is paid, with interest if required."

As the teams provided could not haul enough flour to last the

company to Utah, a sack weighing ninety-eight pounds was added to

the load of each cart. One pound of flour a day was now allowed

to each adult, and occasionally fresh beef. Soon after leaving

Florence trouble began with the carts. The sand of the dry

prairie got into the wooden hubs and ground the axles so that

they broke, and constant delays were caused by the necessity of

making repairs., No axle grease had been provided, and some of

the company were compelled to use their precious allowance of

bacon to grease the wheels. At Wood River, where the plains were

alive with buffaloes, a stampede of the cattle occurred one

night, and thirty of them were never recovered. The one yoke of

oxen that was left to each wagon could not pull the load; an

attempt to use the milch cows and heifers as draught animals

failed, and the tired cart pullers had to load up again with


While pursuing their journey in this manner, their camp was

visited one evening by Apostle F. D. Richards and some other

elders, on their way to Utah from mission work abroad. Richards

severely rebuked Savage for advising that the trip be given up at

Florence, and prophesied that the Lord would keep open a way

before them. The missionaries, who were provided with carriages

drawn by four horses each, drove on, without waiting to see this

prediction confirmed.

On arriving at Fort Laramie, about the first of September,

another evidence of the culpable neglect of the church

authorities manifested itself. The supply of provisions that was

to have awaited them there was wanting. They calculated the

amount that they had on hand, and estimated that it would last

only until they were within 350 miles of Salt Lake City; but,

perhaps making the best of the situation, they voted to reduce

the daily ration and to try to make the supply last by travelling

faster. When they reached the neighborhood of Independence Rock,

a letter sent back by Richards informed them that supplies would

meet them at South Pass; but another calculation showed that what

remained would not last them to the Pass, and again the ration

was reduced, working men now receiving twelve ounces a day, other

adults nine, and children from four to eight. Another source of

discomfort now manifested itself. In order to accommodate matters

to the capacity of the carts, the elders in charge had made it

one of the rules that each outfit should be limited to seventeen

pounds of clothing and bedding. As they advanced up the

Sweetwater it became cold. The mountains appeared snow-covered,

and the lack of extra wraps and bedding caused first discomfort,

and then intense suffering, to the half-fed travellers. The

necessity of frequently wading the Sweetwater chilled the

stronger men who were bearing the brunt of the labor, and when

morning dawned the occupants of the tents found themselves numb

with the cold, and quite unfitted to endure the hardships of the

coming day. Chislett draws this picture of the situation at that


"Our old and infirm people began to droop, and they no sooner

lost spirit and courage than death's stamp could be traced upon

their features. Life went out as smoothly as a lamp ceases to

burn when the oil is gone. At first the deaths occurred slowly

and irregularly, but in a few days at more frequent intervals,

until we soon thought it unusual to leave a camp ground without

burying one or more persons. Death was not long confined in its

ravages to the old and infirm, but the young and naturally strong

were among its victims. Weakness and debility were accompanied by

dysentery. This we could not stop or even alleviate, no proper

medicines being in the camp; and in almost every instance it

carried off the parties attacked. 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. These people died with the calm faith

and fortitude of martyrs."

An Oregonian returning East, who met two of the more fortunate of

these handcart parties, gave this description to the Huron (Ohio)

Reflector in 1857:--

"It was certainly the most novel and interesting sight I have

seen for many a day. We met two trains, one of thirty and the

other of fifty carts, averaging about six to the cart. The carts

were generally drawn by one man and three women each, though some

carts were drawn by women alone. There were about three women to

one man, and two-thirds of the women single. It was the most

motley crew I ever beheld. Most of them were Danes, with a

sprinkling of Welsh, Swedes, and English, and were generally from

the lower classes of their countries. Most could not understand

what we said to them. The road was lined for a mile behind the

train with the lame, halt, sick, and needy. Many were quite aged,

and would be going slowly along, supported by a son or daughter.

Some were on crutches; now and then a mother with a child in her

arms and two or three hanging hold of her, with a forlorn

appearance, would pass slowly along; others, whose condition

entitled them to a seat in a carriage, were wending their way

through the sand. A few seemed in good spirits."

The belated company did not meet anyone to carry word of their

condition to the valley, but among Richard's party who visited

the camp at Wood River was Brigham Young's son, Joseph A. He

realized the plight of the travellers, and when his father heard

his report he too recognized the fact that aid must be sent at

once. The son was directed to get together all the supplies he

could obtain in the city or pick up on the way, and to start

toward the East immediately. Driving on himself in a light wagon,

he reached the advanced line, as they were toiling ahead through

their first snowstorm. The provisions travelled slower, and could

not reach them in less than one or two days longer. There was

encouragement, of course, even in the prospect of release, but

encouragement could not save those whose vitality was already

exhausted. Camp was pitched that night among a grove of willows,

where good fires were possible, but in the morning they awoke to

find the snow a foot deep, and that five of their companions had

been added to the death list during the night.

To add to the desperate character of the situation came the

announcement that the provisions were practically exhausted, the

last of the flour having been given out, and all that remained

being a few dried apples, a little rice and sugar, and about

twenty-five pounds of hardtack. Two of the cattle were killed,

and the camp were informed that they would have to subsist on the

supplies in sight until aid reached them. The best thing to do in

these circumstances, indeed, the only thing, was to remain where

they were and send messengers to advise the succoring party of

the desperateness of their case. Their captain, Mr. Willie, and

one companion acted as their messengers. They were gone three

days, and in their absence Mr. Chislett had the painful duty of

doling out what little food there was in camp. He speaks of his

task as one that unmanned him. More cattle were killed, but beef

without other food did not satisfy the hungry, and the epidemic

of dysentery grew worse. The commissary officer was surrounded by

a crowd of men and women imploring him for a little food, and it

required all his power of reasoning to make them see that what

little was left must be saved for the sick.

The party with aid from the valley had also encountered the

snowstorm, and, not appreciating the desperate condition of the

hand-cart immigrants, had halted to wait for better weather. As

soon as Captain Willie took them the news, they hastened

eastward, and were seen by the starving party at sunset, the

third day after their captain's departure. "Shouts of joy rent

the air," says Chislett. "Strong men wept till tears ran freely

down their furrowed and sunburnt cheeks, and little children

partook of the joy which some of them hardly understood, 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."

The timely relief saved many lives, but the end of the suffering

had not been reached. A good many of the foot party were so

exhausted by what they had gone through, that even their near

approach to their Zion and their prophet did not stimulate them

to make the effort to complete the journey. Some trudged along,

unable even to pull a cart, and those who were still weaker were

given places in the wagons. It grew colder, too, and frozen hands

and feet became a common experience. Thus each day lessened by a

few who were buried the number that remained.

Then came another snowstorm. What this meant to a weakened party

like this dragging their few possessions in carts can easily be

imagined. One family after another would find that they could not

make further progress, and when a hill was reached the human

teams would have to be doubled up. In this way, by travelling

backward and forward, some progress was made. That day's march

was marked by constant additions to the stragglers who kept

dropping by the way. When the main body had made their camp for

the night, some of the best teams were sent back for those who

had dropped behind, and it was early morning before all of these

were brought in.

The next morning Captain Willie was assigned to take count of the

dead. An examination of the camp showed thirteen corpses, all

stiffly frozen. They were buried in a large square hole, three or

four abreast and three deep. "When they did not fit in," says

Chislett, "we put one or two crosswise at the head or feet of the

others. We covered them with willows and then with the earth."

Two other victims were buried before nightfall. Parties passing

eastward by this place the following summer found that the wolves

had speedily uncovered the corpses, and that their bones were

scattered all over the neighborhood.

Further deaths continued every day until they arrived at South

Pass. There more assistance from the valley met them, the weather

became warmer, and the health of the party improved, so that when

they arrived at Salt Lake City they were in better condition and

spirits. The date of their arrival there was November 9. The

company which set out from Iowa City numbered about 500, of whom

400 set out from Florence across the plains. Of these 400, 67

died on the way, and there were a few deaths after they reached

the end of their journey.

Another company of these hand-cart travellers left Florence still

later than the ones whose sufferings have been described. They

were in charge of an elder named Martin. Like their predecessors,

they were warned against setting out so late as the middle of

August, and many of them tried to give up the trip, but

permission to do so was refused. Their sufferings began soon

after they crossed the Platte, near Fort Laramie, and snow was

encountered sixty miles east of Devil's Gate. When they reached

that landmark, they decided that they could make no further

progress with their hand-carts. They accordingly took possession

of half a dozen dilapidated log houses, the contents of the

wagons were placed in some of these, the hand-carts were left

behind, and as many people as the teams could drag were placed in

the wagons and started forward. One of the survivors of this

party has written: "The track of the emigrants was marked by

graves, and many of the living suffered almost worse than death.

Men may be seen to-day in Salt Lake City, who were boys then,

hobbling around on their club-feet, all their toes having been

frozen off in that fearful march." * Twenty men who were left at

Devil's Gate had a terrible experience, being compelled, before

assistance reached them, to eat even the pieces of hide wrapped

round their cart-wheels, and a piece of buffalo skin that had

been used as a door-mat. Strange to say, all of these men reached

the valley alive.

* "Rocky Mountain Saints," p. 337.

We have seen that Brigham Young was the inventor of this

hand-cart immigration scheme. Alarmed by the result of the

experiment, as soon as the wretched remnant of the last two

parties arrived in Salt Lake City, he took steps to place the

responsibility for the disaster on other shoulders. The idea

which he carried out was to shift the blame to F. D. Richards on

the ground that he allowed the immigrants to start too late. In

an address in the Tabernacle, while Captain Willie's party was

approaching the city, he told the returned missionaries from

England that they needed to be careful about eulogizing Richards

and Spencer, lest they should have "the big head." When these men

were in Salt Lake City he cursed them with the curse of the

church. E. W. Tullidge, who was an editor of the Millennial Star

in Liverpool under Richards when the hand-cart emigrants were

collected, proposed, when in later years he was editing the Utah

Magazine, to tell the facts about that matter; but when Young

learned this, he ordered Godbe, the controlling owner of the

magazine, to destroy that issue, after one side of the sheets had

been printed, and he was obeyed.* Fortunately Young was not able

to destroy the files of the Millennial Star.

* "Rocky Mountain Saints," p. 342.

There is much that is thoroughly typical of Mormonism in the

history of these expeditions. No converts were ever instilled

with a more confident belief in the divine character of the

ridiculous pretender, Joseph Smith. To no persons were more

flagrant misrepresentations ever made by the heads of the church,

and over none was the dictatorial authority of the church

exercised more remorselessly. Not only was Utah held out to them

as "a land where honest labor and industry meet with a suitable

reward, and where the higher walks of life are open to the

humblest and poorest," * but they were informed that, if they had

not faith enough to undertake the trip to Utah, they had not

"faith sufficient to endure, with the Saints in Zion, the

celestial law which leads to exaltation and eternal life." Young

wrote to Richards privately in October, 1855, "Adhere strictly to

our former suggestion of walking them through across the plains

with hand-carts";** and Richards in an editorial in the Star

thereupon warned the Saints: "The destroying angel is abroad.

Pestilence and gaunt famine will soon increase the terrors of the

scene to an extent as yet without a parallel in the records of

the human race. If the anticipated toils of the journey shake

your faith in the promises of the Lord, it is high time that you

were digging about the foundation of it, and seeing if it be

founded on the root of the Holy Priesthood," etc.

* Thirteenth General Epistle, Millennial Star, Vol. XVIII, p. 49.

** Millennial Star, Vol. XVIII, p, 61.

The direct effect of such teaching is shown in two letters

printed in the Millennial Star of June 14, 1856. In the first of

these, a sister, writing to her brother in Liverpool from

Williamsburg, New York, confesses her surprise on learning that

the journey was to be made with hand-carts, says that their

mother cannot survive such a trip, and that she does not think

the girls can, points out that the limitation regarding baggage

would compel them to sell nearly all their clothes, and proposes

that they wait in New York or St. Louis until they could procure

a wagon. In his reply the brother scorns this advice, says that

he would not stop in New York if he were offered 10,000 pounds

besides his expenses, and adds "Brothers, sisters, fathers or

mothers, when they put a stumbling block in the way of my

salvation, are nothing more to me than Gentiles. As for me and my

house, we will serve the Lord, and when we start we will go right

up to Zion, if we go ragged and barefoot."

Young found himself hard put to meet the church obligations in

1856, notwithstanding the economy of the hand-cart system; and

the Millennial Star of December 27 announced that no assisted

emigrants would be sent out during the following year. Saints

proposing to go through at their own expense were informed,

however, that the church bureau would supply them with teams.

Those proposing to use hand-carts were told of the "indispensable

necessity" of having their whole outfit ready on their arrival at

Iowa City, and the bureau offered to supply this at an estimated

cost of 3 pounds per head, any deficit to be made up on their

arrival there.*

* "The agency of the Mormon emigration at that time was a very

profitable appointment. By arrangement with ship brokers at

Liverpool, a commission of half a guinea per head was allowed the

agent for every adult emigrant that he sent across the Atlantic,

and the railroad companies in New York allowed a percentage on

every emigrant ticket. But a still larger revenue was derived

from the outfitting on the frontiers. The agents purchased all

the cattle, wagons, tents, wagon-covers, flour, cooking utensils,

stoves, and the staple articles for a three months' journey

across the Plains, and from them the Saints supplied

themselves."--" Rocky Mountain Saints," p. 340.

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