The Martin Handcart Company

Creating this page as collection of the materials that I believe speak of the complexities involved in the extreme and adverse challenges faced by members of the Martin and Willie handcart companies journey. I appreciate that the more dominant church folk lore stories which are used in a faith promoting context to inspire and uplift, yet I also believe it can be of utmost uplift to empathize with the real people of those two handcarts and the reality of their experience. Relating to the flaws of the human-ness that constituted the tiers of judgment that formulated their journey, nonetheless it was their incredible and indomitable spirits that can be far more inspirational. 

 To elevate the telling of their authentic experiences is the story and points to an unwavering faith in something greater. It smacks of riding on the tails of their courage that the church seems more intent on elevating itself at their expense, a position I don't believe adds value to the church as much as it devalues a reality of experience that could add increase to this church, were this story more widely known among Mormons and non-mormons.  The composite of multiple stories of a community of people reacting to the circumstances in which they find themselves, continuing to find ways of helping each other throughout the travails speaks to the power of a community intent on keeping their humanity,  continuing to be a supportive, loving, compassionate and caring community in the frailness of the human condition.

'17 Miracles', a T.C. Christensen film - a movie based on composite of  true stories of Martin and Willie Handcart Companies

Link to the website for movie '17 Miracles'

Willie and Martin Handcart Company history links

Sweetwater Rescue: The Willie and Martin Handcart Story (audio) by Chad M. Orton

The Martin Handcart Company at the Sweetwater, Another Look , by Chad M. Orton (this is a pdf free dowload, look for the free download button at the BYU website.)

On November 4, 1856, members of the beleaguered Martin Handcart Company reached the Sweetwater River. More than two weeks earlier, on October 19, the day an early winter storm overtook the company, these same handcart pioneers had forded the Platte River. "Very trying in consequence of its width and the cold weather," James Bleak wrote of that experience. Now after sixteen days' exposure to snow and relentless cold, the company faced the challenge of another river crossing. The thought of fording the relatively shallow but freezing-cold river was more than many weak and frozen pioneers could bear. 

Francis Webster, The Unique Story of One Handcart Pioneer's Faith and Sacrifice, by Chad M. Orton,  (this is a pdf free download, look for the free download button at the BYU website)

The real story is often better than the popularly told tale.  Such is the case with Francis Webster, the famous old man in the corner of a Sunday School class who arose to silence the criticism directed towards the Willie and Martin handcart companies.

Legacy  Sweetwater Rescue, Episode 49 at  interviews Chad Orton  (audio)

Although fewer than 10 percent of the early Latter-day Saint emigrants to the Salt Lake Valley made the journey using handcarts, the handcart pioneers have become an icon in LDS culture, representing the faith and sacrifice of the pioneer generation.  Historian Chad Orton discusses the Sweetwater Rescue of the Willie and Martin handcart pioneers.

Chad M. Orton ( is an archivist with the Family and Church History Division of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.  He received his BA and MA in history from Brigham Young University. He has written on a wide variety of historical topics and is coauthor with William W. 
Slaughter of Joseph Smith’s America: His Life and Times (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2005).

More historical views of Martin Handcart journey

'One Long Funeral March': A Revisionists View of the Martin Handcart Disaster'

by Will Bagley. From the Journal of the Mormon History 35 (Winter 2009) pdf

Devil's Gate; Brigham Young and the great Mormon handcart tragedy by David Roberts

Link to excerpt at Google Books

Review of Devil's Gateat The Denver Post

The Mormon handcart expeditions were the "most deadly (chapter) in the history of westward migration in the United States," David Roberts says in "Devil's Gate." Nearly 250 of the 900 members of the Martin and Willie handcart companies, which were caught in brutal blizzards in the Wyoming and Utah mountains in the fall of 1856, died, mostly from cold and starvation. That compares to 42 members of the Donner Party who perished in the Sierras.

And yet, the Donner tragedy is so much better known. Few people beyond Western historians and members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints know about the handcart expeditions, one of the strangest experiments in Western history.

And many of those who are aware of it see the experience as inspiring, as evidence of profound faith and divine intervention, according to Roberts. Not a single member of the handcart companies apostated, they claim. The truth, however, is that the planning for the handcarts was bungled through stupidity and arrogance, and the result was a journey of such horror that many who lived through it could never talk about it. And yes, many of the survivors did desert the church

Read more: Handcart hypocrisy - The Denver Post
 Read The Denver Post's Terms of Use of its content:

at Jared Pratt Family Association 

Florence, October 28, 1856
Elder Orson Pratt.
Dear beloved Brother,
I take the earliest opportunity to inform you of my arrival at Winter Quarters on the Missouri river; and will give you a brief sketch of our travels, so that the friends and relatives of the emigrating Saints may obtain the earliest information of them.
On the 29th, we met Elder Porter Rockwell, in charge of seven wagons, four of them having the remnants of Mr. Babbitt’s goods, and which he had successfully brought through the country of the hostile Indians; and shortly afterwards we met Elder A.O. Smoot, in charge of a train of forty-two wagons containing among other things, a steam engine for President Young, books, and dry goods from England, and some other articles which had been cached or stored away in previous years; he was assisted by Elders Ira Eldridge and Brigham H. Young.  October 2nd: I visited a short time with over 450 Saints, under the charge of Elders Atwood and Willie with hand-carts, about ten miles west of Fort Laramie.    .....snipped.....     4th: Elder Edward Martin, with over 700 Saints, as I was informed, with hand-carts, and Capt. Hawkins, with a company of Saints from the Cape of Good Hope, and other places, passed up the river road; we missed seeing them, on account of coming over the mountain road; we lay by half a day, on the 5th to send letters to Elder Martin and others, but our messengers returned without seeing them.
In the bonds of everlasting covenant,
I remain, dear brother Pratt.
Your obedient servant in the Lord,
Thomas Bullock
[Millennial Star, 18:811]
[Journal History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Oct. 28, 1856, 1-2]

(note;  italics and bold placed in the article snippet are mine)

Mormon Pioneer Overland Travel, 1847–1868

Source of Trail Excerpt:
Grant, Caleb, [Report], in "Church Emigration Book."
Read Trail Excerpt:
G.S.L. City Dec. 12th 1856

The Church Train in charge of Capt. "A. O. Smoot, left Mormon Grove, K.T. on 10th day of August '56, it consisted of 22 Church Wagons, 3 A. O. Smoots, 3 B.H. Young's, 1 Erastus Snow's, 1 H. C. Kimball's, 1 Ira Eldredge's, 1 John Taylor's and 1 Travelling Carriage belonging to Capt. Smoot, also 1 Mess Wagon; At the commencement of the trip the train was much detained for want of drivers, as there were not men enough with it to move it all at once, it was moved part at a time for several days, we were then overtaken by Bro. F. B. Woolley, who had been to Florence W.T. to procure drivers, he brought some half dozen, raw hands mostly danish with wives, & with this assistance we were enabled to move the entire train at once; but the men not being acquainted with teaming it was generally afternoon before they left camp.

When we arrived at Little Muddy Fork of Grasshopper we took with us 4 Waggons of machinery, 1 Waggon with a Threshing Machine, & 1 with a steamboat boiler, & pursued our way to Big Blue with middling good speed, which point we reached at noon of 20th August, our average speed to this place was 11 or 12 miles per day—


 On Thursday 4th Sept. we passed Capt." Willie's train of handcarts, which were on the opposite side of the river (Platte),      they were detained by losing some 30 head of cattle.

.... snipped ...

reached the South Pass on Tuesday 14th, 2 p.m. &
Little Sandy on 16th 4 a.m., here Capt Smoot retd with Flour & reptd. a relief train on Big Sandy which we met the same evening & recd. from them 19 men, several span of horses & mules & wagons, also Beef, Flour & Vegetables,


On Monday 18th inst Capt G.D. Grant's train, camp up with us; they had in company Bro. F. D. Richards & several returning missionaries, they reptd C. Thos. Margett's company destroyed by Cheyennes, also that 3 Hand Cart Trains were behind us with near 2,000 passengers; after this time we travelled fast, stopped a day at Roubideaux old station &

(read full content at link)

(note; the bold and italic are mine)

The Contributor : representing Young men's and Young Ladies..., Vol 14

     google ebooks 

the excerpt below from google ebooks  points to the transport of the steam engine for Brigham Young

The excerpt below from google ebooks  tells more full story of the transport of the steam engine intersecting simultaneously with the Martin and Willie handcart companies.

Live Podcast, A Dale L. Morgan Lecture 'The Sharpest Thorn: Life on the Borderlands of Mormon West' by Will Bagley   at Salt Lake City Auditorium, Sept 7, 2011.

From the Blogs discussions;

--  at Juvenile Instructor; by Ben Park, July 24, 2011article titled Pioneer Day, The Sweetwater Rescue, and the Role of History in Mormonism 

--  at Keepapitchinin; by Ardis E. Parshall, September 11, 2009, article titled  Before you Teach or Attend Gospel Doctrine 35 on the Handcart Rescue, Read This

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