In Their Own Words: My Great-Great Grandfather Crossed the Rockies on Foot – The Martin Handcart Company, history's worst handcart disaster along the Pioneer Trail – Republished for Matthew T. -

Filed in Uncategorized by on August 25, 2006 0 Comments

We all came to this country, the US, in search of a vastly better life. Many thousands came by ship and arrived in a port city, where many spent generations; in recent decades, most have come to the U.S. by plane.

All emigrants have come here for one reason: to leave the past behind; it was a past that has served up an inhospitable life, often so horrible people were willing to leave everything behind, just to come here.

Once here, settling here was at least as difficult as the passage to the East Coast or the trek to the West.

What follows is a story from my family's genealogy books — a story my great-grandfather told, (which, along with excerpts from a journal one of his fellow travelers), tells how the Mormon Pioneers walked across the plains and the Rocky Mountains, just to reach Salt Lake City, braving storms, starvation, frostbite and death along the way.

We have so much to be grateful for, in this 21st century.

My grea-greatt-grandfather, Francis Webster, wrote, of the difficulty encountered along the way, with The Martin Handcard Company.

"They were living on ¼ pound of flour a day, each and Father had lived for 5 days on dead buffalo meat without salt, when they were met by the relief train. They had japaned tin boxes made to carry their cloths in, but they were left standing on the prairie.

"Father had been asked to help provide passage for nine additional persons to come to Utah. Knowing that a baby would be born to them during the passage, Father had gladly paid the rest of his gold dust so that more could join with us. Father had canceled his order to travel by wagon and elected to travel by handcart."

My maternal great-grandmother, Amy Elizabeth Parsons Webster, described some of the hardships that her father,  Francis Webster, suffered as a member of the Martin Hand Cart Company during the Mormon emigration to Salt Lake City, in 1856.

The Martin Hand Cart Company was a company of some 600 Mormons who were emigrating to Utah, as part of Brigham Young's Perpetual Emigration Fund (PEF).

Under the PEF program, Young loaned Mormon Pioneers money to travel in wagon trains to reach Utah; in 1855, Young also started a fund for handcarts, which were less expensive to fund than a wagon train, and were aster than oxen.

The Martin Hand Cart Company suffered greatly, as some 145 members perished from starvation or exposure.

What distinguished the Martin Hand Cart Company from other handcart companies is the late start the company had when it left Missouri, on August 22. The Company did not reach Salt Lake City until November 30, 1856.

In his own words,, Francis Webster, wrote:

"I was married on the 5<sup>th</sup> day of December, 1855, to Miss Ann Elizabeth Parsons. Miss Parsons had spent six years in the boarding schools in London, which gave her an education unusual for the times.

"Her handwriting was superb and her language was of the upper class in England. On the 23rd of May 1856, my wife and I left Liverpool on board the ship Horizon, paying the fare [for the Martin Handcart Company] for nine persons besides myself and wife. Landed at Boston on the 30 of June.

"I started with hand carts from the Martin Handcart Company from Ioway to Salt Lake on the 27 of July. At Wolf Creek, on the Platt River, my daughter, Amy Elizabeth Parsons Webster, was born on the 27 of September. I arrived in Salt Lake City on the 30th day of November, 1856."

More eloquent is the journal of another member of the company, John Jaques, who described  the tribulations the Martin Hand Cart Company suffered.

The following is abridged from Jaques' original:

"The company of emigrants, of which this handcart company constituted the largest part, embarked at Liverpool, May 22, 1856, on the packet ship, Horizon…The passengers on board numbered 856 of whom 635 were Perpetual Emigrating Fund emigrants…I believe all were Mormons…

"On the 30th of June the steamer Huron towed the Horizon to Constitution Wharf Boston, where the emigrants debarked…They took railroad cars to Ioway City…

"During their stay in the Ioway camp the emigrants employed themselves in making carts and other preparatory work…The hand-cart emigrants were divided into two companies, one under Edward Martin, altogether numbering about 600 persons…

"Many of the carts had wooden axles…some of the axles broke in a few days…One wagon with mule team and two wagons with ox-teams were apportioned to each hand-cart company to carry provisions…

"The last hand-cart company arrived on the West bank of the Missouri, on the 22 of August…This was Winter Quarters, of the great Mormon camp from Nauvoo…

Unfortunately, it was decided the hand-cart companies should continue…

"The companies arrived at For Laramie October 8th, and camped east of Laramie Fork, about a mile from the fort…Many of the company went to the fort to sell watches and other things they could spare and buy provisions…stores at reasonable prices – biscuit at 15 and ½ cents, bacon at 15 cents, rice at 17 cents per pound…up to this time, the daily pound of flour ration had been regularly served out, but it was never enough to stay the stomachs of the emigrants, and the longer they were on the plains and in the mountains the hungrier they grew…

"Soon…[the rations were curtailed] to make them hold out as long as possible. The pound of flour fell to three-fourths of a pound, then to half a pound, and subsequently yet lower. Still the company toiled on through the Black Hills, where the feed grew scarcer for the cattle also…

"In the Black Hills the roads were harder, more rocky and more hilly, and this told upon the handcarts, causing them to fail more rapidly, become rickety, and need more frequent repairing…

"One man's hand cart broke down one afternoon…and the company went on, leaving him behind, alone with his broken cart and his family's stock of worldly goods thereon…

"He was drawing his little child in his cart, as he had drawn her most of the journey, and…then the cart broke down and he had to transfer her to somebody else's cart and send her on with the company.

"So he remained behind with his cart, anxiously expecting someone to turn back and help him, but no one came. Night drew on apace, and still he was all alone, save and expecting the presence of a prowling wolf, which could be seen in the streak of light on the western horizon, a little outside of ordinary rifle range…

"Happily…Captain's Hodgett's wagon company was observed…he eagerly went and told his tale to the wagon people and they took him in for the night……

"On the 19th of October, the company crossed the Platte for the last time at Red Buttes…This was a bitter cold day…Winter came on all at once and this was the first day of it…

"Early on the morning of the 29th the hand-cart company left the Platte and struck across the country…the passage was a severe operation to many in the company…

"The company rested in Martin's Ravine for two or three more days…though under shelter of the Northern Mountains, it was a cold place. One night the gusty wind blew over a number of the tents, and it was with difficulty some of the emigrants could keep from freezing…

"By this time the shoes of many of the emigrants had given out, and that was no journey for shoeless men, women and children, to make at such a season of the year, and trudge on foot…

"As the emigrants proceeded on their terrible journey, there was no appreciable mitigation of the piercing wintry cold, but its intensity rather increased…The snow fell fast and the wind blew piercingly from the north…

"For several days the company had been meeting more relief trains, which had been urged on by the Joseph A. Young express, and as the company was crossing the South Pass, there was a sufficiency of wagons for the first time, to carry all the people and thenceforth the traveling was more rapid…

"On Sunday the 30th, the company passed down the latter canyon and arrived in the [Salt Lake] city about noon."

Two weeks later, on December 16, 1856, the Martin Handcart Company left Salt Lake and headed for Cedar City, Utah. It was there that the emigrants would settle down, build homes and live for the next 100 or more years.

Source: Generations of Websters, by Amy Leigh Van Cott and Allen W. Leigh, 1960. (family).

About the Author ()

An article of mine, 'On Marriage, Life, Death and Remarriage' was published in "Blended Families (Social Issues Firsthand) by Greenhouse Press." An article of mine was referenced in this book: "Margaret Atwood: a reference guide" by Judith McComb

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