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

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“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.”

from Amy Elizabeth Parsons Webster, born on the trail of the Martin Handcart Co. Generations of Websters. by Amy Leigh Van Cott and Allen W. Leigh, 1960.


My mother, Billie Leigh Esplin’s drawing of a pioneer woman and baby, 1960, for my  great-aunt and my uncle’s book, Generations of Websters, by Amy Leigh Van Cott and Allen W. Leigh, 1960.  I remember when my mother did this drawing for my uncle’s book.



Amy Elizabeth Parsons Webster described the hardships Francis Webster suffered as a member of the Martin Hand Cart Company during the LDS emigration to Salt Lake City in 1856.

Amy was my mother’s (Billie Leigh) father’s mother; in other words, Amy was my great-grandmother.  

Francis Webster became Mayor of Cedar City. Amy was born on the trip to Utah, during a blizzard.


“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.” (From Generations of Websters.)


The Martin Hand Cart Company
was a company of  600 LDS Pioneers  who were emigrating to Utah, as part of Brigham Young’s Perpetual Emigration Fund.

Under the PEF program, Brigham Young loaned LDS Pioneers money to travel in wagon trains to reach Utah.

From 1847 to 1866, some 16,000 members of the LDS church traveled from England, Wales and Scandinavia to Utah -  first traveling by ship then rail to Boston or New York; the journey was concluded by rail to the end rail point of Iowa, and from there, by wagon train, using wagons and oxen, a very expensive venture.

Brigham Young loaned money to those LDS pioneers who could not pay their own way, which would be repaid as the settlers became able to pay. This was known as the Perpetual Emigration Fund. (PEF).

The Pioneers started in wagon trains, but by 1855, after a bad harvest and tight money, Young changed strategies to have the Pioneers travel by handcarts rather than by wagon train. Handcarts were less expensive to fund than wagon trains and were faster than oxen.

There were 10 handcart companies in all, from 1856 to 1860.

Two of the handcart companies suffered tragic losses:

The Willie Handcart Co., was the fourth company, and suffered 68 deaths out of 500 in the company, but it was the Martin Handcart Co. that suffered the greatest losses – 145 deaths out of 600.

The Martin Handcart Co. is the story of my ancestors and of many other’s ancestors, as well.

Although only 10 percent of the LDS pioneers from 1847 – 1866 traveled by handcart, some 3,000 pioneers did use handcarts.

The hardships the handcart pioneers endured, particularly of the Martin Co., have been recognized by the LDS church as symbols of sacrifice.

The handcart pioneers, in particular, are celebrated in LDS Pioneer history, such as Pioneer Day celebrations, July 24.

What distinguished the Martin Hand Cart Company from other handcart companies is thelate start the company had when it left Missouri, on August 22.  It was this very late start that resulted in the many horribly tragic deaths along the route.

The Company did not reach Salt Lake City until November 30, 1856. Crossing the Rockies at that time of year was treacherous; they had to survive by eating wildflowers, such as the Sego Lily, the Utah state flower.




In his own words, Francis Webster wrote: (From Generations of Websters).

I was married on the 5th 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.”

Statue commemmorating the Handcart pioneers, in Temple Square, Salt Lake City. This is a 1945 reproduction of the 1926 bronze original.
From Generations of Websters.





The journal of another member of the company, John Jaques, described the tribulations the Martin Hand Cart Company suffered.

The following is abridged from Jaques’ original: Generations of Websters, op cit.

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, [of November] the company passed down the latter canyon and arrived in  [Salt Lake] city about noon.”

Front view of the statue commemmorating the handcart pioneers, Temple Square, Salt Lake City, Utah. From Wikipedia, GNU license



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 years.



Brigham Young was criticized by many for the deaths in the Willie and Martin companies, deaths that some claimed could have been avoidable had it not been for the late start in both companies, but particularly so in the Martin Hand Cart Company.

However, there was delay in procuring the Horizon ship for the Martin Co. to leave England, as the demand was unprecedented, and this further delayed the Martin company from leaving Missouri until August.

Survivors such as Jacques and my great-great-grandfather Francis Webster refused to blame Brigham Young for the losses suffered by the Martcin Company.

Francis Webster is quoted in both Generations of Websters and also in Wikipedia with:

“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.” Wikipedia


—–Francis Webster – Martin Handcart Company

Near the end of Francis Webster’s life, he happened to be sitting at an adult Sunday School class, and the subject of the Martin Handcart disaster arose for public discussion. Many there sorely criticized Brigham Young for the great number of deaths in the wintry conditions with the Martin Co. But Francis Webster, as an old man and who sat in the corner rose to speak:

In Francis Websters’ words:

“I have pulled my handcart when I was so weak and weary from illness and lack of food that I could hardly put one foot ahead of the other. I have looked ahead and seen a patch of sand or a hill slope and I have said, I can go only that far and there I must give up for I cannot pull the load through it. I have gone to that sand and when I reached it, the cart began pushing me! I have looked back many times to see who was pushing my cart, but my eyes saw no one. I knew then that the Angels of God were there. “Was I sorry that I chose to come by handcart? 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 Handcart Company.”

The above quote from my great-great-grandfather has been quoted many places, including HERE

After 1856, the funds for travel to Utah were so limited that few LDS Pioneers made the journey, even using handcarts; stories of extreme hunger and starvation were common; and, by 1857, with tensions and uncertainty caused by the Utah war, there was an abrupt halt to handcart companies until 1860.



Generations of Websters, op cit. In Websters,

John Jacques is quoted from The History of Utah, published by George Q Cannon & Sons, 1892.



Previous Family History:

My Valentine Grandmother

My Gary Cooper Grandfather

Revised from previous postings in 2006 and 2007

Copyright © 2006, 2007,  2008 Kathryn Esplin-Oleski

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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