It is impossible to write, even a small portion, of the trek across the prairie to the Rocky Mountains. But, at this time of year, I tend to read material reminding me of the great sacrifices and incredible stories that belong to our legacy. I do not have handcart pioneer ancestors, but there are still pioneers in my heritage and I honor them.
The journey was difficult for everyone who came. For those who came from Nauvoo, in February, it was their misfortune if they were expecting a baby. Eliza Snow recorded that nine babies were born, surrounded by ice, the first night they camped at Sugar Creek, just across the Mississippi.
Later, along the trail, Jane Richards, who would set the standard of Relief Society in the Ogden area, was “skinny as a stick but apparently unkillable, spent that winter learning to love her sister-wife Elizabeth McFate’s child, in place of her own two dead ones, and taking care of the dying Elizabeth.” Eliza Snow made it her business to write an obituary poem for children who died along the way.
Some of the more amazing realizations that must be remembered are that many of these pioneers were city dwellers in Europe. They had comfortable homes, nice belongings, they shopped in the market for their food. Those who came from Scandinavia, or other parts of the world, didn’t even know English. Yet they came to Zion with a faith stronger than death, which would take some of them.
No one in our century can imagine the descriptions recorded by those who crossed. “I have seen 10,000 buffalo during the day.” “The prairie appeared black, being covered with buffalo…We have seen something near 100,000 since morning.”
The prairie holds no protection from buffalo, weather, or shelter, but the path is drawn all along rivers. Crossing them became an ordeal, especially for those few companies who traveled in the winter. Drying out, or even cooking meals was next to impossible without wood. Howard Egan recorded, “There is no wood and we have to use the sage roots for cooking.”
Patience Loader, who kept a record of her family’s journey in the Martin Handcart Company said, “It seemed the Lord fitted the back for the burden. Every day we realized that the hand of God was over us.” Later, as things became unbearable, she recorded, “I tried to make a fire and cook a little broth, as I had an old beef’s head. We removed the skin from the beef head and chopped it up the best we could, put it into the pot with some snow and boiled it for a long time. I cannot say that it tasted very good. It was flavored both with sagebrush and smoke from our green cedar fire. But after it was cooked we felt very thankful.”
But the Mormons actually had it better than others. The Mormon companies traveled along the north bank of the Platte River, while the Gentiles followed the south bank, and traveled on to Oregon and California. While the Gentiles reported sixty deaths from cholera, the Mormons suffered only four.
Stories of the companies who traveled late and got caught in the snows fill our eyes with tears as we read the accounts of their ordeal. They were so determined to get to Zion at all costs, even the cost of much of their family. The irony of bringing extra bags of flour that still would not save them, or the extra clothing and blankets they started out with, but left behind to lighten their load so they could move even faster, is almost too agonizing for us to hear.
A touching story is of Jens Nielson, and his wife, Elsie. They were part of the Willie Company, one of the groups that started late, and could not speak English. Jens was a very tall man who ate less to give his family more. In spite of many sacrifices, their six year old son died, as well as a young girl they had charge over. At one point, Jens was so weak, he sat down on the trail and told Elsie to leave him behind. Elsie, who was little more than five feet tall said, “Ride, I can’t leave you, I can pull the cart.” Together they made it to the Salt Lake Valley.
In October as the snows descended upon the Saints, the cold became so bitter, so dreadful. As she tried to care for her husband, Elizabeth Horrocks Jackson Kingsford records, “The weather was bitter. I listened to hear if my husband breathed—he lay so still. I could not hear him. I put my hand on his body, when to my horror I discovered that my worst fears were confirmed. My husband was dead. He was cold and stiff—rigid in the arms of death. It was a bitter freezing night and the elements had sealed up his mortal frame. I called for help to the other inmates of the tent. They could render me no aid; and there was no alternative but to remain alone by the side of the corpse till morning.” Two days later she would have a vision of her husband saying, “Cheer up, Elizabeth, deliverance is at hand.” The rescuers were on their way.
Ephraim Hanks, the first rescuer to reach the Martin Company, recorded what he saw. “Many of the emigrants whose extremities were frozen, lost their limbs, either in whole or part. Many such I washed with water and castile soap, until the frozen parts would fall off, after which I would sever the shreds of flesh from the remaining portion of the limbs with my scissors. Some of the emigrants lost toes…whole hands and feet; one woman who [survived] lost both her legs below the knees.”
May we preserve their memories this Pioneer Day.
For more stories about pioneer women, find my post on Pioneer Stories–Give up all and follow the Lord
Journal of the Trail, compiled by Stewart Glazier and Robert Clark
The Gathering of Zion, Wallace Stegner (even though this author is not LDS, he writes a pure story—And man! Can this guy write!)