In 1856, the Willie and the Martin Handcart Companies made the heroic, tragic crossing that has inspired generations. This summer, many of the youth in my neighborhood will be making a “trek” in remembrance of those pioneers. While they will spend their days on the high plains of Wyoming, pushing and pulling handcarts, their hearts will turn to those who made the crossing over 150 years ago.
For the next several Sundays I will post stories from the accounts of those who walked through storms while burdened by hunger, frozen limbs, and the increasing reality of loss.
Most of my stories come from the epic and much acclaimed book, The Price We Paid by Andrew Olsen. The book gives an accurate account of the events leading up to the tragic treks, the heart-warming stories of faith and courage forged in the cold winter storms, and the stories of what happened to the people after they arrived in “Zion.”
Olsen wrote, “In a day when conviction often concedes to convenience, when sacrifice often concedes to self-indulgence, I have found that there is much to learn from these people. I have learned not only from their faithfulness but also from their imperfections. . . To see these people doubt and then rally their faith, to see them err and then make amends, to see them triumph despite their weaknesses is an important source of the power in these stories.”
My 3rd great-grandmother, Sarah crossed with the Martin Handcart company as a young girl. Her story is a poignant one that emphasizes how hunger became a dark companion that drained their strength and challenged their faith. I’ll also give her story in the weeks ahead.
In his book, Olsen pointed out that there were ten companies of handcart pioneers that made the journey to Utah between 1856 and 1860. “Despite the severity of the Willie and Martin handcart tragedies, those companies were not the end of the handcart emigration, nor should their experience be seen as an indictment of the handcart plan. Three companies before them made the journey successfully, and five companies after them would do the same. In those five companies, totaling 1,071 people, only 12 deaths were recorded.”
The stories of the Willie and Martin companies includes “broken hearts and broken dreams of families who had left Europe with the hope of living together in Zion. And yet, . . .the price was not paid in vain, nor for that which does not satisfy. In a way made possible only by the power of faith and the grace of God, the payment of this price has brought everlasting blessings not only to those who paid it but also to generations that have followed.”
Youth groups, families, and individuals travel portions of the trail each summer, remembering, honoring and learning from, those who went before. They return home with new appreciation and understanding, not only of the sacrifice and faith of the pioneers, but of their own lives. As Olsen wrote, “In many ways, the trail that the Willie and Martin handcart pioneers walked was a type, or metaphor, of mortality. Along the path to Zion, they were sometimes mocked and ridiculed. Sometimes they had to cross rivers that threatened to sweep them away. Some of those crossings were through icy waters that left them frozen and numb. Along the path there was also sand, sometimes for long distances, making progress slow and grinding. When the elements were at their worst and the Saints were at their weakest, they had to face Rocky Ridge. Toward the end, they had to go through mountains that had several feet of fresh snow. Indeed this was a trail of tears. But the experiences of the Willie and Martin handcart pioneers show that faith and hope will triumph over the worst days on the trail. Faith and hope kept these Saints stepping forward when their strength was gone. Heaven-sent rescuers helped sustain their hopes when despair began to take them off the path. And when they felt alone, when they felt that they could bear no more, a divine hand was stretched out to steady them and guide them home.”
I hope you will return each Sunday to read some of these inspiring stories.