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Handcart Pioneers II

“It is not of much use for me to attempt to give a description of the situation of these people. . .fainting by the wayside; falling, chilled by the cold; children crying, their limbs stiffened by cold, their feet bleeding and some of them bare to snow and frost. The sight is almost too much for the stoutest of us; but we go on doing all we can, not doubting nor despairing.” (In the message from Captain Grant of the rescue team in an express to Brigham Young.)

Mary Johnson (known then as Maren Johansen) was seven years old when she became part of the Hunt wagon company, which traveled close behind the Martin handcart company in 1856. Her parents and five siblings had arrived in Mormon Grove from Denmark in 1855. Probably due to an outbreak of cholera, her father and baby brother died, “and her mother became gravely ill.”

The family became further divided as Mary and her oldest sister were assigned to other families who would take them to Salt Lake City. Mary’s mother died soon after Mary left Mormon Grove, leaving her an ophan. Her new guardians were an elderly couple who “were careless and unfeeling,” she later wrote.

They joined the Hunt wagon company the following year (1856). Months later, when the winter storms had come, the Hunt wagon company was struggling in the rear of four groups: Willie handcart company, Martin handcart company, the Hodgetts wagon company and the Hunt company.

During this time, Mary’s feet became severely frostbitten. “She recalled: ‘when we arrived at [Devil’s Gate], my feet were found to be frozen very badly. While there, they were thawed out and turned black.’ After the rescuers arrived, Mary was sent ahead to Salt Lake City in an ambulance wagon. The flesh of her feet was falling off as the wagon traveled along.”

Of this time Mary writes, “The rest of the way I was taken care of by kind friends. All was done that was possible under the circumstances, but both of my feet dropped off before we got to the city. . . . My legs were amputated above the ankles and then at the knees.”

The rest of Mary’s story of resilience and faith in contained in the book, The Price We Paid. She was an amazingly strong woman who “always felt that her mission was to bring souls into the world.” At nineteen she married Elijah Parsons. Mary gave birth to seven children, five of whom lived to adulthood. It was written of Mary that “she studied the scriptures and was well versed in the doctrines of the Church. . . .She taught her children the Gospel, which will always be remembered by them. Many times she remarked, ‘I am sure I shall have my feet and legs after the resurrection.’”

Another biographical sketch wrote: “Mary Johansen Parsons was truly a courageous soul. Her mission [was] one of trials and tribulations, but Mary proved faithful to the end.”

All quotes are taken from the book, The Price We Paid, The Extraodinary Story of the Willie and Martin Handcart Pioneers, by Andrew D. Olsen, pages 262-63, 356, 446-48. All sources are also contained therein.

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