Thirteen-year-old Heber McBride was the grandson of a sailor who had “landed in every port where a ship could stick its hull” (McBride, Heber “Autobiography of Heber Robert McBride.” LDS Church Archives, Salt Lake City, Utah). From his grandfather, Heber learned to love the sea.
When Heber was six he used to sneak down to the bay to sail. Hoping to frighten Heber away from sailing, his father put his son on a boat for a two-week voyage to Ireland. Heber later wrote, “We had a very rough trip, but [it] made me want to be a sailor more than ever” (McBride, Autobiography).
The McBrides joined the church in 1837, six years before Heber was born. They loved the missionaries. Peter, Heber’s younger brother recalled, “Our home was open to the elders. . . . Many missionaries found a haven of rest. Mother held open house [and] always had something ready to serve hungry elders and a good bed for them to rest in” (Our Pioneer Heritage. Salt Lake City: Daughters of Utah Pioneers, 13:360).
Though encouraged since 1840 to immigrate, with 5 children, ages 3-16, the McBrides weren’t able to do so until 1856. Sailing on the Horizon, for Heber, would be the fulfillment of his greatest desire. He wrote, “I was delighted at the thought of being on the water in such a big ship. It was all fun and pleasure for me. I was in and out of everything and kept my parents in hot water” (McBride, Autobiography).
The carefree boy who left England would soon face the demands of caring for his family. They became part of the Martin handcart company, which was the last one to depart, late in the season of 1856.
“During the long pull across Nebraskaand into Wyoming, both Robert and Margaret McBride became so weak that they had to rely heavily on their two oldest children, Jenetta (16) and Heber (13). The three younger children also looked to their older brother and sister for help. Heber felt overwhelmed as he and Jenetta were suddenly thrust into the role of the family’s caretakers” (Olsen, Andrew D., The Price We Paid, Deseret Book Company, Salt Lake City, Utah, 308).
“Mother being sick and nothing for her comfort, she failed very fast. She would start out in the morning and walk as far as she could. Then she would give out and lie down and wait until we came along. . . . Father [also] began to fail very rapidly and got so reduced that he could not pull any more at the handcart. . . .No tongue or pen could tell what my sister and I passed through, our parents both sick and us so young. . . .
“Sometimes we would find Mother lying by the side of the road first. Then we would get her on the cart and haul her along until we would find Father lying as if he was dead. Then Mother would be rested a little and she would try and walk and Father would get on and ride.” With their three year old sister also in the cart, the weight became overwhelming. “We used to cry and feel so bad. We did not know what to do. We would never get into camp until way after dark, and then we would have to hunt something to make a fire” (McBride, Autobiography).
When they reached the last crossing of the Platte River, Robert McBride was failing, and yet he made 25 trips across the icy river to help others across. Heber recalled the two days that followed his father’s heroic sacrifice:
“There were about 6 inches of snow on the ground, and then what we had to suffer can never be told. Father was very bad [the] morning [after the last crossing] and could hardly sit up in the tent, but we had to travel that day through the snow. I managed to get Father into one of the wagons that morning, and that was the last we saw of him alive. We only made one drive, as it began snowing very hard. When we camped, the snow was getting very deep. My sister and I had to pitch our tent and get some wood. . . .
“After we had made Mother as comfortable as we could, we went to try and find Father. The wind was blowing the snow so bad that we could not see anything, and the wagons had not [yet come] into camp. It was then after dark, so we did not find him that night.
“The next morning the snow was about 18 inches deep and awfully cold. While my sister was preparing our little bite of breakfast, I went to look for Father. At last I found him under a wagon with snow all over him. He was stiff and dead. I felt as though my heart would burst. I sat down beside him on the snow and took hold of one of his hands and cried, ‘Oh, Father, Father!’ There we were, away out on the plains, with hardly anything to eat, Father dead, and Mother sick and a widow with five small children, and not hardly able to live from one day to another” (McBride, Autobiography).
He returned to camp to tell his mother and siblings the tragic news:
“After I had my cry out, I went back to the tent and told Mother. To try to write the feelings of Mother and the other children is out of the question. Now, we were not [the only family that was called upon to mourn the loss of a Father this morning, for there were 13 men dead in camp” (McBride, Autobiography).
Heber described the common grave that was scraped from frozen ground:
“The men who were able to do anything cleaned off the snow and made a fire and thawed out the ground and dug a big hole and buried them all in one grave, some side by side and on top of one another—anyway to get them covered—for I can assure you that the men had no heart to do any more than they had to” (McBride, Autobiography).
After the death of their father, Heber and Jenetta continued to assume the responsibility for the care of the family as survival became a desperate struggle. “My sister and I had nothing to do but try and keep my mother and two little brothers and baby sister and ourselves from freezing,” Heber recalled (McBride, Autobiography).
Peter, the 6-year-old brother, later wrote:
“My mother was sick all the way over, and my sister Jenetta had the worry of us children. She carried water from the river to do the cooking. Her shoes gave out, and she walked through the snow barefoot, actually leaving bloody tracks in the snow” (Susan Arrington Madsen, Madsen, I Walked to Zion, 45).
Peter’s account of the Red Buttes camp is astounding:
“It was decided that we could go no further, the snow so deep and no food. We were doomed to starvation. They gave me a bone of an ox that had died. I cut off the skin and put the bone into the fire to roast. And when it was done some big boys came and ran away with it. Then I took the skin and boiled it, drank the soup, and ate the skin, and it was a good supper.
“The next day we had nothing to eat but some bark from trees. Later we had a terrible cold spell [and] I knew I would die. The wind blew the tent down. They all crawled out but me. The snow fell on it. I went to sleep and slept warm all night. In the morning I heard someone say, ‘How many are dead in this tent?’ My sister said, ‘Well, my little bother must be frozen to death in that tent.’ So they jerked the tent loose, sent it scurrying over the snow. My hair was frozen to the tent. I picked myself up and came out quite alive, to their surprise” (Madsen, I Walked to Zion, 45-46).
Of Red Buttes, when flour portions were reduced to 4 oz., Heber recalled: “I don’t know how many days we had to lay over. The snow was so deep that we could not pull our handcarts through, and there we were in a starving condition, and the oxen that pulled the wagons began dying. [The oxen] that died were devoured very quickly, and us little boys would get strips of rawhide and try and eat it all. The [only] way we could do anything with it was to crisp it in the fire and then draw a string of it through our teeth and get some of the burnt scales off that way and then crisp it again and repeat the operation until we would get tired” (McBride, Autobiography).
When the Martin Handcart Company was moved into Martin’s Cove with the aid of rescuers, Heber and his siblings continued to suffer. He remembered:
“We camped in a little cove in the mountains where the wind would not get such a sweep at us. . . Then was the time to hear the children crying for something to eat. Nearly all of them would cry themselves to sleep every night. My two little brothers would get the sack that had flour in it and turn it inside out and suck and lick the flour dust off it” (McBride, Autobiography).
Heber, his siblings and his mother all survived the treacherous crossing. Heber, who at 13, had thought his greatest desire was to be a sailor, lived the last of his 70 years landlocked in Utah and Canada.
In 1856, nine years after the rescue of the handcart companies, Heber helped rescue a wagon company that was late on the plains. When Brigham Young sent out a call for help, Heber immediately volunteered by way of telegram. Like the rescuers who helped the handcart companies, Heber and his small company thought they would be gone for 10-14 days. They ended up being gone 45 days, having to travel all the way to thePlatteRiver—nearly 400 miles—before they found the last of the company. Along the Platte, Heber found the area of his father’s grave. It looked much like it had in 1856, covered with nearly a foot of snow.
Heber’s continued years of sacrifice and service were summed up in his written testimony when he was 82, two years before he died. In a letter to his granddaughter, he wrote, “I know the gospel is true. It is worth all the suffering we went through for it. Be faithful, dear granddaughter, and the Lord will guide you and bless you throughout your life” (Heber McBride to Zelma McBride Ririe West, DUP archives, Salt Lake City, Utah).