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CASPER, Wyo. — Contrary to common historical accounts among Latter-day Saints, a failure of leadership among top LDS Church officials was the catalyst for the tragedy that befell the Willie and Martin handcart companies in October 1856.

That's according to a panel of researchers, who discussed culpability for the tragedy before a crowd of about 600 during the opening session of the 41st annual Mormon History Association conference here. Scores of pioneer emigrants from Britain died of starvation and hypothermia on the high plains of Wyoming after their companies took a major risk in leaving Iowa City, Iowa, several weeks later than church leaders knew they should, panelists said.

Lyndia Carter, a trails historian from Springville who is writing a book on the tragedy, said Franklin D. Richards — who was then serving as the church's mission president in Britain — "was responsible, in my mind, for the late departure" because "he started the snowball down the slope" that eventually "added up to disaster."

Richards and other church agents were so eager to help new converts make their way to Salt Lake City via the handcart plan laid out by President Brigham Young that they put human lives at risk, she said. "Faith blinded him to reason and zealousness replaced common sense."

Timing for the emigrants was bad from the beginning. Records show Richards sent too many of them to America at once and the ship was delayed in arriving, she said. Church agents in Iowa and Nebraska weren't prepared for the number of people that arrived. Additional handcarts had to be hurriedly built, and agents had no money, jobs or housing to allow the emigrants to stay put for the winter.

In addition to leaving weeks later than was prudent, she said, the emigrants were poorly clothed and without sufficient provisions. Though they were warned by some about the timing of the journey, most felt they had few options and voted to simply put their faith in God to protect them from the weather.

"To blame (the disaster) on a late start is a vast oversimplification," she said, adding Brigham Young was upset not only about the late start for the emigrants but about the energy and expense of the rescue that followed. After the episode, he warned those responsible for emigrants that they would be "severed from the church" if they failed to make adequate arrangements for their safety.

Howard Christy, professor emeritus at Brigham Young University, agreed with Carter. He said when it came to decisions about emigration timetables — both from Great Britain and from Iowa City — "leadership from the top, from the outset, was seriously short of the mark.

"In my opinion, responsible leadership at the outset could have completely averted the disaster." Several recorded comments by church agents that they supposed God would intervene to protect the emigrants "shows their knowledge of the dangers of starting late. They were throwing all sense to the wind that all would be well."

Don Smith, a Willie and Martin company researcher from Pullman, Wash., said records of the time indicate the church planned to sell real estate to help finance travel for the emigrants, but the funds weren't yet available when ill-fated companies arrived late in Iowa City, further delaying departure.

Robert Briggs, an attorney from Fullerton, Calif., said when examining the historical evidence for what occurred, he believes church leaders could, in theory, have been charged criminally with reckless homicide and civilly with negligence under laws then in force.

No litigation ever resulted from the tragedy, he said.

Noting the proof standard for negligence is less stringent, the issue is "that you have a duty (as the responsible party)" and that it be carried out "with reasonable care," he said. "It's almost a foregone conclusion . . . there is evidence of negligence. With leaders all the way up to Brigham Young, there was mismanagement."

Termed by some "the worst overland disaster in the history of the American West," early Latter-day Saints tended to talk about it "in hushed tones, if at all," according to William G. Hartley, associate professor of history at Brigham Young University, who moderated the panel discussion.

"Over time, the emphasis of the story became the faith and endurance" of the emigrants, rather than the decisions that led to the disaster, he said, adding that for modern LDS youths who re-enact the handcart trek, the experience "has almost become a rite of passage."