Charlie Neibergall, Associated Press
LDS President Gordon B. Hinckley recounts pioneer experiences as he speaks at the Mormon Handcart Trek Symposium Sunday in Iowa City, Iowa.

IOWA CITY, Iowa — Becoming acquainted with God in their most desperate hours on the Mormon Trail, the handcart pioneers who trudged 1,300 miles to the Salt Lake Valley in the 1850s provide an example of faith and courage that Latter-day Saints must never forget, LDS Church leaders said Sunday.

President Gordon B. Hinckley told nearly 2,500 gathered in Hancher Auditorium at the University of Iowa — and thousands more via satellite and cable — that "there is no chronicle of greater suffering and terrible experience than this chronicle. God bless their memories to those of us who live in comfort and ease."

He recounted the remembrances of Mary Goble, grandmother of his late wife, Marjorie Pay Hinckley. Mary, at age 11, went West with her family and watched as hunger, cold, exhaustion and exposure took the lives of many all around her, including siblings, as they made their way through frozen rivers and deep Wyoming snow in October and November 1856.

Mary, whose mother was dead in the wagon when they reached Salt Lake City, had to have her frozen toes amputated. Brigham Young cried at the sight of Mary and her siblings' condition. "The sisters were dressing mother (for burial). Oh how did we stand it?" she wrote.

Mary's mother had told her children, "I want to go to Zion while my children are small so they can be raised in the gospel of Christ. For I know this is the true church."

Others suffered similarly, he said, noting, "one wonders why they ever did it." Yet the words of a man who suffered with the Martin company — in rebuke of those who criticized their late departure and subsequent tragedy — explain why, he said:

"I ask you to stop this criticism. You are discussing a matter you know nothing about. Cold historic facts mean nothing here, for they give no proper interpretation of the questions involved.

"A mistake to send the handcart company out so late in the season? Yes. But I was in that company and my wife was in it, and Sister Nellie Unthank. . . . We suffered beyond anything you can imagine, and many died of exposure and starvation, but we came through with the knowledge that God lives, for we became acquainted with him in our extremities."

The man, Francis Webster, went on to become a leader of the church in southern Utah.

Those who made that trek personally are gone, President Hinckley said, "but there will continue to be symposia to discuss the disaster. In air-conditioned comfort, many will speak in recrimination of the leadership who permitted the ill-fated companies to move so late in the season. Books will be written to add to the many now available."

He said Webster's statement about coming to know God is most telling in such tales. Quoting historian Wallace Stegner, "If courage and endurance make a story, if human kindness and helpfulness and brotherly love in the midst of raw horror are worth recording, this half-forgotten episode of the Mormon migration is one of the great tales of the West and of America."

President Boyd K. Packer, acting president of the Quorum of the Twelve, shared a story of his great grandmother, Christena Olsen Wight, whose family emigrated in different years from Denmark to America because they couldn't afford to come all at once. In 1857, Christena and her two sisters headed West with the seventh of 10 handcart companies that would cross the Mormon Trail to Utah.

Christena bought three pairs of shoes for the journey, determined not to walk into the valley barefoot. But after suffering with hunger and thirst, and having worn out two of her three pair of shoes, she decided to put on the third pair just before they entered the valley. When she tried to put them on, her feet were so swollen they wouldn't fit.

"I walked into the valley barefooted, and with each step I took, I left bloody footprints in the snow." She later wrote that she had suffered from weakness and health problems the rest of her life as a result of the journey, "but I never complained."

She and those like her made the journey because "they knew that there had been a restoration of the fullness of the gospel of Jesus Christ. . . . Nothing could deter them. They had then, as we have now, individual testimonies.

"In ways, our journey today is harder than theirs, and definitely more dangerous," President Packer said. "There are dark, ominous clouds ahead. Each one of us needs, and each can have, the same courage, the same assurance from the same source, the same testimony of the risen Lord."

The meeting concluded three days of celebration in Iowa City to mark the sesquicentennial of the first handcart company's departure for Salt Lake City on June 9, 1856.