Sometimes I go on a reading binge about a certain topic. Since the subject of the handcart pioneers was opened recently, I've been immersed in reading the stories of the members of the Martin and Willie handcart companies that stand out in the annals of the pioneering history of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints because of the extraordinary suffering they experienced. The two companies were among five that made the journey with handcarts in 1856.
They left Iowa City, Iowa, late in the season, and they were unable to replenish supplies in Laramie, Wyoming, as planned and met early and extreme winter weather in what later became Wyoming. Hundreds of them died and were buried along the trail.
I'll share two of the tales that particularly touched me. They come from the book "Tell My Story, Too," by Jolene S. Allphin, who kindly gave her permission.
Members of the Kirkwood family were among the first LDS converts in Scotland. When her husband and two daughters died in 1852, Margaret Campbell Kirkwood gathered her four sons ages 4, 11, 19 and 21, and "set her sights on Zion." She helped to finance the trip by selling the beautiful handwork she had learned to do growing up in a family that sold fabric.
Margaret Kirkwood and her four boys emigrated from Scotland and joined a handcart company to get to Utah. | Provided by Jolene Allphin
For Margaret, there were extraordinary challenges in the church's call to "gather to Zion." Her son Thomas, the 19-year-old, had suffered leg injuries when a carriage ran over him six years before the planned emigration to Utah Territory. The injured leg had recurring ulcers and he had seldom left home after the accident. Thoughts of an ocean voyage and 1,300 miles of overland travel with a handcart were daunting.
The rules about how much of their private belongings these pioneers could take in the handcarts were strict: 17 pounds. No more. Many loved personal items were abandoned in Iowa. For the Kirkwood family, the most weighty item they put into the wagon box was their precious Thomas. Robert, 21, wrote that "Thomas was rather poorly from the mode of conveyance, being hurted in the handcart." Eleven-year-old James was charged with keeping an eye on the youngest, Joseph Smith Kirkwood, who was 5 when the Willie Handcart Company left.
By Oct. 23, 1856, the handcart pioneers were in serious trouble. The Kirkwoods, with Thomas in the cart, made 15 miles in a swirling snowstorm. One of Margaret's eyes froze and she was blinded in that eye for the rest of her life. James and little Joseph became separated from the family. As night fell, Margaret waited for them beside a small fire. Late into the night, the two boys stumbled into the camp at Rock Creek. James, having saved his little brother, collapsed and by morning was dead of cold and hunger. He was buried with 12 others in a grave beside the Sweetwater River.
The rest of the family continued on to Great Salt Lake Valley. Rather than put Thomas into a crowded wagon, Margaret and Robert continued to pull him in the handcart until they were picked up by one of the later rescue wagons on Bear River Hill. Robert later wrote that "Mother and I pulled our handcart the farthest of any and we would have come in with it to Salt Lake City (except for the rescue). We made this long pull to save my brother Thomas' life, for had we crowded him into the wagons that first met us, he could not have lived to come into the city."
Margaret died in 1893.
The second story is about Mary Goble, who was not a member of the handcart companies but was with the Hunt wagon company, which which was directed to support the handcart companies, if needed. Though it is assumed that those in the wagons did not suffer as did the handcart groups, Allphin found that they, too, counted losses in the 1856 tragedy. For Mary, who wrote that she was in her 12th year during the trek, the count was three siblings and her mother.
Mary Goble's family was part of the Hunt wagon company that left about the same times as the Willie and Martin handcart companies. | Provided by Jolene Allphin
The first death occurred while the family was still in Iowa City preparing for the trek. In an account written years later, Mary recorded that her almost 2-year-old sister Fanny, "got wet and died the 19th of July, 1856." The family had been drenched when the wind blew down a temporary shelter during a severe rainstorm and Fanny already was weakened from a bout of measles aboard the ship when they sailed from England. Before embarking on the cross-country journey, the family visited the toddler's grave to say goodbye, she wrote.
The second loss occurred on the trail. One evening after singing "Come, Come Ye Saints," and preparing for bed, Mary wondered "why my mother was crying." That night, her mother "became sick" (a euphemism for being in labor).
"The next morning my little sister was born. It was the 23rd of September. We named her Edith and she lived six weeks and died for want of nourishment," wrote Mary in her biography.
After burying the infant by the roadside, Mary could not leave the grave, fearing that wolves or Indians would desecrate the burial place. She tarried until her father had to return for her and coax her to rejoin the rest of the company.
Her mother did not recover well from the birth and on one occasion she begged Mary to go to a spring where fresh water had been located to get her a drink. The little girl became lost and confused and by the time she was found by members of the company at 11 p.m., her feet and legs were frozen.
The Gobles shared the lack of food and the freezing weather along with others in the ill-fated companies, although her father was a good hunter. When they were stranded by snow and cold at Devil's Gate, an ox fell on the ice and was slaughtered and shared in the camp.
"My brother James ate a hearty supper and was as well as he ever was when he went to bed," she wrote. "In the morning he was dead."
Her mother continued to fail and despite the family's rescue, "she died on the 11th of December between the Little and Big Mountains."
For many years after arriving in Zion, Mary suffered from her frozen feet. The toes were removed with a kitchen knife and the doctor wanted to cut off her feet at the ankles, but she held to a promise that President Brigham Young made to her that she would not lose more than the toes. Among her posterity was Sister Marjorie Pay Hinckley, wife of the late LDS Church President Gordon B. Hinckley.