Editor's note: This essay is part of an ongoing Deseret News opinion series exploring ideas and issues at the intersection of faith and thought. The essay is adapted from an article in the Religious Educator published by Brigham Young University's Religious Studies Center.
This year marks 170 years since the first early Latter-day Saint pioneers abandoned possessions, homes and even their families to live their faith and seek religious freedom in the mountains of the West. It’s worth reflecting on lessons that we might glean from Utah’s most storied handcart pioneer-pilgrims, the Willie and Martin companies.
Central to their story is their harrowing rescue in the midst of a violent winter storm that threatened the lives of the entire company.
“Stories of their rescue need to be repeated again and again,” LDS Church president Gordon B. Hinckley once stated. “They speak of the very essence of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.”
The need to rescue others and to be open to receiving rescue in our own lives are two principles as relevant today as they were when the early saints were stranded and starving in frigid winter weather. Those saints would have — to a person — died had it not been for the heroics of the selfless saints who galloped to their aid.
All true pioneers by definition sacrifice and stretch themselves beyond their capacities. However, this is especially true with regard to the saints of the Willie and Martin handcart companies.
Those that survived the harrowing journey were tried to a point where they experienced a dire, desperate need to be rescued. As their fellow pioneers perished, they wholeheartedly relied on the hope that rescuers would come, and they pressed on in the face of unfathomable adversities.
As we travel through our own mortal journey, many of us are individually stretched beyond what we feel are our breaking points. We too have moments where we experience the dire and desperate need to be rescued. And, likewise, many have moments that call us to rescue others. As modern Latter-day Saints, we must remember our pioneer heritage and not shrink in our duties as both rescuers and rescuees. The handcart companies, and those who came to their aid, serve as enduring examples in which we remember and revere Utah’s pioneer progenitors.
On Oct. 4, Elder Franklin D. Richards arrived in the Salt Lake Valley and informed Brigham Young that there were still more than 1,000 people out on the trail. Brigham Young had knowledge that additional handcart saints had arrived in the United States, but he didn’t know that the emigration leaders had sent them forward out on the trail so late in the season. Brigham Young later stated that if these leaders “would have thought and considered for one moment, they would have stopped those men, women, and children [at Florence] until another year.”
The next day was Oct. 5, and Brigham Young convened the general conference with a calling for rescuers to go and help those late companies on the plains. He stated:
“Many of our brethren and sisters are on the plains with handcarts and they must be brought here, we must send assistance to them.
“I shall call upon the Bishops this day. I shall not wait until tomorrow, nor until the next day, for 60 good mule teams and 12 or 15 wagons. Also 12 tons of flour and 40 good teamsters, besides those that drive the teams.”
One can imagine the urgency in the tone and the words spoken by Brigham Young. In the next morning's conference session, Brigham Young continued:
"I shall call upon the people forthwith for the help that is needed. I want them to give their names this morning, if they are ready to start on their journey tomorrow. And not say, 'I will go next week, or in 10 days, or in a fortnight hence.' For I wish to start tomorrow morning.”
The response was immediate. Relief Society sisters started gathering coats to send the moment the meeting ended.
As the members of the Willie Company awoke on Oct. 19, one can only imagine that somewhere in their first few thoughts of the day was the recollection that they had doled out the last of the flour on the previous day. The food that remained was a day's worth of crackers that Captain Willie had purchased at Fort Laramie. Here, the members of the Willie Company were faced with the absolute certainty that if help did not come, they would die on the plains.
That morning, the trail geography necessitated a departure from the Sweetwater, where they were camped at the fifth crossing, and a trek of 16 miles where they would meet the river again at the sixth crossing. Somewhere around Ice Spring, far from the desired destination of the sixth crossing, they encountered the snowstorm that unleashed its fury.
The snow was accompanied by what John Chislett remembered as a “shrill wind [that] blew furiously.” He recalled that the snow fell several inches in a short period of time. “We dared not stop,” he said, “for we had a 16-mile journey to make, and short of it we could not get wood and water.” Even with a desire to keep moving, the company was forced by the storm to stop and wait it out. What goes through one’s mind on the high plains of Wyoming, held up by a storm, out of food and facing certain death? Where does one look for hope?
In this case, hope came in the dream of a 15-year-old boy by the name of George Cunningham. The previous night, George saw the following in a sleeping vision:
"Two men [came] toward us on horseback. They were riding very swiftly and soon came up to us. They said that they had volunteered to come to our rescue and that they would go on further east to meet a company which was still behind us and that on the morrow, we could meet a number of wagons loaded with provisions for us. They were dressed in blue soldier overcoats and had Spanish saddles on their horses. I examined them, particularly the saddles as they were new to me. I also could discern every expression of their countenance. They seemed to rejoice and be exceedingly glad that they had come to our relief and saved us.”
Because of his dream, one can only imagine that George kept looking westward the following day. Sure enough it wasn’t long before George cried out, “Here they come, see them coming over that hill.” Soon, Joseph A. Young and Cyrus Wheelock, the two men George had seen in his dream, were quickly coming towards them. Close behind them were Stephen Taylor and Abel Garr, in a wagon. Joseph Elder stated, “They were Saviors coming to [our] relief.”
This advance party of rescuers let them know another rescue party was close behind with food and other badly needed supplies. One may mistakenly assume that at this point the rescuers had arrived and the Willie Company had been rescued. But what these four express riders brought was hope — often the first step in the process of truly rescuing another soul.
There was soon a display of overjoyed men and women weeping and giving thanks to God and the rescuers themselves. Though there was not enough food to go around, these advance rescuers filled them with the will to go on! The recurring rescue, however, had just begun.
Captain James Willie was not content to wait for the rescue wagons to arrive. He and Joseph Elder left camp on Oct. 20 and traveled close to 30 miles in search of the relief wagons, which they eventually found. The next morning on Oct. 21 they returned with several covered wagons, each loaded with desperately needed supplies. Mary Hurren recalled, “If help had not come when it did, there would have been no one left to tell the tale.”
We each must answer the call to rescue others who are stranded. And, if we ourselves our stranded, we must keep our hope and faith that heaven’s help is on the way. Often it comes at the last minute when we feel we can’t quite go any further, but it came to many of those pioneers who thought that they were but steps from their graves.
Let us remember those who rescue and try to emulate them as well as those who were rescued who never lost hope and determination as they pressed forward, praying and planning as they awaited heaven’s help.
Jeffrey D. Meservy served as director of the Taylorsville Institute (firstname.lastname@example.org) and as an adjunct professor at Brigham Young University (email@example.com) before leaving to serve a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.