Many accounts tell of the late start and early winter leading to the deaths of 1 out of every 17 members of the Martin and Willie Handcart Companies. Myriad testimonies also survive of those member’s increased devotion to Jesus Christ, who ministered to them “in their infirmities.” We learn much from the stalwart women who made this journey and the inner strength, or “grit,” they displayed, one being Jane James.
When Willie Handcart Company members gathered in Florence, Nebraska, veteran trail rider Levi Savage begged the group of members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to wait until spring, warning, “Some of the strong may get through in case of bad weather, but the bones of the weak and old will strew the way,” as shared in "Journey to Zion: Voices from the Mormon Trail" by Carol Cornwall Madsen.
Jane’s daughter, 17-year-old Emma, upon hearing his words, recalled “a long time of silence. I was frightened. Father looked pale and sick. I turned to mother to see what she was thinking, and all I saw was her old determined look. She was ready to go on tomorrow. … We really didn’t have much choice.” (Their experience here is told in Madsen's "Journey to Zion").
While, in retrospect, staying behind was the wiser choice, most emigrants had scanty resources, little chance of employment, and felt it impossible to survive the winter there. Emma recalled her mother’s response, “'We must put our trust in the Lord as we have always done,’ and that was that.”
The company was initially optimistic. “It was great fun pulling empty carts and imitating the wagon drivers with a ‘gee’ and ‘haw,'” Madsen shares in "Journey to Zion." Soon, however, Indians menaced, thundering buffalo led off irreplaceable cattle and thunderous, blustery downpours wreaked havoc. Slowly, monotonously, supplies dwindled and scanty rations were cut in half. Then, an early and brutal winter descended, bringing snow and frigid temperatures.
Debilitated, surrounded by the dead and dying, on the morning of another Sweetwater crossing, Emma’s father “collapsed and fell in the snow. He tried two or three times to get up with mother’s help,” then told her to go on and he and son, Reuben, would catch up.
At the Sweetwater, Emma’s sister, Sarah, remembered, “We were too frightened and tired to cross alone. It was about 40 feet I guess to the other bank. Mother soon had us on our way. The water was icy, and soon our clothing was frozen to our bodies. Our feet were frozen numb. Cold and miserable we reached the other bank, put on dry clothing (mother had for us), and joined … the company.”
When father and Reuben did not appear, a search party went out, returning toward morning with “father’s dead body” and “the badly frozen … Reuben,” whose injuries plagued him the rest of his life. “When morning came, father’s body, along with others, were buried in a deep hole.”
Sarah described her mother as she "sat looking at the partly conscious Reuben. Her eyes looked so dead that I was afraid. She didn’t sit long, however, for my mother was never one to cry. When it was time to move out, mother had her family ready to go. She put her invalid son in the cart with her baby, and we joined the train. Our mother was a strong woman, and she would see us through anything.”
Soon thereafter the company hunkered down, anticipating death, foodless, snow gusting, temperatures dropping, until the "Valley Boys" miraculously appeared. There were miles to go and graves to dig, but food and wagons aided their journey to Salt Lake City.
Upon arrival, LDS Church members provided care and helped company members find work. Sarah explained, “Mother moved into an unfurnished shack where she kept her younger children alive until spring with what work she could find.” Jane James lived to age 96, leaving behind “a great posterity to revere her memory and give thanks that she had had the determination to come to Zion.”Comment on this story
Such grit is needed today. Joined with President Spencer W. Kimball’s oft-quoted call, a powerful model for faithful women emerges: "Much of the major growth that is coming to the church in the last days will come because many of the good women of the world … will be drawn to the church. … This will happen to the degree that the women of the church reflect righteousness and articulateness … (and) are seen as distinct and different — in happy ways" — and are selfless, humble and full of charity and integrity. (see “The Role of Righteous Women,” delivered Sept. 15, 1979 by Sister Camilla Kimball at the women's fireside).
Join such goodness with grit, or inner strength, born of a deeply rooted testimony of Jesus Christ and great things lie ahead for the Savior’s church and for faithful disciples today.