Weather, Disaster, and Responsibility: An Essay on the Willie and Martin Handcart Story

Articles
Categories: Pioneer Period
Journal: 37:1

Arguably the most heroic and the most tragic episode of the westering experience, the handcart trek of late 1856 is a magnificent story of individual faith in the midst of serious mistakes.

On October 4, 1856, a warm, calm day in Great Salt Lake City, Franklin D. Richards, a member of the Quorum of the Twelve, accompanied by twelve other returning missionaries, arrived after a fast trip across the plains. This should have been a moment for rejoicing; Elder Richards's "Swiftsure Train" arrived eight days after the jubilant arrival of the Ellsworth and McArthur handcart companies and just two days after the Bunker handcart company, supposedly the last group of emigrants for the year. The happy arrival of Elder Richards and the other missionaries, most of whom had worked hard to bring the first "poor Saints" to Utah via handcart, would therefore have been a fitting cap to an extremely successful season that had, among other things, proved the viability of using handcarts in place of the slower and much more expensive ox-drawn wagons. But Richards brought startling news: at least four more companies, two of which were handcart companies, all together numbering more than a thousand Saints, were still out on the plains.