1856 Martin Handcart Company Experience

Crossing the Atlantic

John Jaques Account:

                The company of emigrants, of which this hand-cart company constituted the largest part, embarked at Liverpool, May 22nd, 1856, on the packet ship Horizon, Captain Reed, a Scandinavian and a gentleman. Among passengers were the persons who had given the first sixpence to the Mormon Elders when they first went to England. The names of those persons were Samuel Pucell and family. The passengers on board numbered 856, of whom 635 were Perpetual Emigrating Fund emigrants, 212 ordinary, and seven cabin passengers. I believe all were Mormons. On the 30th of June the steamer Huron towed the Horizon to Constitution wharf [Boston], when the emigrants debarked. They took [railroad] cars for Iowa City, crossing the Hudson at Albany, and passing through Buffalo on the 4th of July.

Samuel Openshaw Account:

                May 26th This morning the vessel began to rock and one might hear and see them heaving

and fricking at every port of the vessel.  We were all very badly.  This day farther the best.

                June 2nd Beautiful morning.  Pretty fair wind.  Mother does continue in a lingering state. 

She has had sea sickness from May 26, till June 1.  I may just take occasion to notice that we have had plenty of and good provisions all the time.  Yea, we thought if we had some of the saints with us we could have supplied them with provisions especially if we had the same means of cooking as at home.  We have prayer meetings at night and morning, besides testifying meetings.  We are called from our beds at five in the morning by the cornet.  Also invited at night to bed at ten by the same.

                June 4th Low breeze and calm sea, although the vessel rocked in the form of a cradle. Made little or no progress.  Yea, I may say that many one has paid one half penny for a less rock.             

                June 5th Also calm and beautiful day.  We promanded [promenaded] on deck.  The captain appears to be a kind-hearted man.  Also the crew and mates are an agreeable company.  The potatoes began to sprit and spoil.  Therefore, this day we carried them all on to dry.  Mother nearly well.  Towards evening a side wind which helped us along pretty smartly.  Saw several great fish play in the water. 

                June 28th Beautiful day and a propitious wind brought us in sight of Yanky Land which is the first land that we have seen since we left the sight of Ireland and truly it was beautiful as we entered into the Bay of Boston, to behold the rise and decline of hills beyond interceding with green grass, cattle grazing, bedect beautiful houses, rocks rising out of the water as if to resist the force of the waves.  It was truly sublime to us to gaze upon it.  Our hearts were cheered to behold our destined port.  We cast anchor about nine miles from the city of Boston.  The pilot came aboard.

                June 29th Beautiful day, hot sun, and wind different to what we have been accoustomed to.  As if we had come into an hot climate all at once.  We passed the doctor in the forenoon.  In the afternoon a meeting on deck.  The captain gave us a short lecture as he said he had heard the young sister say that they would marry none but Mormons, and says he, “I will carry none but Mormons.”

Iowa City Outfitting Camp

John Jaques Account:

During their stay in the Iowa camp the emigrants employed themselves in making carts and doing other preparatory work until July 28th, when the camp broke up, and the hand-cart portion moved off nearly a mile for a start and then camped again. The hand-cart emigrants were divided into two companies, one under Edward Martin and the other under Jesse Haven, altogether numbering about 600 persons. Some of the emigrants who came in the company to Iowa City were numbered in two wagon companies, under John A Hunt and Benjamin Hodgetts which left the rendezvous camp about this time. Many of the carts had wooden axles and leather boxes. Some of the axles broke in a few days, and mechanics were busy in camp at nights repairing the accidents of the days. One wagon with mule-team and two wagons with ox-teams were apportioned to each handcart company to carry provisions, tents, etc.

Iowa City to Florence Nebraska

Samuel Openshaw Account:

                August 7th, we started about seven o’clock this morning and traveled through a beautiful country where we could stand and gaze upon the prairies as far as the eye could carry, even until the prairies themselves seemed to meet the sky on all sides, without being able to see a house. Thought how many thousands of people are there in England who have scarce room to breathe and not enough to eat. Yet, all this good land lying dormant, except for the prairie grass to grow and decay, which if men would spread themselves and obey the commandment of God to replenish the earth, instead of thronging together in cities and towns and causing the air to be tainted with stinks and giving rise to disease, what a blessing it would be for men (people). We traveled about 15 miles and pitched our tent about two o’clock P. M.

Florence Nebraska (the edge of the frontier 1856)

Samuel Openshaw Account:

                August. 22nd We started at 8 o’clock and traveled about four miles when we arrived at the Missouri River where we were ferried across to Flourence [Florence]. We went to the top of a hill where we could view the country all round and the Missouri River to a great distance. Every place we came through we were admired by the people very much. Some looked upon us as if we were deceived; others who were old apostates came with all the subtilty of the devil, and all the cunning they have gained by their own experience, trying to turn the saints to the right hand or to the left, but thank[s] be to God, but few or none adhered to their advice.

John Jaques Account:

The last hand cart company arrived at Florence, on the west bank of the Missouri, on the 22nd of August. This was the site of “Winter Quarters,” of the great Mormon camp from Nauvoo, in the winter of 1846. There, owing to the lateness of the season, the important question was debated, whether the emigrants should winter in that vicinity or continue the long and wearisome journey to Salt Lake. Unfortunately, it was determined to finish the journey the same season. At Florence the two hand-cart companies were consolidated in one and put in charge of Edward Martin, assisted by Daniel Tyler (both Mormon Battalion men). August 25th the company moved from Florence to Cutler’s Park, two and a half miles, and camped, stayed there the next day and night, and left the next morning….

Samuel Openshaw Account:

                August 29th  Began to ferry at 8 o’clock across the Elk Horn, and had all ferried across about 12 o’clock—132 hand carts, 120 head of cattle, 8 wagons. We had our dinner and started about two o’clock; traveled three miles, mostly through a sandy road, arrived at the Raw Hide Creek where we camped for the night.


Samuel Openshaw Account:

                September 6th  Started about 5 o’clock this morning. We met a large party of Indians—men, women, and children with their horses and mules all loaded with skins going to Missouri to trade with the whites. They are the first party of Indians that we have seen. Camped (stopped) about 12 o’clock for dinner. We then went to the top of the hill and camped for the day.

Mormon Handcart Camp

Samuel Openshaw Account:

                September 16th Started at half past 8 o’clock. The weather is extremely hot which makes it hard traveling. Stopped at one o’clock, but moved no farther today. It would truly be an amusing and interesting scene if the people of the old country could have a bird’s eye view of us when in camp; to see everyone busy—some fetching water, others gathering Buffalo chips, some cooking and so forth upon these wild prairies where the air is not tainted with the smoke of cities or factories, but is quiet here. One may see a creek at a distance and start and travel one hour towards it, yet seem no nigher than you did when you started.

Fort Laramie

John Jaques Account:

The company arrived at Fort Laramie October 8th, and camped east of Laramie Fork, about a mile from the fort. On the 9th many of the company went to the fort to sell watches or other things they could spare and buy provisions. The commandant kindly allowed them to buy from the military stores at reasonable prices–biscuit at 15 1/2 cents, bacon at 15 cents, rice at 17 cents per pound, and so on. Up to this time the daily pound of flour ration had been regularly served out, but it was never enough to stay the stomachs of the emigrants, and the longer they were on the plains and in the mountains the hungrier they grew. Soon after Fort Laramie was passed, it was deemed advisable to curtail the rations in order to make them hold out as long as possible. The pound of flour fell to three-fourths of a pound, then to half a pound, and subsequently yet lower. Still the company toiled on through the Black Hills, where the feed grew scarcer for the cattle also.

Black Hills

John Jaques Account:

In the Black Hills the roads were harder, more rocky and more hilly, and this told upon the handcarts, causing them to fail more rapidly, become rickety, and need more frequent repairing. One man’s hand-cart broke down one afternoon in the hills, and by some mischance the company all went on, leaving him behind, alone with his broken cart and his family’s little stock of worldly goods thereon. He was drawing his little child in his cart, as he had drawn her most of the journey, and as he subsequently drew her to the last crossing of the Platte, but when his cart broke down he had to transfer her to somebody else’s cart and send her on with the company. So he remained behind with his cart, anxiously expecting somebody to turn back and help him, but no one came. Night drew on apace, and still he was all alone, save and expecting the presence of a prowling wolf, which could be seen in the streak of light on the western horizon, a little outside of ordinary rifle range. Happily just as darkness was settling down, Captain Hodgett’s wagon company was observed coming down the opposite hill, from the east, at the base of which it encamped, a quarter or half a mile distant from the benighted and lonely handcart; he eagerly went and told his tale of misfortune to the wagon people, and they took him in for the night.

Crossing the Platte River

John Jaques Account:

On the 19th of October, the company crossed the Platte, for the last time, at Red Buttes, about five miles above the bridge. That was a bitter cold day. Winter came on all at once, and that was the first day of it. The river was wide, the current strong, the water exceedingly cold and up to the wagon beds in the deepest parts, and the bed of the river was covered with cobble stones. Some of the men carried some of the women over on their backs or in their arms, but others of the women tied up their skirts and waded through, like heroines that they were, and as they had done through many other rivers and creeks. The company was barely over when snow, hail and sleet began to fall, accompanied by a piercing north wind, and camp was made on this side of the river. That was a nippy night, and it told its tale on the oxen as well as on the people. At Deer Creek, on the 17th of October, owing to the growing weakness of emigrants and teams, the baggage, including bedding and cooking utensils, was reduced to ten pounds per head, children under 8 years, five pounds. Good blankets and other bedding and clothing were burned, as they could not be carried further, though needed more than ever, for there was yet four hundred miles of winter to go through. The next day after crossing the Platte the company moved on slowly, about ten miles, through the snow, and camped again near the Platt and at the point where the road left it for the Sweetwater. It snowed three days, and the teams and many of the people were so far given out that it was deemed advisable not to proceed further for a few days but rather to stay in camp and recruit. It was hoped that the snow and cold would prove only a foretaste of winter and would soon pass away and the weather would moderate, but that hope proved delusive.

Handcart Rescuers from Salt Lake City

John Jaques Account:

The 28th of October was the red letter day to this handcart expedition. On that memorable day, Joseph A. Young, Daniel W. Jones and Abel Garr galloped unexpectedly into the camp amid the cheers and tears and smiles and laughter of the emigrants. These three men, being an express from the most advanced relief company from Salt Lake, brought the glad word that assistance, provisions and clothing were near, that ten wagons were waiting at Devils Gate for the emigrants. Early on the morning of the 29th the hand-cart company left the Platte and struck across the country for the Sweetwater….At Greasewood Creek were found George D. Grant, R. T. Burton, Charles Decker, C. G. Webb and others, with six wagons laden with flour and other things from Salt Lake, who had come to the assistance of the belated emigrants. This was another time of rejoicing. On the evening of November lst the hand-cart company camped at the Sweetwater bridge, on this side of the river, about five miles on the other side of Devil’s Gate, arriving there about dark. There was a foot or eighteen inches of snow on the ground, which, as there were but one or two spades in camp, the emigrants had to: shovel away with their frying pans, or tin plates, or anything they could use for that purpose, before they could pitch their tents, and then the ground was frozen so hard that it was almost impossible to drive the tent pegs into it. Some of the men were so weak that it took them an hour or two to clear the places for their tents and set them up. On the 3rd Joseph A. Young and Abel Gair were sent as an express to Salt Lake to convey information as to the situation of the emigrants. In preparing for this express journey home, Joseph A. put on three or four pairs of woolen socks, a pair of moccasins, and a pair of buffalo hide over-shoes with the wool on, and then remarked, “There, if my feet freeze with those on, they must stay frozen till I get to Salt Lake.”

Samuel Openshaw Account:

                In the midst of all this uncertainty and doubt our hopes were realized, for lo and behold, Joseph A. Young and two others with him came riding into the camp; voices from all parts of the camp, help for the camp, we all rushed together to hear the news. He told us that there were about ten wagons loaded with flour and sent out from the valley for our relief and was about 50 miles ahead of us at a place called Devil’s Gate. After they had learned our circumstances, they started back again in order to have them come out and to meet us. In the morning, we summoned all our efforts and strength, impulsed with the prospect of deliverance, we again started on our journey. After traveling about two or three days, and they traveling towards us, we met. The last flour was all ate before we met them. We now had one pound of flour per day, which in a measure began to recruit our strength so that we were enabled to perform the journey before us. The breathern who came out to meet us did administer every comfort and help that was within their power to the sick and the inferm. We continued our journey until we arrived at the devil’s gate. Here we were obliged to stop, the snow being about 14 inches deep on the level, and not withstanding the teams that had come out to help us, there was not sufficient help to move the aged, sick, and the women and children along, so that we again stopped several days.

Devils Gate Meeting and Freight Storage in Fort Seminoe

John Jaques Account:

At Devil’s Gate an earnest council was held to determine whether to endeavor to winter the emigrants at that point or to push them on to Salt lake as fast as possible. It was decided to continue the march to Salt Lake the same season. Two or three days after arriving at Devil’s Gate, the hand-cart company was in part reorganized, and most of the carts were left there.

The freight that could not be taken along was left at Devil’s Gate, with twenty men to guard it during the winter, in charge of Daniel W. Jones, assisted by Thomas M. Alexander and Ben Hampton, of the relief party. The remaining men were chosen from the emigration companies. These twenty men had a hard time of it before they were relieved the next summer.

Samuel Openshaw Account:

                A council was held in which it was decided that we should leave all our clothing and cooking utensils (except what was absolutely necessary, such as a blanket to wrap ourselves in and the clothing we stood in) to be left at Devils Gate and that a number of the brethern who had come out to meet us should stay to take care of them until spring should open (when they would be sent for from the valley) and that we leave all our hand carts, except one to each tent in order to carry our cooking utensils only. Our blankets were put in the wagons that came out to meet us. Also it was decided that Joseph A young should go on an express to the valley in order to start out more help. We now began to gather together all the cattle that we could find, and pulled down our tents and made another start in the snow.

Crossing the Sweetwater

John Jaques Account:

The passage of the Sweetwater at this point was a severe operation to many of the company. It was the last ford that the emigrants waded over. The water was not less than two feet deep, perhaps a little more in the deepest parts, but it was intensely cold. The ice was three or four inches thick, and the bottom of the river muddy or sand. I forget exactly how wide the stream was there, but I think thirty or forty yards. It seemed a good deal wider than that to those who pulled their hand-carts through it. Before the crossing was completed, the shades of evening were closing around, and, as everybody knows, that is the coldest hour of the twenty-four, or at least it seems to be so, in a frosty time. The teams and wagons and hand-carts and some of the men forded the river. David R. Kimball, George W. Grant, Stephen Taylor and C. Allen Huntington waded the river, helping the handcarts through and carrying the women and children and some of the weaker of the men over. In the rear part of the company two men were pulling one of the hand-carts, assisted by one or two women, for the women pulled as well as the men all the way, so long as the hand-carts lasted. When the cart arrived at the river, one of these men, who was much worn down, asked, in a plaintive tone, “Have we got to go across there?” On being answered yes, he was so much affected that he was completely overcome. That was the last strain. His fortitude and manhood gave way. He exclaimed, “Oh dear I can’t go through that,” and burst into tears. His wife, who was by his side, had the stouter heart of the two at that juncture and she said soothingly, “Don’t cry, Jimmy. I’ll pull the hand-cart for you.” * * While in the river the sharp cakes of floating ice below the surface of the water struck against the bare shins of the emigrant, inflicting wounds, which never healed until he arrived at Salt lake, and the dark scares of which he bears to this day.

Samuel Openshaw Account:

                We traveled about two miles, crossed over the Sweetwater; some on the ice and others waded through, which was about 3½ feet deep. James Lord and myself pulled the hand cart across the creek. The women and children were all carried across by some of the brethern who had come from the valley.

Martins Cove or “Martins Ravine”

John Jaques Account:

The hand cart company rested in Martin’s Ravine two or three or more days. Though under the shelter of the northern mountains, it was a cold place. One night the gusty wind blew over a number of the tents, and it was with difficulty some of the emigrants could keep from freezing. One afternoon Captain Martin and two or three other men started to go from the camp to Devil’s Gate, but a snow storm came on and they mistook their bearings and lost their way. After wanderings for several hours, they came near perishing. In their exigency they endeavored to make a fire to warm themselves. They gathered some cedar twigs and struck match after match to light them, but in vain.. At length, with their last match and the aid of portions of their body linen, they succeeded in starting a fire. This was seen from the handcart camp, from which, after all their anxious and weary wandering, they were only about half a mile distant. Help soon came to the benighted wanderers and the “boys” carried Captain Martin, who was nearly exhausted, back to camp…. William H. Kimball left Salt Lake again, November 11th, with Hosea Stout, James Ferguson and Joseph Simmons, and met the hand-cart company four miles beyond the first station on the Sweetwater. By this time the shoes of many of the emigrants had “given out,” and that was no journey for shoeless men, women and children to make at such a season of the year, and trudge on foot.

Samuel Openshaw Account:

                We then went into a canyon where we camped for about three weeks. In a few days after we arrived here our rations were reduced to four ounces of flour per day. This happened on account of a number of the brethern having to stay a[t] Devil’s Gate until spring to guard the effects that the company had left. Having to leave all the flour that it was thought we could do without until we should meet a fresh supply from the valley; we now realized that such low rations and our bodily strength having been so much reduced by our former privations and being such cold and inclement weather, a great many died.

Rocky Ridge to South Pass & Arrival in Salt Lake City

Samuel Openshaw Account:

                We made another start, some with bundles on their backs, a number of others would join together and put them on a handcart. Some would be crying, others singing, and thus went trudging along as best we could. We traveled in this manner for a few days, when we began to meet wagons every day. Our rations now were one pound of flour per day. We continued to meet wagons nearly every day so that more of the sick, women, children, and the aged could ride and were enabled to travel a little more every day. We now arrived at the South Pass, which is about 320 miles from the valley. The wagons that had come out to meet us were now increased to about 50 or 60 so that we were now all able to ride, which did increase our speed of march, for we traveled about 20 or 30 miles per day. We continued to travel in this way, attended with various circumstances, until we arrived in the valley, which was on the 30th of November, 1856.

John Jaques Account:

As the emigrants proceeded on their terrible journey, there was no appreciable mitigation of the piercing wintry cold, but its intensity rather increased. The Rocky Ridge and South Pass were crossed on the 18th of November, a bitterly cold day. The. snow fell fast and the wind blew piercingly from the north. For several days the company had been meeting more relief trains, which had been urged on by the Joseph A. Young express, and as the company was crossing the South Pass, there was a sufficiency of wagons for the first time, to carry all the people, and thenceforth the traveling was more rapid….on Sunday the 30th [the company] passed down the latter canyon and arrived in the city about noon.


John Jaques account from: Whitney, Orson F. History of Utah, 1. Salt Lake City: George Q. Cannon & Sons Co., March, 1892, pp. 559-564, as quoted in Generations of Websters, Amy L. Van Cott and Allen W. Leigh, Thomas Webster Family Organization, Cedar City, Utah, 1960, pp. 56-61. Minor changes made. Also found at: www.webster-family.org/martinhandcart/

Samuel Openshaw account from: Openshaw, Samuel, Diary, 1856 May-Nov., 3-10.  Also found in its entirety at: http://lds.org/churchhistory/library/source/1,18016,4976-7559,00.html

 Other links about the Voyage:

Ship Horizon voyage and notable passengers:   http://www.eancestry.org/docs/histories/000150.pdf

Summary & Great Photos of Sites:  http://www.thefurtrapper.com/martin_handcart.htm

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