The Washington Post
Devil's Gate: Brigham Young and the Great Mormon Handcart Tragedyby David Roberts
Following the death of Joseph Smith, founder of the Mormon church, its second Prophet and new leader, Brigham Young, determined to move the faithful out of the Midwest, where they had been
The Mormon handcart tragedy of 1856 is the worst disaster in the history of the Western migrations, and yet it remains virtually unknown today outside Mormon circles.
Following the death of Joseph Smith, founder of the Mormon church, its second Prophet and new leader, Brigham Young, determined to move the faithful out of the Midwest, where they had been constantly persecuted by their neighbors, to found a new Zion in the wilderness. In 1846-47, the Mormons made their way west, generally following the Oregon Trail, arriving in July 1847 in what is today Utah, where they established Salt Lake City. Nine years later, fearing a federal invasion, Young and other Mormon leaders wrestled with the question of how to bring thousands of impoverished European converts, mostly British and Scandinavian, from the Old World to Zion. Young conceived of a plan in which the European Mormons would travel by ship to New York City and by train to Iowa City. From there, instead of crossing the plains by covered wagon, they would push and pull wooden handcarts all the way to Salt Lake.
But the handcart plan was badly flawed. The carts, made of green wood, constantly broke down; the baggage allowance of seventeen pounds per adult was far too small; and the food provisions were woefully inadequate, especially considering the demanding physical labor of pushing and pulling the handcarts 1,300 miles across plains and mountains. Five companies of handcart pioneers left Iowa for Zion that spring and summer, but the last two of them left late. As a consequence, some 900 Mormons in these two companies were caught in early snowstorms in Wyoming. When the church leadership in Salt Lake became aware of the dire circumstances of these pioneers, Younglaunched a heroic rescue effort. But for more than 200 of the immigrants, the rescue came too late.
The story of the Mormon handcart tragedy has never before been told in full despite its stunning human drama: At least five times as many people died in the Mormon tragedy as died in the more famous Donner Party disaster.
David Roberts has researched this story in Mormon archives and elsewhere, and has traveled along the route where the handcart pioneers came to grief. Based on his research, he concludes that the tragedy was entirely preventable. Brigham Young and others in the Mormon leadership failed to heed the abundant signs of impending catastrophe, including warnings from other Mormon elders in the East and Midwest, where the journey began. Devil's Gate is a powerful indictment of the Mormon leadership and a gripping story of survival and suffering that is superbly told by one of our finest writers of Western history.
The Washington Post
Roberts, an avid mountain climber and chronicler of epic adventures (On the Ridge Between Life and Death) dissects the events that precipitated the journeying of Mormon pioneers to Utah, between 1856 and 1860, lugging their goods in fragile handcarts, a process that resulted in multiple catastrophes along the Mormon Trail. Through letters, articles, and diary entries, Roberts makes a strong case for his argument, assigning responsibility for the handcarts on Brigham Young himself. Roberts spends an inordinate number of pages on the minutiae of Mormon church history and his own retracing of the pioneers' overland voyage in order to understand the hardships. However, his vivid prose truly brings to life the dangers and deprivations these immigrants suffered along their perilous cross-country trek. Though this is not a scholarly work, its extensive bibliography lends credence to Roberts's research. Yet several other works have been penned on the handcart scheme, e.g., LeRoy R. Hafen and Anne W. Hafen's Handcarts to Zion, so the sole addition to the discussion here is assigning blame for the tragedy to Brigham Young. Recommended mainly for public libraries or any library that has a comprehensive collection on pioneer or Mormon history.
" This disturbing account of the Mormon immigrants who in 1856 pushed handcarts for more than 1,000 miles from Iowa to Salt Lake City is narrative history at its best. It's also pertinent to our time, for David Roberts shows how, in the cover-up of the most deadly catastrophe in the history of Western migration, political and religious leaders turned failed experiments into triumphs and tragedies into hymnals. Roberts has swept away the cobwebs in his stirring book." Ted Morgan, author of Wilderness at Dawn and A Shovel of Stars
" The tragedy of the handcart people forms the largest carnage of the Western migration and is one of the great wounds that made Mormonism America's most successful native religion. David Roberts in this fine book shows how the dying came not from bad luck, not from early snows, not from God, but from the Prophet Brigham Young and his pursuit of profit and power. An eye-opener on the man who brought Zion to our desert and our national life." Charles Bowden, author of Desierto and Blues for Cannibals
- Simon & Schuster
- Publication date:
- Sold by:
- SIMON & SCHUSTER
- NOOK Book
- Sales rank:
- File size:
- 2 MB
Read an Excerpt
Up to that point, for Patience Loader, the journey had been chiefly exhausting. During the four weeks from July 25 to August 22, 1856, the company with which she traveled had covered 270 miles of trail from Iowa City to Florence, a fledgling community six miles north of Omaha, which itself had been founded just two years earlier. Averaging ten miles a day, the party of pioneers, some 575 strong, suffered the occasional delay due to thunderstorms or wayward cattle, but kept up their spirits with prayer services in camp each night and songs upon starting off each morning.
Yet even as the emigrants approached Florence, the trek, for twenty-eight-year-old Patience, took on an ominous new cast. Her fifty-seven-year-old father, James Loader, had been growing weaker by the day. Now his legs and feet swelled so badly that he had trouble walking. He was too feeble to help erect the big canvas tent under which twenty pilgrims slept wrapped in blankets on the ground. After mid-August, as he went to bed each night, James wondered whether he would be able to travel at all on the morrow.
Patience, her father, her mother, four of her younger sisters, and a younger brother were eight of some 1,865 Mormon emigrants engaged in what historians LeRoy and Ann Hafen call "the most remarkable travel experiment in the history of Western America." The Loaders and their fellow sojourners were traveling overland from eastern Iowa across the crest of the Continental Divide to Utah. The last four-fifths of that 1,300-mile trail, from Florence onward, had been traversed (though not blazed, for thousands of settlers bound for Oregon and California including the ill-starred Donner party had preceded them) by Brigham Young's pioneer company of Mormons, who in 1847 had founded their new Zion on the site that would become Salt Lake City.
In 1856, however, the emigrants were not traveling, as Brigham Young's party had, in covered wagons pulled by oxen. Instead, they were serving as their own beasts of burden. From Iowa City all the way to Salt Lake City, they pulled and pushed wooden handcarts freighted with three months' worth of clothing, gear, and sometimes food. A few ox-drawn wagons accompanied the handcart train: in Patience Loader's company, along with 145 handcarts, there were eight wagons to carry the heavy tents, miscellaneous gear, and much of the food. The wagons could also serve in extremis to carry a pioneer who was too weak or ill to walk.
The handcart "experiment" was Brigham Young's idea. Complicated factors lay behind its genesis, but the bottom line was economic. By 1856, Young's virtually autonomous empire on the edge of the Great Basin the self-proclaimed State of Deseret was rife with fears of an impending invasion by the U.S. Army. Four years before, Young had gone public with a doctrine that had long been kept secret within the Mormon hierarchy what the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (as the Mormons called themselves) referred to as "plural marriage." Polygamy, in short, was not merely permissible in Utah: it was the sacred duty of every God-fearing Saint. Young and his "Apostles" (the chief officers of the Mormon theocracy) had lobbied in vain to have Utah admitted to the union as a state. That very year of 1856, John C. Frémont, the first Republican candidate for the presidency, had grounded his campaign on the pledge to rid the country of "those twin relics of barbarism Polygamy and Slavery."
Deseret needed reinforcements. Meanwhile, thanks to nearly two decades of proselytizing so zealous there is no comparable achievement in American annals, missionaries sent to Great Britain and Scandinavia had converted thousands of the working-class poor to Mormonism. Not only to strengthen the colony, but to ensure the converts' own spiritual salvation, Young determined to get those Saints to Zion as quickly as possible. And as cheaply as possible for Deseret was in the midst of a fiscal crisis. Handcart emigration, Brigham Young declared, could be accomplished even more easily than the usual trek by covered wagon, and at a fraction of the cost.
The handcart of 1856 was modeled on the kinds of luggage trolleys employed by railroad porters in the big cities of the Eastern United States. Its two wheels, about four and a half feet in diameter, were narrow hoops of wood, with thin wooden spokes radiating from the axle hub. The axle itself was made of hickory. The bed upon which the pioneers' goods were carried was a shallow, open, rectangular box, a little less than three feet wide by five feet long. From the front of the cart protruded a simple yoke made of thin, rounded sticks; two persons could stand inside this yoke, grasp the crosspiece with both hands at chest level, and push the cart along.
The Mormon handcart, designed to be as light as possible, weighed only about sixty-five pounds. In consequence, it was a fragile, rickety vehicle. The bane of the emigrants' existence was the constant breaking down of these handcarts, necessitating jury-rigged repairs along the trail.
On the average, four or five pilgrims pushed and pulled a single handcart. Each emigrant had been strictly limited to seventeen pounds of personal belongings, including clothes, bedding, and cooking utensils. The aggregate load, then, could be as little as eighty-five pounds, but it was usually much heavier, when logistical setbacks forced each handcart team to add a hundred-pound sack of flour to its load, or when a young child or failing grandparent for whom there was no room in the wagons had to be carried on the cart by his or her family.
From Iowa City to Florence, Patience and her father normally stood inside the yoke and pushed the cart by its crossbar. Sisters Maria (nineteen years old) and Jane (fourteen) pulled the cart by means of ropes tied to the shafts of the yoke. Sister Sarah, only twelve years old, pushed from behind the cart. Patience's mother, Amy, fifty-four years old; Patience's twenty-two-year-old sister, Tamar, who had fallen ill with the flulike malady the Saints called "mountain fever"; and her little brother Robert, who was nine, walked alongside. Before the family reached Florence, however, James Loader grew too weak to help with the pushing. Maria took his place inside the yoke, and the cart trundled on under the power of only four young women and girls.
The memoir of her life that Patience Loader wrote sometime after 1887, more than three decades after her handcart trek, is silent on the agonies of the initial 270-mile leg of the journey. They emerge, however, in the diary kept by another member of that party, forty-five-year-old Joseph Beecroft. Sample extracts:
August 1: About 9 aclock we started on our ardious journey.... We felt fateagued, got fires lighted water boiled, and our dry bred and tea. Between 3 and four we started for the next camp ground about 3 miles off which we reached very tired about 6 aclock. I thought I should have had to give it up, for I had a faint fit.
August 5: we were worse featuged than on any former perion [portion] of our jurney my wife was really finished. We had 2 carriages had their Axels broke in our company.
August 7: we rested near some water and being so near finished I could not fetch water. we started again and came to a place with which was secelected a camp. I[t] was nearly dark.... I could not help with tent.
August 10: I soon had breakfast and then went for an brought a large bundle of wood, which nearly murdered me. I came to tent and stayed in all day, and endured horrid pain in my limbs perticularly below my hips. My wife tryed to comfort me.
August 12: Soon after we started my goods had to be put in the waggon inorder that a young sister who could not endure the shaking of the waggon might be carried on in my cart.... Finding our queer position, and that I could bear to stand no longer, we moved on 100 yards came to a wood yard and in horrid pain we sat down leaving our selves in the hand of our father in heaven.
Unlike Beecroft, Patience Loader waited more than thirty years to record her story of the handcart trek. Yet among the scores of journals and memoirs written by the handcart pioneers that have come down to us, Patience's "Reccolections of past days" is the most vivid and eloquent. In an odd way, her account rings even truer thanks to her quirky spelling, erratic capitalization, and virtual absence of punctuation. Thus, describing James Loader's collapse on the approach to Florence, Patience writes:
That afternoon we had not traveled far when My poor sick father fell down and we had to stop to get him up on his feet I said father You are not able to pull the cart You had better not try to pull we girls can do it this afternoon Oh he sais I can do it I will try it again I Must not give up the breathren said I shall be better and I want to go to the valley to shake hands with Brigham Young.
Even so, the Loader family came very close to terminating their journey in Florence. As the handcart train had crossed Iowa, it traversed a sparsely settled country, with many a roadside homestead and even a nascent village or two, such as Des Moines. Florence, however, stood on the edge of true frontier. On the thousand miles of trail stretching between that community and Salt Lake City, there were only three outposts of American civilization: the forts named Kearny, Laramie, and Bridger.
In that last week of August, not only was James Loader nearly unable to walk and Tamar racked with high fevers, but yet another Loader sister, twenty-five-year-old Zilpah married to John Jaques, who had been a staff member in the Liverpool Mormon Mission was within days of giving birth. The Jaqueses pushed their own handcart, but traveled in tandem with the Loader family.
It would not have been unreasonable for the Loader family to stay put in Florence and winter over, finishing their pilgrimage the next summer. In 1846, Brigham Young's vanguard party had originally hoped to go all the way to the Great Basin, but as the season grew too late to push on, the 148 pioneers who would found their Zion in the wilderness, along with many other Mormon emigrants, stopped just across the Missouri River from the border of the state of Iowa and threw together an instant village they called Winter Quarters (later renamed Florence). In doing so, they were in fact squatting on territory that had been ceded to the Omaha Indian tribe. Starting off again in early April 1847, the pioneer wagon train reached Utah in the height of summer.
In her memoir, Patience bitterly rues the decision not to stay in Florence. For in pushing on, the Loader family plunged into an utter catastrophe. By the time the last handcart pioneers straggled into Salt Lake on November 30, they had left some 220 of their brothers and sisters dead on the trail. Consequently the Mormon handcart tragedy of 1856 remains the greatest disaster in the whole pageant of westward migration across America.
The handcart catastrophe was, moreover, entirely preventable. What went wrong, and why?
Born in 1827, Patience Loader grew up in Aston Rowant, a small town in south-central England, "fifteen Miles from the City of Oxford," as she explained in the first paragraph of her memoir, "Which place is noted for its great educational coleges and old fashion buildings some which are black with age." As a member of the working class, she was typical of the legions of British converts with whom she would travel across the Great Plains. Yet compared to the coal miners and factory workers among that throng, Patience's father, James, occupied a relatively comfortable station in life, as private gardener to a baronet named Sir Henry John Lambert.
To follow Patience Loader's narrative of her journey to Utah is to retrace the steps of a representative handcart pioneer in the landmark year of 1856. And yet in other respects, Patience's experience was unique and poignant.
By the time she wrote "Reccolections of past days," Patience had been a steadfast Mormon for more than three decades. As far as we know, she never wavered in her faith or dreamed of returning to England. Yet one of the felicities of Patience's memoir lies in the fact that, despite her fidelity to the church, she seldom colors the past with retrospective pieties. She has a genius for remembering exactly how she felt.
Thus the gardener's cottage in which she grew up lingered long in her heart, an image of a lost Eden:
the dear old house with a thatched roof and old fashion casements wendows with dimant cut glass and the verada in front with woodbrnes roses and honey suckles twing up to the upstairs windows a beautifull flower garden on each side of the Walk from the Street to the house a walk of red brick laid in on each side with flints all kept so clean and free from weeds and gravle walks all around the house to the back Whare we had a play ground a beautifull green grass plate whare father had swings and jumps batts and balls skiping ropes and everything to please his children at home as he did not alow us to go out in the Street.
James Loader was what we would call today an overprotective father. By the age of seventeen, Patience had apparently never spent a night away from home. On October 10, 1844, under the mischievous sway of her sister Ann (two years her elder), Patience indulged in what must have been the most rebellious and hedonistic act of her young life, which was to attend a county fair in the village of Thame, six miles from Aston Rowant. "I never had been to a fare in My life," she later wrote, "as my Parents would never alow me or My sisters to visit those places allthough fares was verey comon in England in those days once a year an the young Men and women go there to enjoy themselves together there thay dance all day and sometimes up to a late hour at Night."
With their father's permission out of the question, Ann and Patience sneaked away from the cottage. Patience tried to have fun at the fair, but guilt laid its heavy hand on her spirit: "We had a verey good day alltogether but to tell the truth I did not have any real enjoyment the thoughts that we had run away from home unknown to our parents spoiled all my pleasure."
James Loader, furious and worried, set out on foot to track down the wayward girls, to no avail. At a late hour, the sisters stopped for the night at their cousins' house in Kingston, closer to Thame than Aston Rowant. In the morning, the girls faced the music, which was as discordant as they had feared.
On October 11, the day the sisters returned home, Patience began seven consecutive years as a domestic servant in various households. By 1845, invited by her older brother Jonas, she was installed in sprawling London, then the most populous city in the world (and one of the most sophisticated), but she remained a country girl through and through. The constant theme running through her narrative of those years is lonesomeness and homesickness. Jonas got her a job helping a young married couple run a dairy. But when Jonas left to get married and start his own business, Patience felt abandoned and trapped in the dairy.
By 1848, as a skilled seamstress, Patience had seen her salary rise to £12 a year. No photograph of Patience Loader from her English years seems to have survived, but a picture taken in Utah in 1858, when at the age of thirty-one she married her first husband, reveals a pleasant, almost pixieish face, with a prim mouth but gaily curling hair.
The Loaders were staunch Anglicans. James and his wife, Amy, were so devout that as a child Patience found the churchgoing onerous: "Sometimes I use to get quite tiard and as I grew older I use to think it was alittle to much to have to go to church and Sunday school all day on Sundays when some of My companions could go and take a nice walk with there friends." In London, Patience had the misfortune to serve three years as a servant for an elderly "Maden Lady" and her equally superannuated housekeeper, who were fervent devotees of a splinter church calling itself the Independents.
Between the two the Lady and her housekeeper I heard nothing but religion talked over and ever talking to get Me to join there church which in time I done. I must say More to pleas them than Myself for I realy fealt religion a burthen.... Thay allmost thought it a sin to laugh and thay considered it awfull to think of going to a theater.
From the employ of this odd couple, Patience passed, around 1848, into the service of the Maden Lady's sister, one Mrs. Henderson, and her husband. The Hendersons, who had served for years as missionaries in Russia, were also fiercely devout, imposing on their hired help as many as three church meetings each Sunday, Bible classes at home on Monday evenings, and prayer meetings on Thursday evenings. Mr. Henderson, a tutor at some sort of school or college, was often heard to swear that "he could not die happey if he did not visit Jerusalem."
For Patience, then, at age twenty-three, religion was apparently at best a pro forma exercise, at worst a tiresome obligation. One day in 1851, however, Mrs. Henderson, returning from a church meeting, took her servant aside. She "called me into her room and said do you know anything about the Mormons I answered no. Well she sais I have heard that your father and Mother have joined them and she said she was sorrey for them I told her I did not think it was so."
A measure of the integrity of "Reccolections" as a memoir is that Patience resists any temptation to gild this stunning revelation with complacent hindsight. Instead, she captures the full shock indeed, the indignation of that moment in Mrs. Henderson's room.
I wrote home to enquire of father and Mother and I found it was true that thay had been baptised and said thay was Latterday Saints Of course I did not know what it ment I wrote back and told them that thay must think themselves better than anyone else to be so conceited as to call themselves saints and I did not feel verey good over it either and I ask Mother if she thought that to be baptised by a Man was going to wash her sins away and told her I did not believe any such Nonsence as that and said I believed there was other churches just as good as theres and I said that I had found out by My Brother that there was none but poor folks that joined there church.
Patience does not reveal by whom or precisely when her parents were converted. Despite her ignorance of the Mormon creed, however, England at the time was abuzz with gossip about the upstart American religion, in large part because LDS missionaries had been so wildly successful at winning recruits among the poor of Great Britain.
Accepting what she could not change, Patience took a job as a dressmaker in Ramsgate, a seacoast resort town in Kent, not far north of Dover. More than a year passed before she paid her next visit to Aston Rowant. By that time, several of her sisters had also converted to Mormonism. Patience arrived at the gardener's cottage to find two Mormon missionaries from Utah, a Mr. Archer and a Mr. Dalling, visiting her father. They "came to My fathers house to preach," she recorded; but "I did not pay any great attention to their preaching."
The missionaries evidently saw a soul ripe for the plucking, for they went out of their way to invite Patience on walks in the garden and cooked her (and her family) a dinner of "roast Mutten and nice fresh vegetables." Mr. Archer was accompanied by wife and children; Mr. Dalling was alone. As the week wore on, Patience remembered,
I had quite a pleasant visit with Mrs Archer...but not so pleasant with Mr Dalling for he set about to try to convert me to the Mormon faith of course this was his Mission he was sent out to do. but he was to tiresome he done Nothing but preach to me all the time and at that time I did Not want to be troubled so much about religion. and Mrs Archer seeing I did not like it came to my rescue. and she said to Mr Dalling I think you had better stop your preaching to Miss Loader she don't like so much of it You are enough to tire her out.
At this rebuff, Mr. Dalling shifted gears. "From this he did not talk so much of religion to me but commenced upon the subject of marriage. and let me know that he was without a wife in the world and that he would like to get accompanion before he returned to Utah." Patience declined the proposal.
Yet something "took" during this extended visit home. Whether it was Mr. Dalling's badgering or, more likely, the serene example of her parents and sisters, by the time she returned to a new job this time in a posh London hotel Patience, too, had become a Latter-day Saint. Perhaps at first hers was a conversion of complaisance, to please her family, as she had agreed to embrace the Independent church to ingratiate herself with her former employer. But probably not for in her memoir Patience now insists that God's "watchfull care was over Me and he knew what was best for me and opened my eyes." This may well be the voice of retrospect speaking from sometime after 1887; but for the rest of her life, until her death in Utah in 1922 at the age of ninety-four, Patience would remain a steadfast Mormon.
Two days before she went off to the London hotel, she was baptized into the church. The chronology of the memoir is hazy here, but it seems that the conversion occurred sometime during 1853. More than two years would pass before the Loaders set sail for America. Meanwhile, in London, Patience kept her new faith a secret, for good reason.
At some point, a new housekeeper, who proved to be a thoroughgoing busybody, came to work at the hotel. Every Sunday, Patience would slip out to attend an LDS meeting. One Monday, as she started work, Patience bid a cheery good morning to the housekeeper.
She did not care to speak after a time she sais I hear you are a Mormon I answered Yes well She Sais we don't want no Mormons in this house and said I would have to leave I said I could do that I can get a nother place She said she did not think I could if she told people I was a Mormon.... She said She had heard that the Mormons was abad Set of folks.
The housekeeper's fear was that Patience might try to proselytize among her fellow maids at the hotel. Indeed, she had been doing justthat, covertly inviting them to attend her LDS meeting and giving them "tracks" that laid out the principles of the church. She had already succeeded in winning over two of the maids to the Mormon faith.
Defiant to the end, Patience accepted her firing by the busybody housekeeper. As she walked down the long hall of the hotel for the last time, some of the manservants "sneared at me and said good bye old gal are you going to see old Joe Smith I said good bye don't you know Joseph Smith was killed by wicked men." (The founder in 1830 and first Prophet of the Mormon church, Joseph Smith, had been murdered by a mob in Illinois in 1844.)
Patience was even castigated by her own sister Eliza, who was staying with her during a visit to the hotel. Two years younger, Eliza had held out against the family drift toward the LDS church: she would never become a Mormon, and would spend all her life in England. Now Eliza "fealt as bitter towards me about My religion as the housekeeper did she would scarcely speak to Me and never came to bid me good bye."
Patience promptly found another job with a kindly old military veteran who, according to her, had "fought in the Battle of Watersoo." Her duties were to care for the ex-officer's invalid wife.
Meanwhile, Patience's parents were also bearing the brunt of the widespread English prejudice against the Mormons. At some point, Sir Henry John Lambert, the baronet whom James Loader had faithfully served as gardener for more than two decades, discovered their new religion. He gave them an ultimatum to abjure their faith within a year or be evicted. The family refused to renounce the church.
It was not the prospect of losing his job, however, that set James Loader's eyes on the New World. Within a year after founding his church, Joseph Smith had proclaimed the solemn duty of every Saint to "gather to Zion." At the time, the Prophet had fixed Missouri as the land in which the elect must assemble. He had determined, in fact, that Jackson County, on the western edge of that state, was the original site of the Garden of Eden. Adam and Eve had been placed on Earth by God not in the Holy Land of the Near East, but in the middle of North America.
The apocalypse, or the second coming of Christ, was imminent, though Smith declined to specify a date. At the time of the apocalypse, only those gathered to Zion would be spared. All the rest of the world was Babylon, and on that ultimate day, in Smith's words, "tribulation and desolation [would] fall upon the wicked" who dwelled there.
By 1855, Zion had been relocated to Salt Lake City, or, more generally, the State of Deseret, in what the U.S. government called Utah Territory. The Millennial Star, the Mormon newspaper established by Brigham Young and his colleagues in 1840, published in Liverpool and read by every British Saint who could read English (the Welsh had their own language, and many of the converts were illiterate), was full of constant exhortations to gather to Zion. As early as 1848, in the pages of the Star, the faithful had absorbed Young's injunction, "To the Saints of England, Scotland, Ireland, Wales, and adjacent islands and countries, we say, emigrate as speedily as possible.... Come immediately and prepare to go West." And in September 1855, even as the Loaders prepared for their journey, they no doubt heeded the words of Franklin D. Richards, president of the European Mission: "Every impulse of the heart of the Saint, every hope of the future, says, 'Gather up to the land of America.'"
For most of the British Saints, the only obstacle to emigration was financial. The converts were expected to pay their own way to Zion, and for many of the working-class poor, the cost of passage amounted to a staggering sum. More than one family scrimped and saved for years to afford the long journey to Utah.
By December 9, 1855, James and Amy Loader, their daughters Patience, Maria, Jane, and Sarah, and their son Robert, had arrived at the harbor in Liverpool, ready to board the John J. Boyd, a sailing vessel bound for New York. Also booking passage were Patience's thirty-fouryear-old brother, John, his wife, Harriet, and their two small children. None of those pilgrims would ever see England again.
Patience almost missed the trip. Having carried their baggage on board, the Loaders learned that the Boyd would not sail until the next day. Patience decided to use the free time to visit her twenty-fouryear-old sister, Zilpah, the wife of John Jaques, who worked in the offices of the Millennial Star. Zilpah and John were planning to wait till the following June or July to sail to America, along with their twenty-twoyear-old sister, Tamar.
There must have been some confusion, for when Patience returned to the harbor the next day, the ship was minutes from pulling out of the dock. Her family was screaming at the crew "to the top of there voice for the Lord sake bring My girl on the ship and dont leave her behind," but with hundreds of passengers on board, the Boyd was not about to delay its departure for a single tardy emigrant. A bare wooden plank was all that connected ship to shore: now, with a pair of sailors each holding one of her hands, one man walking ahead, one behind, Patience negotiated the gauntlet. Once on board,
My dear good father sais God bless you My dear girl we was all afraid you would be left behind we watched for your coming so anxiously. and when the men began to take away the planks Your Mother began to frett and said oh what will we do Patience has not come and the vesel is ready to start out to sea and we will have to leave her behind.... There was great rejoicing when I was safe on the vesel with them all.
The journey from Liverpool to New York would take sixty-six days, unconscionably long even for a sailing ship in an age when steamships were already routinely making the passage in two weeks. But like nearly all the European Saints bound for Zion, the Loaders could afford only steerage on a sailing vessel.
A semiofficial report of the John J. Boyd's passage that winter, written by one of the emigration officers on board, was published in The Mormon on March 1, 1856. That newspaper, launched only the previous year, New York's answer to Liverpool's Millennial Star, was edited by John Taylor, one of the Twelve Apostles, who were subordinate in rank in the church only to Brigham Young himself. As president of the New York Mission, receiving the Saints who came from abroad and sending them on to Iowa City, Taylor would play a crucial role in the handcart campaign.
The résumé of the journey that appeared in The Mormon insisted that "Notwithstanding that our company consisted of Danes, Norwegians, Swedes, Icelanders, Italians, English, Irish, and Scotch, the rules adopted proved efficacious in maintaining a strict entente cordial[e] among us all." While acknowledging a fair amount of hardship and an unspecified number of deaths (particularly among the Danes, due to an outbreak of measles) during the journey, the correspondent struck a jaunty tone. In a season plagued by storms that wrecked other ships on the Atlantic, he bragged, "We had made the passage without the loss of a single spar. Truly we can say that we have been blest, and that our long voyage has been an advantage to us in many ways."
In her memoir, Patience left an account of the voyage on the John J. Boyd that paints a far more ominous and vivid picture of the trip. "Never will forget the first night on the ship," she vows.
Not much sleep for any one that first night and we was orderd to go below we could not get a berth the first night So we had to lie down on the floor as best we could: I began to think we would smother to death before Morning for there was not abreath of air I made my bed on a large box I had abig loaf of bread in asack this I used for my pillow to make sure of having bread for breakfast this was not avery nice thing to do to sleep on my bread.
Such belowdecks chaos and squalor were far from uncommon on the emigrant ships of the day. After the first night, a guard promised better accommodations for the Loaders, and indeed, they were soon moved to a higher deck with berths "just beneath the skylights and that was opened to give fresh air."
Patience claims that each emigrant was allotted only one pint of drinking water per day (which of course would have been inadequate for health in even the most sedentary passenger); "we had to wash in Salt water and cook our potatoes in salt water I said well one good thing we will not have to use any salt to our potatoes."
On board the ship, pitching with the waves through one storm after another, Patience, her mother, and all her siblings were seasick for six weeks running. The captain, whom Patience sized up as "avery rough cross man" and a drunken tyrant, was driven to distraction by his cargo of Saints.
At one time the captain Said if we did not stop our d preachen and praying we would never land in New York I told the Mate that was the only thing that Saved his vesell for he [i.e., the captain] was such awicked drinking Man and neglected his duty it was awounder that he was sufferd to live.
According to Patience, one night the captain, in a drunken stupor, knocked over the lantern in his cabin, which caught fire. The conflagration might well have set the whole ship ablaze had the crew not rushed to extinguish it.
Halfway through the passage, the John J. Boyd came in sight of a dismasted clipper ship bound from Baltimore to Liverpool that was on the verge of sinking: several crew members had already been washed away. The captain lowered lifeboats and rescued the survivors. This "one kind act he did," in Patience's phrase, had an ulterior motive:
The Mate fetched in his boat the first time four poor Sick Men poor things thay looked so poor and waurn out two Men had two ribs broaken.... The other two poor Men Said to the captain sir we feel to thank you God bless you for coming to help us. the brute of a captain sais to them god d you go to work that is all I want of You get up that riging I don't want to here no more of your talk.
(Even the correspondent to The Mormon admitted that the rescue was providential for the Boyd, whose crew was shorthanded from overwork.)
The captain of the clipper ship, his jaw broken, was beside himself with grief, for his sixteen-year-old son had been lost at sea on his first ocean voyage. The man had opposed his son's participation, but, in Patience's direct quote, the boy "beged So hard of his Mother to let him come with me and now this has happened. I have lost my boy my only child how can I go home to my wife without our boy."
According to Patience, there were five hundred Danish Saints among the company. As she reports,
Good and kind was the dainesh brothers and sisters and we enjoid ourselvs together allthough we could not talk there langwage Neither could thay talk the English langwage but we could make each other understand thay would make up a dance as Many of the danish breathren had instruments with them and could play Many good dance tunes and the Young Men would come and envite us English sisters to there dance.
Yet there was no ignoring the tragedy that stalked the company on board the Boyd. Patience is the only witness who recorded the toll: "We had aterrable severe voiage Much sickness and Many deaths Numbering Sixty two in all." Among the victims was her own niece, Zilpah, the ten-month-old daughter of John Loader and his wife, Harriet King: "It did indeed seem verey hard to role her in ablanket and lay her in the big waves and see the little dear go floting away out of sight."
At her lowest ebb, however, Patience (who up to this point in her memoir has showed no instinct for the metaphysical) was visited with what she took to be a divine vision. During a night so stormy that "we had to hold on to the berth to keep from beign thrown out," as her mother voiced fears that "we would all be lost and drounded in the sea," Patience lay sleepless behind curtains her father had hung for privacy around her bed.
Just when the ship was tosing and rolling the worst I opened my eyes we was all in darkness: but in amoment the curtens opened and abeautifull lovely figure stood there oh such alovely countenance I had never seen before in all my life and the light was So bright around him that I could See the calour of his eyes and heir he had brown eyes and lovely brown heir and he spake the words to me as I looked at him he sais fear not You shall be taken there all safe then he left and the curtens was again closed.... I believe I had seen the savior.
On February 15, 1856, the John J. Boyd at last lay at anchor in New York harbor. The correspondent for The Mormon acknowledged that the ship had only one day's drinking water left among its provisions.
As had become routine, all the Saints who arrived in New York were transplanted at once to Castle Garden, a gigantic refurbished opera house that served as a temporary dormitory and processing center for the emigrants. It was at this point that a colossal misunderstanding began to inflict its insidious harm upon the Loaders a misunderstanding that would have profound consequences for the tight-knit family from Aston Rowant.
In her memoir, Patience recalls that President John Taylor visited Castle Garden the morning after the arrival of the John J. Boyd, "to make enquirey to findout who had Money and who had not those that was able to go out and rent rooms for themselves had to do so."
The Loaders still had money. At once the family rented rooms in Williamsburg, a section of Brooklyn just across the East River from Manhattan. Within a short time (Patience simply says "soon"), the various Loaders had found paying jobs. James's expertise as a gardener won him employment planting flower beds at "good wages." John got work as a shoemaker. Patience and her sister Maria were hired by a clothing store to make mantillas long silk or lace scarves that hung down over the shoulders. Jane and Sarah became baby-sitters. Nine-year-old Robert started attending school in Williamsburg.
The fact is that the Loaders had no intention of setting out at once for Iowa City and thence to Zion. Instead, in Patience's testimony, "We was all working and expected to stay here until the next year then we thought we would make enough Money to buy an outfit to go to Utah." That outfit would be a wagon and a team of oxen.
Such a plan was far from unusual among the European Saints arriving in the New World. Many would set down roots in New York (or Boston or Philadelphia) that proved so tenacious they would never finish their pilgrimages to Salt Lake City. Others grew disillusioned with the Mormon faith and eventually (in the opprobrious formula of the church) "apostatized." And many worked for a year or longer, until they could indeed afford an outfit, then made their way to Zion in covered wagons, just as Brigham Young's pioneer party had done in 1847.
Not only had the Loaders no intention of gathering to Zion by handcart: it seems, astonishingly, that they had never heard of the handcart plan. The grand scheme had been announced in a long article in the Millennial Star, but that manifesto had not been published until December 22, 1855 ten days after the Boyd had left Liverpool. It had likewise been published in The Mormon on December 1, 1855, two and a half months before the Loaders arrived in New York. Yet surely the Saints on board the ship had gossiped and speculated about the prospect of their novel "experiment" in crossing the plains. Even more surely, Patience's brother-in-law, John Jaques, as the associate of European Mission president Franklin D. Richards, must have been intensely caught up in the details of the handcart plan. How could he not have explained it to Patience, on the very eve of her departure from England, when she spent the night visiting Jaques and his wife, her sister Zilpah?
It is possible that Patience's memoir is disingenuous at this point or that the hindsight of three decades in Utah before she began to write had retouched her memory. But "Reccolections of past days" is so artless a narrative that deliberate falsehood seems unlikely. Perhaps after all the truth is that the Loaders had somehow remained ignorant of the handcart scheme.
There is no getting around the family's shock and surprise at what transpired in the spring of 1856. On March 29, John Jaques wrote James Loader a letter, which he received on April 18. In no uncertain terms, the epistle ordered the Loaders to leave New York at once and go by train to Iowa, then by handcart to Zion. The orders, according to Patience, were straight from President Richards.
Patience went to President John Taylor's office in New York to plead her case. "He knew that My father had only we fourgirls to help him as Mother was avery delicate Woman unable to take a journey by handcart across the plains." Taylor seemed sympathetic. "I ask Br Taylor if he would like to have his girls pull ahand cart across the plains he Said no."
Quite apart from the physical ordeal the emigration promised for her frail parents, Patience was disturbed by the indignity of such a means of travel. "I could not see it right at all," she wrote later, "to want us to do such a humeliating thing to be I said harnest up like cattle and pull a handcart loded up with our beding cooking utencels...and have to go through different towns to be looked at and Made fun of."
So deep was the family's alarm at this turn of events that Patience wrote her brother-in-law a letter of protest. Not only did John Jaques answer it in paragraphs that thundered with anger and contempt he published the exchange in the Millennial Star, disguising Patience's identity only with the signature "P______."
In English regularized with respect to spelling and punctuation, Patience appeared in the Star insisting that the family had been "somewhat surprised to find that we have to go by the hand-carts."
Father and mother think this cannot be done, and I am sure I think the same, for mother cannot walk day after day.... If we girls were strong boys then I think it might be done, but father is the only man in our family.... Mother, I am sure, can never go that way. She says herself that she cannot do it.... Mother says that she must have a revelation before she can see this right. Why, we shall have to sell nearly all our clothes! And what shall we do for things to wear when we get to the Valley? Seventeen pounds weight each is very little.
(The last line reveals that the seventeen-pound personal baggage limit was announced in advance to the Loaders as it would not be to many of the handcart Saints.)
John Jaques's rejoinder, addressed not to Patience but to her father, is a fanatical tirade. He insists he has read the letter from "P______" half a dozen times, barely managing to suppress his incredulity.
There is not one atom of the spirit of Zion in it, but the very spirit of apostacy. I felt to exclaim in my heart, "Who has bewitched you...that you should so soon forget the goodness of the Lord in delivering you from this part of Babylon, and opening up your way to Zion?"...
Joseph Smith prophesied that those who would not gather to Zion when their way was open, should be afflicted by the devil....
It astonishes me that you wish to stay in New York. After you have left one part of Babylon, I wonder how you can think of sitting down in another, when you have the privilege of bidding it farewell altogether.... I have heard you talk of saving all your family, and I know you desire to do so, but is this the way to do it? No, it is not, but is the way to make shipwreck of your own salvation, and your children's too.
(And so on, to the length of some 2,500 very public words.) Jaques softened the blow of his withering diatribe only by promising to emigrate with Zilpah and set out by handcarts with the Loader family in the summer of 1856.
The impact on James Loader of his son-in-law's savage dressing down would have been devastating enough had it remained private. But one day in April or May a high official in the New York Mission office came to the Loaders' lodgings in Williamsburg. "He said did you know that your name is in the Mellinal star Br Loader," Patience later wrote. "You are thought to be apostizing from the Church & it sais father Loader has brought his family out of one part of Bablon and Now he wants to settle down in another part of Bablon."
The shaming was too much for James Loader. In Patience's words,
This hurt My poor dear fathers feelings very Much he said to Mother I cannot stand that to be accused of apostacy I will show them better; Mother I am going to Utah I will pull the hand cart if I die on the road.... So when father gave the word we all agreed to go with him and we commenced to make ready for the Journey.
It was a decision that would seal James Loader's fate, and change the lives of his family members forever.
The Loaders left New York on July 3, 1856. They took a train across New York state to the town of Dunkirk, on the shores of Lake Erie, then a boat westward across that body of water to Cleveland. From Cleveland, they traveled once more by railroad, with stops in Chicago and Rock Island, before arriving in Iowa City.
Just as in England, in the United States Mormon converts were regarded as a curiosity, and sometimes taunted about their pilgrimage to Zion. In Davenport, Iowa, Patience reported, "agreat croud gatherd around us casting slurs at us and asking father if he was going to take his fine girls to Utah and give them to Brigham Young for wives." The jeerers urged James Loader to stay in Davenport, "for girls was scarce in that neighbourhood and there was lots of Men that wanted wives."
Later, on the train between Davenport and Iowa City, "two big Men" forced their way into a car that the family had been told was reserved for yhem. (They may have been hobos, or simply local ruffians looking for amusement.) The men's intrusion was threatening enough that James Loader and his son John ordered them to leave, but only when John, "beign astaut Young Man, pushed them boath out of the car and closed the doors" was the family liberated from the menace.
Besides the stress of the journey itself, there was another reason it was wrenching for Patience to leave New York. In her brief résumé of the trip to Iowa City, she momentarily lifts the veil over her private life. In Williamsburg, she had been courted by a man named Alexander Ott. Thirtythree years old that July, Ott had first come to Utah by wagon in 1854; now he was serving as a missionary proselytizing in the East. Patience was now twenty-eight years old, but Ott is the first suitor mentioned in her memoir. She was in fact engaged to be married to the missionary. In Dunkirk, Patience took the time to write her beau a love letter.
Yet the romance came to a sour ending. In one brisk run-on sentence, Patience sketches its denouement: "I promised to become his wife when he came home [to Utah] that I would wait for him to return home as soon as he was releaced from his Mission but he prooved falce to me and Married a widow woman."
The Loaders arrived in Iowa City in mid-July. Here, along with all the other members of their handcart company, they camped on the ground under a big canvas tent. "The weather was dreadfully hott No shade whatever," Patience complains, "here we staid for three weeks before the company was ready to start."
In that laconic sentence, Patience records a delay that would prove to be the fatal flaw in the 1856 emigration. At the Iowa City camp, therewere not nearly enough handcarts available to supply the hundreds of Saints bound for Zion. On the spot, using green wood culled from nearby forests, the best carpenters among the company had to build makeshift handcarts that would break down with infernal regularity on the trail.
During that extended wait, Patience's brother John and his wife, Harriet, decided not to continue to Utah. Having lost their infant daughter on the voyage of the John J. Boyd, the couple was expecting yet another newborn. As Harriet was "nearing her confindment," she and her husband deemed the handcart journey too arduous. John soon found a job in Iowa City. The couple and their children would gather to Zion only a decade later, after he had served as a volunteer in the Civil War and been seriously wounded in the Battle of Cedar Creek in Virginia.
To make up for that loss, the Loaders were reunited in Iowa City with John Jaques and his wife, Zilpah, Patience's twenty-five-year-old sister, as well as sister Tamar, two and a half years younger. Jaques had made good on his promise to emigrate to Salt Lake City with the Loaders by handcart. Zilpah herself was eight months pregnant, but, unlike her sisterin-law, was prepared to face the rigors of the trail in that condition. If at this reunion there was any lingering bad blood between Jaques and his father-in-law, on account of the humiliating broadside published in the Millennial Star, Patience does not record it. Instead, she remarks simply, "this was ahappy Meeting."
The handcart train of which the Loaders were members is known today as the Martin Company, after the man in charge of it, Edward Martin. Thirty-seven years old, born in Lancashire, he had emigrated to theUnited States in the 1840s and served in the so-called Mormon Battalion in the Mexican War. Having traveled with those troops to California and back, Martin was one of the most experienced voyagers among all the 1,800-plus handcart pioneers of 1856.
On July 25, the Martin Company at last moved out of its Iowa City camp. Decades later, Patience would look back on that departure as a grievous mistake: "At that time we did not know what hardships we would have to pass through before we came to the end of our Journey if we had known we may have backed out and Staid in Iowa which I think would have been better for us and would have been the means of Saving my dear fathers life."
In her memoir, Patience devotes only a few lines to the 270-mile month-long trek from Iowa City to Florence. In retrospect, no doubt the routine ordeals of that first leg of the journey paled in comparison with the horrors to come. It is only as the Martin Company neared Florence, and her father's legs swelled so much he had trouble walking, that her prose begins to prickle with alarm.
In a reminiscence published in the Salt Lake Daily Herald more than two decades later, with his former fanaticism mellowed out of him, John Jaques vividly conjured up the chaos of the Iowa City camp and the tortures of the first weeks on the handcart trail. That most of the pioneers had been told nothing about the seventeen-pound personal baggage limit is abundantly clear in the camp scene Jaques evokes:
As only a very limited amount of baggage could be taken with the handcarts, during the stay in the Iowa camping grounds there was a general lightening of such things as could best be done without. Many things were sold cheaply to the residents of that vicinity, and many more things were left on the camping ground for anybody to take or leave at pleasure. It was grievous to see the heaps of books and other articles thus left in the sun and rain and dust, representing a respectable amount of money spent therefore in England, but thenceforth a waste and a dead loss to the owners.
As for the party's makeshift handcarts:
Some of the axles broke in a few days, and mechanics were busy in camp at nights repairing the accidents of the day....
Many were prostrated in the Iowa camp because unclimated and unaccustomed to the great heat. In starting from Iowa with the handcarts and dragging them over the sandy roads, it seemed like pulling the very pluck out of one, the pluck physical and corporeal.The pluck mental remained with the company much the same to the last. The carts were poor ones, with wooden axles, leather boxes, and light iron tires, and the squeaking of the wheels through lack of sufficient grease could often be "heard a mile."
John Jaques also kept a diary of the trek. Its entries are telegraphic, factual, and determinedly upbeat: "Good camping place, good feed, water a half mile off at a spring"; "wood, water and feed excellent." Yet here and there tribulation breaks through: "Two wagon loads of rough men came to our camp from Marengo with the intention of creating a disturbance, but they were unable to and went away in a short time shouting and yelling"; "The axle of two carts brokle down. Temporary axles were lashed on"; "Saw a wolf at the carcus of a calf, close to the road. I arrived after dark. Lame with fester."
Contemplating the character of the hundreds of handcart emigrants, one cannot help but be impressed by how tough these men, women, and children were. To be sure, lives of hard manual labor back in Britain or Scandinavia had inured many of them to weakness or fatigue. And their Mormon faith gave them a strength that cannot be measured in ergs.
But for the kind of effort an overland migration would require, these converts were woefully inexperienced. As Wallace Stegner writes in his pithy history The Gathering of Zion, "Most of them...had never pitched a tent, slept on the ground, cooked outdoors, built a campfire. They had not even the rudimentary skills that make frontiersmen. But as it turned out, they had some of the stuff that makes heroes."
By August 22, the last of the handcart emigrants had straggled into Florence, just across the Missouri River on the west. Built in 1846 as Winter Quarters by Brigham's pioneer party, the place had been abandoned in 1848. Then in 1854, when the former Omaha Indian territory was opened for settlement by U.S. citizens, Mormon entrepreneurs reestablished the outpost as Florence. By 1856, it was a thriving little tent city, with stores, warehouses, corrals, and a bowery or town hall for meetings, all laid out in the orderly rectangular grid that would characterize all Mormon settlements, including Salt Like City.
Here in Florence lay another opportunity to terminate the trek, winter over, and head on for Zion the next spring. A general discussion among the Martin Company emigrants was held on just this theme. But a combination of fatalism and the by now ingrained exhortations of the church officials turned nearly all the pioneers back to the trail stretching westward, where it plunged into real wilderness, traversed by at least half a dozen different Indian tribes, none of which could be counted on to be friendly.
On August 25, the company started off dangerously late in the season, as more than one emigrant suspected. Within only three days, the Loader family found itself in dire straits. By now, Zilpah was about to give birth, and Tamar was incapacitated with "mountain fever." On the morning of August 27, Captain Martin came to the Loaders' tent to tell them to get ready to move on as soon as possible. But, in Patience's recollection, "There lay my Sister Zilpha on the ground just gave birth to achild she was liing on some Quilts in one corner of the tent and My sister Tamar liing on quilts in the other corner of the tent neither of the poor things able to moove."
Martin assigned the two invalids and the newborn baby boy to one of the team's eight wagons, but when Patience pleaded for a healthy sister to be allowed to ride with them to take care of Zilpah and Tamar, the captain brusquely refused. Stubbornly, Patience then declined the offer of wagon transport for her ailing sisters.
I said thay will not go we will stay here for a day or two and take care of our two sick Sisters so we was left there all alone as the company started about seven oclock that morning we was there all day alone with our sick and when night came My poor father and brotherinlaw John Jaques had to be up all night to make big fires to keep the wolves away from us I never heard such terrable hawling of wolfs in my life as we experenced that loansome night.
Only three days out of Florence, the Loaders had been left behind by the Martin Company. The next day, a rider on horseback Joseph A. Young, one of Brigham's own sons came galloping into the Loader camp. The main body of the party had seen the huge bonfire a few miles behind them and had worried that some accident had befallen the family.
When he came into the tent and saw My sister with her new born babe liing on the ground on some quilts he was overcome with seympathy the tears ran down his cheeks then he bless my sister and tried to comfort and cheer her by saying well Sister Jaques I supose you will name Your boy handcart having begn born under such circumstances No she said I will want a prettyer name than that for him.
The boy, named Alpha Loader Jaques, would live to the ripe old age of eighty-nine. Before he died in December 1945, he had become the last surviving member of the Martin Company.
The handcart party, 575 strong, could not grind to a halt to wait for a single family to catch up. Accepting the inevitable, on August 28 the Loaders pushed on. On one handcart, along with the heavy tent, Tamar rode; on the other, Zilpah and her two children. The rest of the family pushed and pulled. In an incredible feat of perseverance and stamina, they traveled twenty-two miles that day, rejoining the main party only at 2:00 a.m., having navigated by moonlight. Patience saw the hand of God in the effort of August 28: "My poor father seemed better that day than he had been for aweek past surely God gave him new strength."
Before they could catch up with the company, however, the Loaders had their first Indian scare. As Patience tells it,
Five great Indians came out of acave in the Mountains got on here horses and came to Meet us thay was all painted bare naked except there brich cloth had there tomahawks and hatchet bows an arrows thay stopt us in the road talked but we could not understand them when they saw our Sick and My sister with her New born babe thay mooved out of the road and motioned for us to go on I think this was as near to beign killed by Indians as I wished to be.
Those natives, probably Omaha Indians, seem to have been more perplexed by the sight of the struggling family than bent on bloodshed. Adds Patience,
Thay was quite impodent in there Maners to us and Made fun of us pulling the handcart we was some what afraid of them and I daresay thay could see we was afraid of them.... I know it was nothing but the power of God that saved us from those Indians.
Eventually, both Zilpah and Tamar recovered sufficiently so that they could walk alongside the handcarts. (In his 1878 reminiscence, John Jaques insists that each sister was carried 150 miles, but this may be a retrospective exaggeration.) James Loader's strength held up for another two weeks or so. Patience remembered the agony of those days trudging across the plains and sand hills of Nebraska, and the faith that saw her through it: "Sometimes in the Morning I would feel so tiard and feel that I could not pull the cart the day through. then the still small voice would wisper in my ear as thy day thy strength shall be. this would give me new strength and energy."
Already the party's daily rations were proving inadequate. John Jaques's otherwise mundane diary records a consequence of the emigrants' ceaseless hunger that Patience's memoir omits. On September 22: "Cold, wet, rainy morning. Someone stole a cow's foot from my cart, also treacle, spice, meat, etc. from Brother John Oldham's cart and a meat dumpling from another brother's cart."
The 1878 reminiscence amplifies: "In some of the pinching times there would be a little petty pilfering going on in camp occasionally. The pilferings were usually of bread."
On the trail west, the Martin Company followed the Platte River along its northern bank. By mid-September, they had traveled some 275 miles from Florence, and were camped in what is now south-central Nebraska. On the 12th or 13th, they had passed Fort Kearny a landmark that, curiously, neither Jaques's diary nor Patience's memoir mentions. The fort, established in 1848 to protect emigrants on the Oregon Trail, was one of only three places west of Florence where the Martin Company might have hoped to purchase supplies and food.
A pair of other diary-keepers in the party give clues to that omission. Wrote Jesse Haven, "Sept 12th...remained in Camp to-day did not travel. opposite to Fort Kerney I went over to the Fort and traded som Indians doing some depredations in this vicinity." And Samuel Openshaw recorded,
Sept. 13 Started about half past 8 o'clock this morning, traveled until one o'clock when we stopped for dinner nearly opposite Fort Kearney where the soldiers are stationed, started again and traveled until five o'clock when we camped at the Platte River. A man fell down dead. The Indians are very hostile about here. They have attacted some of the immigrants who have passed through this season and rumor says that some have been murdered, but they have kept out of our way.
The chief reason that the Martin Company did not tarry at Kearny was not fear of Indians but the fact that the fort lay on the south the wrong side of the river. Crossings of waterways as broad and deep as the Platte were major undertakings. The detour to Kearny, even with its potential for trade, must have loomed as an unnecessary hiatus for the Saints as they hurried into autumn.
It was now that James Loader began to fail. A long, poignant passage in Patience's memoir chronicles his collapse:
Some days he was not able to pull the cart but had to walk one evening when we goto camp he had walked seventeen miles with Mother helping him he sais My dear girls I was not able to get any wood to Make you afire and he fealt so bad about it I said never Mind father we have got some wood on the cart and we will soon have afire and make you a little warm grewel.
The Loaders and John Jaques got their tent pitched and carried James into it, swaddled in quilts.
The next Morning I got very early to make afire and make him alittle more flour grewel that was all we had to give him but before I could get it ready for him My Sister Zilpha called to Saying patience come quick our father is dieing and when I got into the tent my poor Mother and all our family four Sisters My youngst brother Robert ten years old and my brother in law John Jaques was all kneeling on the ground around him poor dear father realizing he had to leave us he was to weak to talk to us he looked on us all with tears in his eyes then he said to Mother with great diffulcuty he said you know I love My children then he closed his eyes thees was the last words he ever said.
One of the sub-captains of the company, taking pity on the nearly comatose old man, offered to put him in a wagon as the party moved onward, but when Patience was rebuffed once more in her plea for one of the Loader sisters to ride with him, she again declined the offer. Instead, all day on September 23, the family pushed their two handcarts, atop one of which lay James Loader. "He did not seem to suffer pain he never opened his eyes," recalled Patience. "Many times dureing the day I spoke to him quite loud and ask him if he knew me or could he hear me but he never noticed me." The day's journey was a particularly arduous one, as the emigrants climbed and crested sand hills into which the handcart wheels sank as they gouged deep ruts.
That evening several Saints came to the Loader tent to give a last blessing to James. They moistened his mouth with anointing oil. To the family's amazement, James licked the oil from his parched lips. One of the watchers said, "We the servants of God seal him up unto God our Father," to which "my dear father amen said so plain that we could understand him and there lay with such asweet smile on his face that was the last word he said Amen to the blessing." He died at 11:00 p.m.
Another sub-captain, Daniel Tyler, who had also been made bishop of the Martin Company, tried to console the Loaders, calling James "afaithfull true servant of God" who "had laid down his life for the gosple sake he had died amarter to the truth," promising the family that "we will Meet our dear father again and be reunited with him to dwell in unity and love allthrough eternity.... Of course this was all very comforting to us but it did not bring our dear father back."
The burial, carried out at six the next morning, was agonizing for the family. "Two kind brothers" dug a grave deep enough so that the wolves would not dig up the corpse. Coffinless, wrapped in a quilt, James Loader was lowered into the hole "and the earth thown in upon his poor body oh that sounded so hard I will never forget the sound of that dirt beign shoveld anto my poor fathers boday it seemed to me that it would break every bone in his body."
John Jaques tersely recorded the gravesite as "west side of sandhill, 13 miles east of Ash Hollow." Jaques assigned "diarrhoea" as the cause of death.
After that, for the Loaders, there was nothing to do but to push on along the Platte with the rest of the company. During the first weeks of October, the days grew shorter and colder. James Loader was far from the only victim of this procession into an early winter. One day an emigrant named Jonathan Stone, about fifty-three years old, lay down beside the trail and fell asleep. It was some time before he was missed. According to Patience, "Some of the breathren had to go back in seach of him and when thay found him he was dead and nearly all eaten by the wolves."
The first snow fell on October 19. The timing was disastrous, for on that day the Martin Company had reached the point, not far from today's Casper, Wyoming, where the Mormon Trail left the Platte to follow the Sweetwater River toward South Pass and the Continental Divide. To pursue that route, all of the Martin Company had to ford the Platte, snowstorm be damned.
The team's few oxen were forced to swim, as the wagons were floated across, but the handcarts had to be pushed through the current by the terrified pilgrims. The mass ford quickly grew chaotic. Amy Loader was able to ride on the back of a mule making the crossing, but from the far bank she watched her children wading almost up to their necks. As Patience remembered,
The water was deep and very cold and we was drifted out of the regular crossing and we came near to beign drounded the water came up to our arm pits poor Mother was standing on the bank screaming as we got near the bank I heard Mother say for Gods Sake some of you men help My poor girls.
One vignette glimpsed by Patience that day would haunt her for decades:
When we was in the middle of the river I saw a poor brother carreying his child on his back he fell down in the water I never Knew if he was drowned or not I fealt sorrey that we could not help him but we had all we could do to save ourselves from drownding.
Once on the far bank, with all their clothing soaked, the snow falling, and a bitter wind raking the plain, the emigrants were at immediate risk of fatal hypothermia. The company moved on for several miles before finding a campsite. The Loader children's clothing froze stiff. "Mother took of one of her under skirts and put on one of us and her apron for another," Patience later wrote. In camp that afternoon,
It was to late to go for wood and water the wood was to far away. that night the ground was frozen to hard we was unable to drive any tent pins in as the tent was wett when we took it down in the morning it was somewhat frozen So we stretched it open the best we could and got in under it untill morning.
For the Loaders, and for the hundreds of other members of the Martin Company stranded in the middle of this increasingly desperate journey, the worst was yet to come.
Copyright © 2008 by David Roberts
Meet the Author
David Roberts is the author of twenty-four books on mountaineering, adventure, and the history of the American Southwest. His essays and articles have appeared in National Geographic, National Geographic Adventure, and The Atlantic Monthly, among other publications. He lives in Watertown, Massachusetts.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
See all customer reviews
Just read the book. Very poor experience. Roberts believes that he can construe the true emotions and feelings of the handcart pioneers and the malevolent intent of church leaders. The author¿s bias is exposed as he rehearses tired old arguments against the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (his chapter on the history of the Church and Joseph Smith comes right out of the literature of late 1800s). Read the accounts left behind by the participants in context, minus Robert¿s analysis, and you will come away with a very different version of their experience. There are many books that give you access to their own words and these resources are worth your time and attention, pass on this book!
The author did a good job of explaining a tragic event. While the LDS church has come along way since the handcarts it is a time period worth learning about.
I found this particular account of the 1856 handcart debacle to be far more balanced than earlier books on the same topic many of which were extremely partisan both pro and con,others were simply whitewashes or mythologized accounts of the events that actually occurred. This review comes from someone who is descended from a long line of Latter Day Saints. Whether you love them, hate them, or simply don't care, some of these early Mormon pioneers experienced horrors I wouldn't wish on my worst enemy. David Roberts does in my opinion an excellent job of recounting their experiences using the very words of many of the participants from LDS archives, personal diaries, and other original source material. I would have liked to rate the book a solid five stars across the board but the writer tended to jump around a bit too much for my taste to do so. On the whole I highly recommend this book to anyone who wishes to know a little more about this little known aspect of Mormon history.
I am always amazed at the perfect vision people have after the event. This was a horrible time in LDS history. But so was the Federal government who allowed and extermination order because of greed and fear by the Missouri State government and Governor. To face certain death, to children, women, at the hands of state sanctioned thugs, to risk the raping, starvation, the incredible destruction that was done to those of the Mormon faith, just because of their faith, or to push their way out of a country that gave permission for their killings, what should a leader do? The Mormon faith allows for Free Agency. People can think for themselves. Did tragedies happen? Yes, would different tragedies of happened if different decisions were made? When Brigham Young was pleading with the brethren to leave early did all listen? This is a very narrow view of the Handcart movement. Like all things historical, you must take in the full picture, and keep in mind, the era in which it happened. Never think that one book will give you a full understanding of any historical event. At this same time, The Donner Party was caught in its own hell, could the winter been so extreme that those depths of snow that the Dinners taught have rarely been seen since? Could that have also led to the problem? We all have our own mind, think things throughly.
Roberts purports to present history, but his book shows bias and a convenient manipulation of fact. Fortunately, I only lost $3.99 in buying this book.