Perhaps the most accurate summation of the Willie and Martin handcart experience is this statement by Heber McBride, a member of the Martin Company: "Tongue nor pen can never tell the sorrow and the suffering."
The tragedy was caused by a series of missteps, none of which would likely have been fatal alone but together proved insurmountable:
Delays in England and poor weather on the crossing meant a late arrival in Iowa City, the western terminus of the railroad. No one expected the companies that late. Handcarts were not ready, and construction materials were not available. That meant more delays. Many carts were built with inferior materials, so frequent repairs along the way further slowed down the companies.
July 15, 1856: The Willie Company, under the direction of James G. Willie, left Iowa City. The Martin Company, led by Edward Martin, left on July 26. Traveling behind the handcarts were the Hunt & Hodgett Wagon companies, including both immigrants and teamsters hauling freight.
At a meeting held to decide whether the companies should remain at Winter Quarters, Levi Savage advised against a journey so late in the year, especially since there were so many elderly, and women and children, among the group. But he was outvoted. He said: "Brethren and sisters, what I have said I know to be true; but seeing you are to go forward, I will go with you, will help you all I can, will work with you, and rest with you, will suffer with you, and if necessary, I will die with you."
Aug. 18: The Willie Company left Florence, Neb.; the Martin Company on Aug. 25; the Hunt & Hodgett companies, Sept. 2.
For the first 200 miles, all was well; company members commented on beautiful scenery and an abundance of wild game.
Sept. 4: Some of Willie's cattle were run off by Indians. Some 300 miles west of Florence, a thunderstorm and buffalo stampede drove away the rest.
Food was low by the time the Willie Company reached North Bluff Creek, and rations were cut. There, Franklin Richards and a group of returning missionaries met up with the company. The elders, who were on horseback, decided to hurry on to Salt Lake City to get help.
Sept. 30: Willie's Company reached Fort Laramie, with 500 miles still to go. No one was expecting them, however, and anticipated provisions were not there.
Oct. 12: Willie cut rations, to 10 ounces of flour for men, nine for women, six for children and three for infants. On Oct. 19, at the North Platte crossing, the last of the flour was used. The Martin Company, several hundred miles behind, still had cattle. But limited foraging meant they were scrawny and tough — little better than nothing.
Oct. 20: Both companies woke to find 18 inches of snow on the ground and sub-zero temperatures. Because a lot of the clothing and bedding had been left behind to lighten the load, they were unprepared for the cold.
Meanwhile, on Oct. 4, Richards arrived in Salt Lake City and told Brigham Young of the companies' plight. In his next day's conference address, Young called for volunteers. "We want 20 teams by tomorrow morning to go to their relief. It will be necessary to send two experienced men with each wagon. . . . Go and bring in those people now on the plains!"
Oct. 25: The Willie Company, which had struggled on to South Pass, met five teams from the valley. But they sent those teams on to help the Martin Company. The Willie group continued to meet rescue wagons almost daily, and arrived at Fort Bridger on Nov. 2.
Oct 26: Rescue teams had met up with the Martin and Hunt & Hodgett companies near Devil's Gate. But continuing bad weather forced them to seek refuge in a sheltered cove, about 3 miles away — still 350 miles from Salt Lake City.
Nov. 9: The Willie Company reached Salt Lake City. On this day, the Martin Company left its cove. Most of them reached the Salt Lake Valley at the end of November.
Each handcart company lost more than a sixth of its members (the Willie Company started with 500; the Martin Company had 575). Some 56 members of the Martin Company died during the night after the Platte River crossing in the snow and ice.
SOURCES: Mormon Handcart Historic Sites in Wyoming. Letters, journals and accounts compiled by the Daughters of the Utah Pioneers. Mormon Handcart Companies Web site, www.handcart.com, William W. Slaughter and Michael Landon, "Trail of Hope," Shadow Mountain