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17 Miracles: The Faithful and Foolhardy Willie Handcart Company

If you’ve followed my blog for a while, you know I really enjoy Mormon History, yet for some reason, I haven’t taken the time to become acquainted with the Martin and Willie Handcart disasters. I don’t have a good reason for that; I guess it is because other topics have more interest for me.

I was pleased to be invited to a screening of the film 17 Miracles (click the link to see a trailer). I had seen the billboards on my way into Salt Lake City every day, yet I really didn’t know what the movie was about. I could tell it looked like a pioneer movie, but really had no idea what to expect from the movie. I went with my wife and some friends Tuesday night and I wanted to give a review.  It was interesting to get their reactions to the film as well.  (If you want no spoilers, you should stop reading now.)

At the beginning of the film, the authors made a note that they took some liberty with the sequencing of events, but all of the miracles really happened.  The story follows a pioneer by the name of Levi Savage, played by Jasen Wade.  (My wife said he looks a lot like Brad Pitt, which may appeal to some of my female readers.)

I’ll try not to give away too much of the movie.  My wife said that the beginning of the movie (say first 15 minutes) made her very uncomfortable because it seemed as if this were the sort of movie you would watch at the Joseph Smith Building.  It portrayed all early Mormons as incredibly faithful, and they all desired to come to Zion (Utah).  The movie did not “feel” like a major motion picture.  Once the trek westward began, the people became more realistic.  I liked the movie, because director TC Christensen was able to create a movie that I feel would attract both faithful and intellectual Mormons (and I say this as a guy who generally doesn’t like pioneer stories.)

Savage was called to leave his family on a mission to Siam by Brigham Young in General Conference.  The movie shows the call, but not the mission, resuming the story as Savage is in Europe heading home from his mission.  Wanting to know more, I learned from Wikipedia that Savage never made it to Siam due to a Civil War there.  He did spend some time in Calcutta, India.  (Did you know there were missionaries to the Far East in the 1850′s?)

As part of their migration to Zion, Emigrants from Europe generally took a boat to Boston or New York, boarded a train to Iowa City, and then began the handcart journey to Utah.  Prior to 1856, pioneers crossed the plain in heavy, expensive wagons.  However, emigrants from Europe had little money to purchase these wagons.  In order to solve this problem, Brigham Young came up with the idea of Handcarts that could be pulled by humans rather than animals.  Handcarts were less expensive and more maneuverable than wagons.  Young felt that handcarts would save money and be a faster mode of travel for these indigent travelers.

The first 3 companies proved that Young was right.  However companies 4 and 5 (the Willie and Martin handcart companies) met with the worst disaster of the handcart experience.  Lessons were learned, however, and the next 5 companies over the years learned from the experience–the last handcart company had 0 fatalities.  (Excluding Willie and Martin, the other companies generally experienced 1-13 deaths per trip.)  A new rule was made that no company would leave after July 7, handcarts were improved, and better supply stations were set up along the way.

I must admit that while watching this movie, it felt like I was watching the Titanic in slow motion.  Most of us are familiar with the story of these 2 companies and the many people that perished along the way.  It would be easy to place blame on certain individuals for this disaster, yet the movie showed the complexity of the problem.  I guess I hadn’t realized that most of the emigrants were from Europe.  None of them had any experience with the outdoors.  They trusted in their leaders and in God to help them through the journey.

The movie shows the pivotal point in Omaha, Nebraska.  James Willie was the leader of the group.  Levi Savage was a sub-captain.  Having served previously in the Mormon Battalion, Savage was a valuable resource for the journey because of his knowledge of the trail.  It was getting late in the year, and everyone knew they needed to head west.  There was trouble obtaining wood for the handcarts and they weren’t sturdy.  Willie led a campfire meeting to discuss the departure and promised that God would be with them.  He asked Levi Savage to give a few words.  Savage expressed concern to the group that they were leaving too late in the year, and felt that many would die along the way if they left.  He encouraged everyone to stay put in Omaha.

Willie scolded Savage for a lack of faith, and asked for a vote on whether the group wanted to head west.  Most of the group responded that they wanted to go.  (Wikipedia records that approximately 100 people stayed in Omaha.)  Savage responded with a passioned speech.  In a journal, James Chislett records that Savage said,

“What I have said I know to be true; but seeing you are to go forward, I will go with you, will help all I can, will work with you, will rest with you, and if necessary, will die with you. May God in his mercy bless and preserve us.”

I admit that my heart sank at this point in the movie, because we all knew the deaths that resulted from this fateful decision.  Mormons have a culture of “sustaining your leaders.”  Savage was called out and scolded for not having faith.  In hindsight, we all know that Savage was right, and Willie was wrong.  But it isn’t quite so simple to blame Willie completely for the disaster.  Later in the movie, Willie states the problems with staying in Omaha.  They had no money, supplies, or shelter to stay in Omaha, so staying there was a problem as well.  The problem is not so simple as blaming it all on Captain Willie.  He had to make the choice between two bad options.  In hindsight, it appears that he chose the worse option.  Of course, he didn’t have hindsight to know this.

It is at this point that the movie changed from a “church” movie to a “motion picture.”  As the rains came, handcarts got stuck in the mud and broke down, squabbling among the saints understandably occurred.  They realized that food was in short supply.  They dealt with rattlesnakes, wolves, and poor weather.  There were moments of fun and lightness, but it was clear to the pioneers that this was a much more difficult journey than any of them imagined.  Many times they only had flour and water to eat.  Sickness abounded, and the weak started to die.  Wolves often scavenged upon the corpses.

At Fort Laramie, there were no supplies, so the saints continued westward on increasingly meager supplies.  The bitter cold and snow took its toll.  There was a scene where they dug a mass grave as approximately 13 people had perished in the night.  Some men dug graves for the dead, and ended up being buried in the graves they dug due to exhaustion, starvation, and sickness.  A very touching scene involved the Cunningham family.  The mother returned to the tent to wake up her daughter, but the daughter did not respond, and the family realized she had frozen to death.  The ground was too hard to bury her, so they covered her with sagebrush, knowing wolves would probably devour her.  Heartbreaken, they left.

Then the mother remembered that she had been promised that her entire family had been promised that they would all walk into Zion together.  She returned to her daughter, insisting that her daughter would come to Zion with them.  She offered a prayer over her daughter, resembling a blessing that early Mormon women performed.  Following the blessing, she was inspired to boil some water and put it on her daughter’s neck.  The child revived.  The entire family entered Zion as promised, one of the 17 miracles.

In all, 68 of 404 (17%) died in the Willie company.  It turns out that the Martin company left 10 days after the Willie company and more than 145 of 576 (25%) perished in the Martin company.  As a comparison, 41 of 87  (47%) of the Donner party died.  At the end of the movie, the authors noted that the Willie and Martin companies were “average” for loss of life for pioneer travel.

You can’t help but feel intense gratitude for both Levi Savage and James Willie.  Savage knew the risks better than anyone, and did so much to help everyone cross the plains.  Willie sacrificed as much or more than anybody else to get as many people safely to Zion.  Savage went on to live in Lehi and then Tocquerville, Utah.  Willie was fondly remembered as a prominent church leader in Cache Valley, Utah.

The conflict between following your leaders and following your conscience in the face of bad decisions is wonderfully portrayed in the film.  The Wikipedia article discusses responsibility for the tragedy:

American West historian, Wallace Stegner, described the inadequate planning and improvident decisions leading to the tragedy when he wrote,[36]

In urging the method upon Europe’s poor, Brigham and the priesthood would over-reach themselves; in shepherding them from Liverpool to the valley, the ordinarily reliable missionary and emigration organization would break down at several critical points; in accepting the assurances of their leaders and the wishful importunities of their own hope, the emigrants would commit themselves to greater sacrifices than even the Nauvoo refugees; and in rallying from compound fatal error to bring the survivors in, the priesthood and the people of Mormondom would show themselves at their compassionate and efficient best.

As early as November 2, 1856, while the Willie and Martin companies were still making their way to safety, Brigham Young responded to criticism of his own leadership by rebuking Franklin Richards and Daniel Spencer for allowing the companies to leave so late.[37] However, many authors argued that Young, as author of the plan, was responsible.  Ann Eliza Young, daughter of one of the men in charge of building the carts and a former plural wife of Brigham Young, described her ex-husband’s plan as a “cold-blooded, scheming, blasphemous policy.”[38] Stegner described Richards as a scapegoat for Young’s fundamental errors in planning, though Howard Christy, professor emeritus at Brigham Young University, noted that Richards, as the highest ranking official in Florence, Nebraska area, was, in fact, the official who would have had the authority and capability to have averted the tragedy by halting their late departure.[39]

Many survivors of the tragedy refused to blame anyone. Survivor John Jacques wrote, “I blame nobody. I am not anxious to blame anybody … I have no doubt that those who had to do with its management meant well and tried to do the best they could under the circumstances.”[40] Another survivor, Francis Webster, was quoted as having said, “Was I sorry that I chose to come by hand cart? No. Neither then nor any minute of my life since. The price we paid to become acquainted with God was a privilege to pay and I am thankful that I was privileged to come in the Martin Hand Cart Company.”[41] On the other hand, survivor John Chislett, who later left the Church, wrote bitterly of Richards promising them that “we should get to Zion in safety.”[42]

In May 2006, a panel of researchers at the annual conference of the Mormon History Association blamed the tragedy on a failure of leadership. Lyndia Carter, a trails historian, said Franklin D. Richards “was responsible, in my mind, for the late departure” because “he started the snowball down the slope” that eventually “added up to disaster.” Christy agreed that “leadership from the top, from the outset, was seriously short of the mark.” Robert Briggs, an attorney, said “It’s almost a foregone conclusion … there is evidence of negligence. With leaders all the way up to Brigham Young, there was mismanagement.”[43] On the other hand, Rebecca Bartholomew and Leonard J. Arrington wrote, “Memories of what was perhaps the worst disaster in the history of western migration have been palliated by what could also be regarded as the most heroic rescue of the Mormon frontier.”[44]

So, what do you think of this story?  Does it make you interested to see the movie?

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58 comments on “17 Miracles: The Faithful and Foolhardy Willie Handcart Company

  1. Mike that’s interesting.

  2. What was the purpose of European immigrants in coming to the Salt Lake Valley in 1856? Most people think of the immigrants or the motivation of church leaders in temporal terms. They bemoan the struggle and loss of life endured by the pioneers. I submit to you these individuals struggled and died, not in an effort to reach some “promised land” nor to satisfy some church leaders need. When viewed from an eternal perspective, true understanding of the situation can be achieved. The influx of an elect group of people into the Salt Lake Valley was necessary to accomplish God’s plan to insure the Church would not perish from the face of the earth and the fulness of the gospel could be spread to every nation, kindred and tongue. Not only the results of the efforts of the surviving pioneers, but also their progeny as well. We are all on this earth for just the most brief period of time when compared to eternity and every body must eventually suffer the same fate of mortality. The point is not how or when these saints died but rather what they accomplished or the contribution they made while they lived and struggled. Many succeeded in the trek that would not but for the effort and sacrifice of those that did not survive. I am ever thankful for the strength of will and sacrifice of the pioneers that made it possible for me to one day hear of the gospel of Jesus Christ, become converted and help the members of my family, present, past and future, in their progression. Those of us that have not heard or do not understand the plan of salvation will have a hard time comprehending the events of the Martin and Willie handcart companies. If you have read my comments and your curiosity has been stirred, just stop one of those young men you see wearing a white shirt and tie with a name badge in their pocket. They will be happy to explain to you in detail what it is that has moved you. In any case, I enjoyed the movie and wish it were longer so even more aspects of the trek and the miracles could have be depicted.

  3. The stuff about blind obedience being sought by Brigham Young is bunk. Here’s an excerpt from one of his many speeches on the subject. “I am more afraid that this people have so much confidence in their leaders that they will not inquire for themselves of God whether they are led by Him. I am fearful they settle down in a state of blind self-security, trusting their eternal destiny in the hands of their leaders with a reckless confidence that in itself would thwart the purposes of God in their salvation, and weaken that influence they could give to their leaders, did they know for themselves, by the revelations of Jesus, that they are led in the right way. Let every man and woman know, by the whispering of the Spirit of God to themselves, whether their leaders are walking in the path the Lord dictates, or not. This has been my exhortation continually.”

  4. I grew up with the pioneer stories as a kid and i still cant get enough of them. I was so thrilled to hear that they were coming out with this movie to give real life people and places to paint the picture i have always had in my mind. The hardships they faced and overcame is motivating. My wife and I watch it often. If you are interested in buying a copy i recommend Mormonmedia.com.

  5. THE REAL TRUTH!!!!
    ONLY GLORIFICATION IS TOLD,
    HERE IT IS IN ONLY UNBRIDLED FACTS

    As a direct decendant of Ann Jewel Rowley… (Willie Handcart Company)

    As early as November 2, 1856, while the Willie and Martin companies were still making their way to safety, Brigham Young responded to criticism of his own leadership by rebuking Franklin Richards and Daniel Spencer for allowing the companies to leave so late.

    Richards, as the highest ranking official in Florence, Nebraska area, was, in fact, the official who would have had the authority and capability to have averted the tragedy by halting their late departure.

    First, I recall that at least one journal recorded Franklin Richards as saying, “I promise you in the name of the Lord that you will make the valley before winter snows.” That, right there, is one of my issues with the church.

    Second, worse than the disaster itself is how it has been glorified by the 21st century church. We get this litany of talks (both conference and local) about how much faith these people had and how blessed they were for it. The youth get bombarded with this story in yearly pioneer trek reenactments. But, the stories told in this context are all sugar coated. They come nowhere near the truth.

    What is the lesson to be learned from this disaster? From the church I hear that the lesson is to do what your leaders ask of you, even if it is stupid and contrary to common sense. My reading, and learning of the subject, however, tells me that the moral of the story should be: think about what your leaders say and use your brain to decide whether to follow that counsel (they might be leading you to your doom blindly and mistakenly).

    No matter the learned lessons and accepted miracles in these Handcart Disasters…

    “Completely Avoidable entirely!!!!”

    Patience, something the Bible tells much of, involving GOD’s will/work would have made these hasty leaders plan better!!!” ………….

    Verdict = LDS FAIL (costing many lives) NEEDLESSLY…….

    Thank you for killing my ancestors > LDS Church.

    …and u wonder why i left the church, rofl.
    LDS Church = Great Values, but a waste of yer life being ‘Communisticly Fake’ listening to the dumb falable men that lead this baby-of-a-church.

  6. [...] TC Christensen (who directed 17 Miracles) will show 20 minutes of scenes from his new movie due to come out this [...]

  7. Nolan. John Chislett, one of the Willie company pioneers later left the church. He started claiming later that he was promised by Br. Richards that they would make it to the SLC Valley safely. He says this sometime around the time he is becoming disaffected with he Church. I don’t see quotes from anyone else backing him up. In fact Br. Richards is quoted from more than one source as telling the saints that they could be in for some winter weather and that some of them might die. He said this to the Martin company as the Wilie company that John Chislett was a part of had already left. I admit though that I have not read every word from every original source.

    Now if you believe John Chislett and that he was promised that they would make it safely to the valley, then when could he have been told this by Br. Richards? It could only have been before he left for Zion while he was still in England or possibly when Br. Richards passed them on the trail after they left Florence. Does it even seem rational that Br. Richards would have promised them this at any time when no group of pioneers made it without casualty. Certainly not every single person would make it. No wagon train, handcart company or any other group of pioneers made the trek without some incident or without death. Could he have heard wrong? Could he have made it up? Could he have overheard Br. Richards talking to someone else telling then that they would make it safely and then applied it to the whole group? Could he have been told individually that he would make it safely (which he did)? We look back at history and often think of it in concrete, black and white terms. With most events their it is often difficult if not impossible to say with any degree of certainty that this or that did or did not happen.

  8. I thought the film is very well done and highlights both the miracles of faith as well as the struggles to be faithful.

    My ancestors (PEDER MORTENSEN) left Denmark with a promise that they would all reach the Salt Lake Valley safely. They had no idea at the time that they would be in the Willie company. The family consisted of Peder, his wife and eight children. The oldest (Morten) age 26 was asked to stay in Denmark as a missionary while the rest of the family headed west. The family arrived in Salt Lake as promised.

    My faith is strengthened by the trials they endured.

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