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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. I don’t think I would see the movie. 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, 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.

  2. I’m definitely interested in seeing it! Last summer I sort of stumbled upon Martin’s Cove in Wyoming, where the church has a museum and visitors center. We didn’t have too much time to look around, but it got me interested in the story. I hesitate to put too much blame on Franklin D. Richards…he likely didn’t want to show a lack of faith in God or in Brigham Young, so he urged them on. I blame the whole culture of “follow your leaders, don’t think for yourself.”

  3. My ancestors were in the Martin handcart company and several died along the way. Of (I think?) 7 kids, 4 or 5 survived, the husband died along the way. I’ve read a few books about the trek and I do want to see the movie. That said, the story angers and saddens me. They were set on a mission of horror and they did it because they trusted their leaders. Those that wanted (and several who did) to stay behind were critisized for being apostates. I read somewhere that most of those who did stay behind ended up leaving the next summer and not many of them really left the church. I also heard someone once explain the horror of this trek as “in order for the Saints to survive in UT, they needed only the very strongest of members, so this was, in a way, weeding out the weak from the strong.” WTH!?! I also read that one of the survivors of that trek was in his very old age sitting in a Sunday School class where this was discussed and many were critisizing how the whole trip played out. And then this older gentleman berated them, said that he had been part of that company, and that it was an incredibly spiritual experience. Well, I will defer to the survivors. My great great great grandma who survived the trek started off as a non believing Mormon but did end up joining the church some time after her arrival in SLC so something had to happen on that trip that was faith-affirming. Still, what an unbelievable and unnecessary tragedy. I can say that I do not follow my leaders blindly and, if you ask me, this is a strong example to think for yourself no matter what and make no apologies to those who disagree with that stance.

  4. President David O.McKays family was on the ship Thorton that brought many of the Willie and Martin handcart people over from Europe. They must of listend to Levi Savage because they stayed in Nebraska for two years before coming to Utah. They story of the handcart companies and their rescue is a great story of faith and endurance. It is also a story of bad judgments bad luck and blind obidence leading to disaster.

    I am not sure that the emphasis on the story of the handcart pionners, treks and all that is a good idea. We need to go beyond the sanatized version we get the sunday school mannual

  5. I’m a bit cynical about the stories connected with the handcart treks.

    I remember when President Faust and President Hinckley both talked about the rescuers who carried people across the river — and later died from the experience. That basic story has been repeated in several manuals and various talks by other GAs.

    Then, I learned that was simply not true (Chad Orton’s excellent article: “The Martin Handcart Company at the Sweetwater: Another Look,” — http://byustudies.byu.edu/PDFLibrary/45.3Orton%2060fc35f2-245b-497b-a7ce-e32aa44f58a8.pdf). I don’t think modern leaders deliberately lied. But, I think the myths around the Marin and Willie companies have just got out of hand and developed a life of their own.

    So, my question is how many of the incidents in the movie are accurate?

  6. I would like to see the movie. My triple great grandfather Samuel Gadd and his two sons Daniel 2 and Samuel 10 died with the Willie company. From our genealogy: They were limited to 17 pounds of clothing and bedding per person it wasn’t enough for the cold. After Fort Laramie flour rations were cut from one pound to 3/4 pound to 10 ounces per day. Soon it was unusual to leave camp without burying someone. Three days after Willie left camp in search of help several wagons arrived with food clothing blankets and quilts but nine more died that night.

  7. mcarp, this is not a “church” movie. Levi Savage comes out as a real hero of the movie, in spite of being labeled as an “apostate” early on. I didn’t get the message that we should follow leaders blindly, and found that message refreshing. Clearly, the leaders could have saved a lot of suffering and misery if they had been smarter. I really think you would enjoy it.

    Steve asked how accurate the movie was? Well, I can’t say for sure, but it seemed like it was pretty accurate. It seems to me they did combine some of the stories from the Willie and Martin handcart companies. Clearly Savage was in the Willie company. It is my understanding that the icy river crossing occurred in the Martin company, not Willie. The movie made no allusions to the young men dying soon after the crossing, though plenty of people died of exposure on that icy day. Steve, thanks for the link to the BYU Studies article. For some reason, your link didn’t work, but I found it at http://byustudies.byu.edu/showTitle.aspx?title=7194

    The quote I referenced above from Levi Savage comes from James Chislett’s journal is almost verbatim in the movie–it was very powerful. (Chislett later left the church.) As Lulubelle said, people who balked at going were unfortunately considered apostates–it wasn’t just Savage. Howard’s descriptions of 17 pounds of clothing, and flour rations are spot on in the movie. I think they did pretty well. Some of the stories are a combination of both disasters, but that seems to be the main liberties that the directors took. It is evident that they were trying to be historically accurate, and I think they succeeded. The Wikipedia article says there were cattle and supply wagons, but those were not seen in the movie. Clearly the director was focusing on the handcart experience. I don’t consider those omissions very substantive to the story.

    In the movie, there is a midget named Albert who vows to walk the entire way to Zion. In the credits, they said that they knew the person existed, but they didn’t know the name of the person until after filming was completed. I believe his real name was Robert Pearce. So even when they made mistakes, they tried to fix those errors.

    Thanks to all of you for sharing your family history. I agree with Lulubelle completely; it was “an unbelievable and unnecessary tragedy.”

  8. @Howard

    Hey, I’m a Gadd ancestor, too! Eliza Gadd is my hero.

  9. I saw the movie last week — my comments (gratuitous link alert) are posted here: http://motleyvision.org/ldscinema/2011/06/review-17-miracles-b/

    The movie is generally accurate, although as MH points out, the omission of any mention of the 100 or so Saints who did decide to stay in Nebraska after Levi Savage voiced his concerns is a significant problem (this hurts the credibility of Bro. Willie who implied they had no choice but to continue on without staying where they were — they DID have a choice to stay or simply head back east.)

    Levi Savage is the ‘hero’ of the film, although 17 Miracles attempts to over-Correlate his story down to “isn’t he great for humbling himself and receiving criticism from Church leaders?” instead of appropriately praising him for being right when his leaders were wrong, and almost certainly saving lives by doing so.

    It is strange that modern LDS culture has changed the 200 deaths in the Willie/Martin story from something that the Church should be deeply ashamed happened, to something that’s actively glorified instead. I wonder if the emphasis on Willie/Martin will end up encouraging LDS to research the matter themselves and discover Franklin Richard’s “prophecy” or other LDS leader mistakes and have the opposite effect intended?

    The other irony is that since virtually all of the female pioneers featured in the movie ended up being involved with polygamy almost immediately upon reaching Utah (as did Levi Savage) — the constant modern emphasis on remembering the pioneers may also lead modern LDS to do their own research into the stories behind the stories, and encounter some thorny questions they may not have been expecting.

  10. I have a generally jaded view of pioneer death numbers and “mythology”, and especially the focus on the handcart story and then only focusing on the disaster companies and not the others. It is a mystery to me why we prefer disaster. I was the curator for the permanent exhibit at Winter Quarters. I can’t tell you how many times I was asked in breathless tones (and always looking for the biggest number possible)”How many pioneers died?” One time it just popped out of my mouth, “All of them.” The biggest number possible–and while absolutely true was also absolutely useless information.

    That said, yesterday we went to see this movie. I had very low expectations, but my husband really wanted to see it. His ancestors story (the Mellors)was featured in the “pie story” in this film. I am a very hard nosed critic of how the Mormon pioneer experience, in general, and especially the handcart story is told, but I liked this one. The deaths were neither over or under emphasized for a tragic story and I especially liked the reference to Pres. Faust at the end. I won’t tell you what he said/did because it would definitely be a spoiler, but it seemed just right.

  11. [...] Standard-Examiner gave it 2.5 stars.  Meridian Magazine interview of director T.C. Christensen. Mormon Heretic on 17 Miracles, MH talks about both the movie and the [...]

  12. Kevin, thanks for the link to your review. I thought it was an excellent review. Marjorie, that pie story was great. I must say that I was surprised about Elder Faust. I won’t give it away either, but I will tell everyone that you should stay through the credits to see what Marjorie is talking about. (If you can’t wait, however, Kevin has more spoilers than I did.)

  13. Thanks for the movie review. I hadn’t even heard of this movie before reading your post (likely because I don’t live in Utah ;))

    I find it interesting that in the commments many want to blame this tragedy on the “follow your leaders” mentality, and yet as you stated the Martin and Willie companies lost 17% and 25%, while the Donner Party lost 47%….so what shall we blame THEIR loss on?

  14. From our genealogy paraphrasing: James Chislett one of the sub-captains of the Willie company wrote the Elders were divided about going so late in the season so a meeting was held of four men who had been to Utah three thought they should go the Saints were eager to go so they left Florence on Aug 18, 1856.

    Hi Lulubelle as you probably know Eliza a non-member at the time finished the journey with her 6 remaining children was baptized a week after arriving set apart as a midwife and delivered about 2,000 babies during her 35 years of service.

  15. Leslie, at the beginning of the movie, there is a reference to the Donner party. The LDS should have learned from the disaster about leaving late. they did not.

  16. I’m glad Chad Orton’s excellent article about the Sweetwater crossing is linked to here. He wrote a related myth-debunking article about Francis Webster, the “old man in the back of the Sunday School class” who defended the Willie and Martin companies. It’s available here: http://byustudies.byu.edu/showTitle.aspx?title=7177

    An earlier commenter noted correctly that some of the popular false/embroidered stories about the handcart disaster have been told by General Authorities over the years. However, note that when Pres Hinckley was alerted to the emerging research on the topic, he said that he would no longer tell those handcart stories that had been debunked. Apparently word got around, because I’ve not heard these stories in General Conference since then.

    I’ve not seen the movie and am not sure I wish to, as I have a plenty vivid image of what it might have been like. My great-great grandfather, Robert Reeder, was in the Willie company and lost his father David and sister Caroline on the trail. His recollections of the journey are some of the most vivid I’ve read. I have no doubt that miracles occurred in spite of poor decisions made, but would be hesitant to see a movie depicting miracles without being referred to the journals, etc that document those miracles. I wonder if the filmmakers have a list of their source material somewhere.

    And I’m glad to hear that the movie portrays the difficult dilemma they faced in NE. It wasn’t clear they would be safe and fed and sheltered through the winter if they stayed in NE. They were poorer than most of the Nauvoo saints had been and were foreigners with no home to return to for the winter. It really was a choice between two bad options. Problems all along the way (leaving Liverpool late, fragile handcarts made from uncured wood, etc), for which they were not responsible added up to a true dilemma, as well as a true opportunity for those already in the Utah Territory to live up to their title of “Saints.”

  17. I’m sorry but the historians who love being critical of Mormonism when writing of this story reach into a bag full of jewels and pull out a clod of dirt that crumbles in their hand. The lasting value  in what T. C. Christiansen and Ronald Tanner have done is to display for all time, the real jewels of this story.  The point is God will perform miracles for faithful believers.
    I would like to see academicians (Stegner, Briggs, Carter) and others who want to cast blame on who was negligent  discuss the merits, validity, and reality of the miracles. These miracles were accounts taken from personal journals of poor humble immigrants who had nothing to gain by inventing false accounts of their harrowing experiences. While there will always be faithless critics who claim everything  Joseph Smith did was fraudulent, who can say there is an ounce of guile in the writings of these humble souls. For the most part the authors of these stunningly beautiful miracles never suspected anyone but their immediate family members would ever see their writings; or maybe back in 1857 they all colluded with LDS Church leaders who convinced them to make up the stories about their hardships so that Mormons could use them to deceive the unsuspecting public 150 years later.  I believe everyone of these miracles occurred.  
    Did Franklin Richards or other Mormon leaders make a mistake in this case? Likely so.  It was the mid 1800’s, communications were poor and like today weather is unpredictable. It’s clear, the Willie and Martin handcart companies had no more deaths than were there among other immigrants.    But why dwell on the mistakes of judgment made under difficult circumstances when we can use this story to praise a wonderful God whom can by miracles create building blocks of faith out of such tragedy. 

  18. I would like to see academicians (Stegner, Briggs, Carter) and others who want to cast blame on who was negligent discuss the merits, validity, and reality of the miracles.

    I don’t know any historians who deny that the saints weren’t valiant or weren’t faithful. You seem to be confusing the issues here. Surely the pioneers were incredibly faithful; at the same time, leaders were guilty of poor planning.

    maybe back in 1857 they all colluded with LDS Church leaders who convinced them to make up the stories about their hardships so that Mormons could use them to deceive the unsuspecting public 150 years later.

    Where did this statement come from? Who is claiming that?

    It’s clear, the Willie and Martin handcart companies had no more deaths than were there among other immigrants.

    I’ve done a bit of research here, and I have to disagree with this statement. The Donner Party lost 41 people just 5 years prior to the Willie and Martin disasters, which lost more than 200. Willie/Martin dwarf the deaths in Donner. All other Mormon handcart companies lost 13 or less (the last party lost 0.) This is a tragedy that should have been avoided because Mormons were aware of the Donner party losses. I completely disagree with the characterization that Mormon losses were “average”. Not by a long shot.

    why dwell on the mistakes of judgment made under difficult circumstances? Because those who fail to learn from the past, repeat the mistakes. Mormons didn’t learn from Donner, and repeated the loss of life (by a factor of 5 times greater.)

    But that takes nothing away from the courageous, faithful Mormons that participated in the journey. The movie did an excellent job of showing their sacrifice and faithfulness. On that point we can agree.

  19. @Mormon Heretic
    “I don’t know any historians who deny that the saints weren’t valiant or weren’t faithful. You seem to be confusing the issues here. Surely the pioneers were incredibly faithful; at the same time, leaders were guilty of poor planning.”

    There is no confusion of issues. You simply missed my point. I didn’t disagree that some LDS leaders at the time were guilty of poor planning. Poor planning by humans occurs often throughout history and among all types of organizations including churches, countries, Presidents of the U.S, large corporations etc. That is pretty routine stuff; i.e. BP Gulf Disaster, Watergate, Iran-Contra, Bay of Pigs, Tokyo Nuclear Plants, and others. My point is bad judgment by men is common, miracles are rare. Gold, diamonds, jewels, and many other things have value because of their rarity. Things that are common (sea water, dirt and sand, bad judgment by humans) do not have as high of value. So if you want to concentrate on someone being guilty of bad judgment with regard to an historical event when there are rare and spectacular occurrences that were coincident with the event then it just seems you are focusing on the wrong thing. I agree that the pioneers were incredibly faithful as well. While their faithfulness has much more merit for discussion than poor judgment of thier leaders, their faithfulness is also not the main story.

    “Where did this statement come from? Who is claiming that?”

    No one is claiming that. The statement is obviously made and jest and not true. It was made because anyone who has read much about the criticism of Mormon leaders over the years (and this website is full of such criticisms) knows that critics love to point to mistakes of Mormon leaders as proof that they are not prophetic. After all, if they were prophetic, they could have foreseen what would happen to the Willie and Martin handcart companies and they would have never let them begin the journey.

    “I’ve done a bit of research here, and I have to disagree with this statement. The Donner Party lost 41 people just 5 years prior to the Willie and Martin disasters, which lost more than 200. Willie/Martin dwarf the deaths in Donner. All other Mormon handcart companies lost 13 or less (the last party lost 0.) This is a tragedy that should have been avoided because Mormons were aware of the Donner party losses. I completely disagree with the characterization that Mormon losses were “average”. Not by a long shot.”

    Here you are obviously wrong. The Donner party had 87 members in total and if 41 died. That’s 47% deaths. The combined total of the Willie and Martin handcart company was 980 members. Deaths were approximately 213. That is 22% deaths. Sorry you are just plain wrong. How can anyone believe a 22% death rate is worse than a 47% death rate?

    “why dwell on the mistakes of judgment made under difficult circumstances? Because those who fail to learn from the past, repeat the mistakes. Mormons didn’t learn from Donner, and repeated the loss of life (by a factor of 5 times greater.)”

    You are wrong again. 17 miracles itself noted that after the Willie and Martin disaster, that LDS leaders would not let any companies leave after July 7. So the Mormons did learn and the mistakes were not repeated. Your point of “those who fail to learn from the past will repeat the mistakes of the past”, is your argument for wanting to make something big out of poor human decision-making while ignoring the fact that God intervened in the lives of these people in a real, tangible, and miraculous way. That my friend is the amazing part of this story that makes it worth discussing.

  20. Richard, I’m not sure why you seem so argumentative. It seems to me that we mostly agree except for 2 issues that I will address in a minute. I loved the movie. I recommend it. The pioneers were incredibly faithful. These miracles should be told.

    I am doing a review. Generally this involves discussing what the movie got right, and what it didn’t. You seem to be focusing too much on the negative parts of my review, rather than seeing the entire review. I sense that you are perhaps over-sensitive to criticism, especially when it involves the church. Surely that is your right, and it is my right to disagree with you.

    As for deaths, let’s compare apples to apples: Mormon Handcart travel. Please refer to the table below. Note that the Willie company had 4 times more deaths (16.8 vs 4.7%) than company 1. Martin had 5 times more deaths (25.2 vs 4.7%) than company 1 (led by Edmund Ellsworth). These numbers are from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mormon_handcart_pioneers#1856:_Willie_and_Martin_handcart_companies

    company % deaths
    1 4.7%
    2 3.2%
    3 2.2% approx
    4 16.8%
    5 25.2% could be higher
    6 0.7% could be higher
    7 1.8% approx
    8 2.1% approx
    9 0.4%
    10 0.0%

    Even if you don’t want to blame Brigham Young for the greatly inflated deaths of companies 4 and 5, Brigham blamed Franklin D Richards. The buck has to stop somewhere, and Brigham blamed Richards. Even though the pioneers were valiant, these were unnecessary deaths. But we can still celebrate the pioneer faith and miracles. But I wish these deaths were prevented, and I wish they had listened to Levi Savage.

    And the movie was excellent, and I recommend it to others.

  21. Thanks for your review. My wife and I were touched by the movie and learned from it. I did not know that Willie did not have much of a choice. Given that Brigham would send out rescue teams, it appears to me that Willie made the better of the available choices.

    And thanks so much for including Francis Webster’s testimony. It had touched me before and my heart jumped to my throat again.

    Glad it is not my place to judge. I trust that I can also prove faithful, even given that my fate is often determined by imperfect men.

    The only other thing I know about F D Richards is he was the only speaker in the Journal of Discourses who identified Jesus as Jehovah. Not sure if that means anything…

  22. I also appreciated Levi’s courage in speaking out. He was invited to be a sub-captain because of his experience and he was invited to speak by Willie. We should not have to worry if we speak out honest thoughts.

  23. I stumbled across this article when I was looking for reviews after being invited by a friend to go watch this movie.

    I enjoyed reading the review as well as the comments after, but I feel I should point out an alternative (though not necessarily opposing) experience on my part.

    I have heard the stories of both handcart companies many times, and I have never heard any of the teachers stress or even make any sort of mention of the idea that we must sustain our leaders no matter what. In fact the teachers explained just the opposite, that the company was warned by several experienced people that it was going to be a huge risk to leave so late.

    I have to wonder why this difference, since I was raised in Idaho and graduated from BYU, my teachers were not radically different from anyone else. I really have to wonder if some members of the Church, and not the Church itself, are stressing parts that they personally choose, outside of what the Church itself is trying to teach, perhaps?

    And I find the comparison between the Willie and Martin Handcart companies and the Donner Party completely misleading. Other than that the two groups were “tragedies,” there are no real comparisons between the two. Stating that the Church should have known better because of news of the Donner Party, which suffered from completely different circumstances, is disingenuous.

  24. [...] 17 Miracles: The Faithful and Foolhardy Willie Handcart Company (MormonHeretic.org review) [...]

  25. MH, I enjoyed reading your well-written movie review. I also appreciated the time you took to include so many quotes, and look up extra historical facts from Wiki [such as the percentages of deaths per company, etc]. Thank you for not giving too many spoilers. I actually look forward to seeing this movie with my family. Another reason I wish to go is that I have been doing a lot of reading about the M&W handcart companies over the past month. I look forward to seeing how the stories I’ve come to love are presented.

    Here are a couple of my thoughts to add to your interesting collection so far:

    1. IT’S COMPLICATED!:
    You were absolutely correct in mentioning that this historic event has way too many “complexities” to be easily understood, or fairly criticized. I think that point is worth repeating and underlining. It is also important to remember a 2 hr. movie can only share a very small glimpse into the myriad of issues surrounding the entire event and the decision process to leave late in the season. I would say that the biggest problem was that they sailed way too late from ENGLAND…something I don’t know if the movie addresses or not – however, once again that decision was also very complicated. From my perspective, I’m simply grateful that the story is being told. So many people are not aware of these handcart companies and their experiences. It is an important piece of American history. These brave and faithful men, women & children – along with their heroic rescuers – deserve to be remembered. From the sound of your review, T.C. Christensen has done an admirable job telling their stories. That makes it worth going to see and support in and of itself!

    Although this post is written as a movie review, you did not mention the cinamatography, sound, lighting, casting, acting, editing, or any other technical aspect of the film. I will have to assume that Christensen did such a marvelous job with all the mechanics that you were able to forget it was a movie, and focus on the story. [Always a good sign of great movie making!]

    2. 17-in-One:
    The more details I learn about the Willey and Martin companies the more I simply stand in awe that anyone at all survived. The fact that so many actually DID LIVE is beyond amazing to me, and truly one big miracle! These immigrants had brought absolutely no clothing suitable for the harsh mid-western USA, and certainly were not prepared for sub-zero blizzard conditions. They were mainly comprised of indoor factory workers with no idea how to be a “pioneer”, light a fire, cook over a campfire, or walk 1 mile, let alone 20 miles a day. By the time they had reached Nebraska their shoes, if they actually still had any, were in shreds. By Wyoming they were walking in burlap. When they launched the trek in Iowa it was a steamy 100+ degrees outside and the last thing they would be inspired to bring was heavy clothing, blankets, or heaven forbid, their “woolens”! Their strict 17 pound limit would add to the incentive to leave it all behind. If they had been initially inspired, the items were typically bartered for food along the way, or simply dumped on the side of the road to help ease the load and increase speed. I don’t know how many of you have lived through a truly frigid winter, but I lived in upstate Wisconsin for two winters where most days never raised above zero degrees, and it was common to see double digits well below zero. Did you know if you go outside when it’s colder than minus 25 the fluid in your eye sockets will freeze? Random fact, but I simply can’t imagine being out in that kind of weather condition for days on end and still manage to survive like these folks did! It’s a really powerful story of endurance, and courage, and faith, and hope and miracles. Great movie material! And, even better, it all really happened to real people.

    3. NOT “THE WORST”:
    As you have mentioned, and as has been written in several books, “The Martin Handcart Company tragedy was the worst disaster in the history of western overland travel”. Yes, One hundred and forty-five tragically perished in the Martin Company crossing. However, historically “the worst” overland tragedy occured when the State of Georgia with the support of the United States Army marched approximately twelve thousand Cherokee Indians by force to Oklahoma in the dead of winter of 1838-39. Over Four Thousand Cherokee men, women, and children froze or starved to death on what became known as “The Trail of Tears”.

    History has many stories to tell us. I personally think the most important take-home whenever we learn about the sorrows, trials and errors of the past is not how we can prevent sorrows, trials, and errors [because often, we simply can't] but rather, how it can help us better deal with our own sorrow, trials and errors.

  26. I drove 240 miles to see this MOVIE and I can say, “IT WAS SO WORTH IT!” I have many ancestors who crossed the plains as Pioneers and I get to talk about Pioneers in Church tomorrow. They are all dear to my heart and have served as “heroes” in my life!

  27. With Pioneer Day approaching, I suppose that’s why the recent interest in this review. WellAnFree, can you tell me what comparisions with Donner Party you object to? I’m unclear. Mormon Soprano and Mary, thanks for your kind thoughts!

  28. [...] was Pioneer Day in Utah.  My post on 17 Miracles would have been the most appropriate Pioneer Day post, but I don’t think I can re-use that [...]

  29. I saw the movie on Saturday and I was both impressed by the movie itself and the courage of the Saints. As was stated above, mistakes were made. But mistakes were made, and are made all the time. We should at the very least appreciate the courage of those who made the trip. They had no idea what they were to face. How many of us would bw willing to do that today? Very few.

    I admire the courage of Levi Savage. I knew the story before and marvel at the fact that he still went with the company knowing what might happen. I doubt there is that many brave among us.

    You have to view what happened in that time in the proper context. We’d complain if the air conditioning in the car didn’t work. Or if the Wendy’s fryer was out when we stopped for food.

  30. I have read that the leaders in Iowa didn’t get word that two more shiploads of Saints were on their way. Also, the leaders in Salt Lake also did not know and were not planning on sending help as they had in the past. The Saints who followed the direction of their leaders felt they were following the direction of the Lord. Who are we to question their, or the leaders, actions? It’s easy to second guess and judge when those who are being judged are not here to defend their actions. Lighten up! and be glad they were willing to follow the Prophet! Could we and would we?

    I saw the move just this afternoon and loved it. I am thankful for the faithfulness of those Saints.

  31. @mcarp
    I’m only nineteen years old and all my life have grown up LDS so say I’m a child that doesn’t know anything but I have nothing but the upmost respect for the pioneers. I wouldn’t be where I now if they wouldn’t have made that journey and I’m so grateful that they did. Life isn’t easy. They went through things that most of us would bail out of in a heart beat.. I know that they don’t regret there decision for a minute because what they did made it so they can be with there families for eternity and that right there is what the LDS church is all about.

  32. We took our family to see 17 miracles for family homeeving. What a spiritual event it was for me peronaly. My six children made some of the most remarkable comments afterwards. It is so easy for the young ones to just believe. My wife Shiela and i have had both miracles happen ton us together and inivdualy. We are truely blessed by a Father in Heaven Who will give us His mirsey and blessings when we need them the most. Thank you for this opportunity to see first hand what some of the saints went through. I believe we should all be ashamed if we don’t give our all with all we have to protect our families and keep the posterity going forward with rigtchous works.

  33. [...] and there are plenty of maps on the Internet to take you to them. Happy Pioneer Day! (Hat tip: "17 Miracles: The Faithful and Foolhardy Willie Handcart Company" at Mormon Heretic is where I found the link to the Sweetwater publication.) Posted by Jeff Lindsay: at 7:13 AM [...]

  34. It was a simple falacy of human judgement which it not perfect. It happens. I really don’t like to disect others failures unless there is some learning point. Most of these comments are blame focused. Most of these leaders likely blamed themselves more than we know. The glory of this event is the people and what they became in the face of the worst events. No one shot each other. No one took each others food. They were devout, they knew truth and they proved their devotion with the ultimate sacrifice. There is a special place in heaven for them. I watched the movie last night and I am fortunate to be related to some of the rescue party that came. I would gladly participate again today, if I were called to do it. What an honor.

  35. The members of the church that crossed the plains displayed extraordinary faith. They did not have to go. Many of my ancestors went on that trek and I look up to them for strength and power. I would love to see that movie and re-live the trek that I went on. Just my personal experience was spiritual and it helped me to feel closer to those that have passed on.

  36. I think it appropriate to at least consider the issue of blame because it leads to the more important and relevent question of “Do I back down when I am called apostate by a church leader, even if I know I am right?” This question is beautifully posed by the old man who died early on in the trek (who was in a sense goaded into going on the journey despite his old age) and by frontman Levi Savage. And I don’t think the answer comes from the movie or from historians. It comes from ourselves, yo.

  37. I bought the DVD of “17 Miracles” because I like pioneer stories as I think these people exhibited a physical and emotional stamina that those in the 21st Century have not typically experienced. I wonder, “What enabled these people to endure conditions that one in the 21st Century couldn’t image?”

    Those to judge harshly the troubled handcart companies of Willie and Martin and apparently the two wagon trains that brought up the rear, look back at this has a failed effort. I look at these efforts as an amazing effort that was hit with one after another of bad luck yet instead of giving up they moved forward. I look at the Willie and Martin events and wonder ‘at what point, might these disasters been prevented?” The best I have been able to arrive at is that Richards should not have allowed the Europeans to depart England two months later than normal. But then again, I have not read anything about the migration issues that these people were facing in Europe that was driving them to leave for Utah.

    Once in Nebraska it is true that 100 of these people opted to stay rather than leave with the Willie / Martin handcart companies, but could this remote town on the edge of the American wilderness have supported some 1200 people over a winter and into the following spring? Such a massive number of people would likely have also resulted in major supply problems. Additionally, these communities were not particularly welcoming of Mormons being among them.

    I continue to have questions about why the food supplies were not replenished along the way. The women and children were finding buffalo chips for fires so why weren’t they killing game along the way? Setting rabbit snares or fishing to supplement their food shortage? I have questions — I am not judging them.

    As for the elderly man who with his wife and daughters left for Utah / Zion even though he believed he would die along the way, I marvel at what his efforts did that his daughters arrived in Utah. One daughter along with her future husband had Ricks College named after them. It is all part of the fabric of life how events weave themselves into events.

    I don’t blame Brigham Young for these events. This was in 1856 with no means of rapid communications. When he became informed of the numbers in dire straits on the plains, he immediately sent out rescue teams which included one of his own sons. (Not so with the Donner Party. Help from Californians for these folks did not come easily.) I think that most of these handcart people were not interested in ‘blaming others’ for their plight – and that is what, I think, gave them the unique strength to carry on not only on the trek to Utah but to subsequently go to remote locations and set up new towns.

    Lessons were learned from these troubled events and, most importantly, changes implemented so that no other disasters happened again. One was a rule that no handcart company was to leave after July 7th.

    I like Levi Savage JR — I would want all of my neighbors to be of the same good character and dependability as he appeared to have been. I plan to read more about him.

  38. MH — I’d take issue with your wife about the first 15 minutes of the movie having too much Mormon faith presentation. This was, after all, a religious movement. It showed the life of a Mormon woman with two small children who had to have the courage to sneak herself and her two children out from a household of domestic abuse to travel half way around the world. What courage that must have been to leave one’s abusive husband in the middle of the 19th Century! And then to successfully get herself and two children all the way to Utah. The discussion about the disabled Mormon who had been rejected by society until the Mormon missionaries entered his life shows the richness in diversity of those who sought to leave their homelands for Utah.

  39. Rebecca, that’s not what my wife was complaining about. It was the portrayal of the Mormons at church. She didn’t like the portrayal of the Mormons. She liked the story about the woman leaving an abusive husband.

  40. @mcarp
    Hi mcarp. Would you please cite the journal with that quote by Franklin Richards?

  41. I haven’t as yet seen the movie, but look forward to seeing it. I have been in a position within my ward and Stake to have participated in 2 martin’s cove treks as well as one in another stake that we did locally.

    The local one was previous to my Martin’s cove experience. The leaders tried to hard to “have experiences” for the youth and I made a vow to ensure in the future that we didn’t do too many contrived things to give kids “spiritual experiences”.

    My Martin’s cove experiences were fantastic, and I think the kids learned about perseverance and empathy, and many other lesson. We weren’t trying to teach them to follow us blindly. At the same time the way in which the groups were organized and the numbers of pioneers that made it to Utah, couldn’t have happened if they had gone more individually. I love history, both church and secular for lack of a better word, because we can choose how to interpret it. Popular history tells us that JFK’s presidency was Camelot, when the real history is much more complex. So it is here, maybe people have embellished or glorified it, when we know the truth is much more complex.

  42. My family were in the Martin Company of 9 in the family 2 died. My great gradmonther, Janet Gourley made the treck at the age of 8. Her older sister Nicholus was 11.

    As far as I can discover Janet and Nicholus were the last two of that company to die. Nicholus in Holden, Utah and Janet in the little Canadian Mormon town of Raymond, Alberta. As Wallae Stegner said, thier women were magnificent. I have a wedding picture, she was 19 and it showed large gnarled hands, in a phot taken the year of her death you can see the hands. The toil of nearly a century shows there.

    I stand in awe of their dedication and courage.

  43. The Musical version of these stories-Trail of Dreams-produced in aprox 1997, and performed in Utah during the Sesquicentennial celebration year, offered more insight, accuracy and heart than this film. I appreciated and enjoyed the film, but missed seeing some valuable parts. The incredible soundtrack from the play is still available and provides more info. about the characters and statistics of these people & their journey.

  44. C Wilcox, can you provide more details here? How did the musical provide “more insight, accuracy and heart than this film”? (I haven’t seen the musical, but I am quite skeptical of your comment without any details.

  45. I am an excommunicated, but not bitter, Mormon (something about being gay, and that’s an abomination yada yada yada). My ancestors were part of the Willie Handcart Company. My ggg grandfather was one of the 15 people buried in a common grave at the Sweetwater crossing in Wyoming. My gg grandfather was one of the brave, strong young men that carried people across the river. I have always cherished my Mormon Heritage and at the same time have developed a very strong aversion to the, what I consider, naive and ignorant following that Mormon leadership demands and touts as faith.

    I find myself wanting to watch this movie to understand and appreciate my own ancestors but at the same time I am reluctant to buy into the whole faithful, blessed pioneers part. I’ll likely watch it in the privacy of my own home, and I’ll probably need a shit load of Kleenex but I don’t know that I will be recommending this to any of my friends. :o)

  46. I am an active member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints and these pioneers are some of my greatest heros. Like many of you, I have wondered if they made a mistake in moving forward to Salt Lake Valley at such a late date in the season. But, once they made that decision, it doesn’t matter if they made a mistake or not! The Lord did help them and many of them did make it. When you consider the horrible circumstances that they endured, it is a miracle that even 1 made it to the Salt Lake Valley. I tend to agree with Levi Savage, that they should have waited it out, but the reality is that they didn’t. People are not perfect and they sometimes make mistakes and as to whether this was a mistake or not, I am not in a position to determine either way. I will tell you this, I have gathered so much strength and hope and faith though the examples in the lives of these amazing handcart pioneers. Hind sight makes everything obvious, but they did not have the benefit of hind sight, so, in the midst of critisism I say, they were faithful people who survived a horrible ordeal for their God.

  47. Has anybody out there actually listed the 17 miracles? I loved the movie and would love a list

  48. just stumbled upon this site. i live in arizona and have not heard of this movie. i was raised in texas and new mexico where there are few mormons. the way of thinking between mormons raised and living in utah and arizona is vastly different from mormons raised and living elsewhere, where the church membership is in the minority. i have been a victim of religious prejudice and victim of racial prejudice (i am caucasion) i lived in utah for 2 years. i have been in arizona, unfortunately for 25 years. the mormons here think differently. example: when the movie “the passion of the Christ” came out the mormons in arizona got all worked up, said it was blasphemy to watch it, and said the prophet said not to watch it. my point is that it seems to me that utah and arizona mormons get too zealous and misinterpret what church leaders say, let personal opinions creep in to church doctrine during teaching classes and so forth. By saying we must follow church leaders blindly is what i heard in utah and what i hear in arizona. never heard it from mormons elsewhere unless they came from arizona and utah. also, the prophet and apostles do not always have the voice of God whispering in their ear constantly or have God putting thoughts in their mind constantly as to what is right or wrong to do concerning everyday life. they are human. and God gives answers on His timeline, not ours. regarding history: there is always holes, we don’t know everything, and there are always different points of views; goes for archeaology, math, science, art, medicine, etc. too. i would like to see this movie as my husbands ancestors came from England over the plains to utah. my parents were converts. my great-great uncle was albert sidney johnston (johnston’s army) for you mormon history buffs. my ancestor was sent to confront my husband’s ancestors.

  49. Miracles are gold, someone said above.

    I have read and pondered the Willie and Martin handcart experience many times over the years, but never knew about the miracles.

    The movie’s director said, in a Meridian Mag interview:
    “I was researching for just a little story that happened during the handcarts, thinking maybe that would make a film. As I got into it, reading journals and learning more about the Willie-Martin handcart trek, I kept coming across stories about families getting into these dire circumstances, and then a miracle would happen, and it would sustain them and help them. Then I’d read about somebody else and it was the same kind of thing, over and over…”

    This, too, is excellent scholarship. The movie shows great objectivity, in my opinion: the good, the bad, the ugly. It has been my continual experience that the Restored Gospel can always withstand this kind of honest scrutiny, and I always profit by ramming my mental crowbar into any crack I see and wrenching with all my strength (prayerfully in private, not in Gospel Doctrine class.)

    Mighty prayer itself is a pouring out of the whole soul, struggling, wrestling. Hot or cold are preferable to luke warm.

    Since watching the movie last evening, I have already found journal entries documenting other miracles not shown in the screenplay. No doubt in my mind there were far more than 17.

  50. One little known item is the weather. It was an unusual year for weather because of a volcano eruption in Hawaii earier in the year and the temperatures were unusually low. It is often said “it was a cold winter”, I don’t think people relize that it was -50 degrees in places along the route. That is far colder than many would think. “Unprepared for the cold winter of 1855 and 1856 and that terrible winter of 1856 and 1857 with a snow fall of over four feet on the level. Great drifts of snow blocked up all travel and starvation seemed imminent for a time and perhaps nothing but the great abundance of wild game prevented actual want for food.”

    http://www.usgennet.org/usa/ne/topic/resources/OLLibrary/tekamah/pages/tkma0003.htm

    No ones fault but it certainly had an unexpected impact on all.

    http://www.soest.hawaii.edu/GG/HCV/mloa-eruptions.html

    The lava flow of 1855-1856 is said to be one of the greatest flows ever seen by modern observers.

    http://www.soest.hawaii.edu/GG/HCV/COAN/XXI.html

    AND Costa Rica
    The Turrialba Volcano is 3 329 meters high and the last major eruptions were in 1856

    http://www.costaricanewssite.com/costa-rica-volcanoes/

    So, yes they had it rougher than they realized and did not know the reason. Interesting.

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