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