A legacy to remember
- Chris Baxter
Why would 187 youth of this area's Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints take a week of this valuable summer for the honor of a few days' worth of pushing and pulling handcarts through miles of dusty sagebrush under a hot Wyoming sun?
To begin to answer that question we need to go back about a century and a half.
In simple terms of numbers of lives lost, the fate of the Martin and Willie handcart companies in 1856 was without a doubt one of the worst tragedies to befall a migrating group along the Oregon Trail of the mid-1800s.
A late start from their staging area in Iowa City near the Mississippi and further delays along the trail itself would not have been so critical in a typical year. But 1856 was the wrong year for late travel on the Plains.
Sudden mid-winterlike weather in October would prove fatal for many of these emigrants, mostly members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints seeking to join their fellow saints in the Great Salt Lake Valley.
By the middle of October, still hundreds of miles from their goal and with meager provisions now scarce, the snow, freezing temperatures and bone-chilling river crossings were quickly taking their toll on even the strongest.
In Salt Lake, Brigham Young, the president of the LDS church, had received news of the plight of these late travelers early in October and had immediately, in no uncertain terms, called upon church members there to "Go and bring in those people now on the Plains."
Despite the immediacy with which the rescue parties were organized and on their way, it would take three weeks before the first of the rescuers could reach the Willie company and even later for the Martin company, which was farther east.
In the midst of strong, frigid winds in what is now central Wyoming the first rescuers helped already weakened and freezing members of the Martin company ford an ice-filled Sweetwater River in order to reach some semblance of shelter in a crease of the hills nearby.
That place of slight shelter is now known as Martin's Cove and was the scene of some of the worst suffering and loss of life to occur along the entire trail.
It was here that blizzards accompanied by temperatures reaching 11-below zero forced the company to remain for several days in early November. It is believed that in this spot alone some 56 people died.
In her journal, Jens Nielson, one who lived through these experiences, simply gave up trying to explain the trials of their journey when she wrote, "No person can describe it, nor could it be comprehended or understood by any human living in this life, but those who were called to pass through it."
It is estimated that nearly a quarter of the roughly 1,000 emigrants who made up the two handcart companies died before arriving in the Salt Lake Valley.
For years after these tragic events, many who weren't a part of this experience focused on the perceived foolishness of such a late journey that resulted in, from their view, so much needless and pointless death and suffering.
Francis Webster responded to these hindsight judgments with these remarks...
"Mistake to send the Handcart Company out so late in the season? Yes! But I was in that company and my wife was in it. ...We suffered beyond anything you can imagine and many died of exposure and starvation, but did you ever hear a survivor of that company utter a word of criticism?... Was I sorry that I chose to come by handcart? 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 Handcart Company."
For those who were there, their suffering was anything but pointless.
James E. Faust, a counselor in the First Presidency of the LDS church who only recently died, pointed out that, "In the heroic effort of the handcart pioneers, we learn a great truth. All must pass through a refiner's fire, and the insignificant and unimportant in our lives can melt away like dross and make our faith bright, intact and strong. There seems to be a full measure of anguish, sorrow and often heartbreak for everyone, including those who earnestly seek to do right and be faithful. Yet this is part of the purging to become acquainted with God."
This is why these youth came here to be inspired by the example of those who passed through their own "refiner's fire," not only without complaint or bitterness, but with gratefulness for the privilege of doing so. It is an attitude made possible because of an understanding that our struggles, even unto death should they be, can be the means to a far greater end if we let them.
For these youth, this is their pioneer ancestors' gift to them.
A legacy remembered.