Handcarts and Grecian Tragedy

Most of the time when we talk about the handcart companies, we mean the two companies which were caught in the snow in Wyoming and had to be rescued.  Their story started months before Winter set in, when they left Iowa City, IA, in the middle of July.  I recently found this amazing website which draws on primary sources and provides a day by day account of the handcarts’ progress.

It has been an odd experience for me to read the journals and track their progress as they start out.  When a journal entry says:  “Made seventeen miles today.  Good spirits in camp.”, I feel like I am watching a child playing innocently too close to a dangerous road.  The knowledge of what is going to happen to these people overshadows everything.  When they have several days in succession where they make good progress, I find myself mentally urging them forward even faster, although I already know how it will all end.  When they stop for several days to rest, I feel like scolding them.   There is a kind of slow unfolding, where some parts of the story inspire false hope and other parts point towards the inevitable tragic fate.

There is so much about what they did that is still inexplicable.  Even after reading their own words and the official company log, I don’t understand many of their decisions.  Here are a few of my questions, before they are even out of Iowa:

1.  Levi Savage records that their ration starting out from Iowa City was 10 ounces of flour per man per day, nine ounces for women, and half that for children.  I looked at the wrapper on my whole grain bread this morning.  One slice is 1.5 oz, with 110 calories.  So, about 6 2/3 slices of bread per day, total, for men who were pulling heavy loads for 12-17 miles per day.  That works out to less than 800 calories.  There was also a ration of pork, at a rate of 10 ounces per 4 weeks, (yes, you read that correctly) and some sugar, tea, and coffee, but these were hardly ever provided.  Our people were starving to death before they even left civilization, and the records state that people from the farms and villages they passed through sometimes had pity and brought food into the camps, and if they didn’t, the men were driven by hunger to walk to the nearest town and beg for food.  That image haunts and horrifies me.  I wonder what they expected when they got past the Missouri river, where there were no more farms and towns?

2.  They left Iowa City in mid-July, arrived at Council Bluffs on August 10th, and rested there for a week, leaving on July 16.  So, for the first month on the trail, they travelled 250 miles, and that was over the easiest part.  They still had a thousand miles to go, some of it over mountains, and without ready access to additional food supplies.  Did they look at a calendar and calculate that their current rate of travel would put them into Salt Lake City around Christmas?  I wonder what they were thinking.

The story of the Mormon migration has so many elements of drama that it is easy to appear melodramatic when talking about it.  But the slow daily progress of these people who attempted to walk from Iowa to Utah needs no embellishment.  Their journals speak for them, and they give a matter-of-fact recounting of what they went through.  Wallace Stegner summarized their story this way, in The gathering of Zion:

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.

If you have any interest in primary sources and the study of our history, the website linked above is an excellent resource, and I urge you to see what it offers.



  1. Really nice post, Mark. Reading their story while knowing what is coming is like yelling at the Sweet Young Thing not to go downstairs to investigate the strange noise in the horror flick. I get a queasy feeling reading your link, knowing that it was real and not Hollywood.

    I hadn’t known about the site before. Thanks.

  2. What a great site- Reading it is hard, knowing the outcome- you’re right, I want to urge them on, as if the sheer power of my will could change history.

  3. If the ounces were by weight, then 10 ounces of whole wheat flour has 959 calories. 20% fat raw pork comes in at 744 calories or an extra 26.5 calories a day. You are right that that isn’t alot of calories for such labor.

    I’d be interested if that is a representative hand-cart ration. Not all handcart companies went through the trials of Martin and Willey. Of course the LDS pioneer database has amazing primary sources. I forget the names of the missionaries that have dedicated themselves to it. They have done us all a great service.

  4. I’d be interested if that is a representative hand-cart ration.

    I’ve looked for that, J., and haven’t been able to find what the more successful handcart companies provided for food. If anybody has this information, please speak up!

    For whatever reason, people in the Willie company were dying before they even got out of Iowa. As early as September, just a month out of Florence, NE, Levi Savage reports that people were failing fast, and there were deaths almost every day. And they hadn’t encountered any cold weather yet. Contrast that with other companies which had very few deaths, if any at all.

  5. Notes from our family genealogy indicate that they began with one pound of flour per day but at Fort Laramie it was reduced to 3/4 pound and at Independence Rock it was cut to 10 ounces.

    After that it became colder and it was unusual to leave a campground without burying one or more. Eventually the flour ran out. They killed two cattle and Captain Willie rationed the last of the hard bread before he rode off in search of the relief wagons. He returned three days later bringing flour, potatoes, onions and a limited supply of warm clothing.

  6. Joe Geisner says:

    Thank you for the thoughtful post. As Mark points out the handcart experiment was tragic at best. When one considers that only 4.3 % of all pioneers who traveled to SLC from 1848 to 1869 traveled by handcart, but 15% of the deaths on the trail happened if one was pulling or pushing a handcart.

    The church’s website is very informative. See the Ensign July 2006 article by Linda Dekker for a wonderful chart that lists numbers in companies, wagons and deaths. It is amazing to see how the deaths drop in the last two companies as the number of wagons with supplies goes up. The standard was one wagon for every one hundred people. The 1859 company seems to have not faired as well even with the high number of wagons.

    The church’s website has another incredible resource. The Mormon Overland Travel, 1847-1868, is the most complete listing of individuals and companies in which Mormon pioneer emigrants traveled west to Utah from 1847 through 1868. It has lists of the travels in each company and documentary sources for each company. It is incredible. Unfortunately I can’t put in the links, it seems to mess up my response.

    In these accounts one can find numerous writings of hunger and starvation, even in the 1860 handcart companies. The church has done an great service by providing these accounts and helping us understand the sacrifice of these brave pioneers.

  7. It’s as hard to maintain vigorous physical activity when you’re hungry as it is to hold your breath for a long time: At a certain point, even the utmost willpower takes second place to the body’s demands to stop burning calories it isn’t taking in. The hunger would almost entirely explain why they went slowly and had to rest often.

  8. Christy’s article on the Willie and Martin handcart companies suggests that the basic daily food ration for all companies was built on a pound of flour per person per day (plus meat from beef cattle and wild game), although women and children were allotted less (23-27, 64n.42). (I assume he is referring to all handcart companies, not simply the Willie and Martin companies.)

  9. Thanks for the reference, Justin.

    Perhaps that amount of food what the suggested ration, but the Willie company was unprepared and didn’t provision themselves well. Here is what Levi Savage said on July 12, 1856, just one week after the start of the journey:

    Several in camp are severely ill. Our rations are very short, viz. 10 ounces flour per one day, 10 ounces pork per 28 days. Also short rations of tea, coffee, sugar, rice and apples.

  10. Sorry, make that July 24. They started out on July 16.

  11. Mark, I had some thoughts similar to your first point about hunger when I learned of the Hodgetts Company and the Hunt Company. These companies left Iowa City a couple weeks after the Willie Company and a few days later than the Martin Company, and didn’t arrive in Salt Lake until the middle of December. They experienced the same weather as the Willie Company and the Martin Company, but few of their members died. The difference is they were travelling with wagons instead of handcarts. When trouble hit their bodies weren’t already depleted to the breaking point.

    Number of deaths for the different the companies:
    Willie, 69 out of 500 migrants.
    Martin, 150-170 out of 575.
    Hodgetts, 10 out of 150.
    Hunt, 19 out of 300.

  12. There’s an interesting detail in an Ensign article. The decision to move forward from Florence, Nebraska was made independently three times.

    The famous Levi Savage story happened in Florence after the Willie company had walked 200 miles from Iowa City.

    Levi Savage, a subcaptain, was one who opposed the decision. But he said, “Seeing you are to go forward, I will go with you; … will suffer with you, and if necessary, will die with you.” The Willie company left on August 16.

    The Martin company arrived in Florence after the Willie company had left. After several meetings the Martin company decided to move ahead, leaving on August 25. By September 2, 1856, the two independent wagon companies had also left Florence.

  13. John Mansfield, I think that is exactly right. There wasn’t enough for them to eat, so there were no physical reserves left after three months of difficult physical exertion.

    The company log tells how there were wagons to haul the flour, but then some of the the cattle which pulled the wagons were lost in a buffalo stampede, so they had to put some of the flour on the handcarts, making them even heavier, and thereby slowing them down even more. Then they got so hungry the killed the remaining cattle. Honestly, it is like watching an overmatched chess player having his pieces systematically taken off the board until he simply has no moves left.