The Mormon Handcart Disaster!

Mormon Handcarts

Mormon Handcart Monument, Winter Quarters, Nebraska



2006 is the sesquicentennial (150th) year celebration of the Mormon Handcart Treks which began in 1856. The handcart companies, there were ten total, left from Iowa City, Iowa, which was the Western end of the railroad during the handcart trek years of 1856-1860. The Mormon Emigrants would sail from Europe into New York, Boston or Philadelphia and then go by rail to Iowa City. There they would form up into companies, get outfitted with their handcarts and provisions, and begin the 2 1/2- to 3-month trek to Salt Lake City, Utah.


The Mormon Church actively promotes its American pioneer heritage providing covered wagons and handcarts in parades and displays around the country. Their members dress in period dress and ride and pull the wagons and handcarts, much to the delight of television cameras and newspaper reporters who always find a favorable audience to view re-enactments displaying the proud “American Pioneer Spirit.” Was the Mormon Handcart Scheme really a success? NO!

“If heroic, the handcart emigration also produced the greatest, if least known, disaster in the story of the nation’s western migration, exceeding in lives lost the more famous Donner party tragedy of 1846-47 by some seven times.” (Forgotten Kingdom, p. 104)

“One thing is certain – the handcart disaster of 1856 was the greatest single tragedy in the history of the nation’s move west in the nineteenth century.” (Forgotten Kingdom, p. 118)

The Mormon Church has successfully promoted a history which favorably promotes a positive image but is exactly opposite of the real history of the event. What was the actual number of lost lives in this “greatest single tragedy in the history of the nation’s move west in the nineteenth century”?

“An accurate count of the number who died will probably never be known because the authorities tried to keep the full horror of the disaster from becoming public, especially in England.” (Forgotten Kingdom, p. 118)

Mormon Historian B.  H. Roberts gives the best estimate that I have seen as 222:

“The exact number of those who perished in this company is not of record in our official annals; and it is difficult to fix upon any approximate number with certainty. … All things considered the estimate of Chislett and Jacques, – putting their estimate at 145 – is perhaps not far from the facts. And these added to Willie’s seventy-seven deaths, brings the total of deaths to 222.” (Roberts, Comprehensive History, 4:101), (recorded BYU Studies, Vol 37, Number 1, 1997-98, p. 73, under footnote 130)

The Mormon Church is a record-keeping church. They have records of everything. Speaking at the Mormon Church General Conference in October 1901, Elder Anthon H. Lund, Second Counselor to 61st Mormon Prophet, Joseph F. Smith, said this about record keeping:

“Speaking about the Lord having inspired His servants to keep records, I am reminded that we as a people are making history, and this history should also be kept. On the very day that the Church was organized the Prophet received a revelation which said that there should be a record kept in the Church. Afterwards, on several occasions, the Lord instructed Joseph in this matter, telling him to appoint a general historian, who should keep a record of all the events in the Church.  A year and a half afterward he was told to keep a record of the Saints and their condition in the Church.” (Conference Report, October 1901, p. 23)

Why then are there no accurate records of the number of deaths in this, the worst disaster in American pioneer emigration history? The answer is quite simple: The information was secreted away by the Mormon Church so the converts in Europe would not be alarmed and believe that the leaders of the Church were false prophets and apostles.


How could a divine plan, put forth by a “Prophet of God” end up as the worst pioneer emigration disaster in American history? Mormon apostle Franklin D. Richards, who was appointed as the President of the European Mission and put in charge of the handcart migration, wrote an editorial in the Millennial Star (Mormon newspaper published in Europe) on December 22, 1855:

“The plan about to be adopted by the P.E. Fund Company, of substituting handcarts for ox-teams in crossing the plains, has been under consideration for several years. The plan proposed is novel, and, when we allow our imagination to wander into the future and paint the scenes that will transpire on the prairies next summer, they partake largely of the romantic. The plan is the device of inspiration, and the Lord will own and bless it.” (Handcarts to Zion, p. 32)

In 1856, five handcart companies would form up and leave Iowa City for Salt Lake City. The last two handcart companies, the Willie Company and the Martin Company, departed July 15th and 28th respectively, which was very late in the season. The first leg of their journey was 277 miles to Florence, Nebraska, near Council Bluffs. They arrived August 11th and 22nd respectively, and experienced severe maintenance problems with their carts:

“The companies stay here longer than they otherwise would in consequence of their carts being unfit for their journey across the Plains; some requiring new axels, and the whole of them having to have a piece of iron screwed on to prevent the wheel from wearing away the wood.” (J. H. Lately, Handcarts to Zion, p. 94)

The design of the handcarts, not using any iron for the axles, was a flawed design concept that came from Brigham Young himself. Brigham wrote a letter to Mormon apostle Franklin D. Richards, President of the European Mission, in September 1855 laying out the plan and construction of these carts:

“We cannot afford to purchase wagons and teams as in times past. I am consequently thrown back upon my old plan – to make band-carts, and let the emigration foot it, …. They will only need 90-days’ rations from the time of their leaving the Missouri River, and as the settlements extend up the Platte, not that much. The carts can be made without a particle of iron, with wheels hooped, made strong and light, and one, or if the family be Large, two of them will bring all that they need upon the plains.” (Handcarts to Zion, pp. 29-30)

Here we see this was Brigham’s plan and we’ve previously seen Mormon apostle Richards say this was an inspired plan and “the Lord will own and bless it.” Brigham’s inspired plan was “emigration on the cheap.” He is the one who dictated the carts be built without iron, and hence the carts experienced many breakdowns because the wheels wore out the axles. The emigrants used their rations of bacon to try and grease the axles and hubs to prevent the wheels from wearing out the axles. These design faults resulted in delays in Florence and added to an already late start in the season’s migration towards Salt Lake City.

This plan of Brigham’s was made official when it was issued in the “Thirteenth General Epistle” on October 29. 1855. It was printed in the Millennial Star on January 26, 1856, and stated in pan:

“Let all things be done in order, and let all the Saints who can, gather up for Zion and come while the way is open before them;  let the poor also come, whether they receive aid or not from the Fund, let them come on foot, with handcarts or wheelbarrows; let them gird up their loins and walk through, and nothing shall hinder or stay them.” (Handcarts to Zion, p. 35)


One seasoned returning missionary, Levi Savage, who had marched 2000 miles in 1846 from Council Bluffs, Nebraska to San Diego, California as part of the Mormon Battalion during the war with Mexico, had tried, in vain, to get the handcart companies to winter over in Florence, Nebraska and begin in the spring.

The Mormon apostle Franklin D. Richards had come to the States after the handcart companies, and was traveling by a fast mule-driven carriage when he heard of Savage’s opposition to the late start across the plains:

“On Loup Fork of the Platte River, Franklin D. Richards in a comfortable mule-drawn carriage overtook the Willie Company on August 26… Hearing of Savage’s opposition to the late start, the apostle now called a meeting of the Willie Company and “reprimanded me sharply,” the Ohioan said. He was compelled to ask forgiveness “for all that I had said and done wrong.” Having corrected Savage’s lack of faith, Richards hurried on to the territorial capital where he delivered the first news that a thousand or more handcart pioneers were still out on the plains.” (Forgotten Kingdom, p. 110)

Arriving just in time for the Fall General Conference, Richards told the assembled faithful on October 5th:

“The Saints that are now upon the plains, about one thousand with hand-carts, feel that it is late in the season, and they expect to get cold fingers and toes. But they have this faith and confidence towards God that he will overrule the storms that they may come in the season thereof and turn them away, that their path may be freed from suffering more than they can bear. They have the confidence to believe that this will be an open fall.” (BYU Studies, Vol. 37, Number 1, 1997-98, p. 55)

This Mormon apostle was clueless. He severely reprimanded a seasoned pioneer, who knew the dangers the emigrants faced by leaving so late in the season, for his lack of faith. He arrived in Salt Lake City and made light of the late departure saying that the emigrants still crossing the plains may “expect to get cold fingers and toes.”

Here are some quotes of the horrific tragedies that fell upon these poor innocent folks trusting in the false prophecies that nothing could “hinder or stay them,” and trusting in false apostles who were led by their own pride rather than by the Holy Spirit.

“There was poor William Whittaker. He was in the tent with several others. He and his brother, John, occupied one part of the tent. In the other part another family was sleeping. There was a young woman sleeping and she was awakened by poor Brother Whittaker eating her fingers. He was dying with hunger and cold. He also ate the flesh of his own fingers that night. He died and was buried at Willow Springs before we left camp that morning.” (BYU Studies, Vol 37, Number 1, 1997-98, p. 46)

The suffering and tragedy these people experienced is heartbreaking.

“Sister Sirman, whose husband was near death and whose two sons were suffering with frozen feet, appealed to Captain Martin, “Do you think that the relief party will come soon with food, clothing and shoes?”

This last statement was footnoted, here is what the footnote said referring to a man named John Bond:

“Bond, ibid., 25, says that in 1912 he met one of the boys, John Sirman, in Blackfoot, Idaho. One leg had been amputated as a result of the freezing in 1856.” (Handcarts to Zion, p. 113)

Ephraim Hanks, age 29, was driving a relief wagon from Salt Lake to rescue the emigrants. When he met the handcart pioneers on the Sweetwater River and entered their camp, what he saw could “never be erased from my memory,” he said:

“Many of the emigrants whose extremities were frozen, lost their limbs, either whole or in part. Many such I washed with water and castile soap, until the frozen parts would fall off, after which I would sever the shreds of flesh from the remaining portions of the limbs with scissors. Some of the emigrants lost toes, others, fingers, and again others whole hands and feet.” (Forgotten Kingdom, p. 118)

Folks, the Mormon handcart trek scheme was anything but the portrayal that you will see across the handcart trail this summer. I’m sure the Mormon Church will talk a little bit about the trials and suffering that these people endured; however, they will not tell you that this suffering didn’t have to take place, that it could have been prevented. The BYU Studies book that I have quoted several times already says it very well:

“Although shortcomings in the planning in Europe and provisioning in the Eastern United States figured importantly in the ultimate outcome and deserve careful study and description, they are not discussed here owing partly to limitations of space and to the lack of available documentation, but also because they did not in fact cause the disaster, since all that was needed to have averted the tragedy, once the appropriate departure date to assure a safe passage had passed, was to have postponed to the next spring the overland travel of the last several emigrant companies leaving Florence, Nebraska.” (BYU Studies, Vol. 37, Number 1, 1997-98, p. 10)

The whole reason behind the Mormon handcart tragedy was fraud, and the leadership that allowed them out on the plains without sufficient time to make it to Salt Lake City safely was simply incompetent. The Mormon handcart tragedy is proof positive of false prophecy and leaders that are not led of God, but instead are led by their own human natures.

The Mormon people suffered tremendous hardships crossing the plains in covered wagons and handcarts. The question is not: did they suffer? Yes, of course they did; the evidence is overwhelming. The question that has been successfully swept under the carpet of Mormon revisionist history is:


Why did these people emigrate to die or be maimed on the plains of America? Mormons oft times answer: Religious Persecution. That answer would only be a partially accurate answer for the Mormon migration to Kirkland, Ohio, then to Independence and Far West, Missouri, then to Nauvoo, Illinois and on to Salt Lake City; however, there isn’t any evidence to support that the Mormon Emigration Handcart Treks were caused by persecution. The Handcart Treks which began in 1856 from Iowa City, Iowa were a derivative of false prophecy.

The horror of the Mormon Handcart Treks was due to the false prophecy by Mormon leaders that Jesus was about to return, Europe was going to fall, the wrath of God was about to be unleashed on the earth and the only safe place would be in Zion – Salt Lake City, Utah. Hundreds of Mormons followed blindly the false prophecies of their leaders to “flee to Zion,” and heeded those false prophecies to their untimely, unwarranted deaths. These Mormon pioneers were told to flee Europe or be engulfed by the wrath of God and that this Handcart Plan was a Divine Plan of God, and nothing could hinder them as they traveled to Zion! In the Millennial Star of April 21, 1855, the “gospel of the gathering” was pressed with continuing fervor and warned:

“The clouds of war have continued to gather thicker and darker over the horizon of the nations … Famine has stared multitudes in the face during the past winter … The present is full of calamity and evil. At this moment thousands are anxiously inquiring in their hearts, ‘Is there no way of escape from these evils?’ … There is beyond the sea a haven of peace, and a refuge from the impending storms … The Spirit whispers: ‘Get ye up out of these lands for the judgments of the Almighty are being poured out upon the nations, for they are ripening in transgression.”‘ (Handcarts to Zion, p. 26)

In the same paper on September 22, 1855, the Mission President, Mormon apostle Franklin D. Richards, clearly states that the gathering to Zion in America is a Commandment:

“The Lord never yet gave a commandment to His people, but what, if they would go to with full purpose of heart and try to obey it, they could do so. The commandment to gather out to the land of America is just as binding on the Saints, so far as it is possible for them to accomplish it, as it was in the first place to be baptized for the remission of sins … Every impulse of the heart of the Saint, every hope of the future says, Gather up to the land of America.” (Handcarts to Zion, p. 26)

In the November 24, 1855 edition of the Millennial Star, the song, “Rejoice! Ye Scattered Saints,” contained the following stanza which shows the Mormon emigrants believed Brigham’s Commandment and that it had the power to save the poor:

“Rejoice! let Israel all rejoice, And praise the Lord once more, That Brigham sends the word, the power to save the humble poor.” (Handcarts to Zion, p. 261)

The following song was written by my ­great-great-great grandfather and was published in the Millennial Star on June 9, 1855. It makes it absolutely clear that the judgments of God were about to be poured out upon Europe prior to the Lord’s return for the ushering in of the Millennium, and the only safe place to flee was to the “Valley far off in the West.”

“Come Haste to the Valley”

“Come, haste to the Valley far off in the West, Ye Saints of the Lord, tarry not; Old Babylon soon will be sorely distres’t, For very near full is her cup.

“Then gather your children, and neighbours all warn That the hour of her judgment is near, For soon great Jehovah will laugh to her scorn, And mock when she’s quaking for fear.

“You’ve tarried in Babylon, Brethren, too long, Not thinking her hour was so near; O mingle no more in her unhallow’d throng, For shortly she’ll end her career, Dire Famine and Pestilence, Battle and Strife Will rage through her coasts far and near, And if you don’t flee, you will be like Lot’s wife, O’ertaken by judgments severe.

“You’ve a haven of refuge to flee unto now, While the storm o’er the nations shall ride, When the torrents of judgment shall furiously flow, To punish foul Babylon’s pride.

“Secure you may rest till the judgments are o’er, And the wicked are banished the world; Enjoying the blessings our God has in store, Where the banner of Freedom’s unfurl’d.

“And when our great Saviour in glory shall come, To dwell with his Saints evermore, O then we’ll rejoice in our beauteous home, For Jesus “all things” will restore.

“With him through the great Thousand Years we shall reign, No sighing, nor sorrow, nor pain, And then we shall see our great Father again, And in His bright presence remain.”

In 1835, Joseph Smith falsely prophesied of Jesus’ immediate, imminent return:

“President Smith then stated… it was the will of God that those who went to Zion, with a determination to lay down their lives, if necessary, should be ordained to the ministry, and go forth to prune the vineyard for the last time, or the coming of the Lord, which was nigh – even fifty-six years should wind up the scene.” (History of the Church, vol. 2, p. 182)

One of the original Mormon Twelve apostles, Orson Pratt, proclaimed this gathering out of the nations as a message of the Book of Mormon:

“Hence, there is connected with the great message of the Book of Mormon, ‘a voice from heaven,’ commanding the Saints to come out from all nations as fast as they obey the gospel message; this they have been doing for these many years, and this they will continue to do, until the work of gathering is fully accomplished. And after the saints, who are the salt of the earth, are gathered out, those who are left will quickly perish, as did Sodom and Gomorra.” (Orson Pratt Works, “Prophetic Evidence in Favour of the Book of Mormon,” p. 85, as reported in Mormonism Shadow or Reality? p. 195)

These Mormon converts in Europe were commanded to flee from [Europe] because the second coming of the Lord was about to happen and his wrath was going to be poured out upon all the nations and the only safe haven was the ‘Valley in the West.’ These poor folks sold out and left everything behind. A large portion of them went to their deaths on the frigid plains of America and hundreds were maimed for life – losing fingers, toes and limbs to frostbite for an absolute lie – for false prophecy. This story is supremely sad!!

The current Prophet of the Mormon Church, Gordon B. Hinckley’s wife’s grandmother, Mary Goble Pay, was 13 years old and one of these convert families from England. She and her family weren’t part of the Willie or Martin Handcart Companies, as they had enough money and had purchased a covered wagon, pulled by two yoke of oxen. They met up with and traveled with one of these two companies, I’m not sure which. An excerpt from her story was printed in the January 2005 issue of the official Mormon Church Magazine Ensign in a story written by President Hinckley himself:

“We traveled from 15 to 25 miles [25 to 40 km) a day… until we got to the Platte River… We caught up with the hand cart companies that day. We watched them cross the river. There were great lumps of ice floating down the river. It was bitter cold… We went back to the camp and went to prayers, [and] … sang ‘Come, Come, Ye Saints No Toil nor Labor Fear.’ I wondered what made my mother cry [that night] …. The next morning my little sister was born. It was the 23rd of September. We named her Edith. She lived six weeks and died… [She] was buried at the last crossing of [the] Sweetwater. [We ran into heavy snow. I became lost in the snow.] My feet and legs were frozen. [The men] rubbed me with snow. They put my feet in a bucket of water. The pain was terrible… When we arrived at Devils Gate it was bitter cold. We left lots of our things there… My brother James… was as well as he ever was when he went to bed [that night]. In the morning he was dead… “My feet were frozen[;] also my brother Edwin and my sister Caroline had  their feet frozen. It was nothing but snow [snow everywhere and the bitter Wyoming wind]. We could not drive the pegs in our tents. … We did not know what would become of us.

“[Then] one night a man came to our camp and told us … Brigham Young had sent men and teams to help us… We sang songs, some danced and some cried… My mother’s hand never got well… She died between the little and big mountains… She was 43 years old… We arrived in Salt Lake City nine o’clock at night the 11th of December 1856. Three out of four that were living were frozen. My mother was dead in the wagon… “Early next morning… Brigham Young… came… When he saw our condition, our feet frozen and our mother dead, tears rolled down his cheeks… The doctor amputated my toes… [while] the sisters were dressing my mother for her grave… When my feet were fixed they [carried] … us in to see our mother for the last time. Oh how did we stand it. That afternoon she was buried… [I have thought often of my mother’s words before we left England.] ‘Polly, I want to go to Zion while my children are small, so they can be raised in the Gospel of Christ for I know this is the true church.'” (Ensign, January 2005, pp. 6-7)

This story of the current Mormon Prophet’s wife’s grandmother just rips your heart right out of your chest; suffering on a scale that is hard to imagine. These folks were in a covered wagon and suffered like this. It’s hard to comprehend the suffering of those who pulled handcarts. Before I started the above quote in the story, this family had lost the youngest child in death; then during the quote the newborn baby dies, her brother James dies, and then her mother dies. That’s four deaths and this was a covered-wagon family, not a handcart family – and their deaths are nowhere to be seen in the aggregate number of deaths suffered in this terrible tragedy, because their names are not to be found in the handcart company rosters.

One of the last lines as they arrived in Salt Lake City, May Goble Pay says:

“Three out of four that were living were frozen.”

Now, I don’t know if this is a statement about the whole of those in the handcart company or just those left of their own family; nonetheless, if three out of four left living in their wagon were frozen, I don’t believe that it is an unjust liberty on my part to apply this figure to those of the handcart companies who were even more directly exposed to the elements. The facts and figures of the deaths and maiming were hidden by the Mormon Church:

“An accurate count of the number who died will probably never be known because the authorities tried to keep the full horror of the disaster from becoming public, especially in England.” (Forgotten Kingdom, p. 118)

The deaths are in the neighborhood of 230. If three out of four left living were frozen, the maiming of survivors was in the neighborhood of 500. We’ll simply never know: but what is truly an egregious shame is that these catastrophic casualties were all for false prophecy and a lie given by the Prophets and apostles of Mormonism.

Article written by Rocky and Helen Hulse, Issue No. 19, May 2006, The Midwest Expositor publication of Mormon Missions Midwest Outreach – Reprinted and posted on our website by permission.


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