Story: The Willie Handcart Company

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The Willie Handcart Company of 1856 began their journey from Florence, Nebraska, around August 18. The members of the party were given a pound of flour per day, fresh beef occasionally, and each ‘hundred’ members of the party shared three or four milk cows.

The company reached Laramie about September 1st, but the provisions that they had expected were not there. Captain Willie met with his company and determined that at their present rate of travel and consumption, their flour would be exhausted 350 miles before Zion. It was resolved to reduce their rations from one pound to three-quarters of a pound of flour per day, and at the same time to make every effort to travel faster.

They had not traveled far up the Sweetwater River before the nights became very severe. Cold weather, scarcity of food, and fatigue from overexertion caused the old and infirm to droop. At first the deaths occurred slowly and irregularly, but in a few days at more frequent intervals, the company began to think it unusual to leave a campground without burying one or more people.

Death was not long confined in its ravages to the old and infirm; the young and strong were also among its victims. Men who were as strong as lions as they began the journey were compelled to succumb to the monster. These men were worn down by hunger, scarcity of clothing and bedding, and too much labor in helping their families. Many a father pulled his cart with his little children on it until the day preceding his death.

One day a light wagon came in from the west. It was Joseph A. Young and Stephen Taylor. These young men informed the group that supplies were on there way. There were never more welcome messengers to the company than these two young men. The group was encouraged to press forward while the two young men sped on further eastward to convey their glad news to Edward Martin’s handcart company who was believed to be in worse condition than the Willie Company.

The journey was pursued with renewed hope. The group settled into camp later that evening, and awoke the next morning to snow that was over a foot deep. Their cattle had strayed during the storm and some of them died. The most tragic occurrence, though, was that five persons lay in the cold embrace of death. These people were buried in one grave, wrapped in the little clothing and bedding in which they had died. On that fatal morning, there was no longer any flour for the company. There was a barrel or two of hard bread, about 20 to 25 pounds, which was divided equally among the company. Two of the broken-down cattle were killed for beef. The only food they still had on hand was a few pounds each of sugar and dried apples and about a quarter of a sack of rice. These scanty supplies were to be distributed only to the sick and to mothers for their hungry children, and even to them in as sparing a manner as possible.

The party decided that Captain Willie would travel ahead to search for the supply train. Captain Willie and his companion were absent for three days, during which the scanty allowance of hard bread and poor beef was mostly consumed the first day by the hungry, ravenous, famished souls. A terrible, craving hunger was experienced by the group. More cattle were killed and their meat issued, but eating the meat without bread did not satisfy hunger, and to those suffering from dysentery, it did more harm than good.

The weather grew colder each day. Many people’s feet were so badly frozen that they could not walk, others experienced frozen fingers, ears, and one woman lost her sight because of the frost. The severity of the weather increased the number of deaths in the camp, several people were buried each day.

During the next several days, after fatiguing travel, 13 corpses stiffly frozen, were found on one morning. Later in that same day, two others died. These people were buried on Willow Creek, a tributary of the Sweetwater River.

Near South Pass, the company discovered more brethren from the Valley with several quarters of good beef. The sight of this beef was a most handsome picture to the group. After making it over the Pass, the company enjoyed a warmer climate, and made good progress for a few days. The company constantly met teams from the Valley with all necessary provisions. Most of these teams went on to Martin’s company, but enough remained with the Willie company to alleviate their wants. At Fort Bridger, a great many teams came to the company’s help. From Fort Bridger all of the company rode, and from that point all those who were free from disease, gradually regained strength and reached Salt Lake City in good health and spirits.

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