Tahoe Nugget #81:
Mormon Handcart Disaster
May 31, 2006
Historians often point to the 1847 Donner Party tragedy as the worst weather-related disaster among emigrants and pioneers heading west in the mid 19th century. Of the 89 members in the wagon train, only 48 survived.
But the Willie and Martin Handcart disaster in present-day Wyoming during the fall of 1856 was much worse. Recently-converted Mormons (Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints) had sailed late from
England and were behind schedule when they finally reached Iowa City, Iowa. Church agents there struggled to outfit the company of mostly elderly, women and children so by the time the group was ready to travel to
Salt Lake City (Zion & the Mecca of their new religion) it was August. Members of the company debated whether to wait until spring for their departure, but church elders were optimistic that the immigrant's
faith and divine intervention would protect them along the way. Since nearly all of the people were from Europe, they had no idea of the climate or trail ahead of them and had to trust church officials. They loaded
up small handcarts with their scant belongings and began pulling and pushing their two-wheeled contraptions west into the Rocky Mountains.
In early October the two handcart companies reached Fort Laramie,
Wyoming expecting to resupply, but there were no provisions available for them. They continued on, nonetheless, and forded the North Platte River on October 19, 1856. On the morning of October 20, temperatures in
the region plunged dramatically into the teens and a severe blizzard with hail, sleet and snow swept in and pummeled the Saints for three days. They desperately fought the snow and bitter sub-zero winds in a search
for shelter. They finally reached the relative protection of a small cove in the Sweetwater Rocks.
Handcart member Henry Clough described the storm that "raged with increasing fury until it attained the
capacity of a northern blizzard." Other accounts by survivors reported that cold weather and snow up to a foot deep challenged them for a week. Such conditions are rare that early in the season today. As these
companies were already dangerously low on food and supplies and in poor physical condition, many froze or starved to death in the cold and snowy weather. Due to extreme cold, dysentery, and lack of food, about 145
of the 576 members of the companies perished before they reached the safety of Zion.
Photo #1: Handcart company of Latter Day Saints caught in early season blizzard. Etching by T.B. Stenhouse.
Mormons forced to bury dead far from the Holy Land at Salt Lake City. Painting by Clark Kelly Price, 1980.