(Editor’s Note: This is the third in a series of student essays written by McCall-Donnelly High School juniors for their Spring 2018 Literary Journalism course.)
Growing up, my sister and I had a dress-up box filled with a variety of costumes, ranging from princess dresses to cowboy hats. Possibly the most popular costumes in our box were the pioneer dresses. We would often don bonnets and head outside to pretend we were pioneer girls crossing the plains on a grand adventure.
An Actual Grand Adventure In 1860, members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints migrated to the Salt Lake Valley, nine years before the United States’ transcontinental railroad was completed, connecting America from coast to coast. The grueling trek, made by foot and handcart, was not as grand of an adventure as my sister and I imagined. Hundreds of Mormons lost their lives in the ten companies that crossed. Looking back today, it’s easy for me to ask why they didn’t wait. What conviction was so strong they endured a perilous journey by foot just a few years shy of being able to travel by rail?
The Prophet at the time, Joseph Smith, encouraged church members to move, believing the Utah Valley was set aside by God for the Saints. Of the ten handcart companies that migrated, the last two companies to cross – the Willie and Martin companies – endured an especially treacherous passing. Over 210 of the 980 people in these two companies died during the journey due to their late start, the early winter, and lack of provisions.
Susannah Stone Lloyd was a surviving member of the Willie Handcart company and is my great-great-great-great grandmother. Today in the church, the legacy of these companies is honored and respected. I grew up learning about the members, and through this class project I was able to learn more about these people, my ancestor, and what they sacrificed.
A Journal Details the Trials and Rewards Susannah Stone’s experiences during the migration and her life after are documented in her journal and compiled in the book, “Susannah Stone, I was a Handcart Girl” by Jeannie Lloyd Goalen and Joseph Lloyd Hatch. Despite the trials she endured, her outlook remained optimistic in her account of the journey.
Susannah was born in the town of Bristol, England, 24 December 1830. When she heard of Mormonism she “hailed it with joy” and joined the Church of Jesus Christ in 1848 at about age 17, against her family’s wishes. Her family belonged to the Church of England, but she had the desire to join the Saints in America. Susannah wrote, “My parents, relatives, and friends did all in their power to keep me from coming to America, but I had the spirit of gathering and the Lord opened up my way.”
Brother Willie, the captain of Susannah’s handcart company, was joined by Elder Martin’s company. By mid-July the two companies still hadn’t begun the journey from Iowa City to the Salt Lake Valley. A meeting was called to discuss the lateness of the season. Elder Levi Savage, a main character in the movie 17 Miracles, based on the Willie and Martin Handcart Companies, pleaded with the converts to wait until the next spring. He’s quoted in the movie and in Susannah’s journal saying, “Brothers and Sisters, wait until spring to make this journey. Some of the strong may get through in case of bad weather, but the bones of the weak and old will strew the way.” A warning this grave would have made me seriously reconsider making the journey, but despite his admonition, five hundred Mormons left Camp Iowa on July 15th, 1856. The Martin handcart company left two weeks later.
Susannah wrote, “We were almost pioneers for we had to travel thru sunflowers and sage brush for many miles.” Cold weather hadn’t set in, but the company already experienced hardship. The saints encountered unfriendly Native Americans, lost cattle, and pulled broken handcarts, all with provisions dwindling. The Willie handcart company arrived at Fort Laramie, Wyoming at the beginning of September. At the rate they had been traveling, it was determined, “provisions would be exhausted when they were still three hundred and fifty miles from the Salt Lake Valley.”
Reading about the severity of the companies’ shortage of food now makes us question why the Mormons would ever think it was a good idea to continue, especially with winter looming. The Saint’s religious fervor took the place of reason. Susannah writes regarding their dire circumstances, “…we were not discouraged. We traveled on and felt that the Lord would protect His Saints, and so He did, and although we passed thru many trying scenes His protecting care was over us.” Despite the odds stacked against them, the Saints embarked on what many would call an impossible journey because they believed God would protect them. Trying times were rapidly approaching.
Lack of Food as Winter Arrives One of the biggest problems facing the two companies was the lack of flour. Elizabeth Jackson, a survivor of the Edward Martin company, recalled, “Shortly after leaving Fort Laramie it became necessary to portion our rations that the company be not reduced to starvation…. First the pound of flour was reduced to three-fourths, then to one-half pound, and then afterwards to still less per day.” Despite the dwindling portion size, both companies were out of flour by October 19th.
Coincidentally, the day the Willie handcart company ran out of food was also the day of the first snowfall. I’ve grown up in the Northwest, where the company spent early winter, and I’ve experienced how harsh winters can be. I can’t imagine being stranded in this area with winter approaching, no food, and inadequate clothes. It sounds like a nightmare.
Both the Willie and Martin handcart companies’ grim situations quickly escalated, although they were still traveling separately. The very young and old began to die. Everyone had been weakened by the cold, hunger, and exertion. Soon the pioneers were too weak to pitch the tents, instead sleeping outside. Susannah recalls, “Sixteen were buried at one time.” On another cold night, eighteen died from exposure. As the surviving members became weaker and sicker, mass graves became more difficult to dig, but out of respect and love for their “brothers and sisters,” the dead were buried in however shallow a grave.
Sharply contrasting the Mormon’s dire position was their attitude. When I read about the companys’ journey, what was more remarkable to me than their circumstances were their seemingly unwavering faith and conviction. Whenever things were especially hard, Susannah relied on her testimony of the church, “Our faith in in God and our testimony of His work were supreme. And in the blizzards and falling snow we sat under our hand carts and sang hymns.” No trial was too great to shake their faith in their journey. Susannah describes, “We waded thru the cold streams many times but we murmured not.”
Today it often seems that when something is hard, inconvenient, or painful, we move on because we’re able to. We usually have the ability to opt out of physically and emotionally demanding circumstances, like a backpacking trip or a long run. But the members of the church in these companies had to remain in the present and experience the extent of their trials because if they chose to succumb to apathy, they would die.
Rescue Susannah suffered from frostbite, especially on her feet. The continual freezing of her tissue continued to affect her years after the journey was complete. She wrote, “…but this (my frosted feet) was forgotten in the contemplation of the many blessings the Gospel has brought to me and mine.” With frostbite and sickness affecting the living members of the companies, they logged very few miles. Two hundred and seventy miles from the Salt Lake Valley, the party came to a halt, having walked over a thousand miles.
A rescue party from Salt Lake was sent to meet the remaining members of the Willie and Martin handcart companies. These parties were comprised of Mormon pioneers who had travelled to Salt Lake with the earlier eight companies. The rescue efforts met the companies at their stopping point on October 21, 1856. The party brought blankets, provisions, and buffalo robes. Susannah concludes her journey, “We rode in the wagons the rest of the way…. We left England May 2nd, and got into Salt Lake Valley on November 5, 1865.” In the end, 77 of the Willie handcart company members died during the journey.
The LDS Church’s timeline for the rescue of the Willie company records them arriving in Salt Lake on November 9th, over 1000 miles from where they started walking. The Martin company, which followed, arrived November 30th. Over 170 members of the Martin handcart company died en route. Susannah recalls trying to make herself look presentable when they approached Salt Lake, “I shall never forget how I looked. Some of my old friends did not know me. We were so weather beaten and tanned.”
Once in “Zion,” the members of the Willie company quickly received help from the pioneers in the previous eight companies and settled down in Farmington, Utah, 16 miles north of Salt Lake City. It was there that Susannah met Thomas Lloyd, who had also immigrated from England the year previous. Thomas described meeting “…a very thin and tired…but beautiful Miss Stone.” He proposed on the spot. Susannah wrote, “We were soon married and the fulfillment of the blessings which had been pronounced upon my head…began to be realized and in the following year our first son Thomas W. Lloyd was born.” Susannah and Thomas went on to have ten sons and four daughters, all of which Susannah described as, “healthy and members of the faith, for which their parents had sacrificed.”
Visiting a Mormon Settlement Chesterfield, Idaho was a Mormon settlement similar to Farmington, where my other ancestors migrated. There are houses, farms, and a general store that have been restored to look like they might have in the mid-1800’s. From third to sixth grade, I lived about 15 minutes from Chesterfield. My sister and I would dress up like pioneers and spend the day buying one-cent candies and exploring the old houses. The general store sold sock dolls similar to those pioneer girls played with. The best part of our trips was getting to choose one and bring it home.
When I went back to visit Chesterfield this spring it was more eerie than I remember as a kid. There was a cemetery of marked and unmarked graves. Many gravestones bore names of babies who hadn’t lived longer than a day and mothers buried with their newborns, often their sixth, seventh or tenth child. Houses that hadn’t been restored were crudely and quickly built, often single rooms without windows. It wasn’t hard to imagine the structures being hastily constructed as winter quickly approached.
Seeing the graves and poorly-built houses in conjunction with reading about Susannah Stone’s experience brought home the difficulties these people went through. The Saints didn’t reach the Salt Lake Valley to find all their problems were solved. For many the fight for survival and acceptance was just beginning. Persecution, the elements, and a lack of provisions followed them everywhere.
Respect Originally, I wasn’t interested in researching and writing about the Willie and Martin handcart companies because the religious side of the story felt like a drag. But as I dived into this project, I developed a deep respect for what the companies went through and I realized religion was the guiding force behind the whole journey. I am in awe of their strength and dedication. I regret discounting the Mormons’ experiences because of the stigma surrounding the religion. Susannah sacrificed her home country, family, friends, and physical comfort for something she believed in and loved. She buried friends and suffered near starvation and frostbite to make it to Zion. Then she raised 14 children after it was all over. What she accomplished and the attitude she had throughout is an incredible example to me of how to live life in strength and grace. I’m humbled and amazed to know that Susannah Stone Lloyd was my four-times great-grandmother and hope that one day I can have a tenth of the courage, optimism, perseverance, and strength that she possessed.