In just a few days we will leave our little family to be the "Ma" and "Pa" for our "pioneer" family - 10 teenagers - on a 30 mile trek. I have no doubt this will be a great experience - physically, mentally and most of all spiritually - even though it will be difficult. However, I can honestly say at this point that even if I didn't have the trek to look forward to - what I have learned in preparation for this journey has made it worth it. Reading the pioneer stories has made such an impact on me - it makes me grateful that I accepted the call and finally took the time to learn about these amazing people.
I am referring specifically to the tragic story of the Willie and Martin handcart companies. I have heard these stories so many times throughout my life in Sunday school lessons or conference talks that they seemed to just blend together and would go in one ear and out the other. Sad but true. But for the first time I can say that I have truly internalized these stories. And I have been changed by them.
For those who are as unfamiliar as I was with their story. Let me give some brief, brief background. In the year 1856 - there were 5 handcart companies that traveled from Iowa City to the Salt Lake Valley. The first three left in good time and made it to their destination with minimal difficulty. The last two emigrant companies - made up of many children and elderly - arrived late to America from Europe and after a hasty preparation, left Iowa City weeks after the time that was considered to be safe. The many reasons for the decision for them to continue are too complex for me to address here. But they turned their faces Westward and with great determination - walked hundreds of miles to Utah. However, along with many other difficulties - the October temperatures and terrible snowstorms brought disaster upon these two groups. They were left starving and freezing to death and would have most likely perished entirely if rescue teams sent from Salt Lake City had not arrived. Some say it was a matter of about 48 hours before they would have all died and that the rescue could not have been more timely. There ended up being about 200 dead total from the two groups of about 500 each. After the rescue the emigrants were able to ride in wagons the rest of the way to the Valley. Unfortunately their lives didn't get much easier after their arrival but most of these people stayed true to their faith and never regretted making that tragic trek.
So now let me share with you the books I have read - and I hope that someday you also will take the time to learn about these groups of people and what they sacrificed for their families, their faith in God and for their religion. Or perhaps you are lucky enough to already be familiar with them!
The book that I found most intriguing and well-written was, The Price We Paid by Andrew D. Olsen. I want to share with you the story behind the title of this book. Francis Webster was a survivor of the Martin Company who settled in Cedar City. Decades after the terrible events of the Fall of 1856 - Francis was an old man sitting in a Sunday school class when the conversation turned to the stories of these two late handcart companies. People started to criticize the leaders of the Church in allowing this to happen. Francis listened as long as he could stand it and then spoke up. "I ask you to stop this criticism. You are discussing a matter you know nothing about....We suffered beyond anything you can imagine, and many died of exposure and starvation...Was I sorry that I chose to come by handcart? No. Neither then nor any minute of my life since. The price we paid to become acquainted with God was a privilege to pay, and I am thankful that I was privileged to come in the Martin handcart company" (pg. 424).
This is non-fiction. It is very well-researched and presents the stories as they truly happened - separately. It is a common mistake to believe that the Willie company and the Martin Company were together on the trail. They were actually days if not weeks apart from each other even though their experiences were very similar. I was fascinated by the stories of these people! I loved that Olsen told their story all the way from when they left their native lands of England and Denmark to after they arrived the Salt Lake. It was remarkable to read what happened to these Saints after their horrific experience - how a few became bitter and resentful towards the Church. However, most of these trekkers remained faithful in the gospel and settled many different parts of Utah. I also liked how Olsen was not afraid to address controversial questions that arise from possible mistakes that might have been made by Church leaders and emigrant leaders.
Fire of the Covenant by Gerald Lund was the first book I read and was a nice introduction to the events of the story. It is historical fiction. There are both fictional and non-fictional characters in the novel. I liked how at the end of each chapter the author writes about the actual events and gives journal excerpts. Even though the novel is about 3 inches thick - it is a quick and easy read. Great for young adults. The same author as The Work and the Glory series.
Sweetwater Rescue - The Willie and Martin Handcart Story by Heidi Swinton and Lee Groberg is more of a coffee-table book. Beautiful illustrations with some photographs accompany vignettes of the trek and rescue experience. This book is lovely and covers the major events and people in the story. It does not have the detail and insight of The Price We Paid, however. This book has an accompanying DVD/documentary (sold separately). I am sad to say that I was a little disappointed with the DVD. I have become pretty passionate about these stories and it just didn't have the impact that I was hoping for. But it is still worth watching for sure!
Last of all - I need to put in a plug for Wallace Stegner's The Gathering of Zion: The Story of the Mormon Trail. I read this years ago and it is not specific to the Willie and Martin handcart experience. However, it is excellent and a very interesting perspective from a non-Mormon point of view.
I have come to know and love some of the people that traveled in these companies. Sarah James who lost her husband on the trail. Elizabeth Jackson who lost her husband on the trail. 13 year old Reuben James who paced over his dying father's body so as not to freeze to death. Eliza Gadd who was not a member of the church and who, even after losing her husband and child on the trail, was baptized a week after arriving in Salt Lake. 5 year old Joseph Kirkwood whose 11 year old brother carried Joseph on his back up Rocky Ridge and then sat down and died. Just to name a few. I am not related to them - they are not my ancestors by blood. But they are in spirit. I feel a connection to them because like them I am a mother, a daughter, a sister and most of all, a believer. Their stories of faith and determination make me want to show more gratitude for my many blessings, work harder to live the gospel, to think of others more than myself, to cherish my husband and children and to see the hand of God in my life daily.