The Awful March Of The Saints

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Already dozens of the Martin Saints had died. Loader described the gruesome last hours of William Whittaker: “he was in the tent with several others . . . there was a young woman sleeping and she was awoke by poor Br Whiticar eating her fingers he was dieng with hunger and cold he also eat the flesh of his own fingers that night. he died in the morning and was burid at willow Springs before we left camp.”

Nineteen died in a single night at Red Buttes. Not until October 27 did an advance party of three mounted rescuers discover the marooned company. With inspired hectoring, the scouts roused the apathetic pioneers and drove them 65 miles farther west to a hollow grove defended by a granite cirque, known ever since as Martin’s Cove, which was to be the company’s ultimate calvary. By the end of their futile five-day vigil, as wind and snowstorms continued to lash the cove, 56 more of the Martin Saints perished, most from the deadly cold.

Loader almost casually offers testimony to her family’s fortitude among so many others’ in the midst of that grim bivouac. One bitter morning, her mother implored her and her sister to arise and light a fire. Both young women said they could not get up because of the agonizing cold. “Mother sais come girls this will not do,” reported Loader. “I believe I will have to dance to you and try to make you feel better poor dear Mother she started to Sing and dance to us and she slipt down as the snow was frozen and in a moment we was all up to help our dear Mother up for we was afraid she was hurt she laugh and said I thought I could soon make you all jump up if I danced to you then we found that she fell down purposely for she Knew we would all get up to see if she was hurt.”

By mid-November, wagon trains had reached the survivors. Abandoning their handcarts, the Martin Saints rode the rest of the way to Salt Lake. When the last handcart pilgrims reached their promised country at the end of November, leaving between 200 and 240 of their companions on the plains of Nebraska and Wyoming--some five or six times more than had perished in the infamous Donner Party ordeal a decade earlier.

The “Divine Scheme” had disaster built into its very design, from the inevitable breakdowns of the poorly-built handcarts, to the fact that on a pound of flour (and later, less) a day per adult, the Saints would slowly starve; and to the fact that 17 pounds of gear, clothing, and bedding was not enough to keep even the hardiest pioneer safe in a Great Plains winter. Far from being the hero of the story, Brigham Young—who masterminded the plan, determined all its parameters, placed saving money over human lives, and somehow lost track of the last companies still on the plains in the autumn of 1856—must bear the lion’s share of the blame for a tragedy unmatched in American annals.

Yet once they arrived in Salt Lake City, these people, made veterans in a single season, seemed only to want to get on with their lives. Loader, otherwise so vivid a memoirist, makes it clear that her first days in Salt Lake were a forlorn business, as her extended family was broken up so that various residents could take in its members as boarders. Within a few weeks she found work in her old occupation as a seamstress. Not once in her memoirs did she ask herself whether the whole desperate journey had been worth it. Nor did she leave the church (as many of the other handcart Saints, embittered by the experience, would in subsequent years).

Patience Loader lived on in Pleasant Grove, Utah, became (according to the editor of her memoir) “a well-known and popular pillar of her community,” and died in 1922 at the age of 95.