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The Awful March Of The Saints

June 2024
6min read

Florence, near present-day Omaha, August 1856

For 28-year-old Patience Loader, the journey so far had been chiefly exhausting. During the four weeks from July 25 to August 22, 1856, the company with which she was traveling had covered 270 miles from Iowa City to Florence, a fledgling community six miles north of where Omaha stands today.

Loader, her father, her mother, four of her younger sisters, and a younger brother were eight of some 1,865 Mormon emigrants seeking to cross the 1,300 miles from where the railroad ended in Iowa to Salt Lake City, following the trail pioneered by Brigham Young’s lead company of Mormons, who in 1847 had founded their new Zion in the Great Basin. The 1856 emigrants, however, were not traveling, as had Young’s party, in covered ox-wagons, but were serving instead as their own beasts of burden. From Iowa City all the way to the city of the Saints, they would push or pull wooden handcarts freighted with three months’ supply of clothing, gear, and some food. Each pilgrim was strictly limited to 17 pounds of personal baggage and a meager pound of flour per day.

The “Divine Handcart Scheme,” as the Latter-day Saints called it, was Brigham Young’s brainchild. Its chief motive was to save money, as the prophet sought to bring as many European converts (mostly from the working-class poor of Britain and Scandinavia) to Zion—in the first instance to save their souls, but also to shore up his breakaway theocracy against an anticipated offensive by the U.S. Army, which would, in fact, take place less than two years in the future.

For Loader, as the emigrants approached Florence, the trek had taken on an ominous new cast. Her 57-year-old father, James, had been growing weaker by the day. Now his legs and feet were so badly swollen that it was hard for him to walk. During the next two months, the Loader family would find itself caught in the vortex of the greatest disaster of North American westward migration. The part-time seamstress, who had just arrived in the New World, would put down the single most vivid account of the ordeal by any of the nearly 2,000 handcart Saints.

Loader recounts how one late September evening, her father, after walking 17 miles with the help of his wife, simply said, “My dear girls, I am not able to get any wood to Make you afire.” Loader saw that it pained him deeply to admit such weakness. “Never mind,” she replied reassuringly, they would build him a fire and make food.

Helped by the rest of her family, she swaddled her father in quilts, pitched a tent, and carried him inside. While Loader was building a fire the next morning, “My Sister Zilpha called to Saying patience come quick our father is dieing and when I got into the tent my poor Mother and all our family four Sisters My youngst brother Robert ten years old and my brother in law John Jaques was all kneeling on the ground around him poor dear father realizing he had to leave us he was to weak to talk to us he looked on us all with tears in his eyes then he said to Mother with great diffulcuty he said you know I love My children then he closed his eyes thees was the last words he ever said.” They buried him that morning without a coffin, “and the earth thown in upon his poor body oh that sounded so hard I will never forget the sound of that dirt beign shoveld anto my poor fathers boday it seemed to me that it would break every bone in his body.”

Five separate handcart companies had left Iowa City that summer. The Loader family was in the fifth and last, 575 pilgrims led by Edward Martin. The company, which might have overwintered in Florence, instead set out from that last frontier outpost on August 25—fatally late in the season, as it would turn out.

The first snow fell on October 19, disastrous timing for the Martin Company, which was fording the North Platte River. The team’s few oxen were forced to swim as the eight supply wagons were floated across, but the handcarts had to be pushed through the current by the terrified pilgrims. “The water was deep and very cold,” wrote Loader, “and we was drifted out of the regular crossing and we came near to beign drounded the water came up to our arm pits poor Mother was standing on the bank screaming as we got near the bank I heard Mother say for Gods Sake some of you men help My poor girls.”

Once on the far bank, the soaking wet Saints huddled against the snow and bitter wind before moving to a campsite several miles further on. The Loader children’s clothing froze stiff. “It was to late to go for wood and water,” recalled Loader. “. . . that night the ground was frozen to hard we was unable to drive any tent pins in as the tent was wett when we took it down in the morning it was somewhat frozen So we stretched it open the best we could and got in under it untill morning.”

On October 20, the Martin Company effectively became snowbound in a wretched camp beneath the Red Buttes, a small outcropping of ruddy sandstone in what is now central Wyoming. The Martin Saints were simply too cold, hungry, and worn out to travel on.

Meanwhile, a small party of high-ranking officials, traveling fast and light in well-made carriages, had reached Salt Lake City on October 4 to deliver the shocking news that there were some 1,300 Saints still scattered along the Mormon Trail. President Young immediately launched a major rescue effort.

Loader remembered that she and her sister had had to walk nearly a mile through knee-deep snow to find firewood, and then all she could get was “green ceder,” or juniper. The single repast that stuck in her memory was broth made by boiling “an old beef head,” which she “chopt it in peices the best I could.”

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.

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