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Reeder, Adolph Madsen, Writings [ca. 1953].

Reeder, Adolph Madsen, Writings [ca. 1953].

The Belated Handcart Company of 1856

NOTES TAKEN FROM THE JOURNAL OF
CAPTAIN JAMES G. WILLIE AND ROBERT REEDER

The emigrants arrived at the railroad terminal at Iowa City on June 26. Supplies were very scarce at this point because of the many previous emigrating companies having exhausted the available material. Livestock was very scarce. However, the men set to work building hand carts for their use. The timber they used was not well seasoned.

The company left Iowa City on July 16 with 120 hand carts, 6 wagons and some cattle. The list of persons shows that there were 236 adults besides the children.

In the hot summer climate the timbers in the carts began to shrink and soon the tires on the wheels were loose. Rawhide was cut in strips and wrapped around the tires tying them to the fellies to make emergency repairs.

They left Winter Quarters on August 15. This was a late starting date, but with the shortage of local supplies they voted to take a chance and try to reach the Valley before winter set in.

Before long the prairie evenings grew chilly and then the fall rains started. Some of the men became fatigued because of the many nights they had spent in night herding. James Hurren and Robert Reeder record that they did three or four nights a week in looking after the stock.

The Omaha Indians told them of the murder of a preceding company of emigrants. They soon came to the place where most of the Babbit company had been killed by the Cheyennes and the Sioux. The U.S. troopers had killed thirteen Indians which added to the savage unrest. In one night they drove off thirty head of the Willie Company cattle. Before going on the company buried a number of the dead they had found.

On September 4 they were 265 miles from Winter Quarters. Because of their loss of cattle to the Indians it became necessary to yoke up a number of milk cows to complete the teams for the loaded wagons. Travel became more difficult as the roads were becoming worse.

On the night of September 17 there was a severe frost.

On Sunday, September 28 they met a company of about 100 apostates who were returning to the States. They related that upon their arrival in the Valley they became dissatisfied and were now returning. They tried to discourage the Saints but the company voted to follow Captain Willie. Mary Hurren said, “He was greatly beloved as a leader and everyone wanted to follow him.”

Several stops were necessary to repair the carts and to lighten the loads. By common consent each person was allotted 17 pounds of clothing. Flour rations were fixed at ten and one-half ounces for men, nine for women, six for children and three for infants.

They arrived at Fort Laramie on September 30.

Their carts repaired they renewed their journey on October 1.

They arrived at the upper crossing of the Platte (Casper) on October 12.

The Robert Reeder Journal records the following: “Grandfather David Reeder was found dead in his tent on the morning of October 7; time was precious so he was buried in an unmarked grave and the company moved on.” (This was about half way from Ft. Laramie to Casper.)

The light rations had a telling effect on the strength of the saints. The Reeder Journal tells that James Hurren was the strongest man. His cart was loaded with 400 pounds of flour. The company was forced to wade the icy streams and it was recorded that Bro. Hurren made as many as twenty trips across the [and] back several streams carrying the sick and weak on his back. They had little extra clothing so often they could not change to dry things and the wet garments froze stiff as it was drying on their backs. Brother Hurren pulled more than his share in his cart. His wife, Eliza Reeder Hurren, carried a two year old child in her arms the entire distance across the plains.

On the evening of October 15 the Reeder Journal states that Car[o]line Reeder, a seventeen year old girl, left camp in search of fire wood. When she did not return a search for her was started. She was found crouched down behind some bushes badly chilled. She died during the evening and was also placed in an unmarked grave.

The ration of flour was cooked into a gruel and taken as a warm drink. It barely held out till their arrival at Rock Creek. Willie’s journal states that the Saints pulled their carts sixteen miles in a blinding snow storm and arrived at Rock Creek on October 17. They dug into the hill side as a shelter from the wind and set up a large camp as best they could. That night thirteen of their number perished. The following day, without food, all the able-bodied men dug a large shallow grave and placed the thirteen bodies in a circle with heads out and feet to the center. Mary Hurren, an eight year old child at the time, recalled seeing the departed lying in the clothes they wore. Her father held her out to see her little playmate lying among the dead. That night two of the men who helped dig the grave perished and were buried in another shallow grave about eighteen feet away. Robert Reeder and James Hurren helped dig those graves.

Captain Willie went on ahead on foot and alone hoping to meet the relief wagons. They were expected momentarily. All were hoping and praying they would arrive before all the company, in their crude shelters, would perish in the snow. There were eighteen inches of snow on the ground.

Captain Willie says nothing in his journal of meeting Brother Ephraim K. Hanks. This famous mountaineer had asked permission at Salt Lake to ride on horseback ahead of the relief wagons. His story has been published about as follows:

“Riding on alone for several days I ran out of food. I came one evening to a place along the Sandy where I found grass for the horse and wood to make a fire; I staked the horse and made a campfire. There was no sign of food so I knelt down near the fire and told the Lord of my errand. I was in need of fresh meat for supper and a warm robe to sleep in, I told the Lord that if he would send me a buffalo it might help to save the lives of many suffering people. Arising from my prayer I saw a buffalo standing a few feet away, looking off the other way. I drew my knife and slipped up behind him and quickly slashed the ham strings so he couldn’t run. I was able then to cut his throat. I had my meat and a robe to sleep in.

“Next morning, the horse was saddled and I placed the robe back of the saddle and cut all the long strips of meat and tied and rolled them in the robe and started again on my journey. “A grandson of Ephraim Hanks congratulated the writer when hearing him tell this story—said it is correct.[”]

He made a hard day’s ride and at evening he arrived at Rock Creek to find the starving saints. What a sacred mission of mercy and how kindly the prayer of an exalted faith was heard and answered! When little Mary Hurren became an aged lady, the writer being her cousin, asked her about the incident. (Because of our great love and adoration we always called her Aunt Mary). “Aunt Mary, do you remember when you had stopped near that large grave, a man riding into a camp on a horse?”

“Oh how well I remember!”, she replied. “We had been looking from the hill-side toward the South Pass to see if any one might come. Toward evening we saw a dark object in the snow. As it came nearer it proved to be a man on horse-back. He could see the smoke of our camp fires. When he rode into camp and dismounted and took down that robe and unwrapped the meat we all shed tears of joy. As he handed the meat out we gave thanks to the Lord for sending along such a great blessing. We had been there without food for two days.”

The Willie journal says that on October 20 the relief wagons under George D. Grant and William H. Kimball arrived with fourteen wagons of clothing and food. As soon as the starving Saints could control their feelings they knelt down in the snow and gave thanks to God for his kindness in sending help to them. They had been in dire want.

Part of the wagons moved farther on under George Grant’s direction to Martin’s Cove to help those still in the rear. Their suffering is another story. William Kimball and others started on the return journey with the survivors of the Willie Company. The drifting snow made it difficult to follow the trail.

The Willie Company was the fourth handcart company to cross the plains. The others had made an earlier start and they had reached Salt Lake without difficulty. The records of this company reveals that there were 77 deaths, three births, and three marriages. The group arrived in Salt Lake on November 9, 1856 at the public square where the Hotel Utah now stands.

When the Willie company arrived in Salt Lake George B. Reeder was on hand to greet his relatives. James Hurren expressed his gratitude that so many had been able to endure the hardships and reach the valley. He told of the death of David Reeder on October 7 and of Carline Reeder on October 15. He described the severe storm that overtook them near the summit of the Continental Divide. Presently George inquired, “What is this odor I can smell?”

“Little Mary’s legs are frozen”, replied James.

Mary was placed on a bed in the Tithing Office and a doctor was sent for. He examined her frozen limbs and said he could do nothing for her as mortification had already set in. He returned the next morning with his instruments expecting to amputate her legs. “She will die easier”, he said.

Her father protested, “This little [girl] didn’t walk a thousand miles to have her legs cut off. If she dies, she will die with her legs on.”

The family was loaded into a wagon and taken to Brigham City (Box Elder). A pioneer nurse, Mrs. Snyder, looked at the limbs and recommended trying fresh raw-beefsteak on them. Fresh meat was not obtainable at Box Elder so her father walked to Ogden and obtained some round steak. This was placed on the frozen parts and in several days the rotten flesh dropped off. They trimmed the sinews and applied a home-made ointment to assist in the healing. She was able to walk again in two years. When she grew up she married Joseph Wight and became the mother of ten children. She was a great nurse in Brigham and surrounding areas.

. . . Captain James G. Willie arrived in Salt Lake with his legs wrapped in burlap; they were frost bitten. It was feared for some time that he might need them amputated, but he recovered and spent many years in active service for the church.

. . . It has been said that because of weakness Robert Reeder was unable to walk erect for many weeks after their arrival at Brigham.

. . . .The question has been asked, why was not their lot made easier in the great effort of crossing the plains? No one except Providence might give the completely satisfying answer, but it can be pointed out they grew in character and understanding. They were patient and long suffering. Their faith in God and in their Church was unshakable. Their great endurance made great people of them and their faith was sufficient to sustain them and establish an ideal for their descendants to follow.

The land of noble Pioneers!
The land made sacred by their tears!
Increasing fame come with thy years!

To gather with the Saints in the mountain valleys was their fondest dream. We are the fulfillment, whether good or bad, of those dreams and the comforts we enjoy today far surpass their greatest hopes.

- - -Adolph M. Reeder