For those not familiar with the Willie and Martin handcart company of the early Mormon pioneers, it is a tragic story in which many members of the party died or were severely injured. I will give a very brief description of the events surrounding the trek.
Due to unforseen events and financial restraints, Brigham Young designed a way for the poor LDS Saints in Europe to make the trek across the Atlantic and most of the United States to gather to Zion, in Utah. Handcarts were seen as the solution and the first 3 handcart companies made it to Utah without any problem.
Franklin D Richards was the Apostle appointed by Brigham Young to oversee the emigration of LDS Saints to Europe. According to the blog entitled “Intelligent Obedience” John Taylor (a senior apostle) had advised Franklin Richards not to encourage Saints to leave so late in the year of 1856 and to wait until the next year. However, Richards boldly told the Saints in Europe that it was God’s will that they go and that God would part the storms as He did for Moses if they but had faith. Over 1,000 Saints took up the journey.
Upon arrival at Iowa City, the Saints encountered set-backs that delayed their departure until mid-late July. Most of the Saints were naiive to the harsh terrain and climate that lay ahead. There was one amoungst them, however, who was familiar with the terrain whose name was Levi Savage. Savage had circled the globe serving as a missionary to Burma and had literally sacrificed his time in a way that many can not imagine. He had also made the trek to Salt Lake City and knew of the dangers in leaving so late in the year.
Levi Savage (in the words from his own personal journal) said on August 12th:
Today we commenced preparing for our journey and ascertaining who wishes to go on this fall and who wishes to remain here. Many are going to stop. Others are faltering and I myself am not in favor of, but much opposed to, taking women and children through when they are destitute of clothing, when we all know that we are bound to be caught in the snow and severe cold weather long before we reach the valley.
When asked by President Willie to share his thoughts with the company on leaving so late in the year Savage (again in his own words from his personal journal) said on August 13th:
Brother Willey exhorted the Saints to go forward regardless of suffering even to death. After he had spoken, he gave me the opportunity of speaking. I said to him that if I spoke I must speak my mind, let it cut where it would. He said certainly to do so. I then related to the Saints the hardships that we should have to endure. I said that we were liable to have to wade in snow up to our knees and shovel at night, lay ourselves in a thin blanket and lie on the frozen ground without a bed. I said that it was not like having a wagon that we could go into and wrap ourselves in as much as we like and lay down. “No,” said I, “we are without wagons, destitute of clothing and could not carry it f we had it. We must go as we are. The handcart system I do not condemn. I think t preferable to unbroken oxen and experienced teamsters. The lateness of the season was my only objection to leaving this point for the mountains at this time. I spoke warmly upon the subject, but spoke truth, and the people, judging from appearance and expressions, felt the force of it. (However, the most of them determined to go forward, if the authorities say so.) Elder Willey then spoke again in reply to what I had said, evidently dissatisfied. He said that the God that he served was a God that was able to save to the utermost. He said that was the God that he served, and he wanted no Job’s comforters with him. I then said that what I had said was the truth, and if Elder Willey did not want me to act in the place where I am, he is at full liberty to place another man in my stead. I would not think hard of him for it, But, I did not care what he said about Job’s comforters, I had spoken nothing but the truth and he knew it. Elder Atwood then spoke mildly and to the purpose. He said that he had been listening to what had been said. He exhorted the Saints to pray to God and get a revelation and know for themselves whether they should go or stay, for it was their privilege to know for themselves.
Clearly, Levi Savage thought it an absurd idea to leave so late in the year, but upon praying and wanting to follow their leaders, the majority of the Saints decided to make the journey.
At this point, Savage had the decision to either stay or to go with the Saints. He clearly disagreed with the authorities (Franklin Richards and President Willie) on making the trek. However, Savage showed the courage of a true disciple of Jesus, being willing to die for his fellow friends to help them. He realized they were naiive to the territory. Upon the conclusion of the meeting, Savage stated:
Brethren and sisters, what I have said I know to be true, but seeing you are to go forward, I will go with you, will help you all I can, will work with you, will rest with you, will suffer with you, and if necessary I will die with you. May God have mercy bless and preserve us.
What great courage, faith and dedication he had! As I read this, I thought about the commitment the people of Alma made at the waters of baptism to mourn with those who mourn and comfort those who are in need of comfort. I also thought about the apostle James’ description of what pure religion is.
Later on in the journey as the Saints were struggling in mid-September, Franklin Richards, the apostle, arrived with a few elders. When hearing of Savage’s opposition in Iowa City, Richards called a meeting and openly rebuked Savage for his lack of faith and for not following his leaders. Savage’s response was amazing as he records in his journal on September 12th that he had no idea there were hard feelings and he was sorry for offending anyone.
As I read his personal account I was amazed at his great humility. Clearly he was in the right and he could have become very bitter, but he chose to remain humble. The story continues with the unfortunate actions of Franklin Richards.
According to one of the Saints, John Chislett, Franklin Richards gave a stirring sermon but then proceeded to ask for a meal. The Saints out of respect took their finest calf and killed it, when they were in dire need of nourishment. Richards then proceeded to eat the meat and not even offer it to the Saints. In Chislett’s own words he describes the event:
“These brethren told Captain Willie they wanted some fresh meat, and he had our fattest calf killed for them. I am ashamed for humanity’s sake to say they took it. While we, four hundred in number, travelling so slowly and so far from home, with our mixed company of men, women, children, aged, sick, and infirm people, had no provisions to spare, had not enough for ourselves, in fact, these ‘elders in Israel,’ these ‘servants of God,’ took from us what we ourselves so greatly needed and went on in style with their splendid outfit, after preaching to us faith, patience, prayerfulness, and obedience to the priesthood. As they rolled out of our camp I could not, as I contrasted our positions and circumstances, help exclaiming to myself: ‘Look on this picture, and on that!’
“We broke camp at once and turned towards the river, the apostle having advised us to go on to the south side. He and his company preceded us and waited in the opposite bank to indicate to us the best fording place. They stood and watched us wade the river—here almost a mile in width, and in places from two to three feet deep. Our women and girls waded, pulling their carts after them.
“The apostle promised to leave us provisions, bedding, etc., at Laramie if he could, and to secure us help from the valley as soon as possible.”
As I read this account I was very apalled at the actions of the apostle. As I read further accounts Richards didn’t even leave any provisions or bedding at Fort Laramie (which may have been due to other circumstances), which led to the demise of many people as the winter storms hit.
After reading these accounts clearly there were many factors involved in the hundreds of deaths involved in the Willie Handcart Company. Many stories have been told about the heroic efforts of Saints in Utah that went to help them after they found out there were still some companies coming.
Throughout history, Levi Savage is sometimes known as one who opposed church authorities, and his name is sometimes mentioned as one of those who wasn’t a true Saint. However, I believe he stood as one of the true disciples of Jesus by not becoming bitter when his leaders were clearly in the wrong and also for putting his life on the line to help his fellow man. He is a good example for us to follow.