by Joelle Moen
We frequently hear of the faith and determination of the members of the Martin and Willie Handcart companies more than 1000 poor immigrants who fought all sorts of hardships to make it to the Salt Lake Valley in fall 1856. As most of you remember, they were caught in early snowstorms, and having a horrible time crossing the plains. After hearing of their plight, President Brigham Young stood up in October general conference and told the members there “Go and bring in those people now on the plains.” He didn’t stop to ask, as we often do: Have they worked hard enough? Do they really need my help?
And the Saints in the Salt Lake Valley heeded the call to help. Right there in general conference, people volunteered to go get the immigrants stuck on the plains. Within three days, sixteen wagon teams had set out and within three weeks, there were 250 wagons. Here’s the thing to remember. The people in the Salt Lake Valley weren’t having an easy time. The harvests of 1854 and 1855 had been horrible, followed by an even worse winter. One historian put it this way: “The famine of 1855-56 had impoverished Utah Territory in its agricultural resources; the handcart emigration had brought to the country several thousand poor people, destitute, after their terrible journey, of even the barest clothing.”Remember, that same year three handcart companies full of the poorest saints had already arrived to the Salt Lake Valley, needing help. And there wasn’t a lot to go around. Heber C. Kimball wrote to his son that they were rationing food in early 1856. By fall, things weren’t much better. By early October, when the call came to help those stuck on the plains, some people didn’t even have their own harvests in because winter had lasted so long into the spring. And yet when hearing that there were saints in trouble somewhere on the trail between Utah and Nebraska they didn’t even know where they just went.
And what supplies did they take? Their own. Their own food, their own clothes, their own blankets, their own wagons and teams. They took things from their own kids to give them to people they’d never even met. They left their families to get someone in trouble someone they didn’t even know. And those who went traveled from the Salt Lake Valley for Eastern Wyoming. They went back 350 miles. In fact, from Winter Quarters, Nebraska to Salt Lake is 1000 miles. The members of the rescue party made that 1000 mile journey for their families. And then they 700 more miles 350 there and 350 back, in an early winter, to go get people they didn’t even know.
When I think of the story of the handcart companies, I think about the people who went back. They risked their own lives and really the lives of the own families to help others. Can you imagine doing that?
Let me give you a modern example. When I was in graduate school at Washington State University, at the end of winter semester I had just moved into a new apartment with my previous roommate, Amy. Ellen, our new roommate, was going home for the summer because she had a great internship lined up. Ellen’s home was Juneau, Alaska. So just as I was moving in, she was taking off for the summer. Ellen had packed up everything she owned in her little pickup, planning to store her stuff at her sister’s house, across the state, 6 hours away, in Olympia, Washington. The next day, she was supposed to catch her flight from Seattle to Juneau so she could start her internship the following day. She was on a tight schedule. Of course, disaster struck. In the middle of nowhere, Ellen’s pickup broke down. This is in the 1990s before everyone had cell phones. Ellen found someone nice who drove her to the closest town and she was at a service station, waiting for the tow-truck driver. In despair, Ellen called us. My roommate Amy answered the phone. The next thing I knew, Amy was grabbing her coat and keys. She was going to get Ellen. Now, I don’t remember what Amy had planned for that weekend, but it certainly wasn’t a 700-mile 12-hour round trip across Washington State 350 miles there and 350 miles back. I felt ashamed. My first thought hadn’t been to go get Ellen. But, I rationalized that Amy and Ellen were practically family. Ellen had been roommates with Amy’s two older sisters and had even spent holidays with their family. So then I didn’t feel quite so bad.
But there’s more to this story. Amy wasn’t the only angel that day. Again, since this was in the days before cell phones, I was supposed to be the message relay at our apartment. Ellen would call to tell me where she was with the tow truck, and Amy was supposed to call to find out Ellen’s location. In the midst of my waiting, my parents called to see how my new apartment was I had just moved in. I explained what had happened with Ellen’s pickup and told them I had to get off the phone. Then my stepdad said something I’ll never forget. He said, “Wait, she’s in trouble. Where is she? I’ll go get her.” He was ready to drive across the state, six hours each way, to help a girl he had never even met. He probably would have driven her to Alaska. After I convinced him that Ellen would be okay with Amy’s help, he let me hang up the phone, but only after I promised him updates about whether Ellen made it safely to her sister’s house in Olympia. Later, I asked my stepdad why he was willing to help my brand new roommate a girl he’d never met and he stated plainly “she needed help. I’d want someone to help you.”
How often do we answer the call or even volunteer to go get those in need?
How often do we grab our keys and go? Or say “I’ll go get her.”
Can you imagine if Brigham Young and the Saints in the Salt Lake Valley had said that of the Martin and Willie Handcart companies? Eh It’s their own problem. They brought this upon themselves. It’s their own fault. Fortunately, they didn’t.
succor those that stand in need of your succor…..
God is near you, Watching o'er you day and night, And delights to own and bless you, If you strive to do what's right. He will bless you, He will bless you, If you put your trust in him.