The Price We Paid: The Extraordinary Story of the Willie and Martin Handcart Pioneers (Bookshelf eBook)(edit)
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The story of the Willie and Martin handcart pioneers is among the most compelling in the history of America's western migration. Though tragic, it is also a story of triumph that scarcely has an equal. It is one of history's great witnesses of the power of faith and sacrifice.
Although this story is one of the most frequently told of all Mormon pioneer accounts, it is also among the least understood. This book provides the most comprehensive and accessible account of these pioneers' epic 1856 journey.
In addition to painting a broad perspective of the trek, it includes dozens of personal stories from the pioneers themselves. Woven into the larger story of the journey west, these stories inspire, build faith, recount miracles, and reveal how these pioneers were able to endure such adversity. The book also includes chapters on the lives of many of these pioneers after the handcart trek.
Immerse yourself in the challenges and miracles of this astounding odyssey as never before!
- Published: November 2006
About the Author
Andrew D. Olsen is an editor for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and the author of The Price We Paid: The Extraordinary Story of the Willie and Martin Handcart Pioneers. Andrew and his wife, Linda, are the parents of 3 children.
The Call to Gather
Janet McNeil was nine months pregnant with her seventh child when she boarded the Thornton. Doing so probably violated every maternal instinct. She knew the conditions for giving birth would be rather primitive. Surely she knew the risks of taking an infant on such a voyage and then crossing an unknown continent with him. She had to wonder how she would provide for the baby, whether she would be able to feed him. Nevertheless, the call to gather to Zion sounded so strongly in her heart that she and her family chose to emigrate despite these risks and uncertainties. “The time to go is now,” Janet told her husband when he asked if it might be better to emigrate in a different year. “Something may come up to hinder us if we wait. I will put my trust in God, and He will see me through.”1
Rachel Curtis, the 75-year-old woman who died on the third day of the voyage, had been in declining health before leaving Liverpool. Given her age and health condition, she likely knew that she had only a small chance of seeing Zion. But she boarded the ship anyway, willing to leave everything behind, sail across the ocean, and walk 1,300 miles.
“The Fire of Emigration Blazes”
For many years, Church leaders used stirring prose and oratory to encourage converts to gather to Utah. “Emigrate as speedily as possible,” Brigham Young wrote in 1847.2 “Come! and help us to build and grow, until we can say, enough—the valleys of Ephraim are full,” the First Presidency wrote in 1849.3 Sometimes the call to gather was given with the force of a commandment, as in 1855 when President Franklin D. Richards wrote:
“The Lord never gave a commandment to His people, but what, if they would go to with full purpose of heart and try to obey it, they could do so. The commandment to gather out to the land of America is just as binding on the Saints, so far as it is possible for them to accomplish it, as it was in the first place to be baptized for the remission of sins. . . . Every impulse of the heart of the Saint, every hope of the future, says, ‘Gather up to the land of America.’”4
The zeal to emigrate grew quickly until it was almost universal. William H. Kimball, a missionary in England who would later play a prominent role with the Willie company, described the feelings in his field of labor:
“The fire of emigration blazes throughout the Pastorate to the extent that the folks are willing to part with all their effects, and toddle off with a few things in a pocket handkerchief.
" . . . Verily there is power in ‘Mormonism.’ . . . People who once felt they would rather die than leave ‘happy England,’ . . . who looked upon other countries with supreme contempt, [now] sing with joyful hearts, ‘There is a land beyond the sea / Where I should like to be; / And dearer far than all the rest, / Is that bright land to me.’"5
The Push and Pull to Emigrate
What prompted this zeal to emigrate? Long before the pushing and pulling of handcarts began, converts felt both a push and a pull to gather to Zion. The “push,” or the practical reasons, existed mainly for those who were poor, for whom emigration would provide an opportunity to improve their oppressive economic and social situations. Elder Millen Atwood, a missionary in England who later became one of the subcaptains of the Willie company, explained this further in his mission report:
“I did not go to England for gold or silver, but to preach the gospel and gather the poor. We started home with a goodly number on board the ship Thornton, and they were of the class that Br. Brigham wrote for when stating, ‘If they have not a sixpence in the world, they are the ones to bring here.’ The people that came from where I was were perfectly destitute. . . .
“They have prayed and fasted day after day, and night after night, that they might have the privilege of uniting with their brethren and sisters in these mountains. . . . When Br. Brigham offered his property so liberally, and the word came that they should gather from England, it ran like fire in dry stubble, and the hearts of the poor Saints leapt with joy and gladness; they could hardly contain themselves.”6
One reason Brigham Young was so devoted to gathering the poor was his personal concern for them. Knowing their needs and fervent desires, he wanted to help them—and he wanted others to help also:
“The cry from our poor brethren in foreign countries for deliverance is great, the hand of the oppressor is heavy upon them, and they have no other prospect on earth through which they can hope for assistance. Many of them are long in the Church, and have been faithful in all things. . . . Shall we turn a deaf ear to their appeals and leave them to linger in the midst of wicked Babylon, where, year by year, the perplexity and distress of nations, their wickedness, abominations, and corruptions, wars, pestilence, and persecutions are multiplied by waxing greater and greater?”7
The “pull,” or the spiritual reasons for emigrating, existed for converts of all economic levels. They wanted to gather to Utah so they could join the community of Saints in the common goal of building Zion. Rather than suffer constant prejudice and persecution, in Utah they hoped to raise their families and worship among people who shared the same beliefs and values. Just as the poor hoped to escape economic bondage by emigrating, converts of all economic levels had a very real feeling that they would escape spiritual bondage by doing so. In the words of John H. Latey of the Hodgetts wagon company, the Saints “rejoic[ed] in their emancipation from gentile bondage, and with the flattering prospect of speedily tasting the sweets of liberty in the beehive State of Deseret.”8
How the Gathering Benefited the Church
Brigham Young’s concern for the poor was not the only reason for his passion about the gathering. In addition to benefiting those who emigrated, the gathering benefited the Church in Utah. Bringing faithful Saints to the territory was necessary to build the latter-day Zion that Brigham Young envisioned. Franklin D. Richards explained, “In connection with building a Temple, and other objects equally necessary for the progress of the kingdom, the gathering of the poor from the nations of the earth is a subject of deep and abiding interest in the hearts of the First Presidency.”9
During the earliest years in Utah, Brigham Young emphasized gathering those who had the skills and resources to help the Saints become self-sufficient. As he sought to settle the vast reaches of the Great Basin, develop its resources, build the temple, and establish public works, he simply needed more faithful people, whether they had skills and resources or not. LeRoy and Ann Hafen explained:
“To build their new empire—the Kingdom of God on earth—the Mormons soon realized that they would need more workers and an increased population. . . .
“The wisdom of the Gathering, for the advancement of the Church, was evident. Having established themselves in a desert country and undertaken there the building of a commonwealth, the Mormons were in need of more settlers to develop the resources of the land. Also, experience had proved that the Church thrived best when concentrated, and thus under the influence and encouragement of its leaders.”10
Wallace Stegner saw additional practical purposes for such a strong emphasis on the gathering. It allowed Brigham Young, he said, to “quickly [people] his empire and [make] it strong against the inevitable renewed clash with the Gentile world.”11
In addition to these practical benefits of the gathering, Brigham Young saw benefits that were more visionary. The entire world, he believed, would be spiritually blessed by gathering new converts to Utah. In a letter to Franklin D. Richards in 1855, he acknowledged the benefit of bringing more people to “assist in the works of Zion.” But beyond that, he said, gathering the Saints to Utah “has a beneficial influence in the world, and aids those who go on to proclaim the Gospel, in obtaining hearers and believers.”12
Helping the Poor Emigrate
Missionary work in Great Britain was so successful that by 1850 there were 30,747 Church members in Britain compared to only 11,380 in Utah.13 While most of those Saints wanted to gather to Zion, many were too poor to pay for their passage, barely subsisting from week to week. By 1856, only 5 percent of those who wanted to emigrate had been able to do so.14
“The Lord Helps Those Who Help Themselves”
Church leaders tried to remove impediments to the emigration of the poor in two ways. First, they told even the poorest of Saints that they must do all they could to help themselves. These Saints were counseled to be frugal so they could save something each week toward their emigration, if only a shilling. In an editorial in the Millennial Star, the official Church periodical in England, President Franklin D. Richards emphasized the importance of each person making a plan for emigration and working to accomplish it:
“Have you, during the past season, made it your study and business to accomplish something towards your emigration? Or have you carelessly passed it by, leaving it to some mere chance in the future? Have you acted as though you expected the Lord to do that for you which you have not considered worthy of your own exertions? Or have you laboured faithfully to accomplish your own salvation? . . .
“As strong as the desire of the Saints is almost universally to gather, there are comparatively few who have gone to work systematically to accomplish it.”15
President Richards frequently taught, “The Lord helps those who help themselves,”16 and missionaries throughout the land echoed his message. Some Church members in England scratched and saved for nearly 20 years before they were able to fulfill their desire to gather to Zion. Learning this principle of self-reliance while in England served them well many months later when they were crossing the plains and mountains of the American West.
This principle etched itself into the character of these Saints so strongly that many of them lived and taught it until the end of their lives. Sixty-three years after the handcart trek, one woman who wrote an account of her experiences concluded with this testimony:
“For the benefit of the youth of Zion who may read this, I bear testimony that I know God hears and answers prayers, and the Lord will help those who help themselves.”17
The Perpetual Emigration Fund
The Perpetual Emigration Fund was the second way Church leaders tried to overcome impediments to emigration. Initiated in 1849, the fund was originally used to help the poor Saints from the United States gather to Zion. Beginning in 1852, it was used to assist those who lived abroad. Nearly two-thirds of those who sailed on the Thornton did so with the aid of the fund.18
Brigham Young said the purpose of the Perpetual Emigration Fund was “to deliver the honest poor, the pauper, . . . from the thraldom of ages, from localities where poverty is a crime, . . . where every avenue to rise in the scale of being to any degree of respectable joy-ous existence is forever closed.”19 Through this fund, the poor were advanced part of the money they needed for the journey to Utah. After arriving, they were expected to repay the fund in cash, commodities, or labor. The replenished fund could then be used to help others.
The necessity of this fund to help the poor emigrate is shown in a letter that Elder James Willie wrote to President Richards while presiding over the Southampton Conference:
“There is not one family in the Southampton Conference that has means to emigrate with to America, and in the Dorset Conference there is but one family and two single brothers that [have] means to emigrate. . . . I am certain the only source the Saints here can look to for deliverance and escape from Babylon is the P. E. Fund. . . .
“To show you how the ‘leaven of the Spirit’ works amongst the Saints in emigration matters, I have concluded to mention a few cases out of many. At our Conference recently held, a brother agreed to donate £2 as a free offering, and another agreed to give 5 [shillings] per week to the first of January next, also as a donation to the P. E. Fund. Many others will do likewise, according to their circumstances.
“I can truly say the emigration spirit is universal here, and most of the Saints appear to be impressed with the belief that ‘God helps them who help themselves.’”20
Today’s Perpetual Education Fund is patterned after the Perpetual Emigration Fund. Under the leadership of President Gordon B. Hinckley, the Church established the fund in March 2001. Within five years, tens of thousands of students were receiving assistance from the fund to help them receive education they could not have afforded otherwise.
Chapter 2 The Call to Gather
1. History of Thomas and Janet McNeil, DUP archives, Salt Lake City, Utah, 5. The McNeils were among the approximately 250 Saints on the Thornton who did not become part of the Willie handcart company. Their sacrifices after arriving in America were also considerable. As counseled by President Franklin D. Richards, they went to St. Louis and prepared to finish the journey to Utah the next year. In 1857, however, they were called to help fulfill Brigham Young’s plan to establish settlements along the trail. Their first destination was 100 miles west of Florence, Nebraska, where they established Genoa. In 1859 they were sent another 100 miles to the west to establish the settlement of Wood River. The family finally reached Utah later in 1859. Thomas and Janet McNeil are great-great-grandparents of Elder M. Russell Ballard.
2. Millennial Star, 15 Mar. 1848, 84.
3. Messages of the First Presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, comp. James R. Clark, 6 vols. (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1965–75), 2:33.
4. Millennial Star, 22 Sept. 1855, 603.
5. Ibid., 1 Dec. 1855, 765.
6. Deseret News, 26 Nov. 1856, 300–301.
7. Millennial Star, 26 Jan. 1856, 51–52.
8. The Mormon, 30 Aug. 1856, 2.
9. Millennial Star, 18 Aug. 1855, 522.
10. Hafen and Hafen, Handcarts to Zion, 21, 27.
11. Stegner, Gathering of Zion, 222.
12. Millennial Star, 11 Aug. 1855, 506.
13. See Church History in the Fulness of Times, 2d ed. (Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 2003), 356; Franklin L. West, Life of Franklin D. Richards (Salt Lake City: Deseret News Press, 1924), 132.
14. Hafen and Hafen, Handcarts to Zion, 28.
15. Millennial Star, 22 Sept. 1855, 601, 602.
16. Ibid., 601.
17. Betsey Smith Goodwin, “The Tired Mother: Pioneer Recollections,” Improvement Era, July 1919, 781.
18. Millennial Star, 23 Aug. 1856, 542.
19. Ibid., 26 Jan. 1856, 52.
20. Ibid., 5 Jan. 1856, 12–13.
by Anja - reviewed on September 19, 2008
A bit heavy at times, but well worth the money and the time. Although it contains facts and no fiction to bind it together, it reads like a storybook. Amazing stories!
A wonderful book
by Customer - reviewed on July 31, 2006
'This is truly a phenomenal book--a nonfiction book that is well documented and reads like a story is not easy to come by. The overall spirit of the book is incredible, too.' -- Celeste Howard
This book clarifies, corrects, and comprehends all the others. It ought to be required reading.
by Jolene & Michael - reviewed on January 03, 2007
Andrew Olsen's insight, understanding, and commentary on this overall drama are right on! This book is a must-read for anyone seeking to know the most accurate and more comprehensive story of the belated 1856 Mormon Pioneer immigration. Those troubling 'Why's' and 'How's' will largely disappear for serious students as well as casual readers of 'The Price We Paid.' Congratulations also to Mr. Olsen for including some inspiring and passionate personal accounts. My enthusiastic response is that the stories in 'The Price We Paid' are nearly as powerful as scripture! Jolene Allphin
by Elizabeth - reviewed on November 05, 2007
This book brings to life the stories of the pioneers and what they went through to live the gospel. I could not put it down. I was pleased to learn more about my great great great grandfather who was one of the London branch presidents who gave up his wagon for a cheaper handcart so that the extra money could bring more saints to zion. My heart broke and rejoiced as I read. My life is forever changed.
I recommend it
by Customer - reviewed on September 19, 2008
I am reading this book now. I didn't know what was behind the handcarts and why they started so late in the season, who encouraged them, etc. It has been very informative and has answered my questions.
A Profound Story of Faith and Achievement
by Gordon - reviewed on September 23, 2008
Andrew Olsen gives greater clarity and insight to the travels and travails of the beleagured handcart companies. His well-researched, yet extremely readable book both captures the interest of the reader, and teaches about lessons learned and lives lost. As a direct descendent of the Martin Handcart Company, I am more committed to the legacy left to me through reading this book. It should be must reading for anyone searching for understanding of this difficult period in westward migration.
Awe- inspiring Book
by Natalie - reviewed on October 07, 2008
This book was well written about the pioneers. I was greatly humbled by the experiences these faithful men , women, and children went through. This book deepened my appreciation for them.
by Amy - reviewed on September 18, 2009
I've read a few books about the Martin and Willie Handcart Co. and this is by far my favorite!! Its incredible. I think my favorite part is the second half where he tells you what happened to the people AFTER they made it to the valley. Its so interesting to read about their lives after they got there and how the trek changed their lives. It changes your whole perspective on life.I love it!!! Its my favorite book ever!!!
by Kim - reviewed on July 25, 2013
With information taken from journals, interviews and other historical records, Andrew Olsen gave me a feeling of being out there, on the trail, with my Great Great Grandmother. His narrative chronicles the ordeals of the Willie Handcart Company. The Martin Handcart Company is mentioned and referred to many times, but the lion share is about the Willie Handcart Company. I thought I had a feeling for what they went through, until I read this. I forever work to honor those who endured this ordeal.
by susan - reviewed on October 14, 2013
Olsen has masterfully crafted the full “extraordinary story of the Willie & Martin Handcart Pioneers.” This book is a must own for anyone who is part of the story of these pioneers, whether because they descended from them, lead youth in trekking, or have inherited the cultural legacy. The hard questions about the tragedy that resulted in a late start are answered while the heart-wrenching stories give life to the epic account. This book changed me. The final words epitomize their stories: “When they felt alone, when they felt that they could bear no more, a divine hand was stretched out to steady them and guide them home.”
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