James O. Peterson and the Willie Handcart Company

No Peterson family history would be complete without talking about the Willie handcart company.

In 1856 the ships Thornton and Horizon left England for America. On board the two ships were about 1,200 people including Jens Petersen (or Pedersen), his wife Ane, 12 year old Johanne, 10 year-old Mette Marie, 7 year-old Hans, Christen who was 5, Peter who was 4 and 1 year-old Christian.

Perhaps the Peterson's had some leeway in determining when they would migrate to Utah, but many in their company did not. Fathers had been fired from their low-paying factory jobs, former friends and neighbors turned against them. Children were persecuted in school. "Customers" refused to buy their farm produce. All because they were now "Mormons". The coming winter boded ill for many in these poor circumstances.

When the ships arrived in New York, again there was little choice. Many of the immigrants were Scandinavian and didn't speak English. Even the English immigrants would have had difficulty obtaining work in the US eastern seaboard. They soon found themselves in Iowa City, Iowa, learning how to build handcarts, drive oxen, cook meals on open fires and the many skills they would need in their trip to the west.

It was late in the season and the Iowa City saints were unprepared for any more immigrant trains to get handcarts and leave for Utah. To not go wasn't much of a choice here either. There weren't jobs or supplies to winter-over in Iowa City. On July 16, the Willie handcart company finally left Iowa City with handcarts that weren't suitable for the journey. Nearly 1,000 miles west was Independence Rock - a "milestone" along the trail where they should have been around July 4, Independence day.

Levi Savage warned them of the perils of leaving so late. When the company voted to continue he told them that he would support them and even die with them if necessary. The complete text of his two speeches is very impressive and may be found in any of the sources listed below as well as many other places.

They were further delayed for several days when their "cattle" (oxen) were caught in a buffalo stampede and were lost forever. That left many hundreds of pounds of flour and other supplies that had to be placed on the handcarts instead of on wagons pulled by oxen. Besides the delay caused by trying to round up the errant cattle the handcarts were slowed down even more by the additional weight.

September found the handcart company several hundred miles east of Utah. Low on supplies and the days were getting colder, then the unthinkable happened. Early winter blizzards swept over the plains.

To drive from Independence Rock today to Sixth Crossing (on a good map of Wyoming, look for Sweetwater station south and east of Lander, Wyoming) takes about an hour and a half. It took the Willie handcart company much longer than the hour or two it took us to get to Sixth Crossing. It took them even a bit longer than the normal three or four days. Short of supplies, including warm clothing, trudging through a fierce Wyoming blizzard in sub-zero temperatures. Living on just a few ounces of flour every day and without any meat to supplement their diet, this part of the trail was especially hard for them. The working men got 10 1/2 oz of flour per day, women and old men 9 oz, children 4 - 8 oz depending on their size and age, while infants received 3 oz. Even these meager rations were further reduced by the time they arrived at Sixth Crossing. Many relate stories of eating their rawhide shoes, belts, saddles etc. in order to get nourishment.

They made camp somewhere near today's Sweetwater station. It was determined that their remaining supplies, just a few dried apples and wormy hardtack biscuits, would be divided among the company. Their leader, James G. Willie and Joseph Elder struck out on the morning of October 21, 1856 on the two best mules in the camp to attempt to find the rescue companies they were sure had been sent out by Brigham Young. A blizzard was raging as only it can in that part of Wyoming. A modern day missionary told us that the snow doesn't melt in that part of Wyoming, it just blows around until it wears out.

Brother Elder said "we rode twelve miles to where we expected to find them, but they were not there. We ascended Rocky Ridge. The snow and awful cold blew in our faces all day. We crossed the Rocky Ridge and upon the west bank of the north fork of the sweet water {probably a reference to Rock Creek] we found a friendly guide post which pointed us to their camp down upon the Sweetwater amongst the willows."

In a true miracle, a 20 year-old Harvey Cluff had placed the sign (guide post) along the trail just a few minutes before Bros. Willie and Elder came along in the snow and the dark. The other men in the resue party tried to dissuade Harvey from risking his life to leave the sign, but he listened to the promptings o fthe spirit. If he hadn't posted the sign, the two men would have continued on and the entire Willie handcart company would have probably died out there on the plains. The sign directed them to a spot a few miles off the trail where the willows and small valley provided protection for the rescue company and their animals from the fierce cold and wind.

Brother Elder continues "When they saw us they raised a shout and ran out to meet us. Great was their joy to hear from us for they had long been in search of us. They could scarcely give us time to tell our story they were so anxious to hear all about us, their camp being 27 miles from ours."

On the evening of the third day after Captain Willie's departure, several covered wagons were seen coming towards the Willie company camp. They were saved, but the next day they sent the wagons on to find the Martin handcart company that was as much as two weeks behind them. They gathered their strength and started the climb over Rocky Ridge and the 27 miles to Rock Creek. Some accomplished the trek in just under 20 hours. Others took as long as 27 hours and still others never arrived at all.

A few miles south of Lander Wyoming, off route 28 is the tiny town of Atlantic City. Continuing South and East from Atlantic City, on a dirt road that's infamous for ruining tires,

amidst one of the most desolate places I've ever been is a small valley called Rock Creek hollow. Very hard rock layers jut up vertically through the ground. Sagebrush, thistles and grass grow but sparsely. The only green patches are near the small creek. The first time I saw this landscape I remarked that I now knew where NASA faked the lunar landings - Lander, Wyoming was well-named.

There are three graves with fifteen people, buried there on October 25, 1856. Somehow your ancestors survived.

This has barely touched on the experiences of the Willie handcart company. If anyone is interested, there is an excellent book "Fire in the Covenant" written by Gerald Lund. "Handcarts to Zion" is also an excellent source. Another interesting book is titled "Tell My Story Too", a collection of stories and biographies compiled by Jolene S. Allphin from the Willie and Martin handcart companies, the wagon trains that accompanied them and some of the rescuers.

We haven't been able to find any trace of writing from Jens or Hans. RoseMary and I began to suspect that they were illiterate, as a poor farm family from Denmark might well be. However, in Tell My Story Too we ran across the following

Jens kept a journal and recorded an experience he had, which was retold by his grandson, Jens Peterson: "When they were having such hard times with low rations and cold weather, one man decided he didn't want to put up with any more so just said he wasn't going another step. Different ones tried to talk to him and urge him to go on, but had no effect upon his decision. Grandpa, Jens O. Peterson, asked for permission to talk to the man. Some told him it wouldn't do any good so they went on and grandpa tried to reason with him, but that did no good. Finally he said 'Well if you are not going, I'm going to give you a whipping before I go on,' and he slapped him quite hard on the face, and started running to catch up with the company. It made the man angry and he started after grandpa and both of them caught up to the company. The man went on and later thanked grandpa for saving his life."

We still haven't seen or read the actual journal but this gives us hope that there is such a document. I'd be very interested in reading/hearing the impressions and story of someone that we're as close too as Jens and Hans. I have a lot of questions about how they survived intact, even down to little Christian, when so many strong and able-bodied people died.

As part of the Cache Valley tour on July 28 I want to take you to some places that are special to the memories of these brave and valiant handcart pioneers.

Drop us a line Dennis@heartslinked.com