March 31, 2009 by Lifepainter
I am not sure why I found myself agitated after reading the book, and in talking to my husband who has written and published his own book ‘And Should We Die’ on the same subject, I came to realize some of the reasons for the agitation. My husband, is a descendant of one of the ancestors of the Martin handcart company; Mary Jarvis, who married James Crossley, thus my husband’s ancestral lineage. He did not know that when he wrote his book, and the sensitive and tender manner in which he handled the characters and subject is one of his many attributes which attracted me to him.
In appreciating, respecting, and admiring that he has such a proud ancestral heritage and lineage, I began to feel like I needed to learn more about my own lineage. And I set about to do so, learning of a strong maternal Norwegian emigrant lineage and an equally strong paternal German emigrant lineage. But that is as far as it got for me – people’s names but not so much their stories. I have to admit I envied my husband who had actual accounts and stories of his emigrant English lineage in the Mormon migration under Brigham Young . Having learned of and read my husband’s book, I had a great empathy for the hardships the people of the handcart companies endured in their pilgrimages, with the Willie and Martin handcart companies enduring the unendurable.
Reading the later book by David Roberts, ‘Devil’s Gate, Brigham Young and the Great Mormon Handcart Tragedy’ I found myself in an uneasy place in recognizing this historical migration does not belong strictly to Mormon history but more appropriately belongs to American history. The unease for me, I think, comes in the efforts by the LDS Church to minimize the extent of the cruelties and hardships endured by the emigrant migrants in making their way from native countries to the great Zion of Salt Lake Utah by a means prescribed by one man – Brigham Young and adhered to by his ardent followers – the early Mormons.
Essentially I am struck by how it was conceivable in his mind (Brigham Young) that women, children, men should travel in approaching winter months across the Rocky Mountains with so little in the way of clothing and food; much less the tortuous manner of travel in the energy required to be exerted in pulling handcarts minus anything resembling conditions facilitating the necessary amount of sustenance required to do so day after day.
With an inaccurate record of the recorded deaths along the treks of both the Willie and Martin handcart companies, it is nonetheless considered by history to be one of the greater tragedies of the American migration westward, with an exceedingly high number of (un-necessary) deaths. The number of deaths from the combined Willie and Martin handcart companies could be put at approximately 200, exceeding the number of deaths on the historically famously known Donner Party pilgrimage.
In what appears to be a long term historical effort by the LDS Church to turn human travesty and needless suffering into a story of faith and testimony elevating the LDS Church and beliefs, at the expense of the real faith of those who suffered, I find that I have come to resent the presentation of this history that has been so guarded by the Church in a false belief that it belongs to Mormon history. As long as it is permitted to belong to Mormon history, the narrative of the story is colored by the agenda of the LDS Church. That I do not resent, but rather understand and permit that the Church like any other institution wishing to present itself in a more favorable light will write the narrative to it’s own agreeable satisfaction.
However, the history of the Willie and Martin handcart company does not belong strictly to Mormon history, nor does the LDS church have ownership of the narrative. It is a history that better belongs to the whole of American history, and not in the glorious form of hardy, valiant and persevering souls as is presented in Mormon history but to be added to the numerous tragedies that abound in the American history of westward migration.
I recommend the book and even taking into consideration that the author wished to compile the content in a way as to point to accountability and culpability of Brigham Young and his adherents in this fatalistic crossing, one cannot help but come away from the book disturbed with the mechanisms that fostered the horrific conditions suffered by the people of these two handcart companies who undertook the journey. Their Personal Faith is a testament to Faith with a capital F. I am not sure it is a testament or testimony to the belief set of the LDS Church or Mormon beliefs, but I absolutely know it is a testament of Faith.
How dare the LDS Church take credit unto itself for the strength and determination of the personal faith of those pioneering souls!They came and they persevered with an internal and personal faith beyond the comprehension of the LDS Church. I claim their courage as a testimony to human capacity of internal faith that fosters extraordinary human endurance in the face of great odds. I believe such faith rarely belongs exclusively to any Church but is unto itself the depth of which faith can help humans to persevere in the face of much adversity.