In the early days of the Old West, the rugged country and tough living conditions attracted rugged and determined people to live there. Elizabeth Simpson Bradshaw was one such rugged individual. Her extraordinary journey (along with the 575 other individuals on the Edward Martin Hardcart Company) exemplifies the courage it took to tackle the wilderness.
Born in England, Elizabeth was widowed twice and raised five children. Soon after the death of her first husband, she met the missionaries of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and was converted and baptized into the Church. Being an unpopular faith in England, Elizabeth came in for a great deal of abuse from her relatives, but it only strengthened her desire to travel to Zion.
Throughout her trials and tribulations, she worked and prayed and waited for the right time to begin her journey. Finally, in 1856, at the age of 48, she and her five children, ranging from age six to nineteen, boarded Horizon, a boat bound for America. Other converts joined her aboard for a trip to America – a trip that was, in part, financed by the Mormons. Her family made one final effort to persuade her to remain in England, going so far as to take a dingy to the Horizon to beg her to remain. They promised that she and her children would never want for anything. But her faith was profound and was determined to travel to Zion.
After landing in Boston, Mass., Elizabeth and her children took a train to Iowa. There, they hooked up with the Edward Martin Handcart Company. It was composed of many nationalities; many were from Scandanavia, all with the same religious purpose of gathering to Zion and following the teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith. There were 575 individuals, 145 handcarts, and 8 wagons in the company when it began its journey from the outfitting post at Iowa City, Iowa.
The handcarts were essentially large wheelbarrows. Five people were assigned per cart and allotted 17 pounds of gear each. Discarding much, Elizabeth packed the now meager family belongings in a handcart that she and her family dragged behind them the entire 1,100 mile trek to Utah. Their journey was the stuff of nightmares. The converts faced untold hardships and grueling physical conditions, not the least of which was hauling the carts behind them.
Being mostly wilderness, one of the greatest problems and dangers was crossing the numerous rivers and streams. Upon reaching the north branch of the Platte River, everyone had to get across somehow. Elizabeth’s 19-year-old daughter carried 16 people across. Meanwhile, Elizabeth took her youngest upon her shoulders and started off. Being a very small woman, the water snatched her and the boy and swept them downstream past the safety of the ford. Witnesses on the shore begged her to drop the boy and save herself, but her faith never diminished. She struggled on and finally made it to the far shore, where she and the boy were lifted over the high bank.
In another instance, her son Samuel was brought into the camp and thought to be dead. Again, her faith never wavered and she asked the elders to anoint and administer to the boy. Amazingly, thanks to her tender care, the lad recovered.
Because the travelers had started late in the season, the weather became fierce as they neared Wyoming. In early October the company reached Fort Laramie, where they expected to be restocked with provisions, but no provisions were waiting for them. The travelers had to cut back food rations, hoping that their supplies would last until help could be sent from Utah. To lighten their loads, the Martin Company cut the luggage allowance to 10 pounds per person, discarding clothing and blankets that soon would be desperately needed. The group started out again.
Meanwhile, in Salt Lake City, in general conference, Brigham Young begged the congregation to send help and supplies to aid the travelers, fearing the effect the weather would have on the company. On the morning of October 7, the first rescue party left Salt Lake City with 16 wagon loads of food and supplies, pulled by four-mule teams with 27 young men serving as teamsters and rescuers. By the end of October, 250 relief wagons were on the road.
During October and early November, fierce cold winds swept the Wyoming plains. One morning, Elizabeth heard sobbing, and discovered that in a neighboring tent, the woman had woken to find her husband and little child dead, one on each side of her. One young lad lost both feet to frostbite, although according to Elizabeth, he later learned to climb ladders faster than most boys with feet.
On October 19, a blizzard hurled down from the north and caught the Martin Company just after they had crossed the river near Casper, Wyoming. Many members of the company suffered from hypothermia or frostbite after wading through the frigid river. They set up camp at Red Bluffs, unable to continue forward through the snow. The Martin Company remained there for nine days until the three scouts from the rescue party finally arrived on October 28. By the time the scouts arrived, 56 members of the company had died.
George D. Grant, who headed the rescue party, reported later to President Young and said, “It is not of much use for me to attempt to give a description of the situation of these people, for this you will learn from [others]; but you can imagine between five and six hundred men, women and children, worn down by drawing hand carts through snow and mud; fainting by the wayside; falling, chilled by the cold; children crying, their limbs stiffened by cold, their feet bleeding and some of them bare to snow and frost. The sight is almost too much for the stoutest of us; but we go on doing all we can, not doubting nor despairing.”
The rescue party escorted the immigrants to Utah through more snow and severe weather while their members continued to suffer death from disease and exposure. When the 104 wagons carrying the Martin Company arrived in Salt Lake City on November 30; at least 145 members of the company had lost their lives. Many of the survivors had to have fingers, toes or limbs amputated due to severe frostbite.
After the companies arrived in Utah, the residents generously opened their homes to the arriving emigrants, feeding and caring for them over the winter. Elizabeth and her entire family (miraculously she and all her children made it one piece) were sent to Bountiful, Utah, and their first meal was eaten at the home of Bishop Stoker. They remained in Bountiful for six years before eventually moving to Hyrum, Utah, in 1862. They lived in a small log cabin, with a dirt floor and roof and sheepskin covering on the beds to keep warm. As the children grew old enough to work, their lot improved, although her oldest son will killed in logging mill accident shortly after they moved to Hyrum.
In 1873, Elizabeth died and was buried in the churchyard in Hyrum, Utah. To this day, the Mormons still celebrate the courage and daring of the 10 handcart companies, the thousands of stout souls, and those lost along the way, that braved the wilderness to reach Zion. A statue, erected Temple Square, commemorates their deeds.