The Martin Handcart Company

When I was living in Orem, Utah after graduating from BYU, I was getting my art business on its feet as a freelance painter. I received a letter from my church, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, explaining about the Sesquicentennial coming up. They listed nine or ten subjects which they wanted painted, and asked me to send small color mock-ups of any subjects I was interested in doing. They said the winners would be commissioned to paint the big ones. I chose one of the topics, and later received a letter informing me that my work had been considered but not chosen.

I received another letter soon after telling me not to be discouraged, that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints still wanted more paintings depicting historical events from the Church's history, and to send my paintings to an upcoming Festival of Arts for possible purchase. It was then that the idea to paint the Martin Handcart Company came to me and I set about with great fervor to bring it to life. I felt inspired to do it, and read two books on the subject and many excerpts of original diaries of these people. I wept as I read. My heart was deeply affected. I spent one day out in the snowy desert in the wind and cold searching for the right setting and feeling. I felt a lot of help as I worked on this painting. I felt it was a story that needed to be told. 

In the painting I did (pictured below, although the one above also shows my relatives), I have pictured my relatives who were in the Martin Company.  The Willie and Martin Companies left Nebraska Territory in late August for the trek to Utah. Their desire to go to Utah was very strong, so in spite of the lateness of the season and the long distance, they set out quite ill-prepared. Many of their handcarts were made from wood which was not seasoned, later causing many of them to break up or need many repairs.

The two companies were separated by about 40 miles when the severe winter storms came early on the high plains. Day after weary day they trudged on. Food became very scarce. The cold wind ate up their energy reserves as they tried to keep warm. Almost every day deaths occurred in their camps or on the march. Little children would trudge all day, only to die around the fires at night. Parents were almost helpless to alleviate the suffering of their children. Burial squads were a daily thing, and several men, after digging shallow graves, were so exhausted and sick that they would die and be buried in the graves they had dug. 

In this painting, the woman holding the infant is my great, great grandmother, Elizabeth Steele, from Scotland. The baby is James E. Steele, about one year old at that time. Her husband being buried is James Steele. They were converts to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints and had just recently arrived in America in great expectation of a grand future in Utah with other church members. James had literally starved to death giving all his food to his children and wife. He died on the windswept plains, hundreds of miles from Utah, but in his heart was as the Savior said, "Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God." (Matthew 5:8)

Elizabeth went on, later remarried, and settled in Lehi or American Fork, Utah. Later, when James E. was a young man with a family, he was sent to southeastern Idaho to settle there. They settled in a place they named Iona, on the outskirts of present-day Idaho Falls. This settling of southern Idaho was not without its trials as well. James E. became quite discouraged at one point, the land so dry, the grasshoppers so thick, that he yearned for his Utah home.

As he lay by the tongue of his wagon to take a little nap, he beheld a dream. In this dream he saw the Snake River valley all green with farms, trees, and lovely gardens. He saw a temple and a large hospital side by side along the banks of the river. He awoke and needed no more encouragement, but responded wholeheartedly to the inspiration he had just received, and started to the job of homesteading that place, never looking back or slacking his forward pace. He became a stalwart of the community and served in his church and community as a powerful force for good there until he died.

His memory lives on in many hearts, and there are still some maytrees there that he planted which always remind us of our heritage when we see them. My mother told me the story several times in my youth, and I always remembered it as something very special.


3 comments

  • Thanks so much for sharing. My great grandmother, Susannah Stone, was in the Willie Handcart Company. In her autobiography she states: “We were almost pioneers.” Wow, what an understatement!! I wonder if you are acquainted with Glenn Rawson. I’m forwarding this on to him.

    Stephen
  • Dear Clark, I ordered “Sir, all present and accounted for” & gave it to my oldest son who was about 56 yrs. old. He had told me several times he loved this painting! I was able to get it for him & needless to say he was thrilled! My dad was an artist also. It came so natural to him. He would send me pictures of horses, cows, dogs, etc in letters when I was 6 or 7 yrs. old & he was away on some civil engineering job. They looked so real & I kept them for many years! Your art work is phenomenal! I’m almost 79 yrs. old & & will be going into a nursing home as soon as covid 19 slows way down. Keep up your beautiful work. Maybe in the next life I can become an artist & best of all see my husband & 3 sons after 43 yrs of being without them. Thank goodness for eternal marriages & being sealed forever & ever. May God be with you & your family always. Your friend, Karen

    Karen Stoddard
  • wow! what a touching story. how great it is to know of family history like this. bless you clark.

    jim thomas

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