Legion are the stories of those who were there and who suffered almost unto death and who carried all of their lives the scars of that dreadful experience. It was a tragedy without parallel in the western migration of our people. When all is said and done, no one can imagine, no one can appreciate or understand how desperate were their circumstances.
—President Gordon B. Hinckley
“I Knew That the Angels of God Were There”
The following comes from the book “The Price We Paid: The Extraordinary story of the Willie and Martin Handcart Companies” by Andrew Olsen
Decades after the handcart trek, William Palmer witnessed an unforgettable incident involving Francis Webster. In a Sunday School class in Cedar City, some people were discussing the handcart tragedy. Through their association with Nellie Pucell Unthank, these people had a daily reminder of the long-term physical cost of that experience. William Palmer recalled:
“Some sharp criticism of the Church and its leaders was being indulged in for permitting any company of converts to venture across the Plains with no more supplies or protection than a handcart caravan afforded.
“An old man in the corner sat silent and listened as long as he could stand it. Then he arose and said things that no person who heard him will ever forget. His face was white with emotion, yet he spoke calmly, deliberately, but with great earnestness and sincerity.
“He said in substance, ‘I ask you to stop this criticism. You are discussing a matter you know nothing about. Cold historic facts mean nothing here, for they give no proper interpretation of the questions involved. [Was it a] mistake to send the handcart company out so late in the season? Yes. But I was in that company and my wife was in it and Sister Nellie Unthank, whom you have cited, was there too. We suffered beyond anything you can imagine, and many died of exposure and starvation, but did you ever hear a survivor of that company utter a word of criticism? Not one of that company ever apostatized or left the Church because every one of us came through with the absolute knowledge that God lives, for we became acquainted with him in our extremities.
“‘I have pulled my handcart when I was so weak and weary from illness and lack of food that I could hardly put one foot ahead of the other. I have looked ahead and seen a patch of sand or a hill slope and I have said, I can go only that far and there I must give up, for I cannot pull the load through it. I have gone to that sand, and when I reached it, the cart began pushing me. I have looked back many times to see who was pushing my cart, but my eyes saw no one. I knew then that the angels of God were there.
“‘Was I sorry that I chose to come by handcart? No. Neither then nor any minute of my life since. The price we paid to become acquainted with God was a privilege to pay, and I am thankful that I was privileged to come in the Martin handcart company.’
“The speaker was Francis Webster, and when he sat down there was not a dry eye in the room. We were a subdued and chastened lot. Charles Mabey, who later became governor of Utah, arose and voiced the sentiment of all when he said, ‘I would gladly pay the same price for the same assurance of eternal verities that Brother Webster has.'”1
Although Francis Webster’s assertion that none of the company ever apostatized is not quite accurate, all available records suggest that it is remarkably close. Like him, most of those who survived the handcart trek stand as a witness that when adversity is faced with faith, it strengthens spiritual commitment and draws a person nearer to God rather than weakening commitment and bringing alienation.
Alluding to the story of Francis Webster, President James E. Faust said: “In the heroic effort of the handcart pioneers, we learn a great truth. All must pass through a refiner’s fire, and the insignificant and unimportant in our lives can melt away like dross and make our faith bright, intact, and strong. There seems to be a full measure of anguish, sorrow, and often heartbreak for everyone, including those who earnestly seek to do right and be faithful. Yet this is part of the purging to become acquainted with God.” 2
Francis Webster died in 1906 at age 76. Betsy died the next year. Their influence continues to this day, not only on their posterity but on thousands who have been inspired by their example of faithful endurance.
- In Van Cott, Generations of Websters,61–62; see also David O. McKay, “Pioneer Women,” Relief Society Magazine, 1948, 8.
- “Faith in Every Footstep: The Epic Pioneer Journey,” Ensign, May 1997, 63; see also James E. Faust, “The Refiner’s Fire,” Ensign, May 1979, 53.