“In the year 1856 my parents decided to emigrate to America, as they had heard that it was a wonderful place to live. They sold their good comfortable home and in May of that year embarked on the good ship Horizon. After leaving our home in Southport, Scotland, we visited with my mother’s people and were not treated very kindly by them. My grandfather said, ‘I never want to see you again. If you should write, your letters will be burned before we read them. I hope you will all be swallowed up in the ocean before you land on the American shore. You bring disgrace to the family name by joining such a cursed church.’
With time pressing a large group of the early Saints to reach the Salt Lake Valley, and with supplies short, many were forced to use handcarts to cross the plains. The handcarts were very small and many families had to discard a lot of their precious possessions. The carts were usually not pulled by animals; the owners had to pull them by hand, hence the name “handcart.” Upon arriving safely in America and embarking upon the journey to the West in the Willie Handcart Company, Peter continues his story:
“We had to burn buffalo chips for wood, not a tree in sight, no wood to be found anywhere. Just dry earth and rivers. We children and old folks would start early so we wouldn’t be too far behind at night. A great many handcarts broke down, oxen strayed away, which made traveling rather slow. Quite an undertaking to get nearly one thousand persons who had never had any camping experience to travel, eat, and cook over campfires. It took much patience for the captain to get them used to settling down at night and to get started in the morning.
“We saw a great many buffalo as we traveled up the Platte River. The people were forbidden to kill them, as it made the Indians angry. So they hired the Indians to kill what they needed to eat. An Indian sold a man a whole buffalo for five cents’ worth of tobacco. Both parties were satisfied. Sometimes a herd of fifty thousand buffalo would cross the plains, and one time our company met three thousand Sioux Indians, all warriors all in war paint. Our people were much frightened, fear held the whole camp in the grip as they all expected to be annihilated. But their fears were groundless. They told our interpreters they were going to fight the Pawnee tribes. They wouldn’t hurt us because we were mostly squaws and papooses. It would be cowardly to fight us, so they gave us the road. Much hunger and cold were experienced by these weary handcart travelers; all they had to eat was a little flour, which was cut to 3/4 pound to a person. Many aged people died; even the young people could not stand the hardships. My baby sister and I were even cut to less flour, and we were really hungry. Our teams gave out and died, and we were glad to eat the meat. I remember some men passed us one day and stopped to talk. They gave my baby sister some cookies. She carried them in her little pocket, and I was always with her and would tease for a bite. She would give me a taste once in a while, and it was so good. No cake I ever tasted since was ever so good. The exposure to cold rain, snow, and ice, pushing carts all day, the scarcity of food and wood caused many strong men to perish.
“A man by the name of Cyrus Wheelock, just returning from a mission to the Eastern States, was riding a horse. He carried some of the children across the river, even helped some of the handcarts by a rope fastened to his saddle. One time he had three little boys on his horse, one in front and two behind him. I was the last boy on that side of the river and tried to wade across. He told me to climb up behind the last boy behind his saddle, which I did. We crossed the river all right, then the horse leaped up the steep bank, and I slid off in the shallow water. I held on to the horse’s tail and came out all right.
“That night the wind was blowing very cold, and the carts were sheltered behind a big bluff, but the snow drifted in and covered our tent. My father died that night. He had worked hard all day pushing and pulling handcarts through the icy waters of that dangerous river, helping many people with all their belongings to reach the other side.
“My mother was sick all the way over, and my sister Jenetta had the worry of us children. She carried water from the river to do the cooking. Her shoes gave out, and she walked through the snow barefoot, actually leaving bloody tracks in the snow. Father was a good singer. He had charge of the singing in our company, and the night he died he sang a song, the first verse that reads ‘O Zion, when I think of you, I long for pinions like a dove, And mourn to think I should be so distant from the land I love.’
“We camped at the Sweetwater River. A meeting was held. It was decided that we could go no further, the snow so deep and no food. We were doomed to starvation. They gave me a bone of an ox that had died. I cut off the skin and put the bone in the fire to roast. And when it was done some big boys came and ran away with it. Then I took the skin and boiled it, drank the soup, and ate the skin, and it was a good supper.
“The next day we had nothing to eat but some bark from trees. Later we had a terrible cold spell; the wind drifted so much I knew I would die. The wind blew the tents down. They all crawled out but me. The snow fell on it. I went to sleep and slept warm all night. In the morning I heard someone say, ‘How many are dead in this tent?’ My sister said, ‘Well, my little brother must be frozen to death in that tent.’ So they jerked the tent loose, sent it scurrying over the snow. My hair was frozen to the tent. I picked myself up and came out quite alive, to their surprise.
“That day we got word that some teams were coming to meet us from the Valley. Three teams came that night. No one but a person having gone through what we had suffered can imagine what a happy moment it was for this ‘belated handcart company.'” Men, women, and children knelt down and thanked the Almighty God for our delivery from certain death. It put new life into all the Saints. The next day several more teams arrived, and there was room for all to ride.
“We finally arrived in Salt Lake City, November 30, 1856. Our teamster took us to his sister’s place, where we were kindly treated. The next day we drove as far as Farmington, Utah, and we stopped at another place that night, and, oh, the difference in treatment. After the grown folks were through eating, there wasn’t any food left, and we children were put to bed hungry. Yes, we were half starved. My little sister Maggie and me cried ourselves to sleep. All my life I have worried for fear my children might get as hungry as I was, but thank goodness they have never wanted for food.”
Account taken from I Walked to Zion by Susan Arrington Madsen. 1994. p43–47.