The Mormon handcart disaster of 1856 resulted in the greatest loss of life from any single event during the entire Westward migration period. That year, five companies of Mormon handcart emigrants journeyed from Iowa City, to Salt Lake City. The first three companies made the journey without incident. The last two companies, traveling late in the season, were not so fortunate.
For much of the way they journeyed along the Oregon Trail which was also used by the Pony Express. Deep trail ruts are still visible just west of Devil’s Gate.
The Fifth Company was led by Captain Edward Martin. The company had nearly 600 emigrants, most of whom had come to American from England. They were late leaving England which mean it was August 27 before they left Florence, NE.
On October 8, 1856, they arrived at Fort Laramie, WY. They were suffering from the lack of food and fatigue and at Glenrock WY, the company makes the fateful decision to discard clothing and personal effects in order to lighten loaded handcarts.
These handcarts were made so that poorer people could make the journey west. Those that couldn’t afford a wagon and a team of oxen. By the time they left Fort Laramie they were allowed only 4 ounces of floor per day for teenagers and adults and 2 ounces for children.
A rescue company from Salt Lake City was headed east to try and find the handcart company and bring them provisions. However, they thought the company would be much further west and it took them several days longer than planned to reach them.
On October 19, the Big Snow Storm Hit. They had to cross the Platte River and pulled up the bluff above the river to camp for the night. There were cold, their clothes were wet and frozen and there was no fuel for a fire. As many as 13 people died of exposure before morning.
They then moved to the Red Buttes camp which is about 40 miles east of Devil’s Gate. Because of the bad weather and a combination of exhaustion, lack of food, illness, inadequate clothing and poor equipment more than 50 people died in this area. The snow was 12 inches deep and the temperature was below zero, plus the Wyoming wind. The storm lasted for 8 days.
On October 28, three men arrived on horseback from the rescue party and told them the provisions were near and that they had to go meet the wagons. During the next two days they pulled the handcarts 17 miles in the bitter cold. They met with the rescue wagons near present day Horse Creek.