by Donna Cuillard
Here is the script for our Stake Fireside, Chariots of Faith, honoring the handcart pioneers and their rescuers of 1856. (Next year is the 150th anniversary of the Willie & Martin Handcart companies).
(We are a geographically small Stake in Southern California. Our entire valley is approximately 5 miles wide and 12 miles long. These are the complete boundaries of our Stake. We have 10 Wards here.)
Everyone we used in this fireside was descended from someone who traveled in the Willie & Martin Handcart companies or one of the rescuers. I am listing below the ones we used, but, of course, use those from your own area.
Running time of fireside: approximately 1 hour
Preparation time: We did not have any general rehearsals, but the choirs
rehearsed in their own Wards and the Primaries from the wards we used practiced in
their own wards.
Prelude concert: Hymns of the Restoration 6:30-7pm
Opening Hymn: Praise To The Man
Opening prayer: Descendant of Rescuer Reddick Newton Allred
Welcome: Stake Presidency
Introduction of Slide Presentation: Stake Presidency
Here we showed slides from our Stake Family Handcart Trek the month previous.
We had an overnight Family Handcart Trek and 1200 people came. We had a great time. I can send the scripts for the presentations, etc., for the trek if anyone is interested.
In place of this you could show a slide presentation of photos or have a musical presentation or ?
Story & Testimony of Ancestor who was a Handcart Pioneer & Rescuer (5 min) –
We have a family in our stake who is descended from a member of the Willie
Handcart Company and also from one of the Rescuers so this was great.
Primary Children: We used Primary children from 4 of our 10 Wards.
Songs: We asked them to dress in pioneer clothing and they were so cute!
Covered Wagons; To Be A Pioneer; Pioneer Children Sang As They Walked
Story & Testimony (5min) from a Descendant of a member of the Martin Handcart
Presentation: Chariots of Faith – Honoring the 1856 Handcart Pioneers – Read by Brother dressed in ragged pioneer clothing:
(I had someone of the same age, dressed in ragged clothing, sitting on the stand to represent each one of the 15 who perished at Rock Creek Hollow, mentioned below. As their name was read, each stood and came to the front next to the reader at the podium. When the reader finished their short bio, each one walked down off the stand and down the aisle and to the back of the cultural
hall. We made sure the children had their feet wrapped in rags. They all came back on the stand at the end to sing the first verse of Come, Come Ye Saints.)
Entire script read by a Brother representing Levi Savage:
My name is Levi Savage.
I was born March 23, 1820 in Greenfield, Ohio. Upon returning from a
mission in 1856, I was joined with the Willie Handcart Company.
We began the crossing late in the season and on August 13 a meeting was
called because questions arose among the people; namely, due to the lateness of the
season, should we remain at Winter Quarters for the winter or continue on our
journey. I, having crossed the plains twice previously, advised the brethren
that such a journey so late in the season should not be undertaken and that we
should go into winter camp without delay.
A vote was taken and the decision was made to press on immediately.
I then added; “Brethren and sisters, what I have said I know to be true;
but, seeing you are to go forward, I will go with you, will help you all I can,
will work with you, will rest with you, will suffer with you, and if necessary
I will die with you. May God in his mercy bless and preserve us. Amen.”
And so continue on we did.
On August 16th myself and the 500 members of the Willie Company continued our
journey westward. When we reached the high plains of Wyoming the first signs
of the impending disaster appeared. Temperatures dropped suddenly and our
clothing and tents proved inadequate for the freezing weather. Provisions ran
short and there was no way to replenish them. Heavy snowstorms began and sleet
and ice pounded upon us. The snowfall finally brought us to a freezing halt.
By October 20, 1856, we were camped not far from the base of Rocky Ridge. The
cold was intense. Frostbite could be seen as small black spots on exposed
parts of our bodies.
What lay ahead for us was the treacherous ascent of Rocky Ridge to the
summit, and then the trek on to the camp at Rock Creek Hollow. The distance was
about 12 miles, including a two-mile stretch in which the trail rose more than
700 feet in elevation. The snow was already more than a foot deep, a blizzard
was raging, temperatures were far below zero, ice and sleet cut through our
threadbare clothing and pierced our skin. We were weak, sick and dying. Those
who had shoes and boots had bottoms that were full of holes and sides that
were broken and torn. Most of the Company were walking on feet wrapped in rags.
The week previous we had burned most of our bedding to lighten the load in
the carts. Flour had been reduced to 3 ounces per adult, per day.
The morning of October 23rd dawned as usual. We buried our dead, got up our
teams and about nine o’clock a.m. commenced ascending the Rocky Ridge. This
was a severe day. The wind blew hard and cold. We became weary, set down to
rest, and some became chilled and commenced to freeze. We had to keep moving.
The forced march took us 27 hours, barely able to lift our feet, pulling and
lifting our handcarts, struggling through the snow, making an average of less
than one-half mile per hour. While adults wrestled the handcarts up the steep
trail, children fought their way through the snow, wind and freezing
temperatures by themselves. Exhausted and weak, we finally reached the camp.
I stayed back to help those at the rear of the Company, where two groups were
bringing up the rear. Just before daylight we entered camp, bringing all with
us, some badly frozen, some dying and some dead. It was completely
heart-rending to hear children crying for mothers and mothers crying for children. By
the time I arrived in camp, but few tents were pitched. Men, women, and
children sat shivering with cold around their small fires. By the time I got them as
comfortably situated as circumstances would admit (which was not very
comfortable), day was dawning. I had not shut my eyes for sleep, nor lain down. I was
nearly exhausted with fatigue and want of rest.
As the camp began to awake, the cries of the grieving began to be heard
throughout the camp. 13 of our number had perished during the dark of the night.
We buried them in a common grave. The two men who helped dig their grave
perished the same afternoon.
Regarding the burial it was written:
“They were laid away in the clothes they wore, in a circle with feet to
center and heads out. We covered them with willows and then earth and slid rocks
down the hill to keep the wolves from disturbing them. Thomas Girdlestone and
William Groves, having died after they dug the grave for the first burial,
were buried in a shallow grave nearby.”
It would be the 9th of November, and only with the help of tireless rescuers,
that the remainder of us would reach Salt Lake.
You have probably heard our story many times, but to really understand us,
you must know the 15 whom we left buried there in the snow at Rock Creek Hollow.
Their untiring faith and their ultimate sacrifices, represent all of us who
walked this way so long ago.
1. Nils Anderson – age 41, from Copenhagen, Denmark. He was a farmer
traveling with his wife, Metta and their children, Anna & Anders. The family had
been baptized in Denmark and, leaving behind their home and family, they
traveled to be with the body of the Saints. He often carried his weakened
14-year-old daughter, Anna, in his handcart.
2. John Bailey & his wife, Elizabeth Bailey ages 51 & 52, from
Worcestershire, England. They were traveling with their two children. Elizabeth died here
at Rock Creek and her husband died a few days later. Their two children
continued on, entering the Salt Lake Valley to fulfill their parents’ dying wishes
that they fulfill their dream of coming to Zion.
3. Samuel Gadd, age 10, from Cambridgeshire, England. His father & mother
left England with 8 children, including newborn twins. The father, Samuel, died
Oct 9, and one of the twins, Daniel, age 1 year, died Oct 4. His mother,
Eliza, was left a widow with 6 children. In spite of her weakened health, she
continued on and she and the remaining children arrived in the Valley.
4. James Gibb ,age 67, a sailor from Scotland. His wife, Mary, was one of
the first converts to the Church from that country. They left their children
in Scotland and went ahead to prepare a place for them in the Valley. James
was buried at Rock Creek on his wife’s 53rd birthday.
5. Chesterton Gillman, age 64, from England. He was a coal miner and a
sailor, and the father of eleven children. His wife died in 1854 and, against the
wishes of all his children, he made the decision to come to the Salt Lake
Valley. His greatest desire was to join with the body of the Saints and attend
to the Temple work for his beloved wife.
6. William James, age 46, from Worcestershire, England. He was a farm
laborer. His death at Rock Creek left his wife, Jane, and seven young children
without a husband and father. The youngest was only 3 years old. Their baby,
Jane, age 6 months, had died during the ocean crossing on the ship Thornton and
was buried at sea. Jane and the children walked the remainder of the way from
Rock Creek Hollow to the Valley.
7. James Kirkwood , age 11, from Glasgow, Scotland. He traveled with his
widowed mother, Margaret, age 47, and three brothers; Robert age 21, Thomas age
19 and handicapped, and Joseph age 4. James’ primary responsibility was to
care for his little four-year-old brother, Joseph, while his mother and oldest
brother, Robert, pulled the cart over the ridge. When little Joseph became too
weary to walk, James picked him up and carried him up and over the mountain.
Moving slowly through the snowstorm, they were left behind the main group. When
the two finally arrived at the campfire, James placed his little brother down
beside the campfire and collapsed and died from exposure and exhaustion.
8. Ole Madsen, age 41, from Denmark. His death left his wife, Anna, to care
for their four children; Hannah, Kirstine, Anna & Anders, and his aged father,
Ole Sr., who were all sick. Anna’s prayers and her singing of the hymns of
the restoration, helped encourage them on.
9. Bodil Mortensen, age 10, from Denmark. She was traveling to be with her
sister Margaret in the Salt Lake Valley. She had been assigned to care for
younger children during the ascent and had then been sent to collect anything
she could find for firewood. She was found frozen to death leaning against the
wheel of their handcart, clutching sagebrush. Bodil’s parents came to the
Valley a year later and did not learn of her death until their arrival in the
10. Ella Nielson, age 22, from Denmark. She was traveling with the Wickland
family. Exhausted one day, she was wrapped in a buffalo robe to rest on the
trail. Brother Wickland carried her to Rock Creek and he and his daughter
Christina held her through the night to keep her warm, but to no avail. After
she died, her hair had to be clipped from the ice beneath her frozen body.
11. Niels Nielsen died at Rock Creek just five days short of his 6th
birthday. He was from Denmark. His father Jens’s feet were frozen so badly that he
had to be pulled by Sister Nielsen in their handcart. The children in this
family struggled in snow that was sometimes knee-deep, suffering greatly from
exhaustion and exposure.
12. Anne Olsen, age 46, from Denmark, a widow, traveling with her 12-yr old
son, Lorenzo. She was from the same branch of the Church in Denmark as Nils
Anderson who also died at Rock Creek. Her son was taken in by others and
arrived safely in the Valley.
13. Lars Wandelin, age 60, from Sweden. He was a watchmaker who joined the
Church in Denmark. He did not want to be buried with his treasured silver
watch, but wanted it was turned over to the Perpetual Emigration Fund to be used
to assist others in coming to the Valley.
The two who dug the graves for the above 13 and who died the afternoon after
the burial were:
14. Thomas Girdlestone, age 62, from Norfolk, England. He was the overseer
of a large farm and the father of eleven children. His wife, Mary, died five
days later, leaving his twenty-one-year-old daughter, Emma, alone in the
company. One of their descendants will give the closing prayer this evening.
15. William Groves, age 22, a laborer from England, traveling by himself.
His parents did not have enough money to travel to Zion together, so his family
sent him ahead to find them a place in Zion and await their arrival the
following year. It would take months for the news of William’s death to reach his
family in England.
You may ask yourselves what was it that gave us the strength and courage,
against all odds, to remain faithful. We had never met the Prophet Joseph. The
good news of the restoration reached most of us in far-away lands, long after
the martyrdom, carried to us by those who knew and loved him.
Yet we knew he had been called of God and was truly His Prophet. We knew
that this is the Church of Jesus Christ. We knew the Savior in our hearts and
souls and we knew where to turn for peace and comfort. He will dry every tear,
He will heal every wound. These things were done in obedience to the
commandments of the true and living God, and with the assurance of an eternal reward –
an exaltation to eternal life in His kingdom – that we suffered this things.
And may our posterity stand firm and faithful to the truth, and be willing to
suffer, and sacrifice all things they may be required to pass thru for the
Kingdom of God’s sake.
One of the hymns from our first Hymn Book, Redeemer of Israel, gave us much
hope and comfort. It had been told to us many times that this was one of the
Prophet Joseph’s favorite hymns, and one which often brought him much comfort
during difficult times, especially these words*.
Restore, My dear Savior,
The light of Thy face;
Thy soul-cheering comfort impart;
And let the sweet longing
For Thy holy place
Bring hope to my desolate heart.
In the name of Jesus Christ, Amen.
The Choir will then sing – Redeemer of Israel
Remarks: Donna Cuillard (if you would like a copy of my talk here, please
( I had previously sent out flyers for a month in all the Wards asking for those who are descended from rescuers or handcart pioneers to contact me. I had all those descended from the rescuers sit in the front rows in the Chapel.)
Since I had been called 15 months earlier to direct our year-long Stake Joseph Smith Celebration, the Stake Presidency asked me to speak at this fireside.
I talked about the Handcart Pioneers and the Rescuers. Then I asked all
those in the congregation who were descended from the Rescuers to stand.
The front two rows were filled with descendant families. I asked them to
turn around and face the congregation.
I then explained that nearly all of the rescuers never again saw those they
rescued. When the Willie & Martin Handcart companies finally reached the
Valley, they were dispersed into homes to be taken care of and the rescues went
back to their own homes.
I then asked all those in the congregation who were descended from those of
the Willie & Martin Handcart Companies to stand (we had many). I then said,
“To those of you in these front rows, descended from the rescuers, for the first
time in 149 years, Behold the Harvest!”
We all wept as our rescuer descendants looked upon the faces of the men,
women & children whom they knew and loved in the Stake, and for whom their
ancestors made such mighty sacrifices. One of the rescuer descendants is our own
Stake President and his wife is a descendant of one of the handcart pioneers.
I then asked anyone who is a descendant from ANY of the handcart pioneers to
stand. We paused for a moment of silence in remembrance of those who had
walked this way so long ago.
We honored their faith, courage, devotion and testimonies.
We talked about how amazing it is, that here we are, in a little Valley in
Southern California, and yet so many who shared such tremendous experiences were
sitting together in the same room this evening. Many tears were shed as we
pondered, prayed and remembered.
Closing Hymn – Come, Come Ye Saints
We had all those who were part of the group of 15 to walk back onto the stand
and along with our Ward Captains (from our Stake Family Handcart Trek), and
the various committee chairmen who had worked to make this year-long experience
happen, sing the first verse of Come, Come Ye Saints.
It was completely amazing, as we began singing, the entire congregation stood
and began singing spontaniously.
Truly we sang to the handcart Saints!
Closing Prayer: – Becky Hodge – Descendant of Thomas Girdlestone (buried at
Rock Creek Hollow) & his wife, Mary (Betts) Girdlestone (perished 5 days after