This is the harrowing account of my 3rd great-grandmother’s journey to find religious freedom and tolerance.
As retold by Claire Haynie
1866 Margaret McBride
My Name is Margaret Howard McBride and I am 52 years old. I have lived here in the Salt Lake valley for almost 10 years. My physical journey to the valley began over 10 years ago. I grew up in England, a daughter of a middle class family. Life was comfortable, and in time I was wed to my husband Robert McBride in 1830. But my emotional trek to the valley began in 1837 when the Mormon missionaries found Robert and I, and we were converted and baptized soon after. We had not truly realized the magnitude of our religious decision, my family disowned me, and we found that persecution was rampant in many of the places we lived. We were forced to move from place to place, just so Robert could hold a job. My children could not go to the protestant schools, and were forced out of the many we tried to enroll them in. The protestant ministers and the general public were wary of this “new” religion. We wished more than anything to join the body of the Mormons in America, but we simply lacked the finances. It seemed that we would never escape the conflicts that seemed to attack us from all sides. But in 1855 we were provided a way. President Brigham Young, president of the Mormon church, created the Perpetual Immigration fund that allowed every convert abroad the chance to join the body of the church in Utah. Money was loaned to individuals to pay for the passage to America and then the journey to Utah. That amount was to be repaid when the immigrant had settled and found work. Thus it was a revolving door of loans going out and payments coming in providing an opportunity for over 7,000 saints to reach Utah, 3000 of which came by handcart. The Handcarts were similar to carts used to transport goods all over the British Isles at this time. Each was about 200 pounds and carried about 400 pounds of belongings. It seemed a dream come true, finally an opportunity to go to Utah and leave all persecution and trials behind. “We believed in the principle of the gathering and felt it our duty to go although it was a severe trial to leave our native land, but my heart was fixed. I knew in whom I had trusted and with the fire of Israel’s God burning in my bosom, I forsook home” (Robinson). In the spring of 1856 we departed Liverpool after a small delay, aboard the Horizon Half-clipper with over 900 other emigrants bound for America. The five-week sea voyage was fraught with sickness, from measles to diarrhea. Despite the conditions of the ship, many danced and rejoiced on the deck full of the hope of Zion. As we landed in Boston, we boarded trains to Iowa City where the trail by handcart began. It was exciting as we seemed immersed in this new world of America, and progressed ever closer to the land we would call home.
Arriving at last in Iowa City, we soon found out that because we left so late, no one expected us. Three other handcart companies had departed much earlier and we were strongly advised to stay behind and wait to depart next spring. But many lacked the money to stay in Iowa any longer and others wished to join family who were already in the valley. It took a while to finally build tents, handcarts and all other supplies that were needed for the thousand-mile journey. As the 576 of the Martin Handcart Company left the world behind, we started our handcart trek to Zion. Unaccustomed as we were to life on the trail, many days, even from the very beginning indicated that the journey would be harder than we had expected. But my Robert always had a cheerful heart and never faultered in buoying our spirits with thought of the home that waited for us in the valley. He would sing the inspiring words to a hymn written by William Clayton, a brother who had crossed the plains to Zion some 9 years before.
“Come Come Ye Saints
No Toil Nor Labor Fear
But with joy wend your way
Though hard to you this journey may appear
Grace shall be as your day”
And Robert would lead us in family prayer, always hopeful of the future that was constantly leading us on. Despite the daily conflicts that seemed to pervade each mile of the trail, we were optimistic. But as the days got longer and the trail began to toll on each member of the company, the weather changed. The days became cold and the terrain seemed to tax our bodies all the more. In this weakened condition, on a morning when we woke to find a layer of new snow, we faced the final crossing of the Platte River.
Change— Margaret McBride 1856
It has been a week since the fateful crossing of the Platte. My dear, valiant husband, though in a severely weakened condition, crossed the Platte an estimated 25 times, helping so many come across the frozen river. Sharp blocks of ice cut our legs as we crossed the freezing Platte only to be warmed by a meager fire that brought little relief to our frozen bodies. That night I could not find my husband and automatically expected the worst. In the morning my fears were confirmed. I had sent my teenage son Heber, to look for his father, and he found him, frozen, lying under a wagon. As my little boy returned to tell me the news, our family was inconsolable. But we were not alone. 13 other men died that night. They were buried in a shallow grave, the ground so frozen the men could barely dig. Grief has plagued my soul in magnitude unbearable. Here I am, thousands of miles from my home, a widow with five small children. So much of my journey lies ahead, and I have no husband to take my hand and march with me forward to Zion. Robert’s mortal journey ends here, and it is up to me to keep moving forward so that I might see him once again.
Change—Margaret McBride 1866
The days following Robert’s death were some of the darkest of my life. Despair seemed my constant companion. I was ill, and I hated to see my children pull the cart alone. My son Heber has said since the experience, “No tongue nor pen can tell what my sister and I went through… Often it seemed as though death would be a blessing. We used to pray that we might die to get out of our misery.” I cannot even imagine through the eyes of a teenage boy the magnitude of the conflict, as well as the compromises that had to be made in order to survive. But after the Platte, we moved on. Rations continued to get low, and soon adults were reduced to ½ lbs of flour, ¼ lbs for children. People started trying to get nourishment anyway they could, sucking on empty flour bags, or chewing on the leather of the boots of those who had died. “Provisions were almost gone, desolation reigned. To escape the terrible blizzards and storms we sought shelter at Martins Cove in the high country of Wyoming. Death had taken a heavy toll and the cove was like an overcrowded tomb. No mortal tongue could describe the suffering. Such was the condition when word was received that help was on the way. Soon we were found by a small party of rescuers, almost as desolate as we, for they had traveled much further than they had expected. It soon circulated through camp that another group of rescuers were on their way. Franklin Richards, a missionary who had seen our desperate condition as he passed us on his way home to Salt Lake, reported to President Young of our condition. President Young immediately petitioned the general body of the church to “Go and bring in those people on the plains. The people of Salt Lake immediately filled hundreds of wagons with flour, bedding and other necessities, and flew to our rescue. Finally we were met by another, more equipped party. The Camp was filled with immense of joy, knowing that God had answered our many petitions. We were then loaded into wagons and driven the remaining miles to the Salt Lake Valley. We finally reached the Valley on November 30, with 130 fewer members of our company. But the death that seemed to saturate our difficult journey was not what we held onto as we started our new life. With hope burning in our hearts, the people of Salt Lake provided warm shelter, and a new life. Reflecting on the conflicts we faced, the myriad of compromises that had to be made, do I regret coming by handcart? No. Though it was hard and I often felt that I could not put one foot in front of the other, I knew that what I was risking my life for was the hope that I held dear in my heart, for a better tomorrow, for me, for my children, for my people as a whole. Death did not seem so daunting. Despite the conflicts that come from all angles, causing us to compromise everything for what we believe in, a new day waits where all is well.
“And should we die, before our journey’s through
Happy Day, All is Well,
We then are free, from hurt and sorrow too,
With the Just we shall dwell,
But if our lives are spared again,
To see the Saints their rest obtain,
Oh how we’ll make this chorus swell,
All is Well, All is Well!” (Clayton 30).
Photo of Margaret Howard McBride in center (photo edited)