Salina Stake Youth Trek 2015

William and Jane James Family

The following pioneer story is told by author Andrew D. Olsen in his book , The price we paid: The extraordinary story of the Willie and Martin Handcart pioneers.

William and Jane James Family

William and Jane James were emigrating with their eight children, ages 8 months to 19 years. Their three oldest daughters later wrote accounts of the journey: Sarah (19), Emma (16), and Mary Ann (11).

William James was a farm laborer in England. He struggled to provide for his family because of poor health, so his wife and older daughters worked to help the family subsist. When the missionaries came to their village in 1854, they were realty impressed by the gospel message. Mary Ann recalled:

"The apostasy and restoration, unthought-of of before, appealed to [mother], and she was led to prayer. The answer came and she was ready to leave all we had, and with an almost invalid husband and eight children, brave the journey to an unknown land and a wilderness".

William James wanted to wait until his health improved to emigrate, but Jane felt they should go before their children began to leave home. She prevailed, and the family sailed to America on the Thornton. When they were nearly to New York, their baby daughter died. Mary Ann recalled: "My parents were called upon to part with their baby ...and we were obliged to place the precious bundle in a watery grave. Mother's heart strings were torn, but the brave little mother that she was felt not to murmur against the will of Him who gave" (Olsen, 2006, p. 43).

In early October, 1856 between Independence Rock WY and the Fifth Crossing the story of the James Family Continues as related by Andrew D. Olsen.

At this point in the journey his [William James] health declined even further. Laleta Dixon vividly describes how William James and others were suffering as a result of inadequate food, clothing and footwear:

"Many were weakening from the lack of nourishing food. The young and the old and the weak began to die quietly. Even the strong men, who were secretly giving their portion to their families, pulled their carts until they died. Soon rations were cut again. Clothing was in rags, especially shoes. Any piece of rag, burlap, or canvas was tied around the feet. All too soon this was chewed through by the torturous terrain. It was not uncommon to take clothing from the dead to cover the living. Many lives were saved in this way."

Nineteen-year-old Sarah James was more specific about her father's condition:

"Father was white and drawn. I knew that Mother was worried about him, for he was getting weaker all the time and seemed to feel that there was no use in all the struggle. Mother had taken as much of the load off his shoulders as she could in pulling the cart. We girls and [13-year-old] Reuben did most of the works so that Father could rest a lot. Mother didn't have much to say, and I wondered if she remembered that council meeting in [Florence] and wished that we had taken the advice of the more experienced people. I am sure that many of us had those thoughts."

Although there was little meat left on the cattle, Sarah James received rations of bones and hides with gratitude. Recalling the desperate hunger, she wrote:

"How good the soup tasted made from the bones of those cows although there wasn't any fat on them. The hides we used to roast after taking all the hair off of them. I even decided to cook the tatters of my shoes and make soup of them. It brought a smile to my father's sad face when I made the suggestion, but mother was a bit impatient with me and told me that I'd have to eat the muddy things myself." (Olsen, 2006, pg. 128-129)

The rescue teams sent by Brigham Young were found by the Willie Handcart Company on October 21st, 1856. However, this did not mark the end of the journey for the handcart pioneers. The following continuation of the William James family occurs after meeting up with the rescue party and during the Rocky Ridge Crossing. On October 23rd Sarah James writes the following (as related by Andrew Olsen).

"It was a bitter cold morning in October as we broke camp. As usual, there were dead to be buried before we could go on. Father and Reuben were with the burial detail. Mother, who was helping pull the heaviest cart, had stayed behind until they could finish their sad work."

"After a short service, we...ran ahead to catch the rest of the company, and mother and Reuben started to follow. Father collapsed and fell in the snow. He tried two or three time to get up with mother's help, then finally he asked her to go on and when he felt rested, he would come on [later]. Mother knew in her heart that he had given out, but perhaps, she said, in a few minutes with some rest he could come on." Thirteen-year-old Reuben stayed with his father.

Mary Ann James, who was 11 years old at the time, spelled out the dilemma her mother faced: "Mother was placed in an awful position, her husband unable to go farther, and her little children far ahead hungry and freezing; what can she do? Father said, 'Go to the children; we will get in if we can."

Exhibiting the strength that has been cited earlier, Jane James took the handcart and hurried to catch up to her children. Sarah recalled:

"She found us on the river bank. We were too frightened and tired to cross alone. We had forded this river before many times, but it had never seemed so far across. It was about 40 feet, I guess, to the other bank. Mother soon had us on our way. The water was icy, and soon our clothing was frozen to our bodies. Our feet were frozen numb. Cold and miserable, we reached the other bank, put on dry clothing, and joined the rest of the company.

"When we stopped for the night, we made inquiries about [Father and Reuben], but nothing had been heard of them. Since there were some who had been a few hours behind us, we felt they would come with the next group. All night we waited for word. Toward morning some of the captains who had gone out to gather up the stragglers came into camp bearing the dead body of my father and the badly frozen body of my brother Reuben. His injuries were so bad the he would suffer from them for the rest of his life. "

"When morning came, father's body, along with others who had died during the night, were buried...brush was thrown in and then dirt. A fire was built over the grave to kill the scent to keep the wolves from digging up the remains.

"I can see my mother's face as she sat looking at the partly conscious Reuben. Her eyes looked so dead that I was afraid. She didn't sit long, however, for my mother was never one to cry. When it was time to move out, mother had her family ready to go. She put her invalid son in the cart with her baby [four-year-old John], and we joined the train. Our mother was a strong woman, and she would see us through anything." Mary Ann James also paid tribute to her mother's strength: "Imagine, if you can, my mother only a young woman of forty-one, her husband lying dead in a frozen wilderness, with seven little children, starved and freezing, crying for comfort. Her physical and mental endurance was surely nothing short of miraculous." (Olsen, 2006, pg. 148-149)


Olsen, A. (2006). The price we paid: The extraordinary story of the Willie and Martin Handcart pioneers. Salt Lake City, Utah: Deseret Book.
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