003O - Francis Webster's Journey

Francis Webster with Martin Handcart Company
Francis Webster with Martin Handcart Company

"In the Midst of Thee" - volumes 1 & 2 contain 200 favorite Glenn Rawson Stories - at: History of the Saints . org

In 1856, five companies of Latter-day Saints crossed the Great Plains by handcart. Of those five companies, three passed successfully over the continent with little or no incident, but the last two, The Willie and Martin Companies, were trapped by early winter snows on the high plains of Wyoming. Over two hundred souls perished. But if you knew the beginning of the story, the beginning of the journey of Francis and Betsy Webster with the Martin Handcart Company, you would agree this story is even more meaningful.

You see, Francis Webster was born February 8, 1830 in England. He was born a sickly child with little chance of surviving to adulthood. When he was eighteen years old though, missionaries came to the land and brought him the Gospel.

In the spring of 1852 Francis met Ann Elizabeth (Betsy) Parsons, the woman who would someday be his wife. Now, they agreed that Francis would set out to make his fortune, and Betsy would wait for him until she was 21 years old. Francis returned in the summer of 1855, and when he did he came back with $2000 in gold. December 5, 1855, Francis and Betsy were married.

Now, like so many others of that time, once they had joined the church, the call was to gather with the saints in Zion. However, unlike so many others in 1856, Francis and Betsy had the means to travel comfortably. He arranged for a wagon, a double yoke of ox, and supplies to be waiting for them at the trailhead in Iowa. Betsy was expecting their first child.

Now, 1856 was a hard year. Famine and drought had so reduced resources in the Church that it was determined that a cheaper means had to be found to get the saints across the plains to Salt Lake, and thus was launched the idea of handcart companies.

With the rest of their London branch traveling by handcart, could Francis and Betsy travel in the comfort of a wagon? They counseled together, made the decision, and voluntarily gave up their ox teams, wagon, and possessions - for a handcart. Moreover, as they prepared to leave with the rest of their branch for America, Francis and Betsy paid the passage for nine other people to make the journey with them.

July 9, 1856, Iowa City, Iowa: When they arrived, the handcarts weren’t ready. So it was required that some in the company double up. Francis and Betsy chose to share a handcart with William and Amy Middleton, Betsy’s mother and stepfather. Once again, the Websters would abandon more of their belongings. William then went to help with the supply wagons, effectively leaving Francis to pull a double-loaded handcart by himself. It is recorded that he chose not to murmur when so many others did.

September 15, 1856: The Martin Company made their longest recorded journey that day, pulling 22 miles. In that company was a man who’d been ill for days. His name was James Bleak. Bleak recorded the following in his journal:

”I began to draw the handcart this morning but was obliged to leave it. Brother Francis Webster very kindly persuaded me to ride on his handcart, and drew me 17 miles….For which kindness I feel grateful, and pray God to bless [him] with health and strength”.

September 27: Betsy gave birth to a daughter whom they would name Amy. Time was critically short however, and the next day the company pushed on. Betsy had to ride until she recovered; the company could not wait. At this same time the trail passed through the sand hills of western Nebraska. Francis would speak of struggling to pull his handcart through deep sand, and looking back for the angels assisting him. I’ve seen that sand, and I don’t know how any man could have pulled a handcart through that.

Then, October 19, 1856: Early winter storms caught the handcart pioneers on the high plains of Wyoming. Clothing and rations were woefully inadequate to fortify them against the bitter cold. The rescue parties would later find them, and in a letter written to Brigham Young, George D. Grant recorded the following:

You can imagine between five and six hundred men, women, and children, worn down by drawing their handcarts though snow and mud, fainting by the wayside, falling, chilled by the cold. Children crying… their limbs stiffened by cold, their feet bleeding. The sight is almost too much for the stoutest of us.

Francis would record, “My own feet were badly frozen on the journey.”

The Websters reached Salt Lake City on November 30, 1856. Within two days they would be on their way to Cedar City, Utah, where they would live out their days in distinguished service to the Church, to the community, to the state. It was shortly before he died that Francis Webster this remarkable testimony in Sunday School class.

Francis and Betsy didn’t have to come by handcart; they chose to. They paid passage for nine others. They came and arrived with virtually nothing; they left it all along the trail. They did not murmur then, and they did not murmur later. They served, they sacrificed, they helped, not only on the trail but for the rest of their days. That makes Francis Webster’s testimony even more worthy of the legendary status it has attained.

See Chad M. Orton Francis Webster, BYU Studies, 45, no. 2 (2006)
Glenn Rawson - July 2012
Music: Till We Meet Again/I’ll Go Where You Want Me to Go (edited) - Jason Tonioli
Song: My Trek - Afterglow