December 5, 2022

The Life of Captain James Willie

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Julie Rodgers Art

James Willie was the Captain of the Willie handcart company, the last handcart company. There have been many stories of miracles that were experienced on the trail. There was much hardship, but so many miracles. How lucky we are to have the view looking backwards of the faith and strength that these faithful people have bee able to teach us, hundreds of years later.

James Willie was born November 1, 1814 in Hampshire England. He came to America in 1835 and married soon after arriving. James Willie was was converted to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints in 1842. Ten years after he was baptized he was called back to England on a mission. When James was released from his missions he was asked to help the new converts on their way to the United States to the Salt Lake Valley.

Willie Handcart Journey

Captain James Willie was the captain of the handcart group around 500 people when they first left Iowa City and then about 404 people left Florence to go to the Utah Territory. Around 68 people from his company died in the route. The company left late in the season and faced incredible hardships and death during the journey.

Handcart Pioneers, by Sam Lawlor

One of the pioneers that crossed with Willie group said ”I believe there has never before been a company with so many old and young, halt, blind, and lame, from so many nations[that] crossed the sea.”

James Willie was on his way home from his mission in England when he was asked to help this group to cross the plaines. James had been away from his wife and their four young children for four years, when he was finally on his way home.

Many of the people James Willie converted on England ended up joining his handcart company in 1856. Imagine being the missionary that converted so many people and then being their captain on this excruciating journey to Utah. It is heart wrenching to hear what had happened to these faithful people and their leaders.

Miracles Of the Willie Handcart Company

James Willie was no stranger to the dangers of the frontier. He was an experienced frontiersman, but he was helping a group of people with no experience coming from Europe, and nobody knew how . In fact, 20% of the people in his handcart company did not even speak English, making communication very difficult maybe even impossible.

There were many old and young in his handcart company and he did the best he could to help these faithful people. With few speaking the same language and so many with their own ailments, even before starting the trek across the United States to Utah. What an amazing person James Willie must have been to take on this challenge.

There is story after story of hardship in this pioneer company, they are hard to read about. So many people suffering and dying simply trying to do what the Lord had asked them to do. For every hard and tragic story you hear from this group there are miraculous stories that defy reality. The Lord was with this group of immigrant and the miracles are astonishing!

Here is one of my favorite stories of James Willie:

This story is told by Betsy Smith, a member of Captains Willie’s handcart company. Betsy has crossed the planes when she was thirteen years old. This memory was recorded in 1919:

”I will not dwell upon the hardships we endured, not the hunger and cold, but I like to tell of the goodness of God unto us.” ”One day especially stands out from among the remainder. The wind blew fresh as if its breezes came from the sea. It kept blowing harder until it became fierce. Clouds arose; the thunder and lightning were appalling. Even the ox teams ahead refused to face the storm. Our captain, who always rode a mule, dismounted and stepped into the middle of the road, bared his head to the storm, and every man, as he came up, stood by him with bared head—one hundred carts, their pullers and pushers, looking to their captain for counsel. The captain said. ‘Let us pray.’ And there was offered such a prayer! He told the Lord of our circumstances, he talked to God as one man talks to another, and as if the Lord was very near. I felt that He was; and many others felt the same. Then the storm parted to the right and to the left! We hurried on to camp; [and had] got our tents pitched and some fires built when the storm burst in all its fury!”

What an amazing miracle to witness James Willie praying with so much pleading to save these people from this horrible storm coming right at them. The faith required and the hope that these people had that the Lord would save them, all being directed to God from James Willies mouth. This prayer was answered in a huge way, sometime that these wonderful Saints would never forget.

There was so much heartache and death in this group of Saints and it is simply heart wrenching to hear all that these companies had to experience. Imagine for a moment what it would have been like to be Captain James Willie being the leader of this large company that struggled so much. To be the missionary that brought so many of them to the gospel and also on this harrowing journey would have been unimaginable. Life is unfair. This world that we live in is unfair. These good people were making this journey simply to practice their religion in peace, and suffered so much. The journey to Salt Lake was more excruciating than any of them could have ever imagined, and every one of those people that survived spoke about the miracles that were witnessed and how the Lord helped them through it all.

Learning from the Pioneers

President Hinckley spoke often of the faith of the pioneers. In 1997 he said this about the Pioneers struggles:

“What a wonderful people they were. There is nothing like their great effort in all of history. There have been other great migrations. There have been many great causes for which men have given their lives. But in our time, within the span of our memory, stand these noble pioneers. God bless their memory to our good. When the way seems hard, when we are discouraged thinking all is lost, we can turn to them and see how much worse was their condition. When we wonder about the future, we can look to them and their great example of faith.

Statue at Temple Square in Salt Lake City, Utah

The later years of James Willie’s Life

James Willie spent the rest of his life in Cache Valley Utah. He stayed true to the faith for which he had sacrificed so much. He was a true leader and those in his company alway spoke lovingly of their leader. His last calling in life was to be the Patriarch for his area in Cache Valley Utah.

James Willie operated businesses and a farm. He died in 1895 and is buried in Cache Valley Utah.

Where to Visit When Learning About James Willie

-Mendon, Utah: You can visit the home of James Willie that was restored by his great-great grandson.

-Rocky Ridge Wyoming

-Winter Quarters Temple

-Winter Quarters Church History Site

-Martins Cove Visitors Center

-Willie’s Handcart Historical Marker



”These Noble Pioneers” by President Hinckley Feb 2, 1997

“Willie and Martin Handcart Story” by Heidi Swinton and Lee Groberg Page 18 copy write 2006,disaster%20on%20the%20emigrant%20trails.

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