One hundred thirty-five years after they were rescued in the midst of freezing blizzards on the high plains of Wyoming, members of the ill-fated Willie and Martin handcart companies are again being rescued. But this time, the rescue relates not to temporal but eternal salvation.
The rescuers are members of the Riverton Wyoming Stake. Led and urged on by their stake president, Robert Scott Lorimer, they are researching the handcart pioneers in the two companies who perished along the way. In cases where it is found that the temple work is needed, the stake members are receiving the temple ordinances for the individuals whom they have researched.President Gordon B. Hinckley, first counselor in the First Presidency, spoke at length about the Willie and Martin companies in his talk at the October general conference.
In a moving account, he told how the converts to the Church had crossed the ocean from Europe and, because their handcarts were not ready, had been delayed in starting their trek to the valley of the Great Salt Lake.
Missionaries returning to Salt Lake City passed the handcart companies along the way. Upon arriving they informed President Brigham Young that the immigrants were in danger of perishing from exposure and hunger.
President Young, who had known nothing of the hapless travelers, spoke to assembled Church members in general conference and said his sermon that day would be to "go and bring in those people now on the plains."
In a heroic effort, 250 teams were dispatched to give relief to the stricken handcart companies. In the Martin Company, between 135 and 150 perished from cold and hunger. In the Willie Company the death toll was 67. Many others suffered from frostbite, requiring the amputation of limbs.
Within the boundaries of the Riverton stake is Rock Creek, where the bodies of 15 members of the Willie Company are buried. Martin's Cove, where members of the Martin company were rescued, is on the boundary of the Riverton and Casper Wyoming stakes.
"A few years ago the spirit of the Willie people began to rest upon me," Pres. Lorimer said at a stake-wide meeting July 21, at which the project, known as the "Second Rescue" was explained to the stake.
He said he had asked stake members to pray about the Willie Project. At first, he thought the inspiration he had felt was to petition the Lord for help in acquiring the site at Rock Creek, where the graves are located.
"Looking back on it now, I can see that what I really was asking for as your stake president was that you would pray and help me and my counselors understand why the spirit of the Willie people would not let us be."
In time, the true nature of the inspiration became clear to the stake presidency.
Speaking at the stake-wide meeting, Pres. Kim W. McKinnon, second counselor in the stake presidency, told the events that made them understand what it was they were to accomplish. They had heard about FamilySearch, a set of computer tools the Church has developed for family history research, including the Ancestral File, a lineage-linked database of genealogical records.
The stake presidency felt an urgency to acquire FamilySearch for the two family history centers in the stake. The urgency was so great that Pres. McKinnon made a trip to Salt Lake City to iron out obstacles and expedite procedures so the stake could acquire the computer software.
In his talk, Pres. McKinnon related, "I asked Pres. Lorimer, `Why have I felt so pushed about these computers? Why the great sense of urgency?'
"Pres. Lorimer looked at me and said, `It is the Willie people.'
"The response of the presidency was, `What made you think of that?' Pres. Lorimer indicated that the words had come into his mind in a distinct and unconfused manner that he had never before experienced. The entire stake presidency then knew that the Willie Handcart Site at Rock Creek was only a small portion of the urging they had felt over the years."
After receiving FamilySearch, the stake leaders rushed to search the names of the 15 pioneers buried at Rock Creek.
They found that of the 15 – plus one additional Willie pioneer who died just prior to entering the Salt Lake Valley – all needed some type of temple work to be done.
"We were embarrassed and humbled that these people had been waiting for over 135 years for all this to come together," Pres. McKinnon said.
"The sad question came: why hasn't the work been done for these brave people who died on the high plains of Wyoming trying to get to a temple? Our research indicates that many of them did not have families who were members of the Church, and as such became lost souls with no kin to do their work. It is worthy of note that 100 percent of those that died need to be sealed to their parents."
Pres. John Levi Kitchen, first counselor in the stake presidency, told of a 10-year-old girl from Denmark who was traveling with a family in the Willie Company to join her sister in Salt Lake City. She had been gathering sagebrush at Rock Creek to help keep the family warm and to cook the evening meal. Weary from her work and cold from the freezing temperature, she sat down by the handcart wheel with her arms full of sagebrush. Her frozen body was found the next morning and was buried along with 12 others who died during the night along Rock Creek.
Her name had not been listed on the register of the handcart company, and no record of temple work for her had been found prior to the research undertaken by the Riverton stake leaders.
"We asked the brethren in Salt Lake,
Why now?' andWhy us?' " Pres. McKinnon said. "They said this apparently wasn't possible until the resources were developed to allow it to happen. `They died within the confines of your stake, and Pres. Lorimer is their stake president. Now that the time is right it should appropriately come to him."
From that beginning, the stake leaders determined to search out for temple work the records of the members of the two companies who had died, and to make it a stake project. A total of 927 names have been compiled, one for each active stake member over age 12. The names were distributed to bishops at the stake-wide meeting, along with copies of journals of pioneers in the companies. Stake members are to search out the individuals they are assigned pursuant to doing temple work. Once the names have been cleared, the members are to take a letter from the stake presidency to the Ogden Temple, authorizing them to perform the temple work in behalf of the individuals they have researched.
At the meeting, Pres. Lorimer told of a telephone conversation he had with President Hinckley regarding the project. "He became quite upset and asked me why the work for these people has not been done. And I said,
President Hinckley, I don't know.' And he said,President, don't you stop until it's finished.' "
"Get the work done," Pres. Lorimer urged. "Let it be our byword. People of the Riverton stake, do not stop. Please do not stop until this is done." – R. Scott Lloyd