Latter-day Saint Life

From miraculous promptings to bringing back a man from death’s door: How one man helped save the Martin Handcart Company

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Editor’s note: Ephraim "Eph" Hanks was a Latter-day Saint pioneer and well-known settler in the early Church. His experience shaping new frontiers proved invaluable, particularly to the stranded Martin Handcart Company. 

After fulfilling a contract to deliver fish from Utah Lake to the Salt Lake Market in October 1856, he had an extraordinary experience that helped rescue the Latter-day Saint pioneers stranded and starving in the snow and cold. The following excerpt from Ephraim Hanks: Fearless Mormon Scout has been edited for clarity.

Eph was weary after the strenuous journey and retired early to the bed allotted him. Although fatigued, he could not sleep. His mind was troubled with thoughts of the late-coming handcart company long overdue in [the] Salt Lake Valley. He knew from experience traveling the plains and mountains in winter how much the snowbound handcart Saints must be suffering. He tossed and rolled about in the bed, unable to sleep. Ghastly visions of men, women, and children suffering on the bleak Oregon trail obsessed him. Shortly after the clock struck one in the morning, Eph dozed into a troubled sleep.

Abruptly he was aroused by a voice calling his name. “Eph! Eph! Eph!”

“Yes,” he drowsily answered and opened his eyes, expecting to see Gurney Brown. The room was dark and empty of any human beings. He lay back on the bed and dozed once more. Again the voice called his name. Again he answered. There was no one there. Could he have dreamed he heard a voice call his name? He lay pondering. His mind troubled but his body weary, he dozed once more.

The third time his name was called in sharp penetrating tones. Startled, Eph set up. “Yes, yes. Is there something I can do for you?” He heard the voice clear and definite say, “That handcart company is in trouble. Will you go and help them?”

Eph sprang out of bed, hoping to see the messenger. He thought, “Was it the man in the gray tweeds? If it was, he has gone.” The request was certain, and Eph would comply. He dressed quickly. Gurney Brown and his wife, Lucy, awakened and inquired what was wrong. Eph quickly related the urgent request for his help for the stricken handcart people. The Browns assisted him and, putting a sack of flour and warm clothing into his wagon, bade him goodbye. Eph drove into Salt Lake City as the dawn was breaking over the Wasatch Mountains. A messenger dispatched by President Brigham Young met him with the urgent request from the prophet that he go immediately to the rescue of the distraught handcart company. The prophet was pleasantly surprised to know Eph was in the city. He was warmly greeted by the prophet who laid his hands on the able mountain scout’s head and blessed him with strength and endurance to reach the afflicted handcart pioneers and bring them relief.

Delivering the wagon load of fish to the market and driving home to bid his beloved Harriet and children goodbye, the intrepid Eph drove out and up the canyon with a light wagon filled with supplies. Eph was alone.

The violent snowstorm, blowing fiercely from the east which had brought so much suffering and loss of life to the handcart people, enveloped Eph near the South Pass. The heavy snow impaired his progress. The horses no longer could pull the wagon. Eph unhitched his team. Putting the supplies on the back of the roan and saddling the bay horse, he was prepared for any eventuality. He rode along the ridges which were blown clear of the snow. On and on he hurried, on past Devil’s Gate and down toward Sweetwater River. ...

... Just before dark Eph camped for the night in a deep narrow gorge. As he cleared away the snow to make his bed, he thought, “How comfortable it would be to have a buffalo robe to cover me while I sleep, and I’d surely relish some buffalo meat for supper.” He was instinctively led to ask the Lord to send him a buffalo. He had scarcely ended his prayer when he looked around and spotted a buffalo bull within 50 yards of where he stood. Surprised beyond expression, he soon calmed his feelings and, with his first shot, brought down the big buffalo. He spread the hide on the snow and placed his blanket upon it. He ate the tongue and other choice parts of the animal. He had a refreshing night’s sleep, and his horses browsed on the sagebrush.

The next morning he cut up the meat in long strips and loaded them onto his horses. He struggled all day through the storm. The sun was setting when in the distance ahead Eph saw a black streak in the snow. Getting nearer, he observed that it moved. He had at last arrived at the ill-fated Martin Handcart Company.

The pitiful sight that caught his gaze as he entered the camp Eph could never erase from his memory. Shivering in the snow, several hundred starved figures with haggard countenances trudged slowly about trying to prepare a scanty evening meal.

The handcart pioneers were snowed in on the Sweetwater River, unable to move. They had almost no food and were hundreds of miles from any source of supplies. Death was frequent. The survivors were too weak to dig graves to bury the dead. Among the suffering handcart people were George Read and his wife, Elizabeth, who were converted to the restored gospel in London, England. They were the parents of two daughters, Alicia and Thisbe, and one son, Walter. A few days before the handcart company had arrived at Omaha, Nebraska, 8-year-old Walter had strayed from the encampment. A thorough search was undertaken, but he could not be found.

The suffering of the stranded Saints had become so intense that many doubted if help could reach them before they would all be dead. Then came the joyful afternoon when, before dusk, they saw a dark spot moving toward them. Thisbe Read, as did all the other suffering handcart people, thanked the Lord for the strong man who had brought them fresh hope and meat to eat. As the years passed, Thisbe’s admiration for Eph increased.

As Eph rode in among them, they flocked around him with expressions of thanks and praise to their God. One after another would plead, “Oh, please give me a small piece of meat.” “My poor children are starving; do give me a little.’ In 5 minutes both of his horses were relieved of the extra burden of buffalo meat. The people in the camp were soon busily cooking and eating with grateful hearts.

The snowstorm had overtaken these brave suffering handcart Saints as they reached the Sweetwater River. There they had settled down in the freezing blizzard to await help or die, being unable to go any farther. It was here in this utter extremity that the courageous Eph came with the first relief, as the man in the gray tweeds had invited him to do.

The suffering condition of the handcart people almost melted Eph’s heart. He rose in his saddle and spoke cheering and comforting words to them. He assured them that they should all have the privilege of riding into the Salt Lake Valley as more teams were on their way to them.

Eph was a unique character, observed one of the handcart men. He was lithe as an Indian and clad in buckskin from his head to his feet. On his head he wore, pushed back, a broad-brimmed hat; and below the rim strands of his light hair extended. His ruddy face, reddened by exposure to the wind and frost, and his easy manners made him a picture all eyes riveted on.

That evening around a blazing fire, Eph joined the group, dragging the bushy buffalo tail of the bison he had slaughtered and brought to the starving people. Reaching the fire, he sprang on the end of the logs and, swinging the tail around his head, shouted a “Hoop! Hoopla! Hoopee!” and threw it into the fire between the burning timbers. He picked up a small limb. Facing the interested group, he pulled out his pocketknife and commenced whittling off the twigs from the bough. He confidently said to his new acquaintances, “Pretty darned cold nights now, boys, and none too much warmer the day time—never mind—perk up. Them teams will soon reach yer, and they’ll bring some flour and bacon with ‘em too.” Still whittling —”When them teams get here, we’ll stack them blame carts and jest get fer the valley. Yer see, yer ain’t used to this kinda life. It don’t hurt me—I’m kinder used to it. If I can only get my cayuse under shelter, I kin roll up in a buffalo skin and sleep snug enough. A strip of jerked beef will do me fer days.”

Being intrigued by Eph’s language, the listeners had forgotten all about the buffalo tail. He had whittled a sharp ended stick and with it he poked the fire until he pierced the tail. Bringing it out smoking hot, the hair burned off, he held it on the stick until it cooled enough to handle. He held the roasted tail at both ends and tore off bits of the meat with his teeth with a relish which caused all the onlookers, who had just had their fill, to smile broadly. They forgot their sadness, and the sunlight of hope lighted their tired and weary souls. After dark that evening, a woman, crying aloud, passed the fire before which sat Eph. She implored Daniel Tyler to come and administer to her husband who was nigh unto death. Tyler, tired, weak, and weary had just retired for the night. Reluctantly, he arose and followed the woman to the tent in which he found what appeared to him to be the lifeless form of her husband. He said, “I cannot administer to a dead man:’ Eph had walked with Tyler and the sorrow-stricken woman to where her husband lay. After Tyler returned to his resting place, Eph walked back to the campfire around which four of the brethren were sitting. “Will you boys do just as I tell you?” The answer was in the affirmative. They warmed water over the fire and together washed the body of the dying man. Eph anointed his body with consecrated oil. Together the men laid their hands upon his head, and Eph commanded him in the name of Jesus Christ to breathe and live.

The effect was instantaneous. The man, who was dead to all outward appearances, began to breathe. He sat up in bed and sang a hymn. His wife, unable to control her joy and thankfulness, ran through the camp, uttering excitedly, “My husband was dead but is now alive. Praised be the name of God. The man who brought the buffalo meat has healed him!”

This remarkable incident created gladness in the whole camp. Many drooping spirits took fresh courage. From then on, Eph’s time, when not hunting buffalo, was given to waiting on the sick. Pleas from those whose dear ones were sorely afflicted came to him: “Come with me, help me!” “Please administer to my sick wife!” “Come, please, my child is dying!” Eph spent days going from tent to tent administering to the sick. As Eph recalled, “The result of our labor of love certainly rebounded to the honor and glory of a kind and merciful God.” Eph administered to scores every day. Many of their lives were saved by the power of God.

One evening he was requested by a woman to administer to her son, Thomas. He had been sick for a number of days and was not expected to live. On the hard ground bed where he lay, he was moaning pitifully, too weak to turn his body. Eph felt the power of God resting mightily upon him. He bent over and whispered in the boy’s ear, “Will you believe the words I tell you?” His feeble response was, “Yes.” Eph blessed him, and he arose completely healed. He got up from his bed, dressed himself, and danced a hornpipe on the end board of a wagon.

Many of the handcart Saints whose extremities were frozen lost their limbs, either whole or in part. Eph washed them with water and castile soap until the frozen parts pulled off, after which he severed the shreds of flesh from the remaining portions of their limbs with scissors. One little girl lost both her legs below the knees on her tenth birthday. She was Nellie Unthank. Her parents had died before Eph arrived. As he removed the stockings from her feet, some of the flesh from her feet and legs was pulled off with the stockings. To save her life she was strapped to a board, and without antiseptic her feet were cut off with a knife and a carpenter’s saw. Years later Nellie married, raised six children, took in washing, and kept an immaculate house but was never free from pain. This noble handcart pioneer really lived. She gave the world more than she received, yet felt that she was blessed. Her life story inspires and strengthens and is a monument to the gospel of Jesus Christ. She held Eph Hanks in grateful remembrance. Surely no part of the great exodus west is more touching and fraught with heroism and courage, mingled with pain and tragedy, than the handcart pioneers.

The relief teams met the handcart immigrants and brought them into the Salt Lake Valley. Around the campfires at night the teamsters were told of the hunting skills and healing powers possessed by Eph. They seemed to them impossible. No man could do what the handcart people attributed to Eph Hanks. While they were sitting around the evening fire, smiling and somewhat questioning the truth of Eph’s prowess, a bird flew over the heads of the men where Eph was frying some buffalo meat. Eph threw his butcher knife into the air and struck the bird; it fell near the frying pan. This adroit act confirmed the stories told about Eph, leaving no doubt in their minds.

A few days after this, Eph and his friend, George, who had come with the rescue teams, rode out to hunt a buffalo for the immigrants. They spotted a herd grazing on a hillside. They crept stealthily within rifle range of it. George shot at a big bull and wounded it. Then it charged at George, bellowing and snorting. He took careful aim at the attacking bison, but his gun misfired, so he took to his heels and ran. George felt the hot, frothy breath of the buffalo on his legs. He spotted a clump of brush and leaped into it. The buffalo plunged into the brush, his horns barely missing George. The buffalo stood bellowing, pawing up the dirt, and then sullenly ambled back to join the herd. Eph laughed to see George run like a deer to escape the young buffalo, but he had his rifle ready to shoot the bull were it necessary.

By the time the Martin Handcart Company reached South Pass, enough relief teams had arrived to make the journey more rapid. The strength and spirit of the handcart Saints was revived when the supply wagons arrived, but by the time they reached Fort Bridger the supplies again ran low. Tom Dobson, a teenager, recalled how Eph made possible the replenishment of needed meat.

They had eaten the last of their food. The wagons formed a circle for the night. One old lady had carried with her a bantam rooster in a box. After the fire was lighted, Eph said, “Granny, get your rooster and let ‘im run around the fire to crow” Indians had gathered with the Mormons around the warm fire. They had never seen a tame chicken, and the little bantam rooster was a curiosity. The Indians were so intrigued that they brought their chief to see and hear the rooster crow.

Eph traded the rooster to the Indians for two steers and two ponies. The steers were butchered. That night the starving immigrants enjoyed a delicious dinner. Tom, as an old man, affirmed, “That immigrant party owed its life to Eph Hanks.”

Eph was a rough mountaineer, but at heart he was gentle, of a sympathetic nature, and a man with great faith in God. His resourcefulness and effectiveness in administering to and caring for the frost-bitten handcart people endeared him to hundreds who benefited from his services.

Ephraim Hanks: Fearless Mormon Scout

Seldom in Church history does a figure emerge with such compelling strength, diversity of character, and raw bravery as Ephraim Hanks. Fascinated by the man, Ivan J. Barrett researched journals and read old letters and accounts written about him. Ivan began to dream of a more complete telling of Ephraim’s incredible story, and this book is the fulfillment of that dream.

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