When early emigrants tried to capitalize on the commercial potential of the Mormon trail, they established toll ferries and bridges across the North Platte River. Bessemer Bend, located upstream, became a favorite free crossing because when the water was low. It was also emigrants` last chance to cross the Platte on their journey west.
Near Bessemer Bend the Martin Handcart Company was snowbound for 10 days and 56 perished. In October 1856 the Company forded the river, wading across, dodging ice floes and was caught by a sleet and snow storm. One of the survivors from the Company, Elizabeth Horrocks Jackson, described the death of her husband:
"Some of the men carried some of the women on their back or in their arms, but others of the women tied up their skirts and waded through, like the heroines that they were, and as they had gone through many other rivers and creeks. My husband (Aaron Jackson) attempted to ford the stream. He had only gone a short distance when he reached a sandbar in the river, on which he sank down through weakness and exhaustion. My sister, Mary Horrocks Leavitt, waded through the water to his assistance. She raised him up to his feet. Shortly afterward, a man came along on horseback and conveyed him to the other side. My sister then helped me to pull my cart with my three children and other matters on it. We had scarcely crossed the river when we were visited with a tremendous storm of snow, hail, sand, and fierce winds. . . .
"About nine o'clock I retired. Bedding had become very scarce so I did not disrobe. I slept until, as it appeared to me, about midnight. I was extremely cold. The weather was bitter. I listened to hear if my husband breathed, he lay so still. I could not hear him. I became alarmed. I put my hand on his body, when to my horror I discovered that my worst fears were confirmed. My husband was dead. I called for help to the other inmates of the tent. They could render me no aid; and there was no alternative but to remain alone by the side of the corpse till morning. Oh, how the dreary hours drew their tedious length along. When daylight came, some of the male part of the company prepared the body for burial. And oh, such a burial and funeral service. They did not remove his clothing—he had but little. They wrapped him in a blanket and placed him in a pile with thirteen others who had died, and then covered him up with snow. The ground was frozen so hard that they could not dig a grave. He was left there to sleep in peace until the trumpet of God shall sound, and the dead in Christ shall awake and come forth in the morning of the first resurrection. We shall then again unite our hearts and lives, and eternity will furnish us with life forever more."
(Elizabeth Jackson, as quoted in LeRoy and Ann Hafen, Handcarts to Zion [Glendale, Ca.: The Arthur H. Clark Company, 1960], 110-13.)
- Mormon Handcart Production - A theatrical re-enactment, dedicated to the Martin and Willie Handcart Companies of 1856 and their Rescuers, both past and present.
- A PBS Documentary Chronicling the Westward Migration of the Willie and Martin Handcart Companies of 1856. Sweetwater Rescue is perhaps the most untold hardship and human sacrifice story in all of American western history. In this epic documentary the lives and sacrifices of hundreds of men and women will be told for the first time to a national PBS audience - Norman Bosworth & Lee Groberg
- Sweetwater Rescue - From 1856 to 1860, ten handcart companies traveled to what they considered Zion. Eight crossed the plains successfully. Two—the Willie and Martin Companies—met with a wintry disaster in 1856, as did the Hunt and Hodgett Wagon Trains trailing behind them. The rescuers from the Salt Lake Valley faced the same horrific snows.