Levi Savage: A True Disciple of Jesus and Hero of the Willie Handcart Tragedy

March 23, 2009

For those not familiar with the Willie and Martin handcart company of the early Mormon pioneers, it is a tragic story in which many members of the party died or were severely injured.  I will give a very brief description of the events surrounding the trek.

Due to unforseen events and financial restraints, Brigham Young designed a way for the poor LDS Saints in Europe to make the trek across the Atlantic and most of the United States to gather to Zion, in Utah.  Handcarts were seen as the solution and the first 3 handcart companies made it to Utah without any problem.

Franklin D Richards was the Apostle appointed by Brigham Young to oversee the emigration of LDS Saints to Europe.  According to the blog entitled “Intelligent Obedience” John Taylor (a senior apostle) had advised Franklin Richards not to encourage Saints to leave so late in the year of 1856 and to wait until the next year.  However, Richards boldly told the Saints in Europe that it was God’s will that they go and that God would part the storms as He did for Moses if they but had faith.  Over 1,000 Saints took up the journey.

Upon arrival at Iowa City, the Saints encountered set-backs that delayed their departure until mid-late July.  Most of the Saints were naiive to the harsh terrain and climate that lay ahead.  There was one amoungst them, however, who was familiar with the terrain whose name was Levi Savage.  Savage had circled the globe serving as a missionary to Burma and had literally sacrificed his time in a way that many can not imagine.  He had also made the trek to Salt Lake City and knew of the dangers in leaving so late in the year.

Levi Savage (in the words from his own personal journal) said on August 12th:

 Today we commenced preparing for our journey and ascertaining who wishes to go on this fall and who wishes to remain here. Many are going to stop. Others are faltering and I myself am not in favor of, but much opposed to, taking women and children through when they are destitute of clothing, when we all know that we are bound to be caught in the snow and severe cold weather long before we reach the valley.

When asked by President Willie to share his thoughts with the company on leaving so late in the year Savage (again in his own words from his personal journal) said on August 13th:

Brother Willey exhorted the Saints to go forward regardless of suffering even to death. After he had spoken, he gave me the opportunity of speaking. I said to him that if I spoke I must speak my mind, let it cut where it would. He said certainly to do so. I then related to the Saints the hardships that we should have to endure. I said that we were liable to have to wade in snow up to our knees and shovel at night, lay ourselves in a thin blanket and lie on the frozen ground without a bed. I said that it was not like having a wagon that we could go into and wrap ourselves in as much as we like and lay down. “No,” said I, “we are without wagons, destitute of clothing and could not carry it f we had it. We must go as we are. The handcart system I do not condemn. I think t preferable to unbroken oxen and experienced teamsters. The lateness of the season was my only objection to leaving this point for the mountains at this time. I spoke warmly upon the subject, but spoke truth, and the people, judging from appearance and expressions, felt the force of it. (However, the most of them determined to go forward, if the authorities say so.) Elder Willey then spoke again in reply to what I had said, evidently dissatisfied. He said that the God that he served was a God that was able to save to the utermost. He said that was the God that he served, and he wanted no Job’s comforters with him. I then said that what I had said was the truth, and if Elder Willey did not want me to act in the place where I am, he is at full liberty to place another man in my stead. I would not think hard of him for it, But, I did not care what he said about Job’s comforters, I had spoken nothing but the truth and he knew it. Elder Atwood then spoke mildly and to the purpose. He said that he had been listening to what had been said. He exhorted the Saints to pray to God and get a revelation and know for themselves whether they should go or stay, for it was their privilege to know for themselves.

Clearly, Levi Savage thought it an absurd idea to leave so late in the year, but upon praying and wanting to follow their leaders, the majority of the Saints decided to make the journey.


Levi Savage

At this point, Savage had the decision to either stay or to go with the Saints.  He clearly disagreed with the authorities (Franklin Richards and President Willie) on making the trek.  However, Savage showed the courage of a true disciple of Jesus, being willing to die for his fellow friends to help them.  He realized they were naiive to the territory.  Upon the conclusion of the meeting, Savage stated:


Brethren and sisters, what I have said I know to be true, but seeing you are to go forward, I will go with you, will help you all I can, will work with you, will rest with you, will suffer with you, and if necessary I will die with you. May God have mercy bless and preserve us.


What great courage, faith and dedication he had!  As I read this, I thought about the commitment the people of Alma made at the waters of baptism to mourn with those who mourn and comfort those who are in need of comfort.  I also thought about the apostle James’ description of what pure religion is.


Later on in the journey as the Saints were struggling in mid-September, Franklin Richards, the apostle, arrived with a few elders.  When hearing of Savage’s opposition in Iowa City, Richards called a meeting and openly rebuked Savage for his lack of faith and for not following his leaders.  Savage’s response was amazing as he records in his journal on September 12th that he had no idea there were hard feelings and he was sorry for offending anyone.


As I read his personal account I was amazed at his great humility.  Clearly he was in the right and he could have become very bitter, but he chose to remain humble.  The story continues with the unfortunate actions of Franklin Richards.



Franklin Richards


According to one of the Saints, John Chislett, Franklin Richards gave a stirring sermon but then proceeded to ask for a meal.  The Saints out of respect took their finest calf and killed it, when they were in dire need of nourishment.  Richards then proceeded to eat the meat and not even offer it to the Saints.  In Chislett’s own words he describes the event:

 “These brethren told Captain Willie they wanted some fresh meat, and he had our fattest calf killed for them. I am ashamed for humanity’s sake to say they took it. While we, four hundred in number, travelling so slowly and so far from home, with our mixed company of men, women, children, aged, sick, and infirm people, had no provisions to spare, had not enough for ourselves, in fact, these ‘elders in Israel,’ these ‘servants of God,’ took from us what we ourselves so greatly needed and went on in style with their splendid outfit, after preaching to us faith, patience, prayerfulness, and obedience to the priesthood. As they rolled out of our camp I could not, as I contrasted our positions and circumstances, help exclaiming to myself: ‘Look on this picture, and on that!

“We broke camp at once and turned towards the river, the apostle having advised us to go on to the south side. He and his company preceded us and waited in the opposite bank to indicate to us the best fording place. They stood and watched us wade the river—here almost a mile in width, and in places from two to three feet deep. Our women and girls waded, pulling their carts after them.

“The apostle promised to leave us provisions, bedding, etc., at Laramie if he could, and to secure us help from the valley as soon as possible.”

As I read this account I was very apalled at the actions of the apostle.  As I read further accounts Richards didn’t even leave any provisions or bedding at Fort Laramie (which may have been due to other circumstances), which led to the demise of many people as the winter storms hit.



After reading these accounts clearly there were many factors involved in the hundreds of deaths involved in the Willie Handcart Company.  Many stories have been told about the heroic efforts of Saints in Utah that went to help them after they found out there were still some companies coming.


Throughout history, Levi Savage is sometimes known as one who opposed church authorities, and his name is sometimes mentioned as one of those who wasn’t a true Saint.  However, I believe he stood as one of the true disciples of Jesus by not becoming bitter when his leaders were clearly in the wrong and also for putting his life on the line to help his fellow man.  He is a good example for us to follow.


Fascinating. And I agree with you, AMA: the real hero is Levi Savage.

Who was the real shepherd here? Who really cared for the flock? We need only look at the revelation God gave Ezekiel: God berates those who misuse their authority and the only-begotten Son of God warns against shepherds who are either hirelings, or worse, wolves in sheep clothing who devour the flock (John 10).

Consider this and observe how Law (and not Gospel) drove the people to their destruction. The people were berated for not having faith–or enough faith–or for distrusting elders. They were called to seek a revelation, realizing that God-fearing people will usually fall in line with their leaders. Yes, Levi is to be commended; not for his obedience to the elders but for his love for the flock.

Just my 2ç in a pelosian economy…

We don’t know the full story here. After we all have died and can look back from the “other side” we may look at these incidents differently. What was better for these persons, in the eternal realm – pushing on with great hardship to the Salt Lake valley or dying or staying behind and enduring who knows what hardships during that winter in Nebraska?

I am disturbed by Elder Richards alleged statements as reported, but I don’t know the full story here. We are basing our opinions on the viewpoint of John Chislett (written 15 years afterwards), who obviously, in time, had developed an attitude against the church leaders.

A calf was butchered for Elder Richards. We again don’t know the full dstory here.

The handcart train lost their cattle soon afterward anyway. One calf eaten earlier probably didn’t cause much loss.

This incident may have been a test for some.

Excuse me, I believe if you read the full account, you would realize that Richards is the person who went to Brigham Young, reported of those on the plains —leading to the massive rescue. Our timelines may not see it as quick as we are used to, but they had sixteen teams out within two days with provisions, and two hundred and fifty teams on the way by the end of October. That is a major accomplishment for people who relied on those animals and wagons for their livelihood.–Would you give up your cars and trucks for 2-3 months just because the prophet asked?

Also, Franklin Richards was in England when he decided the saints could use handcarts. Three groups had completed the trip. Willie group should have only been 3 days later than the last group, it was a misunderstanding of the handcart providers which held them up–there were none available when they got to Iowa. I do not believe that Richards was with them when they made the ill-fated decision to continue even though they were so late. Do we have details about what he preached to them enroute? Is it possible he felt a calf would be beneficial for all, not just him? Brigham Young believed the three companies that had made it to Utah were all that were coming. Once he heard he immediately set up a major rescue effort. It is too easy to blame leaders and look at what we think they said and did–there probably are people who could be blamed, but I wasn’t there–and there are accounts of many who were who gave no blame to others


September 21, 2009 at 5:26 am

Hi Stacey (you’re excused) and Jack

You both make good points of not having an account from the leaders perspective. This post was written after reading Savage’s account of the proceedings.

The whole situation was a hard one and since none of us were there to witness it all we have are what is written.

April 6, 2011 at 4:13 am

I agree that we do not know the whole facts and unfortunately have to wait for further accounts, which may not come in this life, to know the whole true story. I so agree that Levi Savage was a great, humble, man.

January 7, 2012 at 8:27 pm

If you have studied the issue, and as a descendant of Martin Handcart Company treckers, I have. Savage was right and Brigham Young himself said so.

Richards remained in the 12 but after his report and the rescue, at great cost to the Saints in the valley, he was never again trusted by Brother Brigham. Richards like Willie was a little full of himself and his importance.

I would refer to DandC 121: As we have learned by sad experience that as a man is given a little authority, as he supposes, he immediately begins to exercise unrighteous dominion . . .

Hi Bob,

Thank you for your comments. I agree with you. It is hard when one gets into a high position to stay humble…most of us do a poor job at it, so kudos to those who can stay humble in spite of the lofty positions. Looks like Richards muffed it in this case.

It seems to have been the fashion of the times for leaders to publicly rebuke individuals under their authority. It is hard for us in these “politically correct” times to understand or forgive it. But, we are commanded by the Lord to be forgiving. Whatever things were said or done by brother Richards it is not for us to judge. He has entered the rest of the Lord as have all of his contemporaries. Our perceptions of right or wrong notwithstanding, we have no concept of the breadth and significance of eternity. All will be brought into the balance in the fullness of time. The heroic actions of a humble servant of the Lord are not overlooked in our recognition of worthiness and I doubt that any algebra used by the Lord will overlook them either. I hope someday to be able to meet Levi Savage in the spirit world and commend him for his steadfast actions in this life.

February 15, 2012 at 7:10 pm

Well put, Jim!

February 16, 2012 at 8:03 am


Forgiveness by all means, but Elder Richards was still wrong.

February 18, 2012 at 2:51 am

Just finished watching the movie ” 17 MIRACLES ” what a story…

February 18, 2012 at 2:55 am

Suamasi Popo

I reco…everyone to watch the movie… it was released late last year…re Levi Savage..

August 6, 2015 at 1:07 pm

Thank you so much for this post. I have my own issues, a lot of them, with unrighteous dominion within the Church, and I can understand why so many other Christians accuse us of being a cult. This particular story doesn’t help anything.I have always had difficulty with it, but, AFTER seeing the movie about the story of the Willie and Martin Handcart company, I have had even MORE difficulty with it.

Franklin Richard’s unrighteous and arrogant treatment of Levi Savage, as well as his disobedience to Taylor/Young’s councils should have had him excommunicated, because they literally caused the deaths of innocent, faithful saints. His arrogant preaching was practically like verbal murder, because it was so sincerely, faithfully believed as having come from God when it DIDN’T.

I have had even greater difficulty with my daughter being part of the LDS youth activity of Trek, where they were taken to re-enact THIS particular handcart company’s experiences. What message were they trying to teach her? Mindless obedience, and at all costs? Then it really would make the Mormon church a cult, like so many accuse us of being. Your blog post has cleared so many things up for me.

1. Senior apostle and later prophet, John Taylor, was AGAINST the actions and beliefs of Franklin D. Richards. But Franklin D. Richards was proud and disregarded the council of HIS senior leaders.

2. The saints of the Willie and Martin handcart company KNEW beforehand the dangers they might face because Levi Savage warned them before they even left. Yet they all freely chose to go. Was it impatience? Was it faith? Was it naivety? Was it inexperience? Was it respect for leaders? All of the above? Probably.

3. Levi Savage did not have to go with them, but he did. Not for himself, but to help them – for he knew the dangers and he knew they did not.

4. The story of killing the fatted calf for the pompous hypocrite breaks my heart. It is Ezekiel 34 illustrated in real life.

5. Levi Savage was reamed, not only by one proud leader, but two.

6. I am comforted to know from the comments that Brigham Young said Levi Savage was right and that he never trusted Franklin D. Richards again. It would be nice to have a source for that.

August 10, 2015 at 9:17 am
Bob Powelson

I have not looked recently but the exoneration of Levi Savage by Brigham Young is found in his various addresses after the rescue. One phrase I do recall about his comments on Richards was “that if a little bird had chirped some good sense into” Richards that it would not have happened.

My great, great grandfather Paul Gourley was in that company with his family. My great grandmother survived it at 8 years of age. She lived to be nearly 90, pioneering a second time into Southern Alberta in her 50s with her husband and several of her children.

Richards was more than a little, full of himself. Richards v. Savage is interesting. I would be willing to say that in the next life Savage will get a “well done thou good and faithful servant”.

September 4, 2015 at 7:25 am

Oilstories. Sorry for the late response to this, but I’m very glad that it helped you. I’m with you on Trek. My wife went to a Time out for Women event and she said one of the ladies that spoke was a black lady. She got up and was joking about how we celebrate Trek by going back and re-living it. She then went on to say something about how she never wants to go back and re-live life on the plantation like her ancestors did and poked fun at the “white” Mormons who do this with Trek. Although she was teasing, I think she’s right. I have respect for what they went through, but don’t see the purpose in re-living it. A bit over the top for me.

Anyways, I saw that you used this in a talk for church. I hope it was helpful.

August 2, 2018 at 10:20 pm

Lol, it was, GfG. I suspected all along that the talk assignment was a variety of that passive-aggressive psychological ecclesiastical abuse I have come to recognize because of my life’s experiences. Like, assign the person that you suspect has (or has had) problems with the law of chastity on giving a talk about adultery. (Hey, boys, that’s called shaming. But your dots don’t stick.) Anyway, I think that this little plan to have me speak on Sustaining My Leaders backfired on them. 😀 So then my NEXT assigned topic really WAS about adultery. So I had fun with that one, too. You see, you can’t shame someone for sins that they have never committed or for which they have worked out their full repentance in righteousness, fully relying on the merits of their Redeemer, who will stand by them still. Even in the face of small-minded, smaller-hearted little men.



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