WILLIAM ASHTON: HANDCART PIONEER AND FIVE-YEAR
Curtis R. Allen1
“We continued on our journey as quick as we possibly
could. The cold increasing upon us. … Our provisions
are running out very fast, so that our rations are reduced
to 12 ounces of flour per day. … we are also being pretty
nigh wore out, with fatigue and hunger, a great many died.”
- Samuel Openshaw, Martin Handcart Company, just as
the company was leaving Fort Laramie.2
William Ashton, a 33-year-old LDS convert from Stockport, Cheshire, England was experiencing the same feelings as Openshaw but with tragedy and sorrow piled on top of them. William had lost his wife and two daughters on the easy part of the journey. Fortyfive
others of the company had also died on the way. He and his three remaining motherless girls were now faced with worsening conditions and a dismal forecast. At a camp near Fort Laramie, in Nebraska Territory (now Wyoming) in early October, 1856, William faced a decision almost beyond thinking, and with small hope of success in any of the few options.
He and his family had left Liverpool May 22, 1856 on the ship “Horizon” for the journey to America and Utah. The company was about 800 Saints; their leader was to be Captain Edward Martin. The Ashton family, like many on the ship, was traveling under the
auspices of the Perpetual Emigration Fund and would be pulling handcarts across the prairies. William’s family consisted of himself, 33; his wife Sarah Ann (nee Barlow), also 33; daughters Betsy, 11; Sarah Ellen, 7; Mary; 5, and Elizabeth, age 2.3
The ship docked in Boston the last day of June. While the company was waiting to board the train cars to Iowa City, little Elizabeth Ashton died.4 Many of the company had suffered of illness and several had died aboard ship. Perhaps Elizabeth had been sick on the sea journey. A crowded and uncomfortable train took them to Iowa City where they struggled with the delay in preparing handcarts and eventually left for the westward journey July 28th, later than hoped. Although they struggled with poorly constructed handcarts and other challenges, the company had a fairly comfortable haul to Florence
before starting across Nebraska. In Iowa, before crossing the Missouri River, Sarah Ann gave birth to another daughter. The baby, named after her mother, died fourteen days later at Florence. The difficult birth left the mother feeble and she soon passed on. A grieving and surely distraught William continued on the 1,000 mile trail toward Salt Lake
Valley with his three surviving daughters.
By October, as the Martin Company neared Fort Laramie, it became apparent the late departure, limited food supply, and lack of warm clothing would threaten the company.5 On October 9th, some of the Martin Company people gathered their valuables – watches
and the like, to trade for provisions at the fort. The commander, Major William Hoffman, 6 sympathized with the immigrants and allowed them to purchase from the commissary storehouse. The prices were reasonable: biscuits at 15 ½ cents, bacon at 15 cents a pound and rice at 17 cents a pound. Some purchased from the Sutler’s but the prices were higher.7
On this same day, October 9th, William enlisted in Company G of the 6th United States Infantry. He was surely influenced by the willingness of the army to aid the pioneers and saw in it an opportunity to help his own family to endure the remaining journey. But it was a decision that would probably trouble him for the rest of his life. Some analysis is
required to fill in around the known facts. Often, when a regiment’s ranks were depleted by desertions and other causes, the army offered cash and other inducements to enlistees.
The new men also became eligible to draw on the commissary and sutler’s stores against future pay. Three other men from the Martin Company enlisted with William, so this was probably the case then. Recruits were few in the wilderness. William was probably able
to supplement his children’s diet and possibly also help with blankets by enlisting. Also, he would not be along to receive an adult ration, also leaving that to others of the company.
There was a Barlow family with the company that seems almost surely to have been his deceased wife’s relatives. John Barlow, an 18 year old son of that family also joined the army the same day as William. The Barlow family and William’s family lived less than fifteen miles apart in England. Although no exact genealogical link has been found, it
seems reasonable the Barlows took the girls to travel with them. Whatever the details, William must have been heartbroken and the little girls terrified at the parting. William had committed himself to five years of service in an unfamiliar situation and to repay some indebtedness to a government foreign to him.
The first several months of army life for William Ashton were uneventful. The Martin handcart company recruits in the 6th Infantry troops stationed at Fort Laramie surely Fort Laramie in the 1850’s 8
went through the adjustment necessary for any civilian introduced to military life but they were not called upon to participate in any arduous campaigns that winter. The local Indian tribes were generally not troublesome. But change was in the wind. By the spring of 1857, the Cheyenne were chafing at the encroachments on their tribal domain by settlers and the army and were raiding immigrant trains and settlements wherever they could. Secretary of War Jefferson Davis ordered Colonel Edwin (“Bull”) Sumner to mount an expedition of chastisement against the Cheyenne. Sumner’s 1st Cavalry was chosen as the spearhead with elements of the 6th Infantry, Company G included, in support.9 This included William as well as the others that had enlisted with him.10 During this expedition, the infantry suffered not only great fatigue but deprivation of food and shelter, as the expedition commander, Colonel Edwin V. “Bull” Sumner chased the
Indians with his cavalry, requiring exhausting forced marches by the foot soldiers in an attempt to keep up. The marches took them into what is now Southeastern Colorado, into central Kansas and on to Fort Leavenworth in northeastern Kansas. In Kansas, Company
G was involved in the battle of Solomon’s Fork where numerous Cheyenne were killed or wounded, but William escaped harm. Food ran short and the soldiers subsisted on scrawny beef and went days without nourishing food. At one point, the men were reduced
to eating coyotes, skunks and buzzards.11 Many soldiers deserted, perhaps justifiably, including two recruits from the Martin Company, Aaron Harrison and Samuel Blackham. 12 William stayed the course, perhaps because of commitments he had made to the sutler’s store as mentioned earlier.13 As the campaign ended, Company G was in the
vicinity of Fort Leavenworth, Kansas.
In May, 1858, William’s regiment was ordered from Kansas to Utah Territory to reinforce the army sent there the previous fall to put down the “Mormon Rebellion”. The regiment was to become part of General Albert Sidney Johnston’s Army of Utah. By July 31, 1858, the regiment, including William’s Company G, had arrived at Fort Bridger, Utah Territory14. William was then in the unique position of being the only Mormon to be a part of what is known as “Johnston’s Army,” which was to march into the Salt Lake Valley to ensure Brigham Young and the Mormons would comply with federal law.
William was likely to be able to make contact with his daughters, if they had survived.
However, circumstances prevented this. In July, 1858, General Johnston was ordered by Headquarters, U.S. Army, to select one of two regiments to add to the force already at Camp Floyd in Utah County, the other to be sent to the Department of the West,
headquartered at Benicia, California. Johnston selected the 7th Infantry for Camp Floyd service and ordered William’s regiment to California. For a short time, William was within 130 miles of his two surviving daughters, but he was not aware that two of his daughters had survived.15
“Johnston’s Army” marched from the Fort Bridger area on June 13, 1858, taking companies, B and C, of the 6th Infantry into the Salt Lake Valley. William Ashton’s company G and the remainder of the 6th Infantry remained at Fort Bridger until companies B and C returned from the valley and on August 31st, the entire regiment began their march to California. That march, combined with the just completed march from Fort Leavenworth totaled 2,147 miles. Adding to this the marches associated with the Cheyenne Expedition, we see Company G marching more than 2,500 miles over a few months. The route from Fort Bridger was westward to the Bear River, near present day
Evanston, Wyoming, then avoiding Echo Canyon and the Salt Lake Valley altogether, north following Bear river past Bear Lake to Soda Springs and then along the Portneuf River to Fort Hall and then following Hudspeth’s cutoff past the City of Rocks and there connecting to the California Trail to Carson’s Pass over the Sierras. In spite of strenuous effort to beat the winter snows, they slogged through two feet of snow at the summit.
By October, 1858 they were encamped in California, moving then to Benicia Barracks in the Oakland area. At this point, the regiment was fragmented and sent to wherever they were needed to suppress Indian depredations or deal with other problems. William and Company G saw most of California during the next three years.
In October, 1861, the regiment received orders to sail to Washington D.C. for Civil War service. Company G was at Benicia Barracks and William’s five year enlistment was completed. On October 9, 1861, Private William Ashton was honorably discharged and from there, his trail goes cold. We do know he received several months back pay upon
discharge, with possibly additional funds held in his account.16 This would have given him some resources to travel to his next destination, wherever that might have been. He may have even been able to travel on the ship with the regiment to Washington, D.C. down the West Coast to Panama and across the isthmus by railroad and up the East Coast to the Capital.
No record tells us of the next several years of William’s life. It appears he found his way back to England, as he, or someone with the same name and circumstances, is found in census records. At some point he learned there were survivors in the Martin Company and in 1888 placed the following ad in the Millennial Star:
“Elder William Ashton is very anxious to learn the address of any one or all of his daughters, Betsy, Sarah, and Mary, who emigrated from Stockport, England, on the 18th of May, 1856. They crossed the plains in one of the ‘Handcart Companies’.”17
Betsy had died on the plains; Mary had died in childbirth in 1869 in West Jordan; and Sarah Ellen, who had lost the sight of one eye from the cold on the handcart trail, was in Whitney, Idaho, having gone there with her husband, Thomas Wesley Beckstead, a Canadian convert and early pioneer to South Jordan. A silent witness of Sarah Ellen’s
feelings toward her father, of whose whereabouts she then knew nothing, is the fact that she named one of her sons “William Albert Beckstead”, even using William’s seldom mentioned middle name. The name “William” is still popular among his descendants. She
also named a daughter that died as an infant “Sarah Alberta”, perhaps honoring both her parents.
Someone brought a copy of the Millennial Star to Sarah. We can hardly imagine Sarah’s emotions on getting this news of her father after thirty-two years. But she must have been anxious to see him as she and her husband sent him means to come to Idaho, which he did. He spent his remaining years with Sarah Ellen and her husband in Whitney and became known as “Grandpa Ashton.” An indication of Grandpa Ashton’s acceptance by the community was his giving a speech at the 1889 Fourth of July celebration in Whitney.
William shared the rostrum with several of his grandchildren who sang, gave talks and otherwise entertained the crowd. Like so many wishes when we study individual history, we hope someone might be digging into an old trunk and find a journal that included some notes of that speech.
William died October 21, 1891 and is buried in the Whitney cemetery. Sarah Ellen lived until 1912 and is remembered in family histories as a grand old lady. Certainly her posterity is large and has achieved much in the way of service to their communities and country. One of her descendants, presumably gathering memories from the older
generation wrote: “She probably believed that having only one eye was no handicap. She churned butter, sold eggs, served as a midwife, and helped in the community wherever and whenever she was called upon.” She is also buried in the Whitney cemetery.
When, in an incident of more than fifteen years of researching the soldiers of the Utah War I first learned of the military experience of William, I knew nothing of his family connection to the Becksteads and Whitney, Idaho but that information soon surfaced. It turns out I was in high school in Preston, Idaho with at least a dozen of William’s
descendants. In contacting some of them, I found few were aware of his exemplary military service or of the details that, to me at least, provide a different view of his decision to enlist at Fort Laramie. I have since made my concept of his motives and circumstances available to some. Unfortunately, he may still be unkindly remembered by others.
1 This article is an expansion of an article titled “Soldiers into Saints: Saints into Solders” published in the Utah Genealogical Association’s quarterly publication Crossroads, December 2008 issue, pages 171-178.
2 Lynne Slater Turner, Emigrating Journals of the Willie and Martin Handcart Companies and the Hunt and Hodgett Wagon Trains, n. p.: 1996), 115.
3 Ibid, 81, 88, 141.
4 Ibid, 141. (Some accounts indicate Elizabeth was buried at sea.)
5 Ibid, 115.
6 Major Hoffman was a New Yorker and a West Point graduate of 1829. He had served in the Mexican War and was promoted for gallant and meritorious conduct in two battles. He would lead a large wagon train of emergency supplies to Utah Territory in 1858 to supplement the meager rations of the snowbound troops of General Johnston near Fort Bridger. He served as commissary of prisoners during the Civil War and was brevetted Major General in 1865. He retired in 1870.
7 Turner, Journals, 115.
8 Fort Laramie is not near the Wyoming city of Laramie. It is about 100 miles northeast on the Overland
9 William’s military experience from Fort Laramie until his discharge at Benicia, California in 1861 is taken from the monthly regimental returns of the 6th Infantry, NARA, Microfilm 665, Roll 68, FHL#
10 William, Samuel Blackham, 22; Aaron Harrison, 19; and John Barlow, 18, all joined the army on the same day. Barlow’s enlistment appears to have been as a contract laborer. William’s enlistment is found in Adjutant General’s Office, War Department, Register of Enlistments, U.S. Army, NARA, Microfilm M233, Roll 25, p. 2, line 83. FHL# 350331. The records of the other enlistees are found on this film.
11 Clifford L. Swanson, The Sixth United States Infantry Regiment, 1855 to Reconstruction, (Jefferson, NC, McFarland & Company, Inc., 2001),8-11.
12 It is a popular belief among many interested parties that Aaron Harrison did not desert but came into the Salt Lake Valley with “Johnston’s Army” in June 1858. The military records are clear that Harrison deserted October 27, 1857. It is also clear that only companies B and C came into the valley while the other companies, including company G stayed at Fort Bridger until they left on the long march to Benicia, California in August, 1858. Available records of the Blackham families lives have no mention of Samuel’s military service. They settled in San Pete County, Utah but Samuel, after his marriage to Mary Ann Lamb of Manchester, England, took his family to Evanston, Wyoming after the town was established as a railroad division point. He died there in 1910.
14 6th Infantry Regimental Return for July, 1858. NARA microfilm M665, Roll 68, FHL# 1579299. In 1858, Fort Bridger was within the boundaries of Utah Territory. Before Utah’s statehood, chunks of Utah
were split off until it reached its present configuration. The “notch” that allows Wyoming to be a rectangle contains Fort Bridger.
15 At this time, William must have been convinced, from what news he had heard, that the Martin Company disaster took his daughters. He did not learn the truth until much later. It is likely the army, knowing
William was a Mormon, kept a close eye on him while the regiment was at Fort Bridger.
16 During the Civil War and after, honorably discharged regular army soldiers were also provided travel money to their points of enlistment. It is not clear if this was a policy in 1861.
17 Millennial Star, 31 December, 1888.
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