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The Mormon Handcart Trail - 4x4 Adventures

Posted in Events on March 1, 2009
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The Mormon Trail came into existence when Brigham Young and his party left the tent town called Winter Quarters (now the north side of Omaha, Nebraska) on a course for the Great Salt Lake Basin. At that time, most everything west of Iowa was claimed by Mexico, but was mostly uncharted frontier. The Oregon Trail was already established and was being used but it did not pass through the Great Salt Lake Basin. Brigham Young had done a lot of research for a place the Latter Day Saints could settle. He decided it had to be a place no one else wanted, and based on stories passed on from mountain men, trappers, and other frontiersmen, the Great Salt Lake Basin seemed to be exactly what he was looking for.

On April 4, 1847, 73 wagons and 143 people left the Winter Quarters carrying enough provisions to sustain the group for a year. Young personally supervised the daily activities and kept everyone focused on their duties. One man, William Clayton, had the duty of keeping track of how many miles they traveled. He did so by counting the revolutions of a wheel on one of the wagons and doing the math. He found that task to be very tedious so he invented a device he called a roadometer. It was attached to one of the wheels and counted rotations. While crossing the relatively flat lands in Nebraska, they averaged between 12 and 20 miles per day.

Fort Casper evolved from a trading post and bridge built at the site in 1859. The military first occupied the site for the purpose of maintaining telegraph lines. They called it Platte Bridge Station. The name was changed to Fort Casper in 1867.

Brigham Young saw the Great Salt Lake Valley for the first time on July 24. He was pleased with the area and rushed back to Winter Quarters to get more of his followers moving. By the end of the 1847, more than 2,000 Mormons had made the journey. Some of them had gone both ways more than once to help others reach the new land. During the next two decades, an estimated 70,000 Mormons used the trail established by Brigham Young. In 1869, the Transcontinental Railroad was completed, which made the trail obsolete.

The most famous of those pioneers were the ones that made the journey pulling handcarts. They consisted of people who did not have the money to purchase wagons and the oxen, mules, or horses to pull them. The handcarts were wide enough to use the same tracks as most wagons. The box was about 4 feet long. Fully loaded, the cart could hold about 400 pounds of food, supplies, and personal belongings.

In 1847, the Mormons built a ferry across the Platte River. They made a good profit from the fees until the Renshaw Bridge was built in 1853. This is a replica of the ferry. The river was often too deep to drive a wagon across. They would begin to float then tip over on their sides.

The first handcarts were used in 1856 by emigrants from Liverpool, England. They boarded ships to sail across the ocean and used trains to get from the East Coast to Iowa City, but the rails ended at that point. As more of them trickled in, the first company was formed and began its journey. The second and third companies followed the same routine. All three left during the month of June and all three arrived in the Salt Lake Basin with no more difficulty than was expected. Brigham Young and the elders in Salt Lake thought those were the last companies that would cross until the following summer. They did not expect any of the following events to occur.

The Willie Company was the forth handcart com-pany to leave Iowa City. Five hundred people and 120 handcarts began the journey on July 15. They had five supply wagons, 24 oxen, and 45 head of cattle. Eight days later, on July 23, the Martin Company left Iowa City. They had 576 people, 146 handcarts, 7 wagons, 30 oxen, and 50 head of cattle. On October 4, a man named Franklin D. Richards reached Salt Lake and informed Brigham Young that two more handcart companies were on the way. (Richards had been one of the leaders responsible for persuading them to not spend the winter at Winter Quarters.) On that same date, the Willie Company was four days west of Fort Laramie and the Martin Company was four days east. There were also two wagon companies only days behind the Martin Company, one led by Hodgett and the other by Hunt. All four companies were already in big trouble. Rations were cut in half and then cut in half again. There had been no provisions made for them to restock on supplies at Fort Laramie because no one had expected them to be there.

This is a picture of a map at the fort showing the Oregon Trail, the Mormon Trail, and the Pony Express Trail. All of them used the same route until they crossed the Continental Divide at South Pass. From there, the routes branched out in an attempt to find shortcuts.

When Brigham Young was informed that two handcart companies and two wagon trains were coming across the wilderness, he publicly denounced Richards for his part in causing the companies to tackle the trail during the winter. He had no way of knowing how much trouble the pioneers were in, yet he wasted no time forming a rescue party. Three days later, a dozen wagons loaded with everything they could carry left Salt Lake on an intercept course with the handcart companies.

On October 19, a devastating blizzard hit Wyoming. It caught the rescue party near Rocky Ridge and brought them to a halt. The Willie Company was near Sixth Crossing and the Martin Company was at the last crossing of the Platte River. The two wagon companies were farther behind. Willie left his company at Sixth Crossing and found the rescue party the next day. Even though the storm continued, on October 21, the rescue wagons reached the Sixth Crossing of the Sweetwater River. Some members of the Willie company had already died from starvation and the freezing temperatures. Some others died during the night after the rescue party arrived. The morning ritual for the Willie Company had become a funeral service. Enough food and supplies were left at the Willie Camp to get them moving, but there was still the Martin Company somewhere in the wilderness that had to be rescued.

Independence Rock is said to have gotten its name because pioneers wanted to reach that point by the 4th of July to avoid being caught in winter weather. It became a well known landmark and was autographed by many travelers through the years.

The Martin Company had been halted by the same storm on October 19. Thirteen people died from exposure that night. Snow and howling winds continued to hammer them as they trudged on day after day. On the 28th of October, advance riders from the rescue party found them at Horse Creek. The message that ten wagons with supplies waited at Devil's Gate raised their spirits and got them moving. The camp at Devil's Gate became known as Martin's Cove. A huge visitor center has been constructed at that point.

Lone Writer's journey over the Mormon Trail began in Casper. The intent was to follow it across the harshest lands the pioneers crossed during the winter of 1856. He started with a visit at Fort Casper. In 1856, nothing more than a few shacks existed where Casper is today. Brigham Young had some people operating a ferry at that point. He made a good profit from travelers on the Oregon Trail as well as his own followers. Lone Writer left Casper following the original Oregon Trail along graded county roads. It is a beautiful scenic drive across wide open country that is seldom traveled. There are historic markers scattered along the route with information about the Oregon Trail, the Mormon Trail, and the Pony Express Trail.

Martin's Cove was a rescue site for the Martin Company. Brigham Young had sent wagons with supplies to intercept the handcart company. The Martin Company met the wagons in this cove and spent a few days there hoping the storm would pass. Once they realized winter had come to stay, they voted to move on.

Independence Rock includes a modern rest area and a lot more historic markers. One writer claims it got its name because pioneers wanted to be at the rock before July 4 to ensure they would not encounter any of the Wyoming winter weather. Martin's Cove is a great place to visit. The museum has replicas of the handcarts and a lot of information about the Mormon use of the trail across Wyoming. There is a hiking trail into the cove where the wagons spent a few days hoping the storm would play out.

There is a lot of private property between Martin's Cove and Sixth Crossing so that part of the trail is off limits. Getting around the private property involves traveling paved roads. Sixth Crossing is accessed on two track roads across some wide open country. The historic marker is found in an open field a short distance east of the Sweetwater River. A visitor center for Sixth Crossing is located on the highway where the road crosses the Sweetwater. It has a public campground and a nice museum. The trail between the visitor center and South Pass is mostly two-track across BLM lands.

Join us next month for Part II of this series.

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PhotosView Slideshow
This trip begins at Fort Casper located within the city limits of Casper, WY.
Odometer Latitude Longitude Comments
0.0 N42 50.1371 W106 22.2316 Fort Casper.
0.0 N42 50.1932 W106 22.1528 Left at light onto Wyoming Blvd.
0.7 N42 50.7235 W106 22.5365 Left on Pendell Blvd.
1.5 N42 50.7430 W106 23.4864 This is a slight jog. Follow the turn to the right,
0.0 then turn left at County Rd 201.
7.7 N42 50.6655 W106 32.3295 Emigrant Gap.
1.4 N42 50.1121 W106 33.7977 Another jog. Turn right at first stop sign, then left at
0 second stop sign onto Poison {{{Spider}}} Road.
1.7 N42 49.2837 W106 35.5822 Left turn onto County Rd 319.
6.8 N42 44.3323 W106 39.7665 The {{{Rocky}}} walls on both sides earned this section of the road the name, “Rock Ave”.
15.0 N42 40.4495 W106 47.5944 This lone Cottonwood marks Willow Spring. It was
0 the first fresh water spring since the Platte River Crossing.
1.4 N42 39.4604 W106 48.4467 Prospect Hill earned its name because of the 360
0 degree view from the top.
9.2 N42 36.1285 W106 {{{57}}}.8845 Horse Creek. The Martin Handcart Company was
found here by the rescue team. We did not find any historic markers.
12.0 N42 34.0075 W106 59.4400 Hwy 220. Turn Right.
10.0 N42 29.5972 W107 08.2224 Independence Rock Historic Site & Rest Area.
4.0 N42 27.0516 W107 11.4678 Right turn on old Hwy 220. This is after the ranch entrance.
4.8 N42 26.6487 W107 12.4100 Roadside Grave - Oregon Trail Pioneer.
5.3 N42 26.4918 W107 13.1334 Martin Cove Visitor Parking. From here stay on
0 old Hwy 220. You will pass the fort with it on the left.
2.8 N42 26.2990 W107 16.5106 Cherry Creek Campground. This is used for the Handcart trips. Not for general public use.
5.9 N42 24.4945 W107 19.4354 Old Hwy 220 connects to new Hwy 220. Turn right.
12.6 N42 21.7494 W107 26.5559 Muddy Gap. Gas Available. Turn west on Hwy 287.
7.8 N42 27.1174 W107 32.7833 Split Rock Historic Site.
14.2 N42 29.6760 W107 49.5400 Jeffrey City. Gas & Café available.
9.1 N42 31.0473 W108 00.5158 Ice Slough Marker. The Emigrant Trail crossed the
0.0 highway at this point. Stay on 287.
8.4 N42 32.4432 W108 10.4929 Left on Bison Basin Rd., then immediate right at
0 Campground sign.
N42 31.6426 W108 12.1602 Left fork past Sweetwater Campground. Campground is not for public use.
N42 30.5747 W108 13.6300 Linford Monument at Sixth Crossing. Willie Handcart
rescue site. Go back to 287 and cross Sweetwater
River. The Sixth Crossing Visitor Center is at the
crossing on 287. Campground available.

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