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The Mormon Handcart Trail

Isuzu Front
Larry E. Heck | Writer
Posted April 1, 2009

Part II: Rescue At Sixth Crossing

Views across the hills and valleys reveal nothing manmade and enhance the feeling of isolation. Imagine the pioneers crossing this country day after day and weeks into months with no connection to the civilized world.

More than 400 immigrants huddled together in a tent camp at the sixth crossing of the Sweetwater River in Wyoming on Oct 21, 1856. They had nothing to eat and a large number of them were sick with dysentery. Two men, a woman, and an 11-year-old girl had been buried that morning. Dozens of their group had died trying to pull their handcarts across the Wyoming wilderness in snow storms and raging winds. Many of them were too close to death or too numb from the freezing cold to even notice the ghostly image of a wagon appear on a hilltop in the distance. For others, the image began as a dark spot moving slowly across the snow covered horizon. It grew larger and was joined by other dark spots that seemed to glide across the hills covered with a foot of snow. Shouts could be heard through the howling wind and then riders on horses charged into camp. They were followed by 14 wagons loaded with food and supplies. The rescue party had arrived.

A small monument now marks the location of the Sixth Crossing where the immigrant camp once stood (see part one of this story in our March '09 issue). Even today, standing in that location, the camp seems to be isolated from the rest of the world with nothing manmade visible in any direction except an old barb wire fence and the tiny monument.

On the morning of the 22nd, two more bodies were buried. Having lost both parents in less than a week, two young girls became orphans that morning. Eight of the wagons left camp headed for Independence Rock in search of the Martin Handcart Company as well as the Hodgett and Hunt wagon trains. The other six wagons would help the Willie Company continue its journey to Salt Lake City. Those who were too weak to walk were loaded into the wagons, camp was packed into handcarts, and anyone capable of walking was once again headed west.

New snow did not fall that day but there was already more than a foot of it on the ground. The wind nearly always blows in Wyoming and for the immigrants it was deadly. Frost bite claimed toes, fingers, hands and feet. There was one reported case of blindness resulting from wind chill far below freezing. When the group reached Rocky Ridge, they built their camp on the top of ice and snow with nothing more than flimsy blankets to insulate them from the cold.

The immigrants rose the following morning to face the obstacle known as Rocky Ridge. Even in good weather, getting over Rocky Ridge was a challenge due to the steep grades and rough rocky surface. On October 23, 1856, there was a foot of snow on top that rough rocky surface. New snow was falling, and the howling wind was blowing all of it in their faces. After burying two more of their members, they tackled the ridge. Getting over it and into a relatively low area for camp meant crossing 16 miles. Many of them were still dragging handcarts and did not reach camp until long after the sun had gone down. One young boy carried his four year old brother into camp, set him down by the fire, and fell over dead from exhaustion. Immigrants trickled into camp until past midnight, many of them already dying but not yet laid down. Thirteen of them were buried in a common grave the next day as the immigrants attempted to reorganize from the ordeal of crossing Rocky Ridge. Although six more wagons with supplies arrived that day from the west, they were too late for those who were laid to rest.

On October 26, the Willie Company and their rescuers crossed the Continental Divide at South Pass. On October 27, the company journal reported that for the first time in 13 days, no one died. That break in the morning ritual of putting the dead to rest did not last long. However, the arrival of the wagons with supplies enabled the company to grow stronger each day. As they continued toward Salt Lake, they met other wagons with supplies. Everyone's health and strength continued to improve.

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