Part III: Martin Handcart Company
On October 19, 1856, a raging blizzard blew across the Wyoming plains and engulfed the Martin Company just as they finished pulling their handcarts across the freezing waters of the Platte River. The clothing they wore became frozen solid. There was not enough wood in the area to build fires. They were forced to move on in search of a place to camp. That night, thirteen of them froze to death under their wet blankets. Twelve miles beyond the river, the Martin Company could go no farther. They were stranded for nine days. They were nearly out of food, many were sick and dying, their spirits were broken, and the only shelter they had were ragged tents.
On October 28, two express riders located their camp. Although the riders had no provisions to help the starving people, they had brought news that eight wagons were waiting for them at Devil's Gate. Even though that was 65 miles farther, the Martin Company had new hope. The next day, they packed their camp, took their handcarts in tow, and set out in the freezing weather for Devil's Gate.
The express riders continued searching east and found the Hunt and Hodgett Wagon Trains near the Platte River. They also started moving again. The wagons soon overtook the handcarts. People being carried in the handcarts were moved to the wagons. A rider was sent to Devil's Gate for more help.
The ragged company covered 30 miles in two days. On the third day, they were met by wagons from Devil's Gate allowing more of the pioneers to ride under cover. The camp near Devil's Gate became known as Martin's Cove and has a visitor center. It was a good camping spot with firewood but would not be suitable for more than 400 people to spend the winter.
The Martin, Hodgett, and Hunt companies stayed at Martin's Cove for five days hoping more wagons with provisions would arrive. On Sunday, November 9, the companies left Martin's Cove. The sick and injured were loaded into wagons. Many of the handcarts were discarded.
As the companies moved west, they encountered more wagons that had been sent to look for them. Their numbers continued to grow. At Rocky Ridge, they met 30 wagons in one party. With careful loading, everyone found a place to ride in the wagons. It was no longer necessary to pull any of the handcarts across ice and snow. The handcarts were left behind when the wagons went over Rocky Ridge. With everyone in wagons, the companies could travel as much as 30 miles a day.
Nothing existed at South Pass in 1858. It has such a gentle grade on both sides, most would not even know a pass had been crossed if not for landmarks such as Oregon Buttes and Pacific Springs. As the companies continued west toward Fort Bridger, they met more wagons looking for them. Several of the wagons were rearranged and called ambulance wagons. Those who needed medical attention the most were loaded into those wagons and sent in a group ahead with the fastest teams on a race for professional care.
Fort Bridger was the first community they had seen since Fort Laramie. They did not spend much time there. The road from that point was well traveled and was the last stretch to their destination.
One-hundred-and-four wagons arrived in Salt Lake City on November 30, 1856. The Martin Company left Iowa with 575 people. One-hundred-forty-five of them never made it to Salt Lake City. Dozens more lost limbs to frost bite and suffered from the mental anguish of the horrors they had experienced.