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The Handcart Trail - Part 2

Posted in Events on April 2, 2013
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Butch Cassidys mother, Ann Gillies, was born in Scotland. At the age of 9, her father put his family on a ship and immigrated to the United States. From Boston, the Gillies family traveled west on a train to the end of the tracks in Iowa City, Iowa. In the March issue of this magazine, we followed the trail they used to cross Iowa and reach the settlement called Winter Quarters. They were members of the Mormon Church and were on their way to the Salt Lake Valley.

The Gillies family was traveling in a covered wagon as part of the Hodgett Wagon Train. That wagon train was assigned the task of following the Martin Handcart Company to provide support. It was the last week of August when they arrived at Winter Quarters. The Mormon Trail between Winter Quarters and the Salt Lake Valley had been used by thousands of immigrants during the previous nine years. It was common knowledge that the optimal time of year to leave Winter Quarters was in June. Anyone arriving at Winter Quarters later than mid-July was strongly advised to remain there for the winter.

Although the Willies, Martin, and Hodgett companies were long past those deadlines, they were enjoying beautiful sunny August days and believed the weather would remain suitable for their crossing. Although about 100 members dropped out to wait for spring, the majority of the three companies voted to continue. The Willies Company was the first to arrive at Winter Quarters and the first to leave on August 17. If they had known 56 of them would never see the valley, their decision to continue would most certainly have been different. The next to arrive at Winter Quarters was the Martin Company. Of the 576 people who left Winter Quarters on August 27, 145 of them would never finish the trip.

In the first part of this series, we were using the Jesse Haven Journal. He was a group leader in the Martin Handcart Company but was assigned to the Hodgett Wagon Train before leaving Winter Quarters. We assume the Gillies family would have shared the experiences he noted in his journal. We also found a journal for the Hunt Wagon Train in the LDS archives. It was the last to leave Winter Quarters and followed a few days behind the Hodgett Wagon Train.

The Hodgett Wagon Train left Winter Quarters with 150 people and 33 wagons. They crossed the Elk Horn River on August 30, 1856, and began their journey across the lands designated as the territory of Nebraska. The Martin Company was one days travel ahead of them, but that gap was quickly closed. On September 3, they had both reached the Loup River. As instructed, the wagons waited for the handcarts to ferry across. Today, the town of Fullerton, Nebraska, is on the north side of that river.

The wagons crossed the river and continued in a southwest direction before turning south. The current roads zigzag across the trail and follow it very closely. They pass through scenic landscapes with trees growing over the road and nearly touching in the middle. Some parts are posted as Minimal Maintenance, but they appear to not be maintained at all. As shown in the photos, those roads get very little use. One of the wagons in the Hodgett Company was overturned somewhere along that part of the trail. No one was hurt and the wagon was not damaged.

Nerves were on end a few days later when a party of several hundred Indians from the Omaha tribe watched them from a distance. On September 11, west of where the city of Grand Island now stands, they came across the graves of two men and a child. The graves marked the location where Cheyenne Indians had attacked a small wagon train a few weeks earlier. Besides killing the three who were buried, they kidnapped a woman and took everything of value from the wagons.

On September 12, the wagons camped on the opposite side of the river from Fort Kearny. They were ahead of the handcarts at that point, so they spent some time at the fort, trading for goods. The handcarts passed about noon on the 13th. When they stopped for lunch, one man said he could not pull the cart any farther. He then lay down in the grass and died. He was only one more death adding to the many before him and the many to follow in the handcart company.

The name of the city that developed on the opposite side of the Platte River from the fort is spelled differently than that of the fort. It is Kearney rather than Kearny. We had our RV parked in a campground near the Archway Monument that spans across I-80. Kearney is a small city but large enough to serve the ranches and farms for many miles in any direction.

Jesse Havens journal had some interesting entries. He mentioned the Martin Handcarts and the Hodgett Wagons were traveling so close together that they continually traded the lead. Their combined size helped them feel more secure against the threat of an Indian attack. They came across some buffalo and butchered two of them to share. They also chose to cross the Platte River and travel on the Oregon Trail. In doing so, they came across a group of 75 former Mormons who had seen the Salt Lake Valley and decided it was not for them. Haven did not say what affect that had on the morale of their companies, but it must have created some doubt. The former Mormons were headed back east.

The first death recorded by Haven was a woman from the handcarts who became ill and was traveling in one of the wagons. She died on September 27.

On October 3, the wagons passed Chimney Rock. On October 4, the first death of a Hodgett wagons member was recorded by Haven at Scotts Bluff. Haven did not give a cause of death but stated the weather was very hot. The body was carried to Fort Laramie in Wyoming and buried on October 7. The wagon train then stayed near Fort Laramie for a couple days to do some trading and stock up on supplies. Haven traded for a new yoke of oxen and other members traded for cattle.

Fort Laramie was mostly a trading post. The wagon trains and handcart companies made some use of it, but the fort was not equipped to handle such a large number of unexpected travelers.

The pioneers were still having good weather when they were at Fort Laramie. Even so, some members decided to stay there. The temperatures of the nights were already taking a toll. The grim reaper was waiting for them on the trail ahead. Join us next month as we follow the trail across the Medicine Bow National Forest and on to Casper where the first wave of pioneers lost their lives.

Navigation: GPS Positions Due to space considerations, the entire track with 136 turns across Nebraska has not been included. Instead, we are including historical places and areas we consider to be the most scenic. These areas correspond with the photos in this story.
This log begins by going to the Elkhorn Crossing Recreation Area east of Fremont, Nebraska. The street intersection to get into the area is at Bennington Road and 252nd Street. That street is also called CR 92. Camping is available and one site has a pad for a big RV. Boat ramps and hiking are also there. Pit toilets are near the campsites. The following historic points have easy access.
Latitude Longitude Comments
N41 21.6570 W96 18.1155 Elkhorn Crossing. Camping available.
N41 26.5573 W97 44.1320 Pawnee Historic marker.
N41 24.2934 W97 50.6779 Pawnee Mission Site.
N40 50.6650 W98 28.4371 On the northwest corner of this intersection (Guenther and Alda) is a historical marker and hiking trail. Continue west on Guenther Road.

We are using numerous sources for this series, but our primary source has become other online references with stories written by those who were there. The Mormon Trail Revisited, written by Gregory M. Franzwa, was also helpful. For more information, including a GPS track across the state, visit or send an email to

This log will take a visitor through the most scenic area we found on the Handcart Trail. From Fullerton, Nebraska, go south on SR 14 and cross the bridge over the Loup River. The historical marker on the south side of the bridge marks the Loup River Crossing Camp. The directions below follow modern roads in a zigzag fashion, repeatedly crossing the original route, which traveled diagonally. Reset your trip meter anytime you see a mileage reading followed by /0.
Mileage Latitude Longitude Comments
0.0 N41 20.1884 W97 58.8733 This is the Loup River Crossing camp and historical marker.
1.0 N41 19.3357 W97 58.9994 Right on S. 570th Street. It goes west two miles then turns south for one mile.
4.1 N41 18.4762 W98 1.3025 Right on S. 580th Street. It goes west then south.
5.6 N41 18.0206 W98 2.4541 Right on S. 585th Street.
7.1 N41 17.6029 W98 3.5738 Right on S. 590th Street.
9.2 N41 16.7244 W98 4.7364 Right on S. 600th Street.
14.3 N41 25.8400 W98 9.3509 Right on X Road.
17.4 N41 14.9722 W98 11.6603 Right on W Road.
18.5/0 N41 14.9600 W98 12.8180 Left on 5th Road. This is the approximate location of the Elk Creek camp on April 26. From here, the trail goes due south on a minimal-maintenance road.
4.1/0 N41 12.3415 W98 13.9064 Left on 4th Road. At P Road, 4th Road becomes minimum maintenance.
6.1/0 N41 7.1407 W98 13.8710 Cross N Road. Back on graded gravel.
5.1 N41 2.7727 W98 13.8061 Left on I Road.
6.4 N41 2.7629 W98 12.3832 Right on 5th Road.
10.2/0 N40 59.5881 W98 12.3846 Cross U.S. 30.
1.3 N40 58.4146 W98 12.4315 Right turn. This road is not signed. TopoUSA calls it D Road.
2.3 N40 58.4266 W98 13.5204 Left on unsigned road. TopoUSA says this is 4th Road. It goes south then curves west.
4.2 N40 57.5516 W98 14.6712 Left turn. TopoUSA calls this 3rd Road. It becomes signed as Bismark road when it turns west.
10.4 N40.54.9407 W98 18.1138 Left on South Shady Bend Road.
12.5 N40 53.2229 W98 18.1116 Right on Highway 34.

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