Following the Handcart Trail Across Nebraska
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.