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The Handcart Trail: Part 3

Posted in Events on May 3, 2013
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We ended part II of the Handcart Trail story in the April issue of this magazine at Fort Laramie, Wyoming. We had been following the path taken by Butch Cassidy's mother, Ann Gillies, who was 9 years old when her parents chose to emigrate from Scotland. They took a ship across the ocean and a train from Boston to Iowa City, but traveling half way around the world was easy compared to this last leg of the journey. They were a part of the Hodgett Wagon Train in a wilderness within the United States that was still designated as a territory. That wagon train was following behind the Martin Handcart Company and ahead of the Hunt Wagon Train. When members of the handcart company became ill, they were frequently moved into one of the wagons so the group could continue moving.

The Hodgett Wagon Train and the Martin Handcart Company arrived at Fort Laramie on October 7, 1856, and thousands of church members had passed by that fort during the previous nine years. The trail was well established, but none of those groups had arrived at Fort Laramie so late in the year. Although the members of the Handcart Company and the Wagon Train were warned to wait out the winter in Winter Quarters, they ignored those warnings. That decision had already left many of them buried beside the trail by the time they arrived at the fort.

The man in charge of the Hodgett Wagon Train, Jesse Haven, wrote a letter to Brigham Young while still at the fort. In that letter, he stated that the Wagon Train had lost two of its members and the Handcart members were dying daily. He did not know the exact number of deaths but guessed it was between 20 and 30.

There has been a lot of reconstruction and preservation work on the buildings at Fort Laramie. Several of them are furnished and a brochure is available in the gift shop with a map and descriptions of what the buildings were used for.

There are numerous buildings standing at Fort Laramie. Each one has a panel describing what the building was used for. The visitor center has a map with other helpful information.

The fort came into existence in 1834 with the name of Fort William. It was intended as a privately owned outpost to supply travelers and to trade with the Indians. The first white women to spend time at the fort were missionaries who arrived in 1836. By the time the Gillies family arrived in 1856, white women were no longer an unusual part of any traveling group. In 1849, the U.S. government purchased the fort, making it a military post.

The Martin Handcarts were the first to leave the fort. The Hodgett Wagon Train left on October 9, close behind the handcarts. The Hunt Wagon Train arrived at Fort Laramie as the Hodgett Train was leaving.

In the first four days of travel, the Hodgett Train lost two more members to sickness. The weather was wet and cloudy during the day and very cold at night. No one in the Martin Handcarts kept a daily journal or a record of deaths. We have found some memoirs written by various members, so we compared them to the Jesse Haven Journal and the journal from an unknown author in the Hunt Wagon Train to obtain a broader mental image of what those pioneers went through.

At first, we thought the handcarts and wagons followed the Brigham Young trail between Fort Laramie and Casper, which traveled near the Medicine Bow National Forest, but thanks to the references mentioned above, we now know these three companies stayed close to the North Platte River. There are two instances where they mentioned crossing the river prior to the last crossing, east of Casper. The daily mileage logs from the wagon trains indicate those may have been the same river crossings used by I-25 today.

We left the fort and chose roads that kept us close to the river. Our first stop was the grave of Mary Elizabeth Homsley. She died after her wagon overturned while crossing the North Platte River near the fort.

Mary Elizabeth Homsley gave birth to a child while crossing Nebraska. She and the child came down with measles. Her party attempted to cross the North Platte looking for medical help at Fort Laramie when the wagon carrying her overturned, throwing her and the infant into the river. They were rescued but both died as a result.

The next stop was Register Cliff where the signatures of more than 700 pioneers can be found. Just past the historical site is more rock cliffs filled with signatures from the past. One of those signatures was John A. Mathis, dated June 10, 1856. That meant he was there five months before the Gillies family and the Hodgett Wagon Train, but we did not find his name on the roster for handcarts that went through in June. LDS records have a listing for John Mathis designated as travel date unknown. That might be the same guy.

The most interesting stop was at the Oregon Trail Ruts State Historic Site. It was a point where pioneers avoided the river by crossing sandstone rocks. The wagons and teams wore a path into the rocks that is four feet deep in places.

PhotosView Slideshow

From the ruts, we chose back roads that kept us as close to the river as possible. The dirt and gravel eventually connected to a paved road that ran fairly close to northbound I-25. We passed a marker for the Horseshoe Creek Pony Express Station. It was built about four years after the Gillies family passed that point.

Rather than take I-25 to Casper, we decided to stay closer to the 1847 route used by Brigham Young the first time he went to the Salt Lake Valley. A short distance past the Pony Express marker, we crossed under I-25 on South Horseshoe Creek Road. That road connects to Forest Road 633 and enters Medicine Bow National Forest, then follows Esterbrook Road to Douglas, Wyoming. It proved to be a very scenic way to connect the dots. Although it did not follow in the tracks of the wagons, it did cross the trail a few times.

The road through Medicine Bow National Forest is scenic, but the roads are closed in the winter.

From Douglas, Wyoming, we finished the trail to Evansville, located on the east side of Casper, using I-25. A French mountain man named John Baptiste Richard (aka Reshaw) built a bridge over the North Platte River in 1856-the same year the Gillies family crossed the river. Today, the bridge is in a park and is named The Reshaw Bridge. That name may not have been so well known in 1856 since one journal calls it Fort Bridge. An outpost of soldiers was positioned at the bridge for the purpose of protecting it from anyone who would damage it. History refers to them as Fort Clay and Camp Davis. All three companies arrived at the bridge on October 19 but did not use it.

The Hunt Wagon journal wrote, "We passed Fort Bridge about noon and camped at 2 p.m. on the fording place." If they were averaging about two miles per hour, that would put them near the point where the Mormon Ferry once operated. Some references say they crossed at Bessemer Bend, but that was 20 miles from the bridge. If the wagons passed the bridge at noon, they could not have made it to the bend by 2 p.m.

The Hodgett Wagons were camped at Deer Creek (Glenrock, Wyoming) on the morning of the 18th and were at the river ford on the 19th. That is a distance of about 25 to 30 miles. Getting to Bessemer Bend would have been another 20 miles, and traveling 50 miles in two days would have been an impossible task, so the Bessemer Bend story just doesn't pass the test.

Based on the journals, the fording place was about four miles past the bridge. There is no explanation in the journals as to why the bridge was bypassed, but the most logical explanation is they could not pay the toll, which ranged from $1.50 to $5 for each wagon or handcart. An inflation calculator on the net says $3 in 1856 would be like $74 today. The choice they made was between walking across a bridge and wading across a nearly frozen river in waist-deep water. It was a decision that resulted in many deaths.

In 1856, there was nothing at Fort Caspar. The Mormon Ferry had been closed when the Reshaw Bridge was built, and the military did not begin construction of Fort Caspar until 1862. Join us next month as we pick up our story at the river where the pioneers of 1856 waded into the jaws of death.

Navigation: GPS Positions
Latitude Longitude Comments
N42 12.2418 W104 33.5056 Fort Laramie.
N42 13.3229 W104 33.9888 Mary Elizabeth Homsley's grave.
N42 14.8652 W104 42.6920 Register Cliff.
N42 14.7343 W104 43.1553 The rocks on the left have lots of signatures.
N42 15.4788 W104 44.5437 Turn left and follow signs to Deep Ruts Park.
N42 15.6160 W104 45.1573 Lucinda Rollins' Grave.
N42 28.2905 W105 1.6646 Horseshoe Creek Pony Express Station.
N42 24.7107 W105 21.7402 Stop sign in Esterbrook.
N42 37.6338 W105 23.6071 Oregon Trail concrete marker.
N42 50.1544 W106 22.2761 Fort Caspar.

We are using numerous sources for this series, but our primary source has become and other online references with stories written by those who were there. The Mormon Trail Revisited, written by Gregory M. Franzwa, was also helpful. Memoirs for the Martin Handcart Company were taken from a book by Bynne Slater Turner, titled Emigrating Journals of the Willie and Martin Handcart Companies and the Hunt and Hodgett Wagon Trains. For more information, including a GPS track across the state, visit or email

PhotosView Slideshow
Fort Caspar has been reconstructed so visitors can see how it looked.

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