Following the Handcart Trail into Wyoming
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.
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.
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.