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June 2013 - The Handcart Trail: Part IV

Posted in Events on June 30, 2013
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In the last issue of this magazine, we ended part three of the series with nearly 1,000 pioneers preparing to cross the North Platte River on October 19, 1856. The Hodgett Wagon Train with 150 people was the first to cross. The Hunt Wagon Train with more than 300 people made camp and did not cross on that day. The Martin Handcart Company with about 500 people was the last to arrive at the crossing, but they wasted no time pulling their handcarts into the icy river. They had all arrived at the crossing near present-day Casper, Wyoming, on the same day.

This is part four of our story following Butch Cassidy's mother across unsettled lands on the way to Salt Lake City. Her name was Ann Gillies. She was 9 years old on that day at the river and was traveling with her mother, father, one older brother, and two younger brothers. Their journey began when they left their home in Scotland five months earlier to join other members of the Mormon Church in the new settlement called Salt Lake City. The last 1,000 miles of that journey would prove to be the most dangerous of all.

The road following the original Handcart Trail offers scenic views in the area called Emigrant Gap. The road is unpaved and could be somewhat of a challenge in heavy rain or snow.

The Gillies family was much better off than the hundreds with nothing for shelter but the tents in their handcarts. They had their own covered wagon pulled by a team of oxen and were part of the Hodgett Wagon Train. It was the first to cross the river. They traveled about three miles and set up camp. In the diaries written by various members in the three companies, comments about the weather were very different. Members in the wagons considered the winter storm not all that bad, but the handcart people saw it as life threatening.

The Martin Handcart Company was the last to arrive but did not hesitate before entering the water. At about that same time, the wind picked up and the temperature dropped below freezing. Five hundred people walked into the river pulling their handcarts toward the other side, and some of them crossed the river several times to help others who were lagging behind.

They were soaking wet in temperatures below freezing made worse by a howling wind, snow, and sleet. They had no place to hide and no place to dry their clothes or warm their bodies. They set up their tents on the frozen ground and crawled inside to get out of the wind.

On the morning of the 20th, the storm continued. Some woke up beside the cold bodies of their frozen family members. The body count began that first night. One reference put the death toll at 13.

The Hodgett Wagons continued moving even though it snowed all day. The Hunt Wagons waited until the 22nd to cross the river but went no farther on that day. The handcarts had no shelter, so keeping on the move was their only choice. They left the wagon trains behind and continued their journey.

In the past, Willow Springs was a plush oasis in dry lands. Travelers wrote about cottonwood trees, willow trees, and a variety of flowers. There were four springs with cool, good-tasting water that bubbled out of the ground. This is the last of the willow trees and it will soon be gone, as well.

By October 28, the Martin Handcart Company had lost 56 people to the elements. They were camped at Horse Creek and many of them felt too weak to continue. Then someone spotted three riders coming toward them in the distance. Those riders were scouts ahead of supply wagons from the Salt Lake Valley. A renewed determination spread through the camp when they were told the supply wagons were a few days ahead of them. The riders then rode off in search of the wagon trains.

As we followed the unpaved road through Emigrant Gap and stopped for lunch at Willow Springs on a clear September day with mild temperatures, the knowledge of what happened there in October of 1856 was enough to dampen the mood. On that date, the pioneers saw nothing but blowing snow and all they felt was the howling wind. They pushed, pulled, and tugged their handcarts over the hills toward Willow Springs. Those springs were natural sources of clear water in those days, but in modern times they are reduced to a trickle. A lone willow tree still marks the location, but it has died and is gradually returning to dust.

The Hodgett and Hunt wagons were camped a short distance from each other and still near the river crossing when the riders from the Salt Lake Valley found them. After a short visit, the riders left instructions to keep moving. In 10 days or less, they would meet the supply wagons coming from the valley.

The wagon trains were losing their oxen to the elements. They butchered some that had succumbed to the freezing temperatures and lack of grass to eat. Although the meat was welcomed, it meant some wagons no longer had a team. Those families doubled up with other families and left their wagons behind.

On November 2, the Hodgett Wagons passed Independence Rock and found the Martin Handcarts stopped there. The two companies traveled together and ended their day at Devil's Gate. They found 10 supply wagons from the valley waiting for them. There was nearly a foot of snow on the ground.

Independence Rock is now a state park. A rest area with numerous historical signs has tables for picnics and a hiking trail that circles the rock formation. There is also an access road for high-clearance vehicles that ends behind the rock where a small monument has been built.

The Hodgett Wagons were still at Devil's Gate when the Hunt Wagons arrived on November 5. The Martin Handcarts had made camp in Martin's Cove to wait out the latest storm. They were about four miles ahead of the wagons. On the 7th, the temperature dropped to 11 degrees below zero, and snow continued to fall and accumulated to more than a foot deep.

The valley continued to monitor the progress of the companies using riders who traveled back and forth from the valley. Supply wagons continued to roll out of the valley on a course to intercept the companies on the high plains. The condition of all the travelers was critical and many of them were still dying every day. The worst were those pulling handcarts, but the weather was taking its toll on the wagons, too. The overall death toll was more than 100.

We did not find any records of a death in the Gillies family. Even so, it is difficult to imagine the mental anguish a 9-year-old girl would experience living with so many daily burials.

The Mormon Church manages Martin's Cove as a historical monument to their ancestors. Every summer, handcart trips are sponsored for youthful members. They dress in period clothing and pull handcarts across parts of the original trail. In doing so, they experience some of the hardships their ancestors endured without facing a threat to their lives.

Join us next month as we continue the trail over the South Pass and across the high plains to Fort Bridger.


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. 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

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