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July 2013 - The Handcart Trail: Part 5

Posted in Events on July 19, 2013 Comment (0)
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July 2013 - The Handcart Trail: Part 5

In the last issue of this magazine, we ended the story at Martin's Cove in Wyoming. This is part five of our self-assigned mission to follow the trail that Butch Cassidy's mother traveled as a child across unsettled lands on the way to Salt Lake City. As we stood in the cove where so many died, we wondered what was going through the mind of 9-year-old Ann Gillies as she watched so many bodies laid to rest.

Ann was traveling with her mother, father, one older brother, and two younger brothers in a small covered wagon. There were 33 wagons included in the Hodgett Wagon Train. By the time they reached Martin's Cove, they had survived the most life-threatening weeks of their lives. Temperatures were below freezing with a mixture of blowing snow and howling winds. Their only shelter was the covered wagon with a canvas top. There was nowhere to hide.

The Hodgett Wagon Train and the Martin Handcart Company reached Martin's Cove on November 5, 1856, and the Hunt Wagon Train arrived soon after. On November 7, another storm hit and the temperature dropped to negative 11 degrees F. All three companies were stalled within sight of each other by the latest storm. In addition, supply wagons from Salt Lake City had arrived to provide food and assistance. In total, there were nearly 1,000 pioneers battling the weather near Martin's Cove in an attempt to stay alive.

Martin’s Cove is at the top center of this first photo above. The historical marker tells the story of many who died from lack of food and the freezing temperatures.

Until 1856, there was no name applied to the site that became known as Martin's Cove. The Devil's Gate landmark was used for reference in the diaries and an abandoned outpost called Fort Seminoe still had one small building standing. The blizzard continued day after day. Before they were able to resume their journey, the death toll had reached 145 people. Most of those were members of the Martin Handcart Company. The cove was named for them.

The rescue party from Salt Lake City called a meeting. Many of the handcart pioneers were too sick and weak to go any farther. As many wagons as were needed would be unloaded to make room for them. The items unloaded from the wagons were to be left in the building at Fort Seminoe. On November 9, the three companies left Martin's Cove. More than 20 wagons were carrying nothing but people. Even with the wagons to carry them, the death toll continued to rise.

The route used by the wagons between Martin's Cove and Ice Slough is now private property. It is not open to the public, but the trail between Ice Slough and Sixth Crossing is still very much like it was 150 years ago.

We used paved roads getting to Ice Slough. There are historical markers along the way for the Oregon Trail, Split Rock, and the Pony Express. Ice Slough also has a historical marker explaining that it was named due to layers of ice that could be found underground late into the summer. The ice was used for drinks and to preserve meat. The water table in the area is now much lower and there is no longer water to freeze.

The concrete markers serve multiple purposes. They mark the Mormon Trail, the California Trail, and the Oregon Trail. Many of them also mark the Pony Express Trail.

We turned off the pavement across the bridge from the marker where another sign explains the Ice Slough Riparian Pasture. The connection to the original trail passes through a gate at that point and then turns in a southwest direction. There is enough moisture in the slough to keep the grass and brush growing around it, so the trail can be difficult to see. The waypoint for the first trail marker is included in the navigation log at the end of this story. It might be best to find it on foot before doing it in the vehicle. Please do not drive around in the grass looking for the trail.

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The trail gets better as it nears Sixth Crossing and the Linford Monument. The trail gets better as it nears Sixth Crossing and the Linford Monument.

Once the slough is left behind, the trail becomes more prominent. Numerous historical markers help guide the way. When the combined companies of Hodgett, Hunt, and Martin used this trail, they were headed for the sixth crossing of the Sweetwater River. Because of the winding path the Sweetwater River takes through Wyoming, travelers crossed it six times. For the 1856 pioneers, they were breaking ice to cross the water on foot. When the Hodgett Wagons crossed for the sixth time on November 18, they did so in blowing snow and extremely cold weather.

Although messengers had surely warned them in advance, the sight at Sixth Crossing could not have been encouraging. There were many graves left by the Willie Handcart Company.

When the first storm hit the Hodgett Wagon Train at the river crossing in Casper, it also hit the Willie Handcart Company at the sixth crossing of the Sweetwater. The same rescue party that met the Martin Company at Horse Creek had already left supply wagons with the Willie Company at Sixth Crossing. The Willie Company lost a lot of their members, but not as many as the Martin Company.

There is no way to cross the river today at the original location. In fact, the brush is so thick that it takes a lot of work on foot just to get close enough for a look at it. The Mormon Church owns most of this area. Every year, they have handcart treks where visitors can have the experience of pulling a handcart along portions of the original trail. A large campground has been constructed for the trekkers along a major access road.

We used the access road to reach the highway and then used the bridge to cross the Sweetwater River. A new visitor’s center was being constructed on the east side of the river but was not yet finished. The original one on the west side of the river was in full operation. It contains a lot of information about Sixth Crossing and the hardships experienced by the 1856 pioneers.

Our story will continue in the next issue of this magazine as we follow the trail over South Pass and make our way to Fort Bridger.

Note: There are many versions of the story about the 1856 handcarts and wagon trains. We chose to base ours on the diaries left behind by those who were there. Historians debate the diaries and the events. If you hear different versions than what we told here, pick the one you like best and go with it.

We are using numerous sources for this series, but our primary source has become lds.org 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 lone-writer.com or email leh@lone-writer.com.

Navigation: GPS Positions
Trip Meter Latitude North Longitude West Comments
0 N42 26.5055 W107 13.1490 Martin’s Cove visitor center parking. Take the road with the fort on your left.
2.1 N42 26.3229 W107 15.5828 This is a marker telling a story about Martin’s Cove.
6.3 N42 24.5045 W107 19.4447 Turn right on Highway 220. There is a gas station at the intersection for Highway 287. This is the last chance for gas in this log. Take 287 to Jeffrey City Split Rock Café. Watch for historical markers.
0.0 N42 29.6406 W107 49.4946 Jeffrey City Split Rock Café. Good burgers. Reset trip meter and continue west.
9.8 N42 31.0491 W108 0.5266 Ice Slough Panel. From here, cross the wash and watch for a gate on the left.
10.0/0 N42 31.0729 W108 0.7722 The Mormon Trail crosses the highway near here. Go through the gate with the sign for Slough Riparian Pasture. This route begins as a very faint trail until it leaves the slough due to grass that grows very quickly.
0.6 N42 30.9311 W108 1.4634 First trail marker. The trail is easy to follow from here.
4.6 N42 30.9966 W108 5.9354 Continue straight through the intersections.
5.7 N42 30.8908 W108 7.1353 Although the trail continued straight, we must turn left at this marker to get around the fenced property.
6.1 N42 30.7768 W108 7.4081 Continue straight through the gate. Sign says close it. Follow the fence line as it makes a right turn and continue to the bottom of the hill.
6.4 N42 30.8451 W108 7.7113 Turn left at the bottom of the hill on the north side of the wash and you are back on the Mormon Trail. There is a gate in the fence at this point, but you go the other way.
7.3 N42 30.7669 W108 8.5903 Go through this gate and make a left. It is taking you around another fenced area where you will rejoin the trail. When the fence line turns left, continue straight, away from the fence.
7.7 N42 30.7241 W108 8.9522 Turn right. A trail marker is lying on the ground on the right. Continue straight at the intersection.
8.5 N42 30.8465 W108 9.8253 Cross this major county road and keep to the right side of the trail marker.
10.1 N42 30.7280 W108 11.7132 Take the right fork here and continue straight at the next intersection. This is the last leg to the Linford Monument located behind the fence line.
11.9/0 N42 30.5779 W108 13.6306 This is the Linford Monument at Sixth Crossing. Notice the faint remnant of the original trail behind the monument. Turn around and take the left fork going north to the paved highway. The new visitor’s center might be open.

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