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July 2013 - The Handcart Trail: Part 5

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Larry E. Heck | Writer
Posted July 19, 2013

Surviving the Blizzards of 1856

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.

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.

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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