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The Handcart Trail: Part 6 - Sixth Crossing to South Pass City

The Handcart Tail
Larry E. Heck | Writer
Posted July 29, 2013

Sixth Crossing to South Pass City

We stood beside an isolated monument in a part of Wyoming that has remained unsettled since the beginning of time. From that vantage point, nothing from modern civilization was within view. We studied the single winding path that snaked its way from the river in the valley below to the top of the hill where the monument had been placed. That path first came into existence in 1812 when the Pacific Fur Company used it to avoid Indian warriors on the usual route. It is not difficult to imagine a string of wagons and handcarts trudging uphill on that historical trail across a blanket of snow.

In the last issue of this magazine, we ended the story at Sixth Crossing in Wyoming. This is part six of our self- assigned mission to follow the trail Butch Cassidy's mother traveled as a child across unsettled lands on the way to Salt Lake City. Thanks to the wisdom of Wyoming public land managers in leaving most of the original trail open to motorized traffic, that historical trail across the state still remains unclaimed by the forces of nature. In other states, the trail has either faded away due to closure or has been converted to a modern road.

It was November 16, 1856, when Butch Cassidy's future mother passed the Willie Rescue Site Monument where we were standing. Ann Gillies was traveling with her family in a small covered wagon. There were nearly 1,000 pioneers in the group made up of two wagon trains, one handcart company, and numerous wagons in the Salt Lake rescue party. The number of handcarts in the group was gradually decreasing as their owners became unable to pull them farther. Those people were riding in the wagons.

Following the handcart trail between Sixth Crossing and the Willie Monument includes crossing a short section of the Sweetwater River Project. There were no signs found when entering from the east; however, there was a sign facing the other way at the property exit that said, “Visitors Welcome by Advance Permission.” We called the phone number on that sign several times and tried all available options in the menu, but none of those options reached anyone.

The Mormon Trail continues west from that sign, but access ends at the east property line of a private ranch. Getting around that ranch involves using the access road for the Sweetwater River Project. It avoids the ranch by using a winding path across BLM land to a county road. We crossed that county road and used another winding road that intersected the original trail near the monument where this part of the story began. It is possible to backtrack the original trail from that intersection to the west side of the same private ranch. The original trail stayed close to the river until it climbed the hill to the point where the monument is placed.

We were following the only road that had connected the Willie Monument to South Pass across Wyoming in 1856. Unfortunately, the BLM in Wyoming has given in to those who want all roads closed. It is no longer possible to follow the trail across the public land that connects the Willie Monument to Rocky Ridge. Closing that two-mile section means a 10-mile detour must be taken to get to the trail west of Rocky Ridge. It also means that most of us have been locked out of Rocky Ridge and the historical signs that were placed there many years ago.

Rocky Ridge was a major obstacle for the pioneers. The sharp rocks damaged the hooves of the teams and the wheels on the wagons. When Ann Gillies and her family crossed the ridge on November 16, 1856, it was blanketed with ice and snow. Walking across it beside the wagon without slipping and falling down was very likely challenging. Those in the group who were still pulling handcarts had to help each other with some pulling and some pushing.

From Rocky Ridge, the trail is an easy drive in a 4x4. Grass is growing between the tracks in many places and the ruts are deep, so high clearance is a must. Much of this area is used several times a year for handcart treks. Those treks are primarily designed for young Mormons who would like to experience how their ancestors got to Utah. Of course, they will never experience the hardships like those who crossed Wyoming in 1856, and they would never want to. Every day of the 1856 trip included burials of those who could go no farther.

Rock Creek Hollow is another historical point on the Mormon Trail. It is actually dedicated to the Willie Handcart Company, which camped at that point on October 24. They lost 13 people during that freezing night and two more before leaving camp the next day. When the Hodgett and Hunt wagons passed by on November 18, they found a mass grave containing those bodies. Their diaries did not mention spending any time there.

The trail between Rock Creek and the last (ninth) crossing of the Sweetwater River cannot be followed across private lands. The easiest way to get around that private property and cross the river is to follow the signs to South Pass City.

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