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The Handcart Trail: Part 7 - Parting of the Ways

Posted in Events on October 2, 2013
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On November 18, 1856, the Hodgett Wagon Train camped at the last crossing of the Sweet Water River in Wyoming. The Hunt Wagon Train was camped nearby and the Martin Handcart Company was camped about 7 miles east of the river. Temperatures were below freezing and the ground was covered with snow.

Among those pioneers was a 9-year-old girl who would someday become the mother of Butch Cassidy. Ann Gillies was traveling with her family in a small covered wagon, only six people in a group of nearly 1,000 pioneers who were about to cross the Sweet Water River for the last time on the following day. That crossing would be a major milepost in their journey.

In the last issue of this magazine, we detoured to South Pass City to get around the private property at the Ninth Crossing, which is the last crossing. There was nothing at that location in 1856, but an outpost was built there a few years later and became known as Gilbert's Station. When the Pony Express came through, it was known as Upper Sweet Water Station and then South Pass Station. Soldiers were stationed there between 1862 and 1868 in an attempt to protect travelers from Indian attacks. When the soldiers left, the Indians burned it down and from that time on it has been known as Burnt Ranch. The ranch is now privately owned.

When the pioneers left their camp on November 19, the first thing they had to do was wade into and through the freezing water. Temperatures remained below freezing, so those who had wagons were spared some of the icy pain. Each wagon was packed full of others from the handcart company who were too sick or weak to continue pulling their handcarts.

This is the true Parting of the Ways. The right fork goes to Oregon by way of the Sublette Cutoff. The left fork goes to Fort Bridger where the trail splits again for Salt Lake Valley, California, and even a longer route to Oregon.

By using South Pass City as a detour route, we were able to reconnect to the handcart trail on the west side of Burnt Ranch. From there, we followed the route westbound on the same wagon trail used by Ann Gillies and the other pioneers.

The first landmark they passed was Twin Mounds and the second was Oregon Buttes. For the pioneers, each landmark was as significant as mileposts on a highway are to us. Everyone in the group knew how many miles they had to go based on which landmark they had reached. The next landmark was the crossing of the Continental Divide at South Pass and the last landmark of the day was Pacific Springs. They set up camp at that point while the sun set in the west.

Pacific Springs was a great place to camp in 1856 because of the availability of fresh water. Its name came from the fact that water from the springs was west of the divide and drained into the Pacific Ocean. A relay station was built there when the Pony Express was established. During the next few years, a town formed around the relay station that served the Pony Express and a stagecoach line. Pacific Springs became a well-used way station on the Oregon Trail. A few buildings from that time period are still standing, including one that an Internet reference calls the Pacific Springs Hotel. Staying there now might consist of sharing a bed with a cow. Pacific Springs is private property, so don't touch anything.

The trail continues west and crosses a road with access to the highway. If you choose to continue on the original route, it ends at that same highway facing a fence with no gate. Using the access road puts you on Highway 28 a short distance north of the roadside park with historical markers for the False Parting of the Ways.

In 1956, a marker was placed at this location, calling it the Parting of the Ways. That term was used to designate the point where wagon trains on the Oregon Trail split into two groups. Some took the right fork to Oregon and some took the left fork to Fort Bridger, where the wagons split up again. The only problem is, the marker was placed at the wrong fork. For that reason, it is now known as the False Parting of the Ways.

The 1856 pioneers in this story were simply following a well-defined road. It had been used for more than 40 years by wagon trains and other travelers. Today, it is a well-defined two-track trail used by explorers, ranchers, and hunters.

This marker was placed in 1956 to mark the Parting of the Ways. It was later discovered that the marker was at the wrong intersection, so it is now called the False Parting of the Ways.

We picked up the trail again on the southwest side of the roadside park. The route is marked with concrete posts to guide the way at intersections. The first landmark is Plume Rocks. Ann Gillies passed Plume Rocks on November 21. The temperature was 3 degrees below zero and the ground was covered in snow. Although there was no mention in the diaries about anyone dying, they did lose some cows to the elements.

Four additional wagons arrived on that day from Salt Lake. More of the handcart people left their carts behind and climbed into the wagons. The diaries describe a group of people whose only goal was to survive long enough to reach the shelters in Salt Lake Valley. Many were suffering from frostbite and would soon need to amputate fingers and toes. The biggest killer mentioned in the diaries was diarrhea. We can only guess the cause came from sanitary conditions caused by traveling with a group of nearly a thousand pioneers and all the livestock.

There was no mention of any serious illness among the Gillies family, but we have not located any diary written by the family. We are still using the diary written by the leader of the Hodgett Wagon Train.

The next day, November 22, the group reached the True Parting of the Ways. A historical marker has been placed at that location. Prior to the discovery of the right fork, now known as the Sublette Cutoff, the Oregon Trail continued southbound to Fort Bridger. Even after the cutoff was plotted, a lot of those bound for Oregon would choose the southern route because of lack of water on the cutoff. The route to Fort Bridger passed sources for fresh water every day.

In the next issue, we will continue our journey along the handcart trail and follow it to the Green River Crossing. Join us next time as we continue our story about the journey traveled by Butch Cassidy’s mother when she was only 9 years old.

Navigation: GPS Positions
From South Pass City, follow the signs to Highway 28. Turn left and continue southwest to a rest area. Continue past the rest area to the bridge over the Sweet Water River. Go eight-tenths of a mile to the waypoint below.
Trip Meter Latitude North Longitude West Comments
0 N42 22.3239 W108 54.5224 There is a sign for the Big Sandy Entrance to the Bridger Wilderness on the right. Turn left instead of right onto a gravel road. This is the first left past the bridge.
2.6/0 N42 20.7477 W108 52.2691 Watch for an information panel on the right at a point where a dirt road crosses the gravel road. That dirt road is the Oregon Trail. Turning left will take you to the west side of Burnt Ranch. Turn right to continue westbound on the trail.
0.2 N42 20.6778 W108 52.5033 Right fork.
N42 20.5934 W108 53.1353 This is South Pass at the Continental Divide.
2.6 N42 20.2635 W108 55.4216 Right fork.
3.4/0 N42 20.1029 W108 56.2856 Go right to visit Pacific Springs, and then come back to this waypoint.
5.6 N42 17.7398 W109 1.7601 Turn right on the gravel road.
5.9/0 N42 17.9263 W109 1.7681 Turn left on Highway 28. The trail crosses the highway just before the pullout for False Parting.
1.7/0 N42 17.0770 W109 3.5385 Pull into the historical pullout and drive to the walking gate with historical panels. The trail goes southwest from this pullout. To get on it, drive to the south end of the pullout. Get on the pavement long enough to make the right turn to the gate. Close it behind you.
0.0 N42 17.0352 W109 3.6047 Close the gate behind you. Turn left toward the marker.
1.9 N42 16.6977 W109 5.7921 Historical panel for Plume Rock.
3.6/0 N42 17.5605 W109 7.3943 Left fork after crossing the wash. Follow the marker posts.
0.9/0 N42 17.3257 W109 8.3479 The trail makes a jog at this point. First it goes left toward a Mormon Trail Marker, and then it turns right so the marker is on the left side of the vehicle.
4.9/0 N42 15.4625 W109 13.6137 This is the Parting of the Ways panel. The pioneers took the left fork toward Fort Bridger. The right fork is the Sublette Cutoff.

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. For more information, including a GPS track across the state, visit or email

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