Faith and determination are commemorated at this historic location southwest of Casper where religious group members faced a tragic crisis as they traveled west.
By Glenn and Maxine Bamburg
The scenic beauty of Devil’s Gate in south-central Wyoming belies the 1856 tragedy that struck members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints headed west over the Mormon Pioneer Trail. The primitive road, carved into the wilderness by cartwheels and trudging footsteps, ran adjacent to the Oregon Trail, which carried nearly 400,000 emigrants westward during the mid-1800s.
Today travelers find the stone landmark 60 miles southwest of Casper on State Route 220. Back then, people knew that Devil’s Gate was one of the prominent landmarks marking the way to a new life in the unsettled West. At this point, the Sweetwater River slices through a granite ridge, forming a 370-foot chasm. The difference between this and other similar formations is that, at the top, the gap between the cliffs is 400 feet wide, narrowing down to 30 feet at the bottom. It proved a convenient resting spot for weary pilgrims to pause in the peaceful little vale and allow cattle, oxen, horses, and mules to drink their fill. Sadly, stories in old journals tell of those foolhardy individuals who climbed the cliffs only to slip and fall to their deaths on the rocks below.
The Mormon Handcart Visitors’ Center is just west of the rocky outcropping. There, an 1872 log ranch house is part of a 2,000-square-foot museum and visitors center, which has five rooms filled with exhibits, displays, and artifacts that relate the history of Martin’s Cove, the Western migration, and the handcart pioneers. Plenty of RV parking is available, and guided tours are free.
The ranch was established by Tom de Beau Soliel, who settled in the Sweetwater valley in 1860 and constructed his first cabin of logs felled from the river’s banks in 1872. Purchased in 1996 by the Mormon church, the rambling, L-shaped structure and outbuildings reveal the consequences of two groups of church members who became stranded in this area as they journeyed West.
The travelers were Europeans who had made the first leg of their 1856 pilgrimage by ship from Liverpool, England. Upon arriving in America, they purchased train fare to where the railroad ended at Iowa City, Iowa. Once there, they learned the promised handcarts in which they planned to transport their goods west were not yet ready. (Handcarts were a less expensive alternative to covered wagons, pulled by teams of oxen, which most pioneers used.) Instead, these travelers were given carts hastily constructed of unseasoned wood. And, despite being warned by someone in their own religious group that it was far too late in the season to depart, they left anyway. The Willie and Martin companies started what would be a 1,300-mile trek in mid- to late July.
The handcarts looked like oversized wheelbarrows. They were approximately 6 feet long, 4 feet wide, and 5 feet deep. They could hold 400 to 500 pounds of clothing, food, and other provisions. Two people, usually father and son, pulled the carts; sometimes, one man hauled the entire thing.
Problems surfaced immediately as the unstable transports began to warp and crack in the dry summer heat of the plains. As some carts broke down beyond repair, the group redistributed their precious cargo among those remaining until these loads proved too heavy. In an ironic twist of fate, just days prior to reaching Devil’s Gate, the loads were reduced to 10 pounds of flour per man, nine pounds per woman, and six pounds per child. In another drastic move, the carts were unburdened of the very clothing, food, and blankets these pioneers would so desperately need in the deadly future.
As the Martin Company traveled across south-central Wyoming, an early blizzard blew in on October 19. Without funds to pay the toll over Reshaw Bridge, many forded the North Platte River near Casper, which caused numerous deaths between the river crossing and a sheltered area now known as Martin’s Cove. In the most simple of burials, the bodies were wrapped in sheets, lowered into shallow graves along the trail, and covered with stones to discourage marauding wolves.
When word of the company’s fate was received in Salt Lake City, rescuers were immediately dispatched. Their November 1 arrival coincided with temperatures ranging from 11 to 14 degrees below zero. It was decided to move across the river to Martin’s Cove, where they camped for nine days before additional rescuers arrived with food and warm clothing. A total of 56 people from the Martin Company died at the cove from exposure and related illnesses. The survivors continued onward, fully aware of the hand of Providence in their journey through this strange, new land they had chosen to call home.
A total of 67 members of the Willie Handcart Company perished before the group arrived in Salt Lake City on November 9, 1856. The Martin Handcart Company lost an astounding 145 pilgrims before reaching their destination at the end of November. Many more of them lost limbs or extremities from frostbite, while others suffered for the remainder of their lives from a variety of physical impairments.
The Mormon Handcart Visitors’ Center lets you experience a handcart trek much like the one these pioneers endured. Replicas of the handcarts are available for use. During the summer months, hundreds of devoted church members arrive at the center, dressed in period clothing and eager to pull the carts just as their ancestors did before them. A bridge allows easy crossing of the river to the two-mile-long trail adjacent to the Sweetwater rocks, with frequent rest stops and informational markers.
Visitors also can hike out to Martin’s Cove. It’s less than two miles (handicapped access provided) away from a reconstructed trading post where Charles Lajuenesse profited from trail travelers and local Indians from 1852 to 1855. Through the use of magnetometer surveys in 2001 (and digging), the archaeological department of the University of Wyoming ascertained the exact location of that U-shaped trading post called Seminoe’s Fort. Numerous artifacts were uncovered during excavations of the burned outpost, including the discovery of a large U.S. penny of a type minted between 1840 and 1856, broken bottles, buttons, and small tinkler bells often worn by those who ventured into bear country.
Lajeunesse had abandoned the fort the year before the church members came through on their journey, and its hull served as a shelter during their winter ordeal. Because of its importance in the handcart saga, the fort has been reconstructed to exact specifications by the church. Displays there include the store as it might have appeared in 1852 when stocked with trade items and trail necessities.
Once you’ve explored this area, head five miles east to see another famous landmark for those who journeyed west by handcarts or covered wagons. Independence Rock, according to one legend, was formed after explorer Jim Bridger threw a stone across the Sweetwater River “” and it grew until it became the huge granite monolith it is today. Mountain man William Sublette gave the rock its name when he led the first wagon train of 80 pioneers across the overland route on July 4, 1830. Pioneers poured down the trail for the next several years, and the rock became a type of milepost. Its name is significant, because wagon trains scheduled their arrival at this point by the Fourth of July to assure a safe crossing of the mountains before winter set in.
Early-day graffiti on the rock includes hundreds of names and dates that are still visible, chipped and carved into the surface of the massive stone; the earliest is believed to be that of M.K. Hugh in 1824. Father Peter J. DeSmet appropriately deemed Independence Rock the “Register of the Desert,” as many emigrants used it to keep track of friends and relatives traveling with other wagon trains. A few brave souls attempted to build a settlement near the rock, mistakenly believing they could inhabit a small town here in the wilderness. But the fledgling city faded into obscurity, leaving no trace of its existence.
There is no camping available at the visitors center or Independence Rock, but motorhomers are welcome in lakeside campsites at Alcova Reservoir and Pathfinder Reservoir, a few miles east on State Route 220. Both of these beautiful lakes offer boating, fly-fishing, nature trails, swimming, wildlife viewing, and other water recreation.
Pathfinder Reservoir, approximately 23 miles east of the Mormon Handcart Visitors’ Center and south on County Road 408, boasts one of the first dams constructed by the Bureau of Reclamation and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Constructed between 1905 and 1909, the masonry dam was a major engineering feat for its time. Three campgrounds and three boat ramps offer prime access to this historically scenic waterway where rainbow trout, brown trout, cutthroat trout, and walleye are stocked on a regular basis. A few miles farther east on State Route 220 brings you to Alcova Reservoir, where full-hookup camping is also available. This lake, at an elevation of 5,500 feet, offers rainbow and brown trout, as well as walleyes. The complex also has propane sales, a convenience store, boat rentals, and a restaurant. Call before you camp to check details such as coach length limits, hookup availability, and more. The phone number for both Alcova Reservoir and Pathfinder Reservoir is (307) 235-9325.
As you travel east on State Route 220, the rutted tracks left by the thousands of wagons traveling the Oregon Trail are visible in the grasslands along either side of the highway, their faint indentations designated by narrow white markers. They are fading reminders of the pioneers who crossed these plains; drank from these rivers; suffered; and sometimes perished in their efforts to reach their destination.
Mormon Handcart Visitors’ Center
47600 W. State Route 220
Alcova, WY 82620
The center is open daily from 8:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m. from mid-May to Labor Day, and 9:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. the remainder of the year. Admission is free. A related Web site is www.handcart.com, which contains more information about the handcart pioneers.
Casper Area Convention & Visitors Bureau
992 N. Poplar St.
Casper, WY 82601