CASPER, Wyo. With the 150th anniversary celebration of the LDS Church's handcart pioneers scheduled in the coming days, new details are emerging about the location of the tragic events that befell the ill-fated 1856 Willie and Martin handcart companies.
Research by Mormon Trail historians presented during the annual Mormon History Association conference here on Saturday suggests that some events long believed to have taken place at both Martin's Cove and Rock Creek, Wyo., actually occurred at different points along the trail.
Questions also arose about how many people actually died among the Martin Handcart Company.
Gary Long, with the Bureau of Land Management in Cheyenne, said he has spent "much of my free time and some of my work time" during the past 14 years investigating the history of what occurred where along the Mormon Trail. His duties include the planning and design of interpretive sites and historical markers for the BLM.
Journal entries from William Woodward, clerk for the Willie Handcart Company, along with those of Levi Savage, members of the rescue party and remembrances of Capt. James Willie, "show definitively" that a place called Sixth Crossing was the rescue site for that group, he said. Historians have debated the rescue location.
The LDS Church has established a small welcome center at Sixth Crossing, which is about an hour's drive from Martin's Cove. The center includes a staging ground for handcarts used by groups of visitors most of them Latter-day Saints who come to pull the carts on trails that lead to Rocky Ridge and Rock Creek as a remembrance of the faith and courage of emigrants.
Long also said that "stories over the years have placed the (Willie company) camp (after crossing Rocky Ridge) at Rock Creek." The LDS Church has purchased property at Rock Creek and erected a monument there, memorializing 15 company members who were said to have died and been buried there.
But Long said he has found "no evidence those pioneers were buried there. But there is strong evidence that the camp site and burial place is the confluence of Rock Creek and the Sweetwater River," near Willow Creek.
The LDS monument was placed at Rock Creek in the mid 1990s after the leadership of the Riverton Wyoming Stake put together a project to do LDS temple ordinances for members of the Willie and Martin companies. As part of that project, dubbed "the Second Rescue," they arranged for placement of the monument, which has long been believed to be the site of the Willie company burials.
Lyndia Carter, a trails historian who is writing a book about the Martin company, said traditional accounts of that company's tragic events "often collapse six weeks" of starvation, hypothermia and death "into five days and four nights at Martin's Cove. That's only part of a much bigger picture," she said.
Much of the tragedy for the Martin company which was weeks behind the Willie company and not traveling with them began at Fort Laramie, far east of Martin's Cove, and greatly intensified through the last crossing of the North Platte River at a place called Red Buttes, above Bessemer Bend.
According to journal accounts from initial rescue party members, the emigrants stayed at Bessemer Bend for a few days, where the suffering and death was protracted, before being pushed forward toward Devil's Gate near Martin's Cove.
"It's enough to say that much of what has been attributed the last 80 years to happening at Martin's Cove really happened before" the emigrants arrived there, she said. "The misunderstanding is understandable," because both Martin's Cove and Bessemer Bend were intensely cold and there were many deaths at both places."
"The parallels are striking," she said, adding "the error is not acceptable, nor does it have to be permanent."
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