MARTINS COVE, WYO. — Each bearing the name of an honored ancestor who suffered or perished along the Mormon handcart trail in 1856, descendants of the Martin Handcart Company — and some of the Salt Lake Valley rescuers who aided them — gathered Friday and Saturday on the windswept high plains of central Wyoming.
The Martin's Cove Historic site, operated by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, has for years been a destination point for a sort of pilgrimages by groups of youth and other members of the Church. They come to pull handcarts in honor of those who suffered from mid-October onward in 1856, victims of a late departure and early winter storms.
But organizer Chad Wright said this is the first time, to his knowledge, that such a handcart trek has been planned specifically for descendants of the Martin Company and their rescuers. Some 140 people responded after hearing of the planned reunion in online ads and an article in the LDS Church News. Including LDS missionaries at the historic site, who themselves are Martin handcart company descendants, the total amounted to about 160.
Wright hopes in a few years to organize a similar reunion for Willie Handcart Company descendants, who likewise suffered at the same time as the Martin group but for whom the more memorable locale is Rocky Ridge, to the west of Martin's Cove.
Reunion-goers ranged across the generations: babes in arms, teenagers, parents and grandparents.
Across the three-mile dusty route from the visitors center to Cherry Hill campground, they pulled carts laden with plastic buckets containing personal belongings.
They square-danced, played tug-of-war and other pioneer games, listened to tales of heroism and sacrifice. They slogged across the shallow Sweetwater River in remembrance of ancestors who were obliged ford its icy waters in November, having spent four days and five nights sheltering in the cove for which the historic site is named.
Typical of the participants was the family of Richard and Elizabeth Wright of West Jordan and their six children (no relation to Chad).
A few weeks ago, they were in a theater watching the movie "17 Miracles," which chronicles the Martin trek. A picture of James Godson Bleak came on the screen.
"My wife said, 'I think I'm related to that guy.' " Internet research confirmed that fact.
Later, Elizabeth saw the story in the Church News about the planned reunion. She said, "I really want to do this."
They had only two weeks to prepare, but the Wrights are veterans of two commemorative handcart treks, one at Martin's Cove where they were a "ma and pa" for a youth group. They registered, and, as it turned out, the reunion needed volunteers, so Wright found himself assigned as a company captain.
From her childhood, Leta Greene was ingrained with the understanding of how fortunate she was to have Mormon pioneer ancestry, including Martin handcart pioneers. When her mother, Charlotte Maughan learned of the reunion at Martin's Cove she got her husband, Monty, Leta and Leta's husband, Nathan, involved.
In frail health, Charlotte knew she would not be doing any trekking, but she wanted to come to the site and be as close as she could, probably remaining at the visitors center.
But a female missionary serving at the site told Leta on Friday, "Tomorrow, I will be a rescuer instead of trekking, and I will take her from location to location."
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"When I went and told my mom," she didn't just cry; she broke down and sobbed, and said 'I never thought I'd get to see it,'" Leta recounted .
Sitting in a wheel chair fashioned as a handcart — resembling a rickshaw — Charlotte was transported by her family members up the steep trail to the cove, which Mormons, especially Martin handcart descendents, regard as sacred ground.
Later, guided by the protective arms of her husband, Charlotte waded across the Sweetwater.