Wednesday, August 15, 2012

2012 Wyoming--Martin's Cove--Pioneer Trek

Handcart at Martin's Cove

About six months ago, Chimene and I were called into the church offices.  Now when that happens, it either means you're in trouble or they want you to do something.  I'm too old to get into too much trouble, so I figured they wanted me to do something.  I was not wrong.  I was also not disappointed.  Shane Wasden asked Chimene and I if we would be willing to function as a "Ma and Pa" on the Martin's Cove Trek.  We agreed immediately.

The Martin's Cove Trek is an event held by different congregations in our church that commemorate the ill fated Martin and Willie Handcart Companies of 1856 on their journey to Utah.  In the Trek, we reenact in pioneer garb, a few of the events along the handcart trail, along with devotionals where we learn about the pioneers that made the journey.  It is an intense "teambuilding" experience that I would recommend to anyone.

Over the next six months, we went to several sessions where we were taught how to be a "Ma and a Pa", and what to expect.  Every detail was planned out way in advance.  More on this later.

I've pondered long and hard about how to post about this trip.  I can't really do this subject justice unless I talk a little about Mormon History.  I won't use this post to talk about Mormon Theology, though.  I have decided that the sections dedicated to history will be in italics and the sections dedicated to the trip will be in regular type.  I will mingle these two types of sections and intersperse photos where appropriate.

Day One
On Thursday, August 2nd, we arrived at the church at 5 AM to board the busses to take us the eight hours to Martin's Cove in Wyoming.  We had a short meeting to guide us on the next few steps, then we met our Trek Family.  Over the years, the church leaders have discovered that it makes the trek more difficult if you place siblings in the same family, or children with their real parents.  Our son Haydn was a participant on the Trek but he was not a part of our Trek Family.  We were assigned three daughters and three sons to help us pull the handcart along the Mormon Trail.  During the bus ride, it was our responsibility to get to know our Trek Family and learn about them and who they were walking for.  Each of us had chosen to walk for a pioneer ancestor.

Boarding the busses

Some members of our Trek Family

Because of tensions with their neighbors, the early Mormons desired to find a home where they would be free to worship as they wished and as guaranteed by the United States Constitution.  A right that had been denied them.  From the founding of the church in 1830 until 1847, the members of the church had been forced from their homes in five states starting in New York, then Ohio, Pennsylvania, Missouri and Illinois.

My great grandfather, Moroni Benson wrote in his personal history that he remembered as a small boy in Missouri that a friendly non-Mormon neighbor ran to their house to warn them to flee because the mob was coming to kill them.  It was in the middle of winter and all they had time to take was a blanket.  He remembered hiding in the thicket, watching an armed mob ransack their home, loot it of all valuables and then burn it to the ground.  In an instant he was homeless in mid-winter.

The governor of the state of Missouri issued the infamous "Extermination Order" which commanded the milita to expel the Mormons from the state or exterminate them.  The official order was not rescinded until 1976, by the way.

After the muder of Joseph Smith Jr. in June of 1844, the church members continued to live in Nauvoo, Illinois for a time, but tensions with the neighbors continued to grow and the Quincy Convention in 1845 passed resolutions to demand the Mormons move out of the state by May of 1846.  The Carthage Convention also passed a resolution to create a militia to forcibly remove the Mormons if they did not meet the May deadline.

Brigham Young organized the withdrawl of the Saints from Illinois and headed for the west.  They were a group of people nobody wanted looking for a land no-one wished to inhabit so they could excercise their constitutional rights.  When they first settled the Great Basin, Utah belonged to Mexico.  In order to worship how they wished, they felt they had to leave the country.  It wasn't long before Utah became part of the United States by treaty as spoils from the Mexican War.

From 1847 to 1855, most of the members living in the United States had emigrated to Utah by wagon train.  From 1856 to 1860, most of the emigrants were converts from Europe who arrived in America nearly destitute.  A system of handcarts was devised by Brigham Young where the emigrants would walk along the trail pulling a handcart with 500 pounds of rations and posessions.  In total 10 handcart companies made the trek across the plains.  The handcart trail began in England where several ships had been commissioned to bring the Saints to New York or Boston where they would ride a train to Iowa City where they were outfitted with handcarts and then on to Florence Nebraska where they would be provisioned for the first leg of the journey.  There were a few stops along the way where the pioneers could reprovision, such as Fort Laramie and Fort Bridger.

Barren landscape of Wyoming, essentially unchanged from the time of the pioneers

We stopped at a rest area in central Wyoming and it was somewhat comical to see 250 Mormons dressed as pioneers getting off the bus.  The regular people at the rest area must have been curious or cautious.  We thought they must think we were fundamentalists or something.  We said nothing to change that perception.

Mormons at the rest stop

In May of 1856, two companies of Saints left England between six and nine weeks later than was practical.  The first was commanded by James G. Willie and was called the Willie Company.  The second was commanded by Edward Martin.  No one in Utah knew these members had booked passage.  By the time they reached the shores of the United States the leaders believed the last handcart companies had already left Florence.

It was unwise to depart from Florence past the first week of July because of the onset of winter in October and November on the high desert.  The 404 members of the Willie Company left Florence on August 17th and 576 members of the Martin Company left on August 27th, a month and a half after they should have.  Levi Savage, a returning missionary counselled them not to make the trip, but rather winter in Florence.  The leaders voted to go on and Savage agreed to guide them. 

A handcart company was also followed by a wagon train of ten rigs carrying supplies and rations.  Within just a few days of embarking, a herd of bison stampeded the oxen from the wagon train of the Willie Company and the wagons had to be abandoned.  Each of the handcarts had to carry an additional 100 pounds of provisions in order to make the trek. 

In early September, Franklin D. Richards was returning from Europe where he served as mission president.  He was in a carriage drawn by horses and passed the Willie and the Martin Companies.  Knowing they were late on the plains and that no one in Utah even knew they were coming, he promised to send help as soon as he arrived in the Salt Lake Valley.  When the companies reached Fort Laramie, they found that there were no supplies to provision them and they began to ration.

Richards was true to his word, reaching Brigham Young by October 4th, and provisioned wagons began setting out on October 7th.  By the end of the month, more than 250 wagons were headed east to rescue the Willie and Martin Handcart Companies.

By early October, each of the handcart companies had to cut back on their rations, hoping help would come soon from Utah.  By the time the search parties reached the ill fated companies, the rations had been cut to two ounces of flour mixed into a paste with water a day.  On October 19th, the Martin Company crossed the Platte River for the last time and as they finished the crossing an early blizzard blanketed the region.  That night twelve members of their party died from exposure as a result of the river crossing. 

The first rescue parties found the Willie Company about this time and half of them stayed to help the emigrants and the other half pressed forward to meet the Martin Company.  The Willie Company wasn't out of the woods yet, they still had to cross Rocky Ridge which took 25 hours to do.  Thirteen of their members perished as a result.  In all, 68 members of the Willie Company lost their lives on the trail. 

Going was slow because of the blizzard.  When The rescuers finally met the Martin Company, the provisions had completely run out.  The rescue party guided and helped the Martin Company to Devil's Gate, a notch carved into the granite by the Sweetwater River and one of the landmarks of the Mormon Trail. 

Devil's Gate

We arrived at Devil's Gate around two o'clock and unloaded the busses.  We had a crash course in how to load and pull the handcarts.  At Devil's Gate, there are the remnants of an old trading post called Fort Seminoe.  In the late 1800's, Tom Sun bought the ground all around Devil's Gate and began operating the Sun Ranch.  The California Trail, the Oregon Trail, the Mormon Trail and the Pony Express Route all join together here.  He told his children to never dig up the soil, to leave it as it was.  As a result, the terrain appears today as it did when the pioneers crossed more than a hundred and fifty years earlier.  In 1997, the LDS church bought the Sun Ranch and operate sections of it as an historical site and ranch the rest.  This is where we trekked.

From about three o'clock until six, we pulled the handcarts along the Mormon Trail, past three billion year old granite outcroppings and ended up at the campground.  Our gear had all been delivered to the campground and we set up our tents.  When we were done, dinner was served and then the youth all squaredanced.  We had a short devotional and then went to bed.

Fort Semioe reconstruction

Pulling handcarts past 3 billion year old, Pre-Cambrian, basement rock

Modern pioneers pulling handcarts along the old Mormon Trail

The Sweetwater River

Our "Trek Family"

Sunset on the Rattlesnake Mountains

Sunset over Wyoming, day one

Day Two
We were a large group, and so were divided into three companies.  On the second day, we had many stops along the way to allow for the other groups to perform the river crossing and the other events along the trail.  My good friend Shane Cole and I decided to entertain the masses with a little pioneer song we had worked up.  It went something like this...

When the Martin Company rounded the bend at Devil's Gate and realized they would have to perform a winter crossing of the Sweetwater River, most of them collapsed on the riverbank and wept.  The memories of their last river crossing where twelve of their friends and family members had perished were still vivid.  The Sweetwater was about two feet deep and about a hundred feet across with big blocks of ice floating down.  It was more than the pioneers could bear and many were in danger of giving up.  Four or five young men from the rescue party without being asked to do so began carrying the beleaguered pioneers across the river.  Some of the pioneers crossed on their own power, but it was estimated that these young men each made forty trips across the Sweetwater that night.

We began pulling our handcarts at about nine o'clock on Friday morning and pulled them about two miles where we stopped and had a devotional about the river crossing.  The guides told us the stories of heroism of the rescuers who helped the pioneers across the river, then we prepared to cross the river ourselves.  We certainly did not have the same hardships as the Martin Company, as the water was only about a foot deep, the river was only about thirty feet wide and the weather was hot.  The cool water of the river provided a relief from the heat for us as we reenacted the river crossing.  As we crossed the river, the guides asked if any of the women wished to be carried across rather than getting wet.  Most did not, but a few did.  My son Haydn carried a couple of girls across the water.

The guides at the site told us that we were crossing at the approximate river crossing where the pioneers had crossed 156 years earlier, but because the river changes course so frequently, they couldn't be sure of the exact location.

There are three sculptures depicting the men who carried the pioneers across the river on the trail near the river crossing.  The sculptures were originally intended to be placed in the river but because the river is so inconsistent at this location they finally decided not to.

Our devotional at the river crossing

Monument of the rescuer

The river crossing
Getting the cart into the water

Crossing the Sweetwater

My real son Haydn being a gentlman

The Sweetwater River near the crossing

After the crossing of the Sweetwater, the rescuers escorted the emigrants to an area one of them knew, a narrow canyon they believed would shelter them from the storm.  The canyon came to be known as Martin's Cove.  The canyon did precious little to shelter the emigrants from the weather, and in the five days they camped there, waiting for the storm to abate, they buried 56 members of their party.  The ground was too hard and the emigrants too weak to dig proper graves, they buried their dead under the snow and had to endure the sound of the wolves digging them up through the nights.

The storms collapsed tents with emigrants sleeping in them.  Snow drifted over the emigrants and many suffered frostbite, exposure and death.  The only consolation is that if they had camped on the open prairie the death toll would most likely have been much worse.

When the storm broke, the emigrants were free to pass.  The main rescue party was travelling east as rapidly as they could and the emigrants were travelling west.  Finally one month later on November 19th, a party of 77 wagons met up with the remnants of the Martin Company and all members of the party were able to ride the rest of the way to Utah.  On November 30th they arrived in Salt Lake City.  In all, more than 145 of the original 576 members of the Martin Party perished along the way.

To give an idea of the scale of suffering of these two companies of saints, of the ten handcart companies, the Willie Company suffered more losses than all the others combined except for the Martin Company.  The Martin Company suffered more losses than all the other companies combined including the Willie Company.

After the river crossing reenactment, we pulled our handcarts for a mile or so to a picnic area and ate lunch.  Then we had a devotional where we learned about Martin's Cove and the suffering that occured there.  After that, we hiked without our handcarts into Martin's Cove.  All of the property we hiked along belonged to the church except for the trail leading to and including Martin's Cove.  That belongs to the Bureau of Land Management.  The BLM does not allow the handcarts into the Cove.

The trail passes 3 billion year old granite mountains into a secluded valley with a meadow in the bottom.  On the south side of the canyon the Martin Party camped and on the north end they buried their dead.  There are benches in between the north and the south end of the valley reserved for quiet contemplation.

3 billion year old granite outcropping at the trailhead to Martin's Cove

Sights along the way

More sights

The pilgrimage

The meadow where the Martin Company camped

Ma and Pa Benson in Martin's Cove

The meadow where the dead were left

The trail out of the cove past the meadow where the dead were left under the snow

Exiting the cove

Eager to show the United States Government that the Mormons were indeed patriotic members of society, Brigham Young responded to the government's request to provide a battalion of infantrymen for the Mexican-American War.  In July of 1846, about 550 Mormon men answered the call to serve and created the Mormon Battalion, the only religious based unit in United States military history.  They marched nearly 2000 miles from Council Bluffs, Iowa to southern California.  It is still one of the longest marches in United States military history.  While the Mormon Battalion didn't see actual combat, they were instrumental in building forts, and helped secure large areas of the American Southwest.  Mormon Battalion members also worked at Sutter's Mill in California when gold was discovered.  When they returned home they brought $17,000 in gold with them to help with the colonization of the Salt Lake Valley.

The bad part about the Mormon Battalion was that it left many of the women in the wagon trains to make the journey alone with thier little children.  There are many accounts of pioneer women in the wagon companies and handcart companies who had to make the journey alone, either because of the Mormon Battalion or because the husbands had perished along the trail.

The Women's Pull.
The last event for us on the second day was the Women's Pull.  There is a section of the trail that goes up a steep hill.  For that section of trail, the men stand aside while the women pull the handcarts up by themselves to commemorate the women who had to make the trek alone.  The hill is steep and the trailbed is deep sand.  It is not an easy thing to do.

When we got to the Women's Pull, the leaders divided us into two groups, men and women.  The women stayed at the bottom of the hill and the men went to the top of the hill and lined the trail.  George Bradley, one of our leaders gave a sermon about womenhood and motherhood.  We are an old fashioned people and in the days of post feminist America this isn't entirely politically correct.  That is a shame, I feel.  I have heard everything he said many times in my life and found myself thinking I wished we would just get on with it, when all of a sudden the clouds parted and a sunbeam came down squarely on Brother Bradley.  I began to take note.

At the end of the sermon, he instructed us to line the trail, remove our hats out of respect for our women, and remain completely silent.  Another leader instructed us that we were standing proxy for the men who for one reason or another could not make the entire journey with their wives and daughters.  That struck a chord with me as well.

The women received a similar talk and finally began to pull their handcarts up the hill.  Many of the women struggled.  The organizers delayed the handcarts so that only one handcart would be on the hill at a time.  When the first handcart reached the summit and was secured, something unscripted and surprising happened.  The women from the first cart flooded down the hill and helped the women coming up.  The women from the first cart were already tired, but they chose to bear the burdens of their sisters.  The women from each cart that made the summit then ran down the hill to help the others.  Some women helped four or five handcarts to the top.  That was the thing that  moved me the most.  It affected most of the young men and old men the same way.  Many man tears were shed on that hill that day.

In a church meeting the following Sunday, one young man arose and spoke about his experience at the Women's Pull and that he committed to himself that he would never allow a woman to do something he should be doing again.  Immediately after, a young woman arose and told how the Women's Pull made her realize that she was strong and she could do things she didn't think she could do before.  Two individuals, two entirely different experiences, both of them appropriate.

The Women's Pull

The gauntlet

The women of my Trek Family pulling up the hill

The other family from our fire ring at the Women's Pull

What we pulled the handcarts through

After the Women's Pull, we pulled our handcarts back to the campground to set up camp again.  Because of the wind on the high desert, we had to collapse our tents during the day.  Otherwise they would have blown away.  It was too windy to set them up so we opted for dinner first.  The Sun Ranch property is situated on an ancient dune field that is slowly being converted to a steppe terrain, so the wind blows sand everywhere.  It was in my food, my mouth, my eyes, my ears, my nose, down my shirt and pants, in my shoes.  It was everywhere.  I couldn't chew my food without biting on grit.  We had a devotional that night and finally got the tents set up so we could sleep.  The wind died down at some point during the night.

Day Three
We arose on a beautiful morning with frost on the ground.  The temperatures ranged from near 100 degrees during the day to 32 degrees at night.  The high desert is unforgiving.  On the last day there was no wind.  We discovered as we trekked that the wind had been a blessing, it kept us cool.  After we packed up our tents and gear, we loaded up the handcart one last time and headed for the visitors center.

On the way, we stopped for one last devotional and group picture in the Cove.  Then we boarded the bus and headed for home.  Chimene asked everyone in our Trek Family what their favorite and least favorite parts of the experience were.  I mentioned my favorite part was getting to know the Trek Family and my least favorite was boarding the bus to go home.  I was not ready to go.  I would go back in a heartbeat.  This was worth doing and I'd recommend it to anyone.  I hope when they do it again in four years that they will think of me.


Our fire ring

The Benson Trek Family

As we left the campground, pulling handcarts, these guys were there hitting on the pioneer chicks.
Our Trek Family on the last day

Finally, the miscellaneous landscape and flora posts.  This area is at first glance desolate, but there is an inherent beauty in a rugged landscape.  With as harsh as the weather and as unforgiving as the soil is here, it's astonishing that anything finds a way to live.  We did see wildflowers among the desert plants.  Pronghorn bucks and does were plentiful.  They were too skittish to get close enough for many good photos.  We saw rabbits and golden eagles, prey and predator.  There was one animal that was with us nearly the entire time.  His name was Oscar, but I called him "The Bear Dog".  He's a great pyrenees that belongs to one of the local ranchers.  He forages for himself and during the summer he has adopted the trek people.  He was our constant companion, looking out for us, making sure we were okay.  At night some of us heard him chasing coyotes away.  He was our protector.

The Bear Dog

Pronghorn buck

Rugged landscape

Junipers on the Pre-Cambrian granite

Even in the desert there are wildflowers

More Wildflowers

Rabbit brush


Anthills were everywhere

Prickly pear cactus with fruit

This stuff was everywhere, and sharp too

I gained a greater appreciation of my pioneer ancestors as a result of this trip.  I had never wanted to study the Westward Migration before this.  Now I wish too.  I believe this event will impact me for a very long time to come.  I'm thankful to have participated in it.

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