North Area Youth and Adults TREK in the Footsteps of Pioneer Tragedy and Faith

by Martha McMullin

On July 21-24 2010, 270 adults and youth from the Denver North Stake of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints will TREK in the footsteps of pioneer tragedy and faith at Martin’s Cove, Wyoming. They will be pulling handcarts laden with all their food and possessions, cooking their meals over campfires and walking 6-15 miles each day. They will each be given the name of a pioneer to honor and remember their story. The theme of the Trek is from Joshua 1:9 “ Be of a good courage”.
Steve and Linnea Young of Thornton are the “Head Couple” over the 2010 Trek. They have organized the 80 adults and 190 young people into “families”, each with a “ma and pa” and 8-10 kids. Each “family” will pull their own handcart laden with their own supplies, on a 4-day trek logging in about 6-15 miles per day; starting at Martin’s Cove, on to the base of Rocky Ridge, and ending at Rock Creek Hollow. Each trekker has a 3-gallon plastic bucket in which to store his supplies. No Ipods. No cell phones. No email.

So what do Steve and Linnea hope to accomplish in this endeavor? “More than anything we want the youth to feel the spirit of the pioneers; to recognize what has been done for them by the pioneers. But also we want them to feel the spirit and realize what they can accomplish and do for themselves.” says Linnea. The youth have been challenged to “Rescue the One”. To choose someone: a friend, family member, or even themselves….and to make a difference in their life.

The history and story of the Mormon Pioneers is real….even after 150 years the Mormon Trail is still visible, dramatically cutting across the prairie of Nebraska and Wyoming. But in Wyoming along the Sweetwater River, past Chimney Rock, past Independence Rock, past the deep gash in the hills called Devil’s Gate, is hallowed ground: Martin’s Cove and Rock Creek Hollow. It is here that the Mormon pioneers of the Martin and Willie Handcart Companys faced discouragement and death.

Surrounded by howling wolves in a cruel early winter blizzard of October, 1856, rescue came from Salt Lake, but too late to save close to 200 souls who perished in the deep and drifted snow. Memorials at Martin’s Cove and Rock Creek now honor those buried there for their faith and courage in the face of enormous adversity.

The Willie Handcart company, (led by Captain James Grey Willie), was comprised of 500 persons. They had 120 handcarts, 5 wagons, 24 oxen and 45 beef cattle and cows. The Martin Handcart Company (led by Captain Edward Martin) consisted of 576 souls…with 146 carts, 7 wagons, 30 oxen, and 50 cows and beef cattle. The emigrants gathered in Florence, Nebraska, on August 13, 1856 and a huge camp meeting was held….to determine whether the company should stay there for the winter or move on to the Salt Lake Valley they called “Zion”.

Levi Savage, one their guides, advised against their late start. He argued that there was still a lot of prairie to cross, and after that the Rocky Mountains with possible severe weather that often came early in the high mountains.

But the immigrants were simple, honest, deeply religious people; eager to go to “Zion” at once. They had already journeyed across the Atlantic from homes in Scandinavia, Germany and England. They voted to proceed….as prospects and supplies were not particularly good at Florence. So many emigrating saints had passed through there that summer that most available equipment, cattle and food for miles along the river that been used up. They voted to push forward.

Levi Savage then said, “Brethren and Sisters, what I have said I know to be true; but, seeing you are to go forward, I will go with you, will help you all I can, will work with you, will rest with you, will suffer with you, and, if necessary, I will die with you. May God in his mercy bless and preserve us”.

"Pulling carts was hard, tiring work. Handcart pioneers were exposed to rain, wind, dust, and insects. Food was tightly rationed. Most made the trek safely; but the 1856 Martin and Willie companies met disaster. They left Iowa City late, in part because more people came than expected, causing delays to assemble more handcarts and tents. The two companies crossed Iowa in normal time, but repairs at Florence slowed them. Then, on the Mormon Trail, extra flour added to the carts slowed and damaged them. Expected flour at Fort Laramie never came. Short rations and lack of warm clothes drained the travelers' energy. Severe snowstorms caught them, dropping snows up to eighteen inches deep and temperatures below freezing. Food ran out; cattle died; rescue trains from Utah had difficulty reaching the exposed and hungry sufferers. Despite heroic efforts by company members and Utah rescuers, about 200, or one-sixth of the companies, died, and dozens were maimed by frostbite and deprivation. This tragedy was the worst disaster in the history of western overland travel. Rescue wagons carried survivors to Utah over roads kept open by teamsters driving wagons back and forth to pack the snow. “ (history

Those of us modern-day pioneers who have traveled Wyoming know all too well how treacherous the weather can be in winter…sunny one day and freezing, blowing snow the next. Imagine: already weak from starvation, dysentery and exposure, pulling a handcart loaded with all your possessions and in many cases the weak and sick, through the ice and blowing snow up cruel Rocky Ridge… a ridge that ascends 700 feet in less than two miles.

Several members of the modern 2010 Trek party have ancestors who were in the handcart companys. One of them is Julia Roberts of Thornton, who is going on Trek as a cook. She tells this story of about her Great-Great -Great Aunt Mary:

Mary Kjirstine Larsen, age 6, left her home in Denmark to come with her parents to Utah where they could worship with others of their faith and assist in building a new Zion. Her parents were among those who died and were laid to rest in “Mormon Grove“. The children were split up, and Mary Kjirstine was sent on to Salt Lake City with members of the Martin Handcart company. Poor little Mary’s feet could not be saved…they were amputated by rescuers at Martin‘s Cove. The surgery was crudely done with a butcher knife and handsaw. When she arrived in Salt Lake City, she endured a second surgery, this time taking her legs to just below the knees. Brigham Young helped her purchase a sewing machine to provide a way to support herself. Nevertheless, Mary married, raised 7 children, and later said, “I’ll have my legs again in heaven.”

Julie says her family often talked about how Mary gave up her legs to walk to Utah, and she is proud to have that pioneer heritage. She has given Mary’s name to Amy Woodhouse, a youth walking the Trek, to honor.

At Rock Creek Hollow, there is a common grave of 13 who perished in one night. Among them was a nine-year old girl from Denmark who was traveling alone with another family. Her name was Bodil Mortensen. Bodil was assigned to care for some small children as they crossed Rocky Ridge. That night Bodil went out and gathered brush with which to make a fire. Returning, she reached her cart with the brush in her arms. There she died, frozen to death, starvation and bitter cold had drained from her emaciated body the life she fought for.

Another child of tender years buried in that grave was James Kirkwood, age 11, from Glascow, Scotland. James’s primary responsibility on the trek was to care for his 4-year old brother, Joseph, while his widowed mother and older brother pulled the handcart. As they climbed Rocky Ridge, it was snowing and there was a bitter cold wind blowing. It took the whole company 27 hours to travel 15 miles. When little Joseph became too weary to walk, James had no choice but to carry him. Left behind the main group, James and Joseph made their way slowly to camp. When the two arrived at the fireside, James “having so faithfully carried out his task, collapsed and died from exposure and over-exertion.” (Private letter, Don H. Smith to Robert Lorimer, 20 Feb 1990, quoting account of John Chislett).

President Brigham Young was informed by Franklin D. Richards on the evening of October 4th, 1856, that the Martin and Willie handcart companies were still on the trail. Astonished by the news, Brigham Young announced the next morning at the Church's General Conference that these people were in dire straits, and rescue parties were sent immediately.
“I shall call upon the Bishops this day. I shall not wait until tomorrow nor until the next day, for sixty good teams and 12 or 15 wagons. I do not want to send oxen. I want good horses and mules. They are in the territory and we must have them. Also twelve tons of flour and 40 good teamsters beside those that drive the wagons” - Brigham Young

“The emigrants of the Martin and Willie Handcart Companies that forded the North Platte River or climbed Rocky Ridge in a Wyoming blizzard paid a high price to live in the West, and I have not seen one reference to the actual survivors complaining or blaming others for the ordeal they suffered.” O. Ned Eddins, Willie-Martin Handcart Rescue.

Above and beyond the epic historic events they participated in, the pioneers found a guide to personal living. They found reality and meaning in their lives. Frances Webster, a member of the Martin Company, said: “Every one of us came through with the absolute knowledge that God lives, for we became acquainted with him in our extremeties”.

Did those who lost their lives find salvation? President James E. Faust, said: “In the heroic efforts of the handcart pioneers, we can learn a great truth. All of us must pass through the refiner’s fire. The insignificant and unimportant in our lives can melt away like dross, and make our faith bright, intact, and strong. There seems to be a full measure of anguish, sorrow and even heartbreak for everyone, including those who earnestly seek to do right and be faithful. Yet this is part of the purging to become acquainted with God.” (Conference Talk, April 6, 1997 James E. Faust, then 2nd Counselor of the 1st Presidency of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints).

The 270 men, women and youth that will trek next week over the rugged terrain along the Sweetwater River in Wyoming have prepared well physically for their journey….anticipating the long walk, hot wind and dusty trails. We wish them a good journey….not just physically, but spiritually, as they walk in the footsteps of the Mormon Handcart Pioneers to honor their faith and sacrifice by strengthening their own.