Summer Travel Series: Wyoming, an Adventure Into Mormon Pioneer History

Summer Travel Series: Wyoming, an Adventure Into Mormon Pioneer History

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Martin’s Cove

Wyoming: the rugged west, cowboys, horses, plentiful wildlife and a lot of Mormon pioneer history. There are many things to do and learn in the great outdoors in America’s 44th state.

Years before Wyoming was settled, groups of Mormon pioneer wagon trains traversed the rugged wilderness, crossed rivers, negotiated with Native Americans and coped with the ever-changing weather.

For the groups of pioneers traveling not in the “luxury” of covered wagons but pulling all they owned in two-wheeled handcarts, Wyoming was a difficult place to be, especially in the winter. The already beleaguered early members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints left Iowa City, Iowa, in June of 1856 on their way to the Salt Lake Valley.

A life and death decision had to be made before departing Florence, Nebraska (present-day Omaha). Do the Mormon pioneers stay through the winter where the opportunity for employment was not favorable or do they venture out, risking the chance that winter snows could threaten their progress? The decision to move forward was made.

These pioneers, members of the Martin and Willie handcart companies, suffered a monumental tragedy when they were surprised by an October blizzard. The Willie company, about 100 miles ahead of the Martin company, waited at the Sixth Crossing of the Sweetwater for the rescuers to arrive. Brought by the rescuers into what is now called Martin’s Cove, located near the Sweetwater River and Devil’s Gate where Wyoming highway 220 now lies, the Martin company waited until the weather improved to be taken into the Salt Lake Valley. Unfortunately, before help arrived, many people died of exposure and starvation.

Today, a memorial and visitors’ center near the site of Martin’s Cove honor the memory, the struggle and the sacrifice of these brave and determined handcart pioneers. A similar memorial and visitors’ center is located at the Sixth Crossing site and Rock Creek Hollow, a site dedicated to those who died after crossing Rocky Ridge.

“Such faith … such hardship … hard to hear!” an Oregon visitor remarked. A Canadian said Martin’s Cove is a “must see.” A visitor from Brisbane, Australia, said the experience was “humbling … to behold such sacrifice and stoicism.”

What to See and Do

There are several parts to Martin’s Cove. Near or inside the large historic site named Martin’s Cove are Rattlesnake Pass, Devil’s Gate, Fort Seminoe, Prairie Park, homestead site buildings and the actual cove, a hallowed area where many of the handcart pioneers died. Additional sites along the trail include Willie Center at Sixth Crossing, Rocky Ridge and Rock Creek Hollow.

Visitors’ Center: Once the ranch house of the Tom Sun family, the center tells the story of the handcart experience with emphasis on the Martin handcart company, including a 10-minute historical presentation. The visit concludes with a touching movie about young Heber McBride and his family’s experience with the Martin company. There are many places for picnics near the visitors’ center.

Trekking: A popular activity is hiking the five miles roundtrip from the visitors’ center to Martin’s Cove on well-groomed trails. Visitors even have the option of seeing what it was like to pull a handcart. This is not a challenging hike, but the elevation can make one short of breath. For handicapped visitors, missionaries can facilitate shorter walks starting at the visitors’ center. Once at the cove, visitors will find it to be a very peaceful and beautiful spot.

Prairie Park and Homestead Site: The park consists of a short gravel path with sculptures along the way depicting various scenes of the Martin handcart experience. The Homestead Site includes the Peoples of the Sweetwater Museum, wash house, bunk house, humanitarian cabin, blacksmith’s shop and corrals. At the homestead, children may use a passport book as they visit each place.

Rattlesnake Pass: The pass is located a mile up the road due east. It is where the California, Oregon, Mormon and Pony Express Trails come together. There are many good views of swells and ruts made by wagon wheels.

Devil’s Gate: This natural landmark is a gaping opening in the Rattlesnake Mountains through which the Sweetwater River runs. The trail is a short one-half mile long.

Fort Seminoe: This is a replica of an old trading post that was once along the trail. It was abandoned and then used by the rescue party for protection while they searched for the Martin handcart company. It was also a place the Martin company camped before they moved into the cove area.

Willie Center: Further west on the trail lies the Willie Center at Sixth Crossing site. Here the trails are not groomed and resemble what they may have been like in 1856. There are one, four, six and ten mile treks available to walk or pull a handcart. The visitors’ center includes a short presentation, stories and a few short movies, including Bodil Mortensen’s story. Bodil was a nine-year-old girl from Denmark. She came ahead of her family to join the Saints in Salt Lake City. Her older sister traveled the year before her and was living in Salt Lake.

Rocky Ridge: The Willie company climbed this daunting slope during a snowstorm. They were starving, yet they continued to pull their handcarts in deep snow. The 15-mile part of the trail took many of these beleaguered pioneers over 20 hours to cross. As this is on public land, large groups need permits to walk this trail. Groups under 25 may hike without permits. It is hard to find, so stop in at the Willie Center for directions.

Rock Creek Hollow: This is a site where those who died after going across Rocky Ridge are memorialized. A cemetery, plaques and memorials honor the deceased pioneers.

Martin's Cove

47600 West Hwy 220

Alcova, Wyoming 82620

Willie Center at Sixth Crossing

4181 Highway 789

Lander, WY 82520

Driving Directions

Schedule

Summer

Open daily 8:00 a.m.-7:00 p.m.

Winter

Open daily 9:00 a.m.-4:00 p.m.

307-328-2953 (Main)

307-544-2371 (Alternate)

Cody Chapel Mural

Over a half century after the Latter-day Saints settled in Utah, Wyoming’s Governor DeForrest Richards and Secretary of State Fennimore Chatterton came to speak with Church President Lorenzo Snow in Salt Lake City in January of 1900. The two government leaders requested a colony of Mormon families to relocate to the Big Horn Basin in northern Wyoming to help settle the area. More than 100 families responded to what they considered to be a sacred call from God. Rather than settle in Cody, the Latter-day Saints settled in the small towns of Lovell, Byron and Cowley.

Today, the Mormon pioneers’ struggle and a chronology of the Church from 1827 to the completion of the Salt Lake Temple, nearly 70 years later, is painted in the entryway of the Cody Latter-day Saint meetinghouse. The mural is 36 feet in diameter and 18 feet to the top of the dome. It was painted by artist Edward T. Grigware, who was not a member of the Church but who studied the Church’s history to get a feel for his assignment. He completed the mural 60 years ago.

A major reminder of the Latter-day Saints’ contribution in the Big Horn Basin is the Sidon Canal. The 37-mile-long canal took four years to build and is still in use today. It channels water to approximately 20,000 acres of farmland.

What to See and Do

The mural in the domed entryway of the still-functional Mormon meetinghouse is worth the trip for what you see and the explanation behind the artwork. In addition to the mural, a large room is dedicated to displays, photos and information about how the Latter-day Saints in the early 1900s helped settle Cody, Wyoming. A visitor from Fort Myers, Florida, said her heart was lifted by her visit: “Thank you for sharing the beauty and inspiration of your church and artwork.”

Cody Mural

Wyoming Ave at 18th Street

Cody, Wyoming

307-587-3290

Free Guided tours daily, Monday through Saturday 9:00 a.m.-7:00 p.m., Sunday 3:00 p.m.-7:00 p.m., June 1-Sept. 15; by appointment the rest of the year.

Style Guide Note:When reporting about The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, please use the complete name of the Church in the first reference. For more information on the use of the name of the Church, go to our online Style Guide.