This land holds a story the church won't tell

  • LEAN AND PULL: A sign on the Handcart Ranch Visitors'Center gate depicts how families trudged West pulling theirbelongings on handcarts

    Ray Ring photo
 

MARTIN'S COVE, Wyo. - As politicians in Congress, interest groups and Mormon bishops battle in the far distance to decide the fate of this place, a sad wind ruffles the tall grass and sagebrush here. It's sad for those who know the story.

In this sandy cove nestled amid the rocky hills overlooking the Sweetwater River, people suffered terribly and died 146 years ago, because mistakes were made.

You can get a feel for how it was. Drive Highway 220 southwest of Casper, pull in to Handcart Ranch, and park your gas-guzzler next to the fleet of handcarts provided for this special kind of tourism.

Each cart is utter simplicity: a pair of spoked wooden wheels, a wooden platform, a pair of handles. Take the handles, lean and pull. You can try to get the wheels to roll over several miles of the path to the cove.

Imagine what it was like to pile everything you owned onto the carts and cross more than a thousand miles of rugged terrain, splashing across streams and rivers, through weather that grew increasingly hostile.

On plaques inside the Handcart Ranch visitors' center, the names of the ones who didn't survive the journey glow in golden ink, ranging from Elizabeth Ingra, age 75, to Lars Julius Larsen, infant.

"The old saints went through a lot," explains one of the missionaries staffing the center. The religious tone is expected, because the historic ranch has been bought and redeveloped by the Mormon Church -- the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. For Mormons, this is sacred ground.

The Mormon Trail came through here during the church's stormy pilgrimage years, 1847 to 1869, when more than 70,000 Mormons sought refuge in the valley of the Great Salt Lake. They'd been cast out of civilized places, including Ohio, Missouri, Illinois and European countries, often by anti-Mormon mobs that beat, tarred-and-feathered and murdered members of the church.

The Mormons fled during those desperate summers, braving the wild plains in wagon trains pulled by oxen and cattle, and in a few handcart companies. Two of the companies met disaster.

The Willie Handcart Company and the Martin Handcart Company amounted to roughly a thousand dirt-poor European immigrants led by two American missionaries. They ran late the summer of 1856, leaving an outpost near the Iowa-Nebraska border Aug. 17 and Aug. 27. Their carts had been assembled hurriedly, with unseasoned green wood. They were slowed by frequent breakdowns and a large percentage of elderly and children. Their food dwindled to a handful of flour per person per day. October blizzards in Wyoming delivered the final blow.

Nearly 150 starved or froze to death as they struggled along the Platte and Sweetwater rivers. Several dozen died here, during a merciless four days and five nights when the wind and snow pressed into the opening in the rocks where they hunkered down.

Elizabeth Whittear Sermon watched her husband die here. "(Joseph) put his arm around me and said, 'I am done' and breathed his last," she wrote later. "(He) was buried with eight others in one grave. I stood like a statue, bewildered ... I can still hear and see the wolves waiting for their bodies. ..."

Acting on raw necessity, she took the boots off her husband's corpse and wore them all the way into the Salt Lake settlement.

For modern Mormons, the Mormon Trail is more famous than the Lewis and Clark Trail will ever be. The church has bought other places along the trail, and believers come from around the world to revisit the hardships. More than 100,000 tourists reportedly came through here last year, and almost every one was a Mormon.

Yet the cove itself is public land. In an unusual partnership, the path to the cove begins at the ranch's visitors' center and crosses onto federal Bureau of Land Management sagebrush. Bronze signs along the path bear both logos -- church and BLM -- and hold that "faith was a critical factor" in keeping some of the handcart pilgrims alive. Missionaries often stand in the cove to greet 21st century hikers.

But that isn't enough to satisfy Mormon leaders anymore; now the church wants to buy 940 acres of the public land and take over the cove completely. With all seven Mormons in the U.S. House of Representatives pushing the sale, and 11-term Rep. Jim Hansen of Utah on point, the House OK'd it in June. The Senate will consider it next.

As proposed, it's really a giveaway: The church would pay the going price for remote sagebrush acres -- the price tag doesn't factor in the historical significance. The public would still have access, but the church would gain control over every nuance, possibly even building a chapel in the cove.

Any move on public land becomes a battle. A local grassroots campaign seeks to keep the cove public; so do Wyoming's members of Congress, historic preservation advocates and environmental groups. They fear the giveaway would set a precedent for transferring more public land to special interests. American Indians, in particular, would like to take over public treasures such as Devil's Tower National Monument in northeast Wyoming.

Just as important are concerns about the story that this land holds. Most of the information provided to visitors now has the cloying feel of true belief, with little allowance for discussion.

There's no mention of how Mormons in their early days made enemies with their holier-than-thou zealotry and their strategy of concentrating their numbers where they could take over pieces of the landscape.

Joseph Smith was an unschooled 14-year-old when he had the first of his uncompromising visions that formed the church. He claimed to communicate with the only true god by peering into "seer stones," and ultimately reported hundreds of revelations which, among other things, crushed dissenters within his church. He took more than 27 wives, establishing the practice of polygamy that so inflamed the gentiles. His order to destroy a dissenters' newspaper led to his murder by an Illinois mob in 1844 -- a murder that set off the Mormons' final flight westward.

Eventually, the Mormons toned down their fire and brimstone, officially gave up polygamy, and gained acceptance. Understandably, the church now downplays the dark parts of its past.

A respectful opinion from this visitor: Martin's Cove is a reminder that history is complicated, and that everyone makes mistakes. Violence against the Mormons was brutal and inexcusable, but they certainly contributed to their own travails. With that in mind, the public should hold onto the cove. People of every faith and without faith should be encouraged to come. The wind of sadness, if explained fully, can help us all understand.

The author is Northern Rockies editor at High Country News.

High Country News Classifieds
  • FOR SALE
    Yellowstone Llamas Successful Yellowstone NP concession Flexible packages
  • DIRECTOR OF DEVELOPMENT & MARKETING
    Grand Staircase Escalante Partners is seeking a full-time Director of Development & Marketing. This is a senior position responsible for the development of all marketing...
  • LEGAL DIRECTOR
    The Legal Director will work closely with the Executive Director in cultivating a renewed vision at NMELC that integrates diversity, equity, and justice. Black, Indigenous,...
  • VICE PRESIDENT, LANDSCAPE CONSERVATION
    The Vice President for Landscape Conservation leads Defenders' work to promote landscape-scale wildlife conservation, focusing on four program areas: federal public lands management; private lands...
  • NOVA SCOTIA OCEAN FRONT
    Camp or Build on 2+ acres in Guysborough. FSBO. $36,000 US firm. Laurie's phone: 585-226-2993 EST.
  • COMMUNITY FORESTER
    The Clearwater Resource Council located in Seeley Lake, Montana is seeking a full-time community forester with experience in both fuels mitigation and landscape restoration. Resumes...
  • GUNNISON BASIN ROUNDTABLE
    The Gunnison Basin Roundtable is currently accepting letters of interest for ten elected seats. Five of the elected members must have relevant experience in the...
  • PCTA TRAIL CREW TECHNICAL ADVISORS IN WASHINGTON'S NORTH CASCADES
    Seasonal Positions: June 17th to September 16th (14 weeks) - 3 positions to be filled The mission of the Pacific Crest Trail Association is to...
  • WE'RE LOOKING FOR LEADERS!
    As we celebrate 50 years of great Western journalism, High Country News is looking for a few new board members to help set a course...
  • MEMBERSHIP DIRECTOR
    Job Announcement Job Title: Membership Director Supervisor: Executive Director Salary: Up to $65,000/year DOE Benefits: Generous benefits package — health insurance, Simple IRA and unlimited...
  • UTAH PUBLIC LANDS MANAGER
    Who we are: Since 1985, the Grand Canyon Trust has been a leading voice in regional conservation on the Colorado Plateau. From protecting the Grand...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Executive Director Walker Basin Conservancy Reno & Yerington, NV Background The Walker Basin Conservancy (Conservancy) leads the effort to restore and maintain Walker Lake while...
  • WIND RIVER WRITERS AND PHOTOGRAPHERS RETREAT BY THE NATIONAL BIGHORN SHEEP CENTER
    Enhance your writing or photography skills with world-class instructors in the beautiful Wind River Mountains. All skill levels welcome. Continuing education credits available.
  • EARTH CRUISER FX FOR SALE
    Overland Vehicle for travel on or off road. Fully self contained. Less than 41,000 miles. Recently fully serviced Located in Redmond, OR $215'000.
  • ENVIRONMENTAL GEOPHYSICS
    identifies suspect buried trash, tanks, drums &/or utilities and conducts custom-designed subsurface investigations that support post-damage litigation.
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    They [Northern Plains] confound the common view that ordinary people are powerless in the face of industry. - Billings Gazette editorial The venerable Northern Plains...
  • SMALL FARM AT BASE OF MOUNT SHASTA, CALIF.
    Certified organic fruit/berry/veggie/flower farm. Small home, 2 barns (one has an apartment), and more. Approx. two acres just in the City limits. Famously pure air...
  • TAOS HORNO ADVENTURES
    A Multicultural Culinary Memoir Informed by History and Horticulture. Richard and Annette Rubin. At nighthawkpress.com/titles and Amazon.
  • LAND & CABIN ON CO/ UT LINE
    18 ac w/small solar ready cabin. Off grid, no well. Great RV location. Surrounded by state wildlife area and nat'l parks.
  • CANYONLANDS FIELD INSTITUTE
    Field seminars for adults in natural and human history of the Colorado Plateau with lodge, river trip and base camp options. Small groups, guest experts.