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.

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