Walking on Hallowed Ground

By Robin B. Lambert

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Go in a spirit of reverence and respect, and know that you are walking on hallowed ground. (President Gordon B. Hinckley at the Martin’s Cove dedication ceremony)

Jashley Simpson of Afton, Wyoming

The Sweetwater River winds its way through Wyoming, past sand dunes and sagebrush, mountains and plains. At one point, it passes next to a dramatic landmark known as the Devil’s Gate—a long natural slash cut into a line of tall, brown rocks. A nearby horseshoe-shaped cove nestles here among the rocky hills. This area, known as Martin’s Cove, was the site of a terrible tragedy.

In the winter of 1856, two Mormon handcart companies, under the direction of Edward Martin and James G. Willie, were on their way to the Salt Lake Valley and camped here while waiting for supplies from Salt Lake. They had started their journey late in the summer, eager to join their fellow Latter-day Saints in Utah. Unfortunately they were hit by an early blizzard, and almost a third of the people in these companies froze or starved to death before the rescue wagons reached them.

On May 10, 1997, President Gordon B. Hinckley dedicated a visitors’ center at this cove to be a memorial to the faith and courage of the pioneers who died on their way to the Salt Lake Valley. The Church wants people to know the story of these pioneers, “to feel the experience in their bones.”

Martin’s Cove holds special meaning for Jashley Simpson of Afton, Wyoming. To her, this spot is marked by sorrow for the trials of the people who died here. But it is also a place of joy, for it was here in the Sweetwater River that Jashley was baptized a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Not very many people are baptized in rivers anymore, and Jashley probably wouldn’t have been, either, if the baptismal font in her stake center had not been under repair. As her eighth birthday neared, she and her parents, Evan and Beverly Simpson, realized that they had to find an alternative place for her baptism.

About a month before Jashley’s birthday, on May 12, 1997, her mother was reading an article in the Church News about the new visitors’ center at Martin’s Cove. Suddenly, the idea came to her that Jashley should be baptized there. At first, it seemed like an impossible thought, but as her mother lay awake at night, pondering the idea, it felt more and more like it was what Heavenly Father wanted them to do. She shared the idea with Jashley’s father, bishop of the Afton Third Ward, Afton Wyoming Stake, and he thought it was a great idea.

They made many phone calls but were unable to reach Brother Carvel Jackson, director of the center, to make arrangements in time for Jashley’s birthday. So the Simpsons just decided to take the eight-hour drive and visit the center on that day, hoping that things would work out when they got there. If nothing else, they would go on the short handcart trek organized by the visitors’ center.

Jashley’s five sisters—Bethany (16), Amory (14), Emily (11), Kelsey (5), and Courtney (3)—as well as both sets of grandparents came to spend this special day with the birthday girl. Jashley was particularly excited that her mother’s parents, Grandma and Grandpa Gibson, were able to come. They were not members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and Jashley looked forward to sharing part of its history with them.

Upon the family’s arrival at the center, they were finally able to speak with Brother Jackson, who gladly helped them find an ideal spot for the baptism. But first they took the handcart trek! Grandma Simpson and Grandma Gibson waited at the visitors’ center as the rest of the family loaded up handcarts and set out on the two-mile hike to the actual Cove.

As they climbed the trail, the wind blew fiercely around them. It was a hard trek but fun, even when Jashley fell on a cactus! Everyone enjoyed reading the plaques that described the journey of the handcart companies. They pushed the handcarts up one mile to the opening of the cove area. There they had to abandon their carts and hike up one more mile to the cove itself. Then they hiked the mile back to their handcarts, and completed the remaining two and a half miles of the loop trail back to the visitors’ center.

After the trek, the family prepared for the baptism. The place Brother Jackson had suggested was a beautiful spot on the Sweetwater River with Devil’s Gate in the background. However, everyone worried that the strong wind would affect the baptismal service. When no one was watching, Jashley bowed her head and closed her eyes and whispered a prayer to Heavenly Father that the wind would stop blowing just long enough for her to be baptized. Heavenly Father answered her prayer. The wind was completely still.

Jashley and her father were also surprised at how warm the water was. She had been concerned that the water would be icy cold from the melting snow in the mountains. In every prayer she had made for the last month, she had asked Heavenly Father to make the water “sort of warm.” Her prayers were answered once again, and the water temperature was just right.

The baptismal service was beautiful. Jashley’s father baptized her while her Grandpa Simpson and Elder Erickson, a missionary from Star Valley, acted as the witnesses. Afterward she saved some of the water from the river in a special old-fashioned glass jar with a clamp and rubber seal. She said that being baptized was wonderful; it made her feel “really clean.” She wrote in her journal all the way home about the exciting events of the day.

This day was definitely one to remember for Jashley and her family. Martin’s Cove had a special spirit that touched them all. Even Grandma and Grandpa Gibson were very impressed.

Many people wonder how Heavenly Father could let so many good people die there. But this terrible trial taught the members of the Martin and Willie handcart companies to rely on God; not one survivor from those two companies ever turned away from the Church.

Whenever Jashley thinks of her baptism day, she remembers the faith and courage of those men and women. She will honor them and try to be like them, for she has truly experienced their story “in her bones.”

1. Jashley (in the white pioneer bonnet at right) with her family and grandparents before beginning the handcart trek. Devil’s Gate is in the background.

2. The whole family, except for the two grandmas, pulls handcarts to Martin’s Cove.

3. Jashley and her dad prepare for her baptism in the Sweetwater River.