Walking in Remembrance

By Caroline H. Benzley

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These teens get a taste of handcart pioneer life and gain new respect.

What do you picture in your mind when you think of Wyoming? If you are driving through this part of the United States, you will not see a lot of big cities. Instead, you will see a big, beautiful sky, prairie, lots of rocky mountains, and antelope darting through the vast landscape.

But if you are driving near Independence Rock, Wyoming, during the summer, you may notice on the horizon something a little unusual—a line of handcart pioneers walking along a dry, dusty Wyoming trail. On closer examination, these “pioneers,” even though they are dressed in the style of the 1850s, are really very modern teens and their leaders. Despite the intense heat, the young men have on long trousers and long-sleeved shirts. Many of them are also wearing hats to keep the sun off their faces. The young women are in equivalent attire—long dresses, aprons, and sunbonnets.

In our day of automobiles and airplanes, it’s hard to imagine why these people have chosen to haul their food, water, and other supplies in wooden handcarts. But there they are. These young people have chosen to take time off from their summer jobs and other activities to give up the comforts of their homes and to walk as far as 30 miles under the hot Wyoming sun—all for one reason. They think it’s worth it just to have a taste of what some pioneers went through in the early days of the Church.

A walk through history

In 1855, Brigham Young counseled converts who were unable to outfit themselves with teams and wagons to walk the 1,300 miles across the plains pulling handcarts rather than delay, wait, and work to earn enough to buy expensive wagons. In all, 10 handcart companies traveled this way, 8 of which were very successful and had few casualties. However, two handcart companies, led by James G. Willie and Edward Martin, experienced suffering and heartache as they left too late in the year and ran into unexpectedly early snowstorms. Both companies were in grave danger of not surviving. The Willie Company was a few days ahead of the other company and was rescued first by wagons sent from Salt Lake City. Those in the company were frostbitten and starved. Sixty-eight of 404 in the company died.

The Martin Handcart Company, however, was forced by the storm to stop in a small valley on the side of a mountain with very little shelter. After wading through deep snow up to this point, the pioneers stopped in a cove, formed by rock outcroppings. Trees provided protection and fuel. There they waited for help and supplies from Salt Lake City. In just five days, 56 of the 145 total who died in the crossing perished. But thanks to heroic rescue efforts of Church members sent by Brigham Young, the majority, 431 of the Martin handcart pioneers, survived the trip.

Today the Mormon Handcart Visitors’ Center, near Martin’s Cove, is a reminder of not only the ill-fated handcart companies but also a tribute to the many pioneers who traveled with handcarts across the plains. Each summer hundreds of visitors come to learn more about these people, many of whom left their homes and relatives behind, bringing little more than the clothes on their backs. The pioneers sacrificed much in order to bring themselves and their families across the plains to Utah where they could live in peace, without persecution.

While some Church members today have direct pioneer ancestry, many do not. Yet all of us are indebted to the pioneers who helped establish the Church in its early days, and their sacrifices are part of every member’s heritage.

Walking in remembrance

This debt is part of the reason the youth of many area stakes come to Martin’s Cove to walk miles through the hot desert dressed as pioneers, pulling their camping equipment and food in handcarts.

For many teens from the Pueblo Colorado Stake, for example, walking where the pioneers walked helped them realize the dedication and sacrifice of the early pioneers. Hearing the stories of the pioneers and the experiences they went through helped strengthen the testimonies of those who walked just a small part of the trail.

Other groups walking the trail at the same time had similar experiences. Christine Johnson from Orem, Utah, reflected upon the experience of the Saints as they traveled: “I wonder what they would have thought when they were looking around and saw just miles and miles of nothing.”

Adam Pinegar, also from Orem, said his trek gave him a feel for how difficult it was for the handcart pioneers. Although it was tough, Adam said he would do it again. “It was worth it. I thought of my ancestors who actually came across with the Martin Company. They suffered so much to get to the Salt Lake valley, so I could live where I do and have the gospel.”

Erin Woodward’s sixth great-grandfather walked across the plains. Erin, from Westminster, Colorado, thought of this grandfather and his family as she participated in the trek with her stake.

“Now I feel like the silliest girl in the whole world,” she said. “I mean, I have been so into my materialistic things. Seriously, I have a curling iron in my pocket. I even have makeup and everything. I feel horrible because the real pioneers didn’t live as well as I do. Before this I never really understood how blessed I am.”

Shelter from the storm

These young men and women walk through the desert with a backdrop of significant Church history sites—Devil’s Gate, Independence Rock, and Martin’s Cove.

For many, Martin’s Cove is a sacred spot. It is beautiful, with many trees. The feeling is peaceful and calm. The pioneers camped on one side of the cove and buried their dead in shallow snow graves on the other. As the youth walk through the area, they take off their hats and whisper out of respect for those who died.

Tiffany Campbell from the Pueblo stake said the cove made her think a lot about those people and their determination to get to the Salt Lake valley.

The teens from Christine’s Orem ward walked to the cove last, after they had already walked the majority of their trek. “Once we got up there it hit us that this was really the place where they couldn’t go anymore, where they had to stop, and where so many died. It was amazing to be up there after doing the rest of our trek. It was kind of quiet and peaceful and spiritual.”

The end of the journey

As their journey was ending, Stephanie Stewart, also from Pueblo, described what she learned from the miles and miles of walking: “I am going home with a better understanding of how hard it was and what the pioneers did so that we could be free of persecution.”

Many other youth echoed her feelings: “I just think it is really neat to see what they did and what they gained from it,” said Michael King from Roy, Utah. “Of course we can get a little taste of it, you know, but we cannot fully understand.”

After visiting Martin’s Cove, these young people freely admit they cannot completely comprehend what the early handcart pioneers went through. But their reenactment experience has changed their attitudes. They know they face storms of another kind in modern life. But learning to survive is a lesson that was taught by those who have suffered before us. These modern teens also learned that we can all follow the example of faith and determination set by the pioneers. The handcart companies passed their tests. Now it’s our turn.

Photography by Caroline H. Benzley and Layne Benzley

Both the young man from Colorado Springs (above) and the cousins attending a family reunion (right) will carry with them life-long memories of their visit to the Mormon Handcart Visitors’ Center in Wyoming.

Putting on pioneer clothes and reenacting a day or two in the lives of their ancestors gives those who visit this historic spot a new way to think about Church history. Teens pictured here are from the Pueblo Colorado Stake (above and far right, inset), Colorado Springs Colorado Stake (right), and the Westminster Colorado Stake (right, inset).

In this place, the Martin and Willie Handcart Companies suffered terribly from the cold. But now, hats and long sleeves protect from hot summer sun. Teens pictured here are from Orem, Utah (above), Powell, Wyoming (right), and Roy, Utah (right, insets).