With hearts full of reverence and handcarts laden with personal belongings, some 160 descendants of the Martin Handcart Company and their rescuers remembered their ancestors' suffering here 154 years ago.
Parents, grandparents, youth, children and infants gathered to the Martin's Cove Historic Site, where youth groups and other Church members frequently engage in handcart treks this time of year. But this trek, held Sept. 2-3, was unique in that it's the first time organizer Chad Wright knows about that the invitation has gone out specifically to Martin Handcart descendants. He hopes to organize a similar event in a few years for descendants of the Willie Handcart Company, who suffered at the same time as the Martin group, but for whom the more memorable landmark is Rocky Ridge, further west along the trail. The two Mormon handcart groups, along with two accompanying wagon trains, were stranded on the high plains of Wyoming, victims of late departures and early snowstorms. All suffered, and many perished from hunger and exposure.
"Brothers and sisters, I hope that through this trek experience, along with your family, you can gain strength and direction so that you might know how you can go forward in this life," Brother Wright told participants just before their departure on the three-mile trek to Cherry Hill campground. "There're going to be some hard things — and [as trek organizers] we may create some — but you can move on." He was referring to simulated setbacks, say the loss of a prized possession, when handcart trekkers would be required to go to the end of the train.
He said, "I had a point in planning this experience, when I thought, 'You know, I just can't do this,' and I was researching a little bit about Edward Martin. I discovered that he was the same age that I am now when he went with about 576 saints and set out. He was guiding people senior to him and younger to him, but he took fresh courage and moved on."
For many at this descendants' gathering, the decision to participate came quickly. Richard and Elizabeth Wright, Cobble Creek 1st Ward in West Jordan, Utah, were in a theater several weeks ago watching the movie "17 Miracles." The movie tells of the Willie company's experience, but a picture of James Godson Bleak, a Martin company pioneer, came on the screen.
"I think I'm related to that guy," Sister Wright whispered.
The Wrights confirmed that fact with Internet research. Later, they would chance to read an advance article in the Aug. 13 issue of the Church News about the descendants' gathering. They had been "ma and pa" for a youth trek at Martin's Cove while living in a previous ward and had been trail captains on a recent experience with their current ward. "We said, 'We've done it before, we know what's going to happen; let's just go for it, and we'll do it,' " Brother Wright said. With only two weeks to prepare, the Wrights (who are not related to Chad) registered with their six children. Answering a call for volunteers, Brother and Sister Wright found themselves assigned as trail captains.
From her childhood, Leta Greene was ingrained with the understanding of how fortunate she was to have Mormon pioneer ancestry, including Martin handcart pioneers. When her mother, Charlotte Maughan, learned of the descendants' gathering at Martin's Cove she got her husband, Monty, Leta and Leta's husband, Nathan, and their family involved.
In frail health, Charlotte knew she would not be doing any trekking, but she wanted to come to the site and be as close as she could, probably remaining at the visitors center.
But a female missionary serving at the site told Leta on Friday, "Tomorrow, I will be a rescuer instead of trekking, and I will take her from location to location."
"When I went and told my mom," she didn't just cry; she broke down and sobbed, and said 'I never thought I'd get to see it,'" Leta recounted.
Sitting in a wheeled chair fashioned as a handcart — resembling a rickshaw — Charlotte was transported by her family members up the steep trail to the cove, which Mormons, especially Martin handcart descendants, regard as sacred ground.
Later, hand-in-hand with her husband, Charlotte waded across the shallow Sweetwater River, along with other trek participants, some pulling handcarts. They did this in remembrance of ancestors who were obliged to ford its icy waters in November, having spent four days and five nights sheltering in the cove for which the historic site is named, this after rescuers from Salt Lake City had reached them.
David and Janet Weight of Syracuse, Utah, had a double reason for attending the reunion trek: He is descended from a rescuer, she from one who was rescued. Brother Weight's ancestor is Clark Allen Huntington, one of the four young men later lauded by President Brigham Young in a sermon. The young men spent the day carrying on their backs across the Sweetwater the weakened and incapacitated handcart pioneers, later suffering themselves from the effects of the ordeal. Their names today are memorialized in a monument on the river's bank.
Sister Allen's ancestor is George Frederick Housley, a 17-year-old handcart pioneer who had given up hope of survival. One morning he awoke to find the people next to him had died, Sister Weight said. But he was reached by 23-year-old Marshall Franklin Allen. Sent out by Brigham Young, Brother Allen had at first thought the effort futile, but after prayer, determined to "go to the end of the states" if necessary to find the stranded pioneers. Years later, as older men, they were invited to a Sunday dinner held by Brother Frederick's granddaughter. Her husband was descended from Brother Allen. Reminiscing about the handcart experience, the two men eventually recognized each other as rescuer and rescued.
Elder John Fenn, director of the Mormon Handcart Historic Sites in Wyoming, encapsulated the meaning of this and other commemorative treks. Speaking to the assembled reunion participants who had paused for a devotional while making their way up the trail to the cove, he said the handcart people sacrificed so much so they could come receive the saving ordinances of the temple and be sealed for eternity with their families.
"The question is, are we willing to do as much to bring our families to the temple?" he said.