J. Dawg Journeys

Walking to Zion – Along the Mormon Trail

For much of my journey, I’ve been referring the route as the Oregon Trail.  In reality, there are three historic trails that follow much of the same route – The Oregon, California, and Mormon Trails.  The California and Oregon Trails followed the same route from Independence until they got to Fort Bridger in Wyoming and then they parted.  The Mormon Trail had a different starting point and followed a slightly different route.

Some Mormon Trail History

To help understand why it was different, I’ll share some brief (J. Dawg’s version) history to help understand why the Mormon Trail was different.

In the 1830’s and 40’s, the early Mormons were severely persecuted and chased out of every place they tried to settle.  The last eviction was at Nauvoo, IL in 1846.  When that happened, they made their way across Iowa to a place near present day Council Bluffs.  They established a gathering camp across the river called the Winter Quarters.  The Mormon Trail departed from here versus Independence.

Brigham Young

Brigham Young (web photo)

Brigham Young knew that they had to find a new home far enough away to avoid future persecutions.  He chose Utah.  In 1846, Utah it was beyond the Indian Territory and it was some what unclaimed (some thought it was sort of in Mexico and some thought it was sort of in the US).

The first Mormon Company (The Pioneer Company that included Brigham Young and his top council members) departed the Winter Quarters in 1847.  They chose a route on the north side of the Platte River.  Based on years of persecution, they purposely wanted to avoid the “gentiles” who traveled on the south side of the river  They also wanted a more permanently marked and supported route that could be used by their members.

The Mormons documented their trail route.  They wrote a guide-book to help other companies. They built bridges over streams.  And, they left behind members to build and staff resupply stations.  While the Oregon and California Trail were one-way routes, the Mormon Trail was a two-way route.  Members would return to the Winter Quarters to help form other companies and guide them to Utah.

The Mormons were super organized in a military like fashion.  Early groups were organized into companies of 148 people with a Captain appointed to lead the company.  While on the Trail, they had a set of strict rules that were to be followed by all members.  There were set times for departure each day, when to stop for the midday meal, when to stop for the day, when to hold prayers, and when it was lights out.  And it worked for them.  They had a predictable time-table for their travel.  Also, they suffered significantly fewer casualties on their trail compared to the others on the Oregon and California Trails.

In Wyoming, all the trail routes converged near Fort Casper, where the groups stopped following the Platte River.

My Journey Across Wyoming

I did an overnight stop in Casper.  I visited the National Historic Trails interpretive Center. It’s a nice place to see more Trail history.  I made a video on my visit so I’ll let the video show you what this museum was like.  It’s a worthwhile stop.

I left Casper and followed the Trail over Route 220 south.  The first historic site I aimed for (and one that the pioneers aimed for ) was Independence Rock.  The “rock” is a major monolith of granite bulging out the earth.  It stands 130 ft high.  As a landmark, it stands out from all the surrounding hills because of its barren brown granite dome.

Independence Rock

Independence RockThe pioneers used it as a campsite and milestone.  They had to get to Independence Rock before Independence Day to ensure that could make it to Oregon before it snowed.  The site is now a State Historic Site, but there’s not too much to see.  For the young and brave (and those with good knees) you can climb the rock.  There’s some history plaques and inscriptions, but other than that, it’s a huge blob of rock on the side of the road.

Devil’s Gate

Just down the road a few miles from Independence Rock is another key Trail site called Devil’s Gate.  This landmark is a giant clef in the rocks at the headwaters of the Sweetwater River.

Devil's Gate

Devil’s Gate

Early Native Americas’ considered this a place of bad medicine inhabited by a monster that killed living creature (that’s how it became known as Devils Gate).  The pioneers just considered it another landmark that marked the trail.  For the Mormons, the native folklore about the place would foretell a human tragedy.

In 1856, the Mormons began using hand carts in their journeys for the newly arriving members from Europe.  The hand carts were less expensive than wagons and teams of oxen. And for the people from Europe, who were not teamsters and had limited belongs, the hand carts were a viable solution.  Much like they did with all groups, the hand cart groups were organized into companies.  The handcart companies were supported by a few wagons hauling supplies for the group.  But, for the newly arrived Saints, they had to walk and pull their carts along the trail for 15-18 miles per day.

(To envision what is was like to pull a hand cart, think of being on a StairMaster or treadmill exercise machine for 10 hrs per day each day for 16 weeks.)

Mormon Tragedy at Martin’s Cove

For one of the hand cart groups, tragedy struck as they approached Devils Gate.  A group of over 500 called the Martin Company (headed by Captain Edward Martin) left Nebraska late in the season (end of August, which was too late) and encountered bad weather along the way in Wyoming.  They ended up getting stranded in a snow storm near Devil’s Gate.

Several members (about 100) died here awaiting a rescue group from Utah.  I won’t try to recount the whole story here.  Here’s a link where you can read about what happened at Martin’s Cove – Tragedy at Martins Cove.

The LDS Church considers their people’s journey to Utah very similar to the journey that Israel made out of Egypt (a persecuted people seeking a promised land).  The people of Israel traveled through the Sinai wilderness to the promised land of Canaan east of the Jordan River. For the Mormons, Utah was their Zion and for them their journey to get there was just as monumental.

Being a student of the Bible and having read about the Mormon Trail journey, I understand why this place became special to the Mormons.  Theirs was a journey of significant suffering and Martins Cover was a place of that suffering.  It was the most tragic event on all the Trails.

My Visit to Martin’s Cove

In the 1990’s, the LDS Church purchased a ranch near Devil’s Gate and they leased several more surrounding acres to form their Mormon Trail Historic Site at Martin’s Cove.  Today, this spot is used by the LDS to have people experience and re-enact the struggles of the original Saints along the Trail.  It’s open to the public and anyone and come see and experience what is now a beautiful spot.  You can even pull a cart, if you want.

Mormon Handcart Historic Site

The Mormon Handcart Historic Site at Martin’s Cove


There’s a Visitor Center museum and several historic buildings.  I made a video to show what I saw at this site.

Before I left on my trip, I read about the Mormon Trail in Wallace Stegner’s book – “The Gathering to Zion”.  I already knew a little about the Mormon history and theology.  But, Wallace Stegner’s book gave me more context.  I now appreciate why Utah and the original Trail pioneers who settled there are so significant to their history.

This stop at Martins Cove was a high-point for me.  I was not expecting to be able to visit the LDS site.  It’s a beautiful place and the LDS Church does a good job honoring those who made the trek with the hand carts.  I highly recommend this stop.

I continued on my trek west along 220 to Lander, WY.  This was my stop over before I turned south to head over the Great Divide at South Pass.

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