Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Pioneer Day 2008: Remembering a visit to Martin's Cove

Today marks the 161st anniversary of the arrival of the first company of Mormon pioneers to the Salt Lake Valley. The Mormons had fled mob violence in Missouri and later Illinois that resulted in the murder of their leader Joseph Smith. Before Joseph died he had investigated sites for the Mormons to eventually settle in the Rocky Mountains. The second president of the church, Brigham Young, was the one to lead them there.

For several decades starting in 1847, thousands of Mormons walked across the Great Plains to Salt Lake City and surrounding Mormon colonies. Many of them traveled without incident, but a few parties experienced sickness and deadly weather conditions. One such group was the Martin Handcart Company, which left very late in the year 1856. Members of this company were too poor to afford oxen or wagons, so they loaded their possessions into two-wheeled “handcarts” that they pulled along behind them. Although others had crossed the plains successfully with handcarts, this group had left exceptionally late in the year and were struggling through cold weather with very little food. When Brigham Young learned of their condition, he commanded church members in Salt Lake to form a rescue party:

“I will now give this people the subject and the text for the Elders who may speak to-day and during the Conference, it is this, on the 5th day of October, 1856, many of our brethren and sisters are on the Plains with hand-carts, and probably many are now seven hundred miles from this place, and they must be brought here, we must send assistance to them. The text will be-to get them here…

“I will tell you all that your faith, religion, and profession of religion, will never save one soul of you in the celestial kingdom of our God, unless you carry out just such principles as I am now teaching you. Go and bring in those people now on the Plains…” (Journal of Discourses 4:112)

Soon after the first rescuers arrived, a ferocious blizzard struck the company and they were forced to seek shelter in Martin’s Cove, near present-day Alcova, Wyoming. A number of pioneers died and were buried in the cove as they waited out the storm. Miraculously, a large part of the company survived and completed the trek to Salt Lake City thanks to the supplies and moral assistance brought by the rescuers.

You can visit Martin’s Cove and even take a hike pulling a handcart at the Mormon Handcart Visitor’s Center. In June of 2003 I did just that with a group of students from Brigham Young University and, wouldn’t you know it, we got caught in the snow! Only in Wyoming… Here are some thoughts I recorded about the experience shortly afterward:

“As we exited the Visitor's Center we encountered some marble-sized hail that had fallen, still melting on the ground. It was pretty windy and chilly as we began pulling our handcarts toward the west along the south side of the Sweetwater River. Almost immediately it began to rain, and as we passed Martin's Cove off to the right, large flakes of snow began to fall! It was quite the sight, to be experiencing a little of what the pioneers must have seen and pull and handcart through the storm. Luckily for us, it was not cold enough for the snow to stick, and the storm soon died down. We made a little over 6 miles with the handcarts and then camped on the plains.

“That evening a senior missionary came who impersonated Ephraim Hanks, one of the initial rescuers from Salt Lake. Brother Hanks told a story about how the Lord had called him as he lie in his bed and informed him that he was needed to help rescue the people out on the plains. The next day Brigham Young extended the call to him and he was already prepared to go. Bro Hanks used his medical knowledge to perform amputations of the pioneers' frozen limbs and saved many from dying of gangrene. He performed the operations with his hunting knife, and before each one he gave a priesthood blessing to the person being operated on, promising that they would not feel anything. Not one person complained of pain during his operations. This was in fulfillment of a blessing that Brigham Young gave him right before he left Salt Lake.

“The senior missionaries that visited our camp loaned us some tents for the night. We had planned to sleep under the stars but it was threatening to rain again, and sure enough, right around bedtime drops started to fall. We were grateful for their rescue efforts to us, and that we didn't have to sleep in our makeshift plastic lean-tos.

“The next day we hiked back along the same trail four miles, crossed the Sweetwater (on a convenient foot bridge), and then parked the handcarts for our hike up into the cove. When President Hinckley dedicated the site he said it was "hallowed ground," and it is…

“The cove itself is a horseshoe-shaped rock formation along a long ridge/range of rocks. In the middle of this horseshoe, an enormous hill has formed over time by blowing sand, leaving a marshy ring around the inside between the hill and the rocks. This is where the pioneers camped. When we reached the lower cove, a senior missionary met us at a little amphitheater and told us some of the history and stories of the Martin Company. Then we did a silent walk-through around the cove. As one missionary who was native to Wyoming put it, the state doesn't have a temple yet, but Martin's Cove is their temple. I can testify that the spirit I felt there was the same as in the temple, and that it was a place very conducive to spiritual contemplation and communication.”

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