A national historic site that Sue and I had never been to was Martin’s Cove. Since we live in Utah, and both have ancestors that were pioneers that came across the plains to Utah, this area was of interest to us. It marks the place were Mormon handcart pioneers, caught in an early November snowstorm, finally hunkered down and waited and prayed for help.
Help did eventually arrive, but the trials and sacrifices by this group of early Americans is remembered by the preservation of this site.
Martin’s Cove National Historic Site is located right next to Devils Gate and a short distance from Independence Rock, both major landmarks on the Mormon and Oregon Trail.
There is a visitors center on site that is run by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormon) that explains about the Mormon handcart pioneers and what happened to this particular group at this location. You can also walk to the cove, but it is a significant walk.
In fact, Sue and I had not really looked into any details about this site and, on arrival, found that the walk to the cove was a 5-6 mile round trip hike. So we took off in the hot sun, with plenty of water, but no hats or sun screen (both of which would be highly recommended). The sunburn on my nose lasted for some time, although my face got the start of a tan that it hadn’t had in quite awhile.
While there isn’t much to see at the cove, it does stimulate some interesting thoughts in your mind as you think what it would have been like to be there out in the middle of nowhere, with a foot of snow on the ground, more snow coming, howling winds, and temperatures well below zero. Not a place I would want to spend much time at, and yet these pioneers endured this and much more, many giving their lives, but many pressing on with help, and eventually reaching the Salt Lake valley, where Salt Lake City now is.
There are also some interesting pioneer stories that the guides at a couple points along the trail and at the cove can relate to you. They’ll also have some water available if you are running out. Even if you think you have enough, let them fill your water bottles up. You’ll be grateful later!
If you take the loop back to the visitors center (which is a bit longer than returning the way you came), you’ll pass by the Sweetwater River several times. Quite a pretty view as you walk back. But when the handcart pioneers were journeying in this area, it became a barrier that was almost impossible to overcome for these frozen, tired pioneers.
There is a story that says that when the Martin Handcart company encountered the river, many refused to go any further and some men simply sat down and wept. It was just too much. Several young men in the rescue part volunteered to help carry many of the men, women, and children across the icy river. Spending a good part of the day in the river affected these young men all their lives; their sacrifice is noted in a small memorial near the river.
One of the most interesting parts of this site is the view of the thousands of young people who come here each summer to participate in “handcart treks”. These young people come from all around the western United States, dress in pioneer clothing, and spend a few days and nights experiencing life as a handcart pioneer.
They actually pull handcarts across the area, even across the Sweetwater River, camp at night, play pioneer games, and do other things to understand and appreciate the lives and sacrifices of many of those who helped settle the West. I asked one of the guides how many young people come each summer and was astounded to find out that it was around 20,000, give or take. Wow.
If you go, you’ll definitely notice them as they pull their handcarts in different areas of the site. You may even run into a group bound for Martin’s Cove if you visit a rest area along the I-80 freeway. We did. They are easy to recognize, because there will be lots of young people dressed in long shirts, vests, cowboy hats, and long dresses, and bonnets.
If you don’t take the walk to Devils Gate, make sure to stop and notice it. It was a very visible landmark for those traveling west.
A short distance to the east of Devil’s Gate is Independence Rock, also a landmark. Many early travelers carved their names on the rock, some of which you can see today.
For some, this area may not seem very interesting, but when you consider what it represents in terms of the thousands who came out west by many different means, you can get a sense of those who did so much to settle the western part of our country. You’ll see many things that they saw, and, for a moment, you might be able to get a small glimpse into the challenges and struggles that they faced.
Here’s a video that Sue and I made of our visit to Martin’s Cove and a Flickr Slideshow.