I had never seen the historical sites of Martin’s Cove, Devil’s Gate, Independence Rock, Fort Bridger, and the Willie Handcart site at Rock Creek after the pioneers had crossed Rocky Ridge before.
Though I knew bits and pieces of the stories behind each of these places, I shamefully admit I didn’t know the full history nor had I taken the time to research the events in its entirety to know what actually happened to our early pioneers of the church. While I claim that Gerald Lund’s Fire of the Covenant is certainly one of my favorite historical novels, and it did indeed give me an idea of the events of that time period , I still did not have a good knowledge or understanding of everything that took place—(which I should have taken the time to learn ) Without that knowledge I don’t feel I have I fully appreciated what our pioneers experienced or suffered.
While I certainly can’t write all that I learned this past weekend, and I feel so inadequate to express the feelings I have walked away from this experience with , I do want to mention a couple of things I learned about some of the places we visited.
Independence Rock was indeed named on Independence Day by fur trappers who found this rock July 4, 1830. Emigrants stopped by here for refreshing water of the Sweetwater River. Many names and dates can still be seen on the rocks surface.
Martin’s Cove: In 1856 many of the Martin Handcart company were caught in an October blizzard. Food and supplies were scarce. They were down to a quarter of a cup of flour per day per adult. They took up temporary refuge in a cove, but so many were weak and ill and of the group, 150 died. (Not all there in the cove) Still, due to rescue efforts sent from President Brigham Young in Salt Lake, more than 425 of the handcart pioneers were saved.
We were able to go up into the cove. On one side you are can to see where they camped and on the other you see where they buried those who passed away. Because the ground was frozen, they were unable to dig graves. Therefore their loved ones were put into shallow graves with only the protection of rocks to cover them. At night they could hear the wolves howling. Loved ones feared the wolves would ravage the graves. How devastating would that be? There is one story told that a woman couldn’t bear the thought of her one true love being ravaged by wolves. Her one and only choice possession she had was a shawl. In the night her husband passed away. She begged the men in camp to tie her loved one up in a tree, in the shawl, where the wolves couldn’t get to him. As they broke camp, she turned around and the last thing she saw was her shawl blowing in the wind that her husband was wrapped in. Later that spring, men went back and gave him a proper burial and the shawl was retrieved. It is now in a museum. Many, many, more stories like these were shared.
The Willie Handcart Group at Rock Creek: This group was caught in the same storm, in the same dire straits, but only a little further ahead than the Martin handcart group. In one night 13 people died and were buried in a mass grave the next day. Two of the men who helped dig that grave died later that day and were buried just a little further away from the other’s burial site. Of over 500 members, 430 survived.
One sweet young girl, Bodil Mortensen, age 9 of Denmark was coming to Salt Lake to meet her sister. She was traveling with a family who were friends of her parents. One of her jobs was to take care of the young son of that family. Another was to collect firewood for the family’s campfire. No firewood could be found. All she could find was sagebrush. Early that morning, young Bodil was found by the wheel of the handcart, with an armful of sagebrush, frozen to death. She was counted among the 13 who had passed away.
Each of these people who crossed the plains leave for us an incredible story of courage and faith. For each of us they have left a legacy.
There is an indescribable feeling in both of these places. Missionaries are there to answer questions if you have any, or to tell you about the people who had been there if you’d like to know. There are statues that certainly bring a tear to your eye, a lump to your throat, and sorrow as well as joy to your heart at Martin’s cove. At Rock Creek I found a quote from the dedication of the bronze monument and the granite marker with the thirteen names of the people buried who were with the Willie Handcart group. It certainly sums up feelings better than anyone else ever could. It is by President Gordon B. Hinckley. He said, “Rock Creek is sacred and holy ground… How tremendous their heroism in the face of odds that are almost impossible to understand… in terms of self-sacrifice, in terms of courage, in terms of faith, in terms of facing up to adversity, there is no greater example in the history of this nation… We have a great inheritance… a tremendous responsibility to live up to it. God bless us to be faithful, to be true to that which meant so much to those who died here…”
As I sat and listened to the stories of these individuals, I marveled at the tremendous faith, strength and commitment. I asked myself over and over, would I have that kind of strength if called upon to endure those kinds of challenges? I honestly don’t know. I pray with all my heart that I could say yes, but I don’t know. I do know how much my testimony means to me, how much I love my Father in Heaven and my family so I do hope with all my heart that I would have that kind of strength and faith to endure. I recognize it is my love and my faith and my commitment to these that would carry me through. Is that what kept them going? Is that what drove them on to reach Zion? Again I ask myself, could I endure those same hardships?
I love and admire these people for what they have taught me. I have felt sorrow and shed many tears this past weekend for the loss. I am truly humbled to hear of the many experiences of sacrifices they all made and yet the joy they had in doing so. I marvel at the miracles that took place at such a difficult time. And now I feel blessed and very grateful that I finally recognize what all this means to me.