On the Trail
These days when you travel Wyoming Highway 220 between Casper and Rawlins, you pass the property identified as the Mormon Handcart Ranch. True, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints does own the ranch now, but for more than a hundred years it was operated by the Tom Sun family. The connection between the Suns and the church comes from the history of the land itself.
Most overland travelers headed to or from Oregon, California, and Utah walked or drove wagons across the ground; their trails converged along the Sweetwater River. Almost everybody camped at Independence Rock, and those headed west then traveled another 6 miles past Devils Gate, which is the backdrop for the ranch. They then established new camps either in that area, or perhaps a few miles on down the trail.
They left behind much evidence of their journey: carvings of their names and the dates they passed through on the granite of Independence Rock or other stones nearer to Devils Gate and graves, such as one that for years was identified as the final resting place of T.P. Baker, but which has more recently been determined to be that of Frederick Fulkerson. This 18-year-old traveler was bound for Oregon in 1847 with his parents from Missouri and died on July 1, 1847.
His niece recalled, “When crossing the Platte River, (Frederick) swam the river below the crossing to ford the stock over, as the river was so swift it tended to wash them downstream. He became so chilled and exhausted that he died and was buried near the crossing.”
For several months beginning in 1855, Basil Lajuenesse, nicknamed “Seminoe,” operated a post, known as Seminoe’s Fort, along the trail near Devil’s Gate. The post was a supply point for travelers, but remained in use only a short time. It was abandoned by the fall of 1856 when Mormon travelers pulling and pushing handcarts stumbled into the region suffering from exertion, lack of food, and the harsh effects of winter weather. The fourth and fifth handcart companies, led by James Grey Willie and Edward Martin, had started their trip across the plains so late in the year that they only reached this area in mid-October. Already snow covered the ground, and strong winds caused temperatures to plunge; that had virtually no food.
The Willie Company did not linger near Devil’s Gate, but the Martin Company, several days behind Willie, barely made it this far and took refuge first at Seminoe’s Fort and later in a nearby cove of the Rattlesnake Range, that is now called Martin’s Cove.
Josiah Rogerson Sr., a member of the Martin Company, many years later wrote of the arrival at Seminoe’s Fort in 1856: “the wagons were banked near the fort … All the people who could crowded into the houses of the fort out of the cold and storm. One crowd cut away the walls of the house they were in for fuel, until half of the roof fell in.”
The number of handcart emigrants who died in the area before they could continue their journey to Great Salt Lake City is uncertain, but along the trail stretch from Casper to Salt Lake there were hundreds left in shallow graves (in some cases the bodies were literally buried in a snow bank and not in the soil at all). Because of this tragedy, the worst in all of overland emigration, the land around Devils Gate is considered sacred to the Mormon Church and its members, and that is one reason the church purchased the ranch from the Sun family.
Thomas de Beau Soleil, a French-Canadian trapper, anglicized his name to Tom Sun and claimed a homestead at Devils Gate, calling his ranch the Hub and Spoke. He and his extended family operated the ranch for more than a century, making their own mark. Today the old ranch house has been turned into an interpretive center by the Mormons to tell the story of the Willie and Martin Companies, but the old fireplace, made of petrified wood, native stones, and even Indian artifacts still stands.
A new museum has been developed in one log building. In it is memorabilia from the Sun family and other items collected in the area or representative of the region.
The LDS Church has also recreated Seminoe’s Fort and has artifacts on display there from an archaeological excavation of the original fort site, which is just southwest of the replica. The fort is set up as a trader’s store, but one room has an interpretive exhibit that tells the story of the men who helped rescue the Willie and Martin Company travelers; some of those men spent the winter at the fort and faced near catastrophic conditions themselves, surviving by boiling their pack saddles, and through the timely arrival of some Shoshone Indians with fresh meat.
Of course, you can also hike the trails leading to Martin’s Cove (in summer you will share them with a lot of church members, mainly youth, who come to reenact the handcart treks), and also hike down to Devil’s Gate itself.
There is no food or snack service at the ranch, so be certain to take a sack lunch with you along with a water bottle (you can refill it at the ranch headquarters). The Oregon-California-Mormon Pioneer-Pony Express trails are all marked through this area and the original trail ruts and swales easily visible.
Two things to be prepared for: mosquitoes and rattlesnakes. With proper precautions, though, neither will be too bothersome.
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