The Mormon Handcart Visitors Center at Martin's Cove is located on Wyoming Highway 220 near Devil’s Gate, about 60 miles southwest of Casper and 55 miles north of Rawlins. Visitors can walk trails, tour a small museum, read interpretive signs and push handcarts on their own when weather permits to get a sense of pioneer experiences. For hours of operation and more information, call (307) 328-2953 or visit http://www.lds.org/church/places-to-visit/mormon-handcart-historic-site.
The Sixth Crossing of the Sweetwater
As they made their way toward the sixth crossing of the Sweetwater River, emigrants found the Oregon Trail descending a steep bluff of sand and gravel. Half a mile later, the trail split, and half a mile after that the trail crossed the river in two different spots.
The travelers were glad, at this point, to get back to good water again. Previously, they had threaded the Narrows at Three Crossings—their third, fourth and fifth crossings of the river—or avoided those fords altogether by way of the accurately named Deep Sand Route. From Three Crossings sixteen more miles took them to Sixth Crossing, where the Oregon Trail crossed the river about three miles southwest of today’s Sweetwater Station at the intersection of U.S. Route 287 and Wyoming Highway 135.
The route between the fifth and sixth crossings was mostly dry. It passed Ice Slough and Warm Springs Creek, but water at both those places was alkaline. Most emigrant parties camped at Sixth Crossing—on one side of the river or the other. Many mentioned crossing another stream soon after crossing, but this in fact was a second channel of the river itself.
Norton Jacob, traveling in 1847 with the first company of Mormon pioneers to cross the Rocky Mountains, wrote of this approach to the Sweetwater on June 24, “[W]hile we were descending a long sandy hill, suddenly through a small grassy bottom, winding, appeared [the Sweetwater’s] sparkling waters, a welcome sight to man & beast.”
The way had been difficult, Jacob’s entry continues, with “tired teams, several having failed on the way by reason of the heat of the Sun & fatigue of the Journey.”
Not all diary entries convey this sense of struggle, however. On the same day, William Clayton, with the same company, noted, “The feed here is very good and plenty of willow bushes for fuel.” A member of Clayton’s company picked up an “Indian arrow point … almost as white as alabaster.”
Nothing so interesting caught the eye of Riley Root a year later. He wrote, “Here the country is a barren waste, except along the river where a little grass is found. Back from the river, nothing grows but wild sage.”
The years 1849 and 1850 brought a huge flood of traffic along the trails—the great majority of it headed for the gold fields of California. Tens of thousands of people and their livestock consumed water, wood and grass as never before.
After fording at Sixth Crossing on July 2, 1849, Patrick McLeod wrote, “We could find no grass to noon on the river.” Worse yet, when his company drove up out of the Sweetwater valley, “The wind blew furiously, raising clouds of sand, cold and disagreeable.”
But next day, July 3, 1849, Ansel McCall’s party evidently crossed at a different spot, finding “a beautiful green meadow in a bend of the river, where there was very fine grazing.” Charlie, one of McCall’s oxen, died there, however. “No more fitting resting place for his old bones could have been found,” wrote McCall, “than that sweet meadow on the bank of this murmuring stream in the heart of the ‘Old Rockies.’”
“Grass very scarce, no wood,” Augustus Burbank wrote on July 5, 1849. “I have seen 8 dead and 2 disabled cattle today.”
Emigrants were sometimes forced to leave useful items along the trail, Burbank noticed. “Wagons, boxes, chains, lead, stove, guns, axes, I saw wedges, clothing & c. was among the sundry articles that lay by the way side.” Burbank also saw “gold dust” in the Sweetwater that turned out to be mica.
Later that month, on July 29, J. Goldsborough Bruff seemed much struck by the view just before the descent to the crossing. “From the edge of the bluff above, we had a beautiful view of the Stream, meadow, and camps below, and the mountains around, in every shade of distance.”
Better yet, Bruff said, he “was informed here, that a few miles below, on the other side of the Stream, were plenty of buffalo and antelope.”
On June 12, 1850, James Shields’s party camped at the crossing, where he reported, “Grazing is very poor.” His diary entry continues, “There were about 60 teams camped near by us. All of us are pretty well done for by today’s travel.”
“[W]ater 18 inches deep, good crossing, grass scarce, willow bushes for fuel,” was Isaac R. Starr’s brief comment on July 7, 1850.
Travel was still difficult in 1853. Although on July 4 Andrew S. McClure noted, “plenty of grass, plenty of water, plenty of wood, plenty of sage,” he also saw, a mile up the river from the crossing, “plenty of hungry cattle.”
No doubt echoing the experience of so many emigrants, McClure added, “The valley in the vicinity of the ford is dotted with cattle. There is little for them to eat there and this is the foundation of so much suffering on this road.”
About three miles west of Sixth Crossing, emigrants sometimes crossed the river twice more at two crossings half a mile apart—the seventh and eighth crossings of the Sweetwater. These fords allowed them to avoid a climb up over a steep, sandy hill on the north side of the river. The approaches to the crossings were swampy, however, and had to be avoided when the route was wet. Ruts over the sandy hill remain today, and are deep and well preserved.
After that, the trail left the river for a far more difficult stretch—over Rocky Ridge.
It was at Sixth Crossing in late October 1856 that the 500 members of the Willie Handcart Company, nearly all of them Mormon converts who had traveled that year from factory cities of the English Midlands, finally stalled. They were starving, freezing and completely out of food, and nine of them died here, shortly before the rest were reached by rescuers with wagons and supplies from Salt Lake City.
Sixth Crossing is now on private land, but a visitor’s center maintained by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is open to the public. It stands on a hill just south of U.S. route 287 and a mile or so east of Sweetwater Station.
- Bruff, J. Goldsborough. Gold Rush: The Journals, Drawings, and Other Papers of J. Goldsborough Bruff, Captain, Washington City and California Mining Association, April 2, 1849–July 20, 1851. 1 vol. edition. Ed. by Georgia Willis Read and Ruth Gaines. New York: Columbia University Press, 1949.
- Burbank, Augustus Ripley. Overland Diary, 1849. Manuscript. MSS P-A 304, Bancroft Library. Typescript.
- Clayton, William. The Journal of William Clayton. Salt Lake City, Utah: International Society of Utah Pioneers, 1945, reprinted 1994.
- Jacob, Norton. The Mormon Vanguard Brigade of 1847: Norton Jacob’s Record. Ed. by Ronald O. Barney. Logan, Utah: Utah State University Press, 2005.
- McCall, Ansel J. The Great California Trail in 1849: Wayside Notes of an Argonaut. Bath, N.Y.: Steuben Courier Printing, 1882.
- McClure, Andrew S. The Diary of Andrew S. McClure, 1853. Eugene, Ore.: Lane County Pioneer-Historical Society, 1959. Typescript.
- McLeod, Patrick H. Diary, 1849. Manuscript Collection No. WC001, Philip Ashton Rollins Papers, Box 11, F1, Dept. of Rare Books and Special Collections, Princeton University Library, Princeton, N.J. Richard Rieck transcription.
- Root, Riley. Journals of Travels from St. Joseph to Oregon. Oakland, Calif., 1955, reprinted from the Galesburg, IL, Gazeteer and Intelligencer, 1850.
- Shields, James G. Overland Journey from St. Joseph to Sacramento, 9 April to 13 August 1850. WA MSS 423, Beinecke Library. Typescript.
- Starr, Isaac R. Diary, 1850. Manuscript and Typescript, MSS 2473, Oregon Historical Society.
- Woodworth, James. Diary of James Woodworth: Across the Plains to California in 1853. Eugene, Ore.: Lane County Pioneer-Historical Society, 1972.
- Brown, Randy. Oregon-California Trails Association. WyoHistory.org offers special thanks to this historian for providing the diary entries used in this article.
- Long, Gary Duane. The Journey of the James G. Willie Handcart Company, October 1856. Published by the author, 2009, pp. 66-73.
- Wyoming State Historic Preservation Office, “5th 6th 7th and 8th Crossings of the Sweetwater." Emigrant Trails throughout Wyoming. Accessed April 17, 2017, at http://wyoshpo.state.wy.us/trailsdemo/6th,7th,8thcrssngs.htm.
At Ice Slough, not far from the Sweetwater River on the Oregon, California and Mormon trails, covered-wagon emigrants were often surprised to find a thick layer of clear ice buried 8 or 10 inches under a layer of boggy turf. A historical marker on the north side of U.S. Highway 287/Wyoming 789, nine miles west of Jeffrey City and 10 miles east of Sweetwater Station, commemorates the spot.
This difficult, 12-mile stretch of the Oregon Trail east of South Pass is frequently documented in emigrant literature and was site of particular suffering among members of the Willie and Martin handcart companies of Mormon emigrants in 1856. About two and a half miles of the stretch are closed to motorized travel. The trail is accessible from the all-dirt, well-maintained Hudson-Atlantic City Road, Fremont County 2302, which leaves U.S. Route 287/Wyoming Highway 789 about two miles west of Sweetwater Station and heads west from there to Atlantic City, Wyo. For advice on road conditions and detailed directions, call the Lander, Wyo. Field Office of the U. S. Bureau of Land Management, 307-332-8400. For much more on touring Wyoming’s historic trails, see Tour the Trails in Wyoming, a web page maintained by the BLM.
This field trip to the monuments right at South Pass follows about 3 miles of maintained county roads and less than 1 mile of original two-track wagon trail to the South Pass interpretive site at the Continental Divide. Most visitors should turn around at that site and return to Wyoming Higway 28. The old wagon trail continues west and rejoins Highway 28 about 5 miles beyond the South Pass exhibits, but the trail is extremely rough and often is impassible. Proceed at your own risk.
High clearance vehicles recommended. Do not attempt to turn onto the original wagon trail segment when the road is wet or when rain threatens. Road is closed in winter. Detailed maps of the area are available from the Rock Springs and Lander Field Offices of the Bureau of Land Management.
Directions: From South Pass Rest Area, continue south on Wyoming Highway 28 for 0.7 mile, watching on the right for a sign indicating the Big Sandy entrance to the Bridger Wilderness. Do not follow the sign, but instead continue another 0.2 mile on the highway and turn left (southeast) onto Oregon Buttes Road, Fremont County 445, a well-maintained dirt road. Zero your trip odometer, then continue southeast across the cattle guard and under the power lines.
Cross a second cattle guard and continue to odometer reading 2.8 miles, slowing where the road begins curving to the right. Look for the old wagon trail crossing Oregon Buttes Road at the curve; it can be hard to see when approaching from the north. Turn right (west) onto the two-track. If the two- track appears too rough for your vehicle, park here and hike about three-fourths of a mile to the South Pass monuments.
You are now on the original corridor of the Oregon, California, Mormon Pioneer, and Pony Express National Historic Trails at South Pass. The two-track you are driving is original wagon trail that has been slightly modified by modern vehicle traffic.
On the right side of the road at odometer reading 3.6 miles is a BLM interpretive exhibit about South Pass. A short distance beyond, on the right, stands a small monument commemorating Narcissa Whitman and Eliza Spalding, missionary women who crossed the pass with their husbands in 1836. (Historians now agree that the missionaries actually crossed the divide near the Little Sandy on what became the Lander Road route.) Also nearby is a stone monument erected by Ezra Meeker, a covered- wagon emigrant who returned years later to mark and promote protection of the Oregon Trail.
Click here for a 360-degree view of South Pass from the Meeker monument.
Editor’s note: Directions to the South Pass monuments and overlook sites are from the National Park Service’s National Historic Trails Auto Tour Route Interpretive Guide Across Wyoming, pp.64-66. Used with thanks.
The Oregon, Mormon Pioneer and California trails all cross Wyoming in the central and most popular corridor of the transcontinental migration of the 1840s, ’50s and ’60s. As many as half a million people may have traveled this corridor in the 19th century. To many, the environments of the Great Plains, Rocky Mountains and Great Basin seemed like another planet, full of strange and alien landscapes.