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Historic Spots & Monuments

Journey to Martin's Cove: The Mormon Handcart Tragedy of 1856

In August 1856, more than 1,000 Mormon emigrants in the Willie and Martin handcart companies left Florence, Nebraska Territory, with plans of reaching Salt Lake City and the headquarters of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints before winter. Their late start, substandard equipment and lack of sufficient supplies had disastrous consequences when they were hit by winter storms. Hundreds died on the journey across what’s now Wyoming and into Utah. Images of emigrant families pulling handcarts have since become an LDS Church icon of the triumph of faith over adversity.

The Martin's Cove Controversy

In 1992, officials from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints placed monuments commemorating the ill-fated, 1856 journey of the Willie and Martin handcart companies at Martin’s Cove, on public land leased for livestock grazing by the Sun Ranch near Devil’s Gate in central Wyoming. In 1997, the LDS church bought the ranch, and in subsequent years tried to get a bill through Congress to allow church purchase of the cove as well. The bill was opposed by some Wyoming citizens, however, and by Wyoming’s U.S. senator, Craig Thomas. Instead, a compromise 25-year lease was negotiated between the church and the Bureau of Land Management, guaranteeing public access to the public.

Durlacher House

The Durlacher House in Laramie, Wyo. was built in 1878 for Civil War veteran Simon Durlacher. Durlacher arrived in town a decade earlier and just one month before the Union Pacific Railroad tracks reached Laramie. The house, designed by architect Charles Klingerman in late-Victorian Queen Anne style, was also used as a church and now is used by a private business. The Durlacher House is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

South Pass Gold Rush

Discovery of gold near South Pass in the 1860s led to the creation and settlement of short-lived South Pass City, Wyo. and other settlements nearby. The Carissa Mine was one of the richest, but between 1867 and 1869, 1500 lodes were located during the rush, and as many as 2,000 miners and others may have lived in the little town or on their claims. By the early 1870s, only a few hundred were left. Sporadic gold production has continued since, however, with systematic prospecting by an American subsidiary of a Canadian firm permitted as recently as 2006.

Johnson County, Wyoming

The history of Johnson County, Wyo., features a number of violent conflicts that influenced the heritage of the West. The Fetterman and Wagon Box fights were important conflicts in the Indian wars of the 1860s, while the infamous 1892 Johnson County War erupted because of tensions among cattle barons, homesteaders and rustlers. Johnson County’s economy today continues to thrive on tourism, ranching and oil and gas.

Carbon, Wyoming

Founded in 1868, the short-lived town of Carbon provided crucial coal supplies for the Union Pacific Railroad. Its rough reputation was boosted in 1881, when a mob of miners pulled Dutch Charley Burris, accused of the murder of a popular lawman, from a train and hanged him from a telegraph pole. Many Finnish men worked in the coal mines until 1902, when the mines closed. Today, there are only a few ruins to mark the site, but the Carbon Cemetery has been recently refurbished and is still being used.

Reshaw's Bridge

John Richard’s bridge across the North Platte River near present Casper, Wyo. eased the way for thousands of those who traveled the Oregon, California and Mormon trails during the years 1852-1866. Because Richard spoke with a French accent, many people thought his name was Reshaw and began referring to the bridge as Reshaw’s Bridge. A number of diarists, including world traveler Sir Richard Burton, recorded their experiences and descriptions of the bridge and the mixed-race community that thrived at the nearby trading post.

Protestant Missionaries Cross South Pass

As the beaver trade waned in the 1830s, so did economic reasons for an American toehold in the Oregon country, still under joint British-American occupancy. Religion shifted the balance of power, however, when American Protestant missionaries crossed the Rocky Mountains with an eye toward converting the tribes of the Northwest. Soon these men brought their wives with them as well. In 1836, Narcissa Whitman and Eliza Spalding were the first Euro-American women to cross South Pass, and these people became the vanguard of American settlement of Oregon.

The Astorians Discover South Pass

Robert Stuart and partners and employees of the fur magnate John Jacob Astor, traveling east in 1812 from the Oregon coast to St. Louis, crossed “a handsome low gap” in the Rocky Mountains in October of that year, after receiving a tip months before about its existence from a Shoshone guide. This marked the discovery by European Americans of South Pass, destined in coming decades to become the main route of American expansion to the West.

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Encyclopedia | Two military posts were built a few miles apart during the Indian Wars near the strategic Bozeman Trail crossing of Powder River—Fort Reno in the 1860s and Cantonment Reno in the 1870s. The first was one of three forts whose existence provoked the tribes into war. The second was an important Army base for later campaigns.
Encyclopedia | In November 1876, about 700 cavalry and 400 Indian scouts led by Col. Ranald Mackenzie, burned the main village of the Northern Cheyenne to the ground near the Red Fork of Powder River about 20 miles west of present Kaycee, Wyo. Seven soldiers were killed and about 40 Cheyenne, but the economic and cultural loss to the tribe was devastating. The Northern Cheyenne surrendered to government authorities the following spring.
Encyclopedia | In 1850, the U.S. Congress authorized a conference to persuade Plains Indian tribes to live and hunt within newly designated, separate territories, and to accept payment for the damage caused by emigrants crossing their lands. The conference in September 1851 drew 10,000 Indians to the confluence of Horse Creek and the North Platte River, 30 miles east of Fort Laramie. The treaty that was signed there, the Horse Creek Treaty of 1851, permanently changed the terms of Indian-white relations on the northern Great Plains.
Encyclopedia | Noted western historian Will Bagley, drawing on the work of Pulitzer-Prize-winning author and conservationist Wallace Stegner, offers a passionate plea for the preservation of South Pass, a crucial site for the hundreds of thousands of people who traveled the Oregon, California and Mormon trails.
Encyclopedia | People have been leaving carvings and images on Independence Rock in central Wyoming since prehistoric times. When Father De Smet visited in 1841, so many names had already been carved, painted or smeared on the landmark in buffalo grease and gunpowder that he named it the “Great Register of the Desert.” The rock may have been the best-known spot on the emigrant trails, and it remains an enduring symbol of Wyoming's contribution to our nation's heritage and highest ideals.
Encyclopedia | Wyoming gets its name from a green valley in northeast Pennsylvania originally purchased from the Iroquois by a Connecticut land company. An Ohio congressman in 1865 first proposed the name—but later, after he saw our dry, wide plains, he wasn’t so sure he’d had the right idea.
Encyclopedia | In March 1866, when whites and Indians together at Fort Laramie mourned the death of Mni Akuwin, daughter of Spotted Tail, chief of the Brulé Lakota, a colonel at the post hoped it was a sign of peace between the peoples. Peace hopes were shattered later that spring however, by the arrival of hundreds of troops to build forts on the Bozeman Trail, and two more years of bitter warfare followed. Finally in 1868, the tribes of the northern plains gathered at the fort and signed a treaty, ending the war—for a while.
Encyclopedia | Award-winning historian Will Bagley explains that without South Pass and the easy grade it offered to early transcontinental travelers, the history of the United States would have been much different. Hundreds of thousands of people made the crossing in the mid-1800s, following the trail blazed in 1812 by Robert Stuart and the Astorians. In 1836, missionaries Narcissa Whitman and Eliza Spalding became the first women to travel across South Pass. Today, markers at the summit commemorate the pioneers, the wide expanse of land and sky looks much as it did in pioneer times and “the West,” as Bagley notes, still “opens up for anyone who stands at South Pass.”

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