HISTORY OF TREK SITES
Winter Quarters is the general area of the Missouri River Valley where ninety Mormon settlements were located. These settlements literally served as the "Winter Quarters" for thousands of Latter-day Saints who were making their way to the West. Winter conditions in the Midwest made for less than satisfactory travel, so it was necessary to find a place to spend the winter before continuing the journey in the spring. Many Saints stayed in the area for several years so that they could grow food and gather supplies to prepare themselves for the westward trek.
Though Winter Quarters served as a refuge for the Saints, sickness and the elements took their toll on the tired travelers. Death was an unwelcome yet frequent visitor to the pioneer settlements.
Over 300 faithful Saints are buried at Winter Quarters, with countless others resting in obscure cemeteries along the banks of the Missouri River. Many lie in unmarked graves
(The Winter Quarters Project).
Rocky Ridge is a site associated with the Willie handcart company. At this point, most of the pioneers were starving to death and did not have adequate clothing and blankets. John Chislett, put in charge while Captain Willie went in search of the rescue team sent by Brigham Young from Salt Lake City, recounts, “at that time I visited the sick and the aged who could not help themselves, to know for myself where to dispense the few articles that had been placed in my charge for distribution. . . . As I was seen giving these things to the most needy, crowds of famished men and women surrounded me and begged for bread! Men whom I had known all the way from Liverpool, who had been true as steel in every stage of our journey. . . whose hearts were cast in too great a mold to descend to a mean act or brook dishonor; such men as these came to me and begged bread”
2006, p. 136).
Crossing Rocky Ridge would be their biggest challenge yet – this part of the trek would cover 15 to 16 miles and take some of the people 20 hours. Every step of these miles would be through 18 inches of snow and into a fierce northwest wind that dropped wind chill temperatures below zero. Everyone was forced to keep moving or freeze to death. An account by Joseph Elder states, “Many can never forget the scenes they witnessed that day. Men, women, and children weakened down by cold and hunger, weeping, crying, and some even dying by the roadside. . . . Oh, how my heart did quake and shudder at the awful scenes which surrounded me”
Fort Bridger was a vital resupply point for wagon trains on the Oregon, California, and Mormon Trails. Most emigrants stopped to trade at Fort Bridger, rest their teams, and repair wagons. The fort was a great camping area. It was also a good place to "chore around," checking carefully for loose tires, cracked or broken spokes, weakened axles, loosened bolsters, broken braces and chains, worn hubs and brakes, broken bows, and torn tops. Emigrants could also trade at the fort for "hides, hunting shirts, pantaloons, and buffalo robes"
When the Willie handcart company arrived at Fort Bridger, they found “a great many teams” that had come to help them. There were enough wagons for all members of the handcart company to ride in the wagons for the rest of the way to Salt Lake City – the first time during the trek for most of the emigrants. Even with this relief, many were in such precarious health that one to two continued to die each day.
Sweetwater River Crossing
The Sweetwater River, at first a welcome sight to the Saints who had traveled 50 miles without seeing water, quickly lost its appeal. The handcart companies would end up having to cross it nine times! “The water was icy, and soon our clothing was frozen to our bodies. Our feet were frozen numb. Cold and miserable, we reached the other bank, put on dry clothing, and joined the rest of the company”
(Olsen, 2006, p. 149).
The Martin handcart coming, due to becoming off-course, ended up crossing the Sweetwater an additional tenth time, bringing many trekkers to the breaking point. “When we arrived at the bank of the river, one man, who was much worn down, asked in a plaintive tone, ‘Have we got to go across there?’ On being answered yes, he was so much affected that he was completely overcome. . . . His fortitude and manhood gave way. He exclaimed, ‘Oh dear! I can’t go through that,’ and burst into tears. His wife, who was by his side, had the stouter heart of the two at that juncture and she said, ‘ Don’t cry, Jimmy. I’ll pull the handcart for you ‘”
(Olsen, 2006, p. 359). Seeing how
traumatized the people were by the prospect of wading through another freezing
river, the rescuers carried many of them across. Four were identified by one
biographer – David P. Kimball, age 17; George W. Grant, age 17, C. Allen
Huntington, age 25; and Stephen W. Taylor, age 22. These young men spent nearly
the whole day transporting people across and David Kimball stayed so long in
the water that he had to be taken out and “packed to camp” (Olsen, 2006, p. 360).
The summit dubbed Heartbreak Ridge was so named because it was here that weary emigrants first saw
in the distance the final barrier of the Rockies they still had to cross- disheartening assurance that the worst of the mountains lay ahead, not behind. They were looking at the western edge of the Wasatch Range of the Rocky Mountains – a challenge to all who ventured that far west
Kimball, S. B. (1995). Mormon Trail, Voyage of Discovery. KC Publications, Inc.
Olsen, A. (2006). The Price We Paid. Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book.
The Winter Quarters Project. (n.d.). Retrieved May 16, 2013, from http://winterquarters.byu.edu/About.aspx