By Bruce Smith For several years I have wanted to visit the place on the high plains of Wyoming along the Mormon Trail where both the Willie and Martin Handcart companies were stranded by an early winter snowstorm and ultimately rescued in October 1856. A few weeks ago I decided I would take a couple of days and go see what I could find.
In preparation for the trip I called the Mormon Handcart Visitors Center at Martins Cove to inquire if they were open this early in the year and find out what the weather was like. They told me they were open year-round and that it was snowing. The woman who answered the telephone said the elevation at the visitors center at the Sun Ranch was about 6,000 feet and winter wasnt quite over yet. She assured me that the snow wasnt sticking and they would be delighted to have us come for a visit.
I was really more interested in visiting the Willie site than the Martin site because my great-great-grandmother and her two small children pushed a handcart from Iowa to Rocky Ridge with the Willie Company and lived to tell about it. When I asked about visiting the Willie rescue site I was told that access to it was a four-wheel drive dirt road and that at this time of the year it was still covered with snow and probably inaccessible. So I decided we would go to the Martin site and the visit to the Willie site would have to be saved for another time.
We arrived at the visitors center just before noon and found the information I had received the day before was accurate. There was no snow on the ground, the wind was blowing and it was quite cold. A very enthusiastic tour guide who could hardly wait to tell us about what happened at the Martins Cove almost 150 years ago greeted us. As we talked with him we found out he was from Palmyra, New York. He told us that he had been at the site for about a month and only had 17 months to go before is mission was complete. As he was telling us how long he would be in Wyoming I looked at my wife and could read her mind. She was thinking, how could anyone survive 18 months in this isolated place?
We toured the visitors center and learned all about handcarts and the people that used them to travel from Iowa to the Salt Lake Valley. We learned that most of the handcart companies made the trip safely but unfortunately both the Willie and Martin companies got a late start and found themselves stranded on the high plains of Wyoming during an early fall blizzard.
After the tour of the visitors center, and to complete the experience, we took a handcart and headed for Martins Cove where the rescue of the people in the Martin Company actually took place. The wind was blowing and it was bitter cold but not snowing. We left our handcart at the entrance to the cove and began the two-and-one-half mile loop. A few hundred yards up the trail the weather really turned ugly. We found ourselves caught in a late winter blizzard and decided it was just too cold and stormy to continue. We turned back and found shelter in a small cabin near where we had left our handcart. The storm finally passed and we were able to get our handcart and ourselves the mile or so back to the visitors center before it started snowing again.
The most impressive part of the whole trip for me was not at Martins Cove but in a room in the visitors center where the names of all the people from both the Martin and the Willie Handcart companies were listed on the wall. It was almost a sacred moment when I recognized the names of three people as I went down the list of the Willie Company; Elizabeth Panting, the mom, Jane Panting a one-year-old daughter, and Christopher Panting a five-year-old son. Elizabeth Panting is my great-great-grandmother and Jane is my great-grandmother.
A few days before we went on the trip I read my familys historical account of the life of Elizabeth Panting. I knew she was in the Willie Company and had two small children with her when she began the trip in Iowa. There all three of them were, listed as survivors of the ordeal just like the family history said.
A day or two after my experience at the Mormon Handcart Visitors Center I revisited Elizabeths grave site in the Logan Cemetery and couldnt help but think what an awesome woman she must have been. She left England all by herself with two very small children and sailed across the Atlantic Ocean. She then made her way to Iowa to join the Willie Handcart Company. She survived the Wyoming blizzard at Rocky Ridge and made it to Salt Lake. She lived in Salt Lake for a few years, remarried and had two more children. When her second husband died she married Hyrum Cranney and moved to Cache Valley. They had seven more children. Elizabeth Crook Panting Cranney died in 1891 when she was 63 and is buried in the Logan Cemetery.
The trip to Martins Cove in Wyoming was worth the effort but I still want to visit the Willie rescue site. Maybe I can do it later this summer when all the snow is gone.
Bruce Smith is The Herald Journals publisher. His column appears on the Opinion page every other Sunday. He can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.