Trail of handcart pioneers sanctified by sacrifice

Hundreds gathered on the high plains of Wyoming July 23 as President Gordon B. Hinckley dedicated the burial site of and monument to 15 handcart pioneers, closing the final chapter of the "second rescue" of the Willie and Martin handcart companies.

The dedication services, held at Rock Creek, some 65 miles southwest of Riverton, Wyo., seemed to commemorate two "rescues." The first was nearly 138 years ago when Brigham Young sent wagons of relief supplies to rescue the starving, freezing handcart pioneers. Of the 1,075 members of both companies, more than 200 perished and were buried along the trail during October and November 1856.The "second rescue" was of a spiritual nature. In July 1991, members of the Riverton Wyoming Stake began doing the family history and temple work for these pioneers. After having received proper authorization, they completed the work for the early Mormons and thousands of their family members and descendants in September 1992. (Please see Church News, Oct. 19, 1991.)

In referring to the Rock Creek site, President Hinckley, first counselor in the First Presidency, said, "This is sacred and hallowed ground." He noted it also "was one of those scenes of tragedy - this spot where we're gathered today.'

In his remarks before dedicating the site, President Hinckley explained: "The whole trail over which the handcart pioneers moved was sanctified by their lives, their sacrifices, their deaths, their sufferings, their testimonies concerning the cause which they treasured more than life itself."

The monument at Rock Creek is the fourth to the handcart pioneers that President Hinckley has dedicated. In 1992, he dedicated three other monuments, all made by Riverton Wyoming Stake members. The Rock Creek monument was erected in 1939 by the Lyman Wyoming Stake and the Utah Pioneer Trails and Landmarks Society but had not been dedicated as it was under private ownership. The Church purchased the Rock Creek site in 1992. The four monuments - which pay tribute to the handcart pioneers and those who rescued them - begin at Martin's Cove and dot a 100-mile trail to Rock Creek in central Wyoming. (Please see Church news, Aug. 22, 1992, for article on earlier monument dedications.)

At Rock Creek, 13 members of the Willie Handcart Company died in one night (Oct. 24-25, 1856) and were buried in a common grave. Two others who had helped dig the grave died the next night and were buried nearby. Today, the site is marked with a bronze monument and granite marker on which are inscribed the names of the 13 in the common grave. The other two graves are marked with headstones and are fenced.

Attending the Rock Creek dedication services and paying honor to those buried here were members of the Riverton, Casper, Rock Springs and Green River stakes, as well as other members visiting the area. They listened to the proceedings while sitting on blankets and lawn chairs spread in front of the stand, which was covered by a green canopy. Dozens of listeners also spread out on the hillside facing the stand. Many came with umbrellas to shield themselves from a bright July sun, but the sky was overcast for most of the service.

Setting the atmosphere for the event were more than 100 youth and advisers who, dressed in pioneer costumes, pulled several handcarts down the trail toward the dedication site as President Hinckley took his place on the stand. After the dedication, the youth again took up their handcarts and pulled them through Rock Creek and up the trail the handcart pioneers once trod.

"How grateful we ought to be for their example," President Hinckley continued. "How tremendous their heroism in the face of odds that are almost impossible to understand.

"I'm confident, my brethren and sisters and friends, that in terms of heroism, in terms of self-sacrifice, in terms of courage, in terms of faith, in terms of facing up to adversity . . . there is no greater example in the history of this nation than the example set by the members of the Willie and Martin Handcart companies . . . ."

In speaking of those who perished, he said, "There are other graves in this area. There are graves all the way of those who traveled this route, and in a sense we not only dedicate this site, but dedicate their burial places as well.

"Brothers and Sisters, we have a great inheritance. We have a tremendous responsibility to live up to it. God bless us to be faithful, to be true to that which meant so much to those who died here and their associates who died along this long and wearisome trail."

President Hinckley then offered the dedicatory prayer for the burial site and monument at Rock Creek. In his prayer, President Hinckley expressed thanks "for the great inheritance that is ours, that we come of a strain of noble people who value faith more than life itself, who are willing to work and sacrifice, even to give their lives in death for the cause in which they believed. Help us to be true to the faith and help all the generations that shall follow to remain true to the faith, that they may keep the trust which became so much a part of the lives of those who died here and elsewhere along this trail of tears."

Conducting the service was Robert Scott Lorimer, president of the Riverton Wyoming Stake, who also offered remarks. Pres. Lorimer's voice broke with emotion several times during his address as he spoke of his stake's efforts in doing the temple work and making the monuments to the pioneers. (Please see accompanying article beginning on page 8.)

In his remarks, Pres. Lorimer related the events of Oct. 24-25, 1856. Captain James G. Willie had come ahead of the handcart company in search of help. Near Rock Creek, he came into the camp of the rescuers and led them back to the Willie Rescue Site, some 15 miles back along the trail.

"The journals indicate that the snow drifts over Rocky Ridge were from knee deep to 4 feet deep," Pres. Lorimer said. "There were many trips back and forth over Rocky Ridge as the pioneers struggled to come here to Rock Creek. The men went back many times to help those who could not pull their carts over Rocky Ridge, hence, many of those who are

buried here gave their all."

Pres. Lorimer offered anecdotes of those buried here, in particular the "sweetheart" of the Riverton stake, Bodil Mortinsen. The pioneer girl, age 9, went out to gather wood to build a fire. The next morning, she was found frozen to death, her arms full of sagebrush, as there was no wood to be found. It has become a tradition for members of the Riverton stake, when visiting Rock Creek, to put flowers on the marker by Bodil's name.

After speaking of the faith of the handcart pioneers, Pres. Lorimer concluded, "It should be our resolve to have the conviction to remain dedicated in the face of any adversity."

Performing the music during the dedication was a youth choir from the Riverton stake, directed by Janet Howell and accompanied by Julie Lorimer who played a piano brought to the site for the ceremony. Offering the invocation and benediction were Bishop Lewis Barnett of the Riverton 2nd Ward and Bishop Michael F. Gard of the Riverton 1st Ward, respectively.

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