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'Second rescue' of handcart pioneers

The "second rescue" of the Willie and Martin handcart pioneers is nearing completion, 136 years after the starving pioneers were rescued in the midst of freezing blizzards on the high plains of Wyoming.

The first rescue in the late fall of 1856 involved men and wagons, loaded with food, clothing and other provisions, sent by Brigham Young. He had received word from returning missionaries that the two handcart companies and the Hunt and Hodgetts wagon companies backing them up were destitute and in danger of perishing from exposure and hunger.The second rescue by leaders and members of the Riverton Wyoming Stake, through which the Mormon Pioneer Trail crosses for many miles in central Wyoming, is not for temporal welfare but for eternal salvation. The rescue is to ensure that the temple work for all the Willie and Martin handcart pioneers has been or will be completed. (See related story on this page.)

Efforts of the second rescue, according to President Gordon B. Hinckley, first counselor in the First Presidency, have "been just as real and as efficacious as was the effort of those who came to find in the snow and the howling winds of these high plains those who were in distress."

President Hinckley on Aug. 15 traveled more than 200 miles through desolate, sagebrush country - about 45 miles of the trip was over rough, rocky dirt roads - to dedicate three monuments in two separate ceremonies. The monuments identify two sites where the handcart pioneers were rescued, and another site marks Rocky Ridge, the highest point on the Mormon Trail. Because of its high altitude and rugged terrain, Rocky Ridge is thought to be the most difficult portion of the entire trail - a trail described by President Hinckley as "a trail of tragedy, a trail of faith, a trail of devotion, a trail of consecration, even the consecration of life itself."

The three monuments, constructed by members of the Riverton stake, and another monument, erected in 1933 by the Lyman (Wyo.) Stake, form a "string of monuments" from Martin's Cove to Rock Creek, a distance of about 100 miles, which pay tribute to the handcart pioneers and their rescuers.

But those rescuers did not reach the destitute pioneers before tragedy had taken a terrible toll. Of the 1,075 who left Iowa City, Iowa, with the Willie and Martin companies, more than 200 died along the way.

The three new monuments, patterned after the one erected 60 years ago, were finished only hours before the dedication ceremonies. Working through the night, craftsmen completed a 12-ton monument of native moss rock at each site and cemented into each a bronze plaque, telling the story of what occurred there.

President Hinckley first traveled to Independence Rock and Devil's Gate, about 100 miles southeast of Riverton, two principal landmarks on the Mormon Pioneer and Oregon trails. He then traveled a few miles west and north to Martin's Cove, where he dedicated the first monument.

The cove is about 2 1/2 miles from the Sweetwater River, where the pioneers of the Martin company in late October of 1856 abandoned their handcarts and sought protection from the cold and snow. The cove, at an elevation of 6,100 feet, is horseshoe shaped. The high walls of a mountain with huge granite rocks interspersed with juniper and cedar trees jut upward on one side of the cove, and a sandy sagebrush hill rises steeply on the other side. In between, the pioneers sought refuge. Unfortunately, apparently unknown to them because the ground was frozen and covered with snow, the cove was a bog and the pioneers had sought protection on a damp bed of death. Fifty-six died in the cove and were buried in the frozen ground.

At the monument site on the sagebrush hill, swept by the Wyoming winds, President Hinckley, who was accompanied by his wife, Marjorie; the Riverton stake presidency; and a small group of others, said in his dedicatory prayer:

"Terrible was the suffering of those who came here to find some protection from the heavy storms of that early winter. With their people hungry, cold and dying from sheer exhaustion, they came up into this cove for shelter. And then they died here, some 56 people. They are buried somewhere in this earth. We stand here with bare heads and grateful hearts for their sacrifices, and the sacrifices of all who were with them along this tragic trail."

He dedicated the monument "as a memorial to those faithful and wonderful people . . . who gave of their lives in many instances, and certainly gave of their strength in an exercise of faith [thatT finally lead them to their place in the valley, aided by good and valiant and wonderful men, who, at the peril of their own lives, came to rescue them here."

President Hinckley prayed that the site may be visited by "generations yet to come, who, like we, may bow their heads in reverent remembrance of our forebears who paid so costly a price for the faith which they carried in their hearts."

From Martin's Cove, President Hinckley and his party traveled some 70 miles west to the second monument site, near where rescuers met the Willie handcart pioneers at the mouth of Sweetwater Canyon. At the rescue site 21 members of the company had perished.

High on a desolate hill, about 1,500 stake members had gathered, under bright skies, for the dedication of the other two monuments at the base of Rocky Ridge.

Setting a realistic mood for the dedication were 180 youth of the stake, dressed as pioneers, who pulled handcarts about a mile up the hill to the monument site. It was an impressive sight, a vivid reminder of the hardships that the handcart pioneers endured as they wearily made their way across the steep and rocky terrain of the area.

In his address, President Hinckley paid tribute to the handcart pioneers and said, "We're grateful that in their hearts they carried a strong and firm and unshakable conviction, notwithstanding their trials, that God, our eternal Father, lives and that somehow in His eternal wisdom all things will be made right.

"They had a strong and unshakable conviction in the divinity of the Lord Jesus Christ, the living Son of the living God, the Savior and Redeemer of the world. . . .

"They had a strong and unshakable conviction of the divine mission of the Prophet Joseph Smith, and the priesthood which was restored, in the Book of Mormon as another Testament of the Lord Jesus Christ, in the truth of this great latter-day work and the divine origin of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

"Many of them paid a terrible price for that conviction. All of them, in fact. Even for those who survived, it was a terrible ordeal.

"As we sit here, we feel in some sense that there is an unseen audience today looking over us, an audience of those who have gone beyond. We will honor them as we carry forward in our own lives the teachings, the doctrines, the standards, the ideals for which they lived and suffered, and gave their lives."

Stake Pres. Robert Scott Lorimer also spoke at the gathering.

After the dedication, President Hinckley and his party traveled to Rocky Ridge to view the monument there. Rocky Ridge rises 700 feet in two miles to its elevation of 7,400 feet, which was particularly difficult for the Willie handcart pioneers to ascend, not only because of its ruggedness but also because they were facing numbing cold and raw winds.

From Rocky Ridge, President Hinckley traveled 15 miles over the original pioneer trail to Rock Creek. Deep ruts left by the westward wagon and handcart companies can still be seen off to the side of the main trail. Rock Creek, where the first monument to the handcart pioneers was erected in the 1930s, is where the Willie company was stranded the second time because of extreme cold, altitude, lack of food and exhaustion. Thirteen members of the company who died during one night are believed buried at this site in a common grave, and two who died the next morning are buried nearby.

After returning to Riverton from the 12-hour journey by four-wheel-drive vehicle, President Hinckley then spoke at a fireside in the Riverton stake center, attended by 1,000 persons. Sister Hinckley also addressed the fireside congregation.

"This has been a very emotional day for me," she said. "I cannot thank you enough for what you have done, and the experiences you have provided for us on this day, which we will never, never forget."

"Today," President Hinckley said in his address, "I have walked with those of the handcart companies. I have in my imagination felt something of the cold, and have been chilled down to the very bones. I think I have felt in a very small degree something of the terrible, gnawing hunger which afflicted them for a long period of time. I think I tasted, as it were, the thin flour gruel. I think I walked through the snow . . . desperately sick, desperately hungry. I've seen those who dropped and died there. I've seen those who came with great expectations for their lives, bringing treasured things from their homes, who left them [on the trail] unable to carry them on."

"What a day for remembering," President Hinckley said earlier at the Willie rescue site dedication. "What a time to reflect on those who laid the foundation for all that we enjoy."

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