Friday, January 23, 2004


It's no surprise they're telling their story. The surprise is where they're telling it: on federally owned land:
Tens of thousands of people come here each year to a granite-walled nook in the hills just off the old pioneer trail to hear the tale of the lost Martin Handcart Company of 1856 and how a party of poor Mormon converts faced down death in a howling blizzard.

The place, called Martin's Cove — an uninhabited hollow of sand and sage surrounded by sheer cliffs that block the wind — sits on federal land 50 miles southwest of Casper, part of the vast Western domain of the Bureau of Land Management. But the story is not told by bureau employees. Missionaries from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, dispatched on six-month assignments and brimming with faith, are the trail and museum guides.

Now "a brief provision tucked into an energy appropriations bill" will hand the land into Mormon control for the next 25-years, with plans for automatic renewals after that. The Mormon Church has already purchased the land surrounding the federal site.

The Mormons claim they're "very careful" to tell the dramatic Martin's Cove story honestly:
"We're very, very careful," Mr. Christensen said. "This is not a proselytizing mission, but if people have questions, we're very interested in helping."

What happened at Martin's Cove, named for the group's leader, Edward Martin, was unquestionably harrowing. The 600 converts were poorly equipped with handcarts made of green wood that split in the desert air. And the company of travelers was fatally late, reaching what became Wyoming as the first snows fell, in October 1856, three months later than trail wisdom dictated. About one in four died from starvation and exposure.

One survivor later wrote in anguish about her prized possession: a fine pair of scissors she had carried from England. As hardship deepened into disaster, she used the scissors to amputate the frostbitten fingers and toes of her children. The cove became a place of death, the bodies left in the snow for wolves. The company was finally saved by a rescue party from Salt Lake City.

It does indeed sound like a dramatic, powerful tale. And perhaps the arrangement with the Latter-Day Saints church allows a historically interesting site (the actual location of which is in dispute) to be seen by a public who otherwise would not have access. This historian is unsure whether I want to hear the Mormon account of events, however.

[For an alternative view of the Mormons, try Jerald & Sandra Tanner's site]

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