Friday, June 30, 2023

Devil's Gate and the Mormon Winter Guard by Zina Abbott

This is my third of four posts about Devil’s Gate, the well-known landmark along the Oregon, California, and Mormon trails. Last month, I featured “Devil’s Gate and Fort Seminoe,” the trading fort built close to this notable landmark. To find the post, please CLICK HERE. The month before, I featured it as what this area is best known for among those who love wagon train stories or history in the post “Devil’s Gate and the Emigrant Trails.” Which you may find by CLICKING HERE.

Realities of Wagon Travel Across the Plains

Because of the harsh winter conditions in the Great Plains and the Rocky Mountains, pioneers traveling the Oregon, California, and Mormon trails learned that they must do so within a certain time frame. This was especially true for those emigrating from Europe, who wished to cross the continent the same year they arrived. My thanks to the Martin's Cove Visitor's Center in Wyoming for providing this chart. I hope they will forgive me for passing it along.

The 1856 Late Start Timeline

Missionary work for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (hereafter referred to as the church) had been successful in Great Britain and other parts of Europe. Many new members were eager to travel to the United States—the Salt Lake Valley in particular—and saved to afford the ship, railroad, and wagon train costs. For those poor who had difficulty earning the money, the church organized the Perpetual Emigration Fund, which those who used it promised to pay back once they arrived and were established the Valley. To save costs, the church developed a plan to travel by handcart. Since most travelers on wagon trains walked most of the distance, the biggest drawback was the limited amount of goods and supplies that could be carried in a handcart. The big advantage was, handcarts cost far less than providing a covered wagon and team. The church organized ten handcart companies between 1856 and 1860. Eight made the journey safely and with minimal difficulties. Two ran into trouble and required rescue.

1856 proved to be a difficult year. England was involved in the Crimean War, which made scheduling ships for a crossing to the United States difficult and unpredictable. The first two ships of emigrants managed to sail in a timely manner and safely made the trek across the Great Plains. The second two ships did not get underway until later in the season than was advisable.

After leaving the ships—the company headed by James G. Willie, which arrived in New York on 5/04/1856 and the company headed by Edward Martin, which arrived in Boston on 5/25/1856—boarded railroads to take them to the westernmost end-of-track closest to Florence (Winter Quarters), Nebraska, which was in Iowa City, Iowa.

With slow communications in the era before the transatlantic telegraph, the church's agents in Iowa City were not expecting the additional emigrants. Some had returned to Salt Lake Valley for the year. Those remaining made frantic preparations for their arrival. Weeks were spent hastily assembling the carts and outfitting the companies. When the companies reached Florence, additional time was lost making repairs to the poorly built carts. The following timeline shows the travel days of these two handcart companies as compared to the usual time frame for traveling the three major trails.

Two ox-wagon trains, led by captains W.B. Hodgetts and John A. Hunt, followed the Martin Company.

The above chart found in the Martin’s Cove Visitor’s Center shows the departure dates for these last four 1856 companies in comparison to what was accepted as the safest time to travel.

On September 12, Franklin D. Richards of the Quorum of the Twelve (a high-ranking leader in the church), returning from Great Britain with a group of missionaries, passed the Willie Handcart Company east of South Pass, where the trail crossed over the Continental Divide. They traveled in carriages and light wagons pulled by horses and mules. Realizing the handcart companies were in great danger, this group sped to Salt Lake City.

Upon arriving on October 4, Richards made his report to church president, Brigham Young. The following day was the general conference meeting of the church. Brigham Young dispensed with most of the usual conference business and speaking of the conference. Instead, he announced that there were over a thousand emigrants still out on the plains. His religion was to go save those people.  He called for wagons, teams, provisions, clothing, and teamsters to conduct a relief effort. The first rescue party with twenty-two teams and wagons loaded with supplies left two days later on October 7.

The Crisis That Unfolded around Devil’s Gate

In early October the two companies reached Fort Laramie, Wyoming. They expected to be restocked with provisions, but they were unavailable. The companies cut back food rations down to 12 ounces  per person, hoping that their supplies would last until help arrived from Utah. To lighten their loads, the Martin Company cut the luggage allowance to 10 pounds per person, discarding clothing and blankets.

October 19, 1856, a blizzard hit the region.

Sweetwater River - in  June

The Willie Company were at the sixth crossing the Sweetwater River—past Devil’s Gate—when the storm struck. An advance rider told them relief was on its way. The first of the relief wagons reached them at Rock Creek Hollow on October 21. While some helped the Willie Handcart Company continue west, the remainder of the relief party continued east in search of the Martin Handcart Company.

Crossing the North Platte River

The Martin Company was in the process of crossing the North Platte River when the blizzard hit. They had to struggle through the water, and then make camp in freezing conditions while wearing wet clothing. Through the freezing conditions, they struggled along the banks of the river, traveling only ten miles in four days. On October 23, they make camp near Red Buttes. Too exhausted to go on, they remained snowbound until October 29. Between October 19 and 28, fifty-six members of the company died.

The three scouts arrived at the Martin camp near the Red Buttes on the Platte River during the late morning of October 28. The Hodgett Wagon Company was camped nearby. The Hunt Wagon Company was ten miles east.


On the morning of October 29, the Martin Handcart Company rolled west again, exerting all effort to reach the relief wagons. The relief messengers sped back past Devil’s Gate to guide the relief wagons to meet the handcart company, which they did at Greasewood Creek on the last day of October. Providing warm clothing and food, the rescuers assisted the exhausted and freezing emigrants forward until they reached Devils Gate.

Martin's Cove today

At Devil’s Gate, they found the abandoned Fort Seminoe, which at that time was referred to as the Devil’s Gate fort. However, the buildings did not accommodate everyone. It was decided the handcart company would move to a nearby cove—a u-shaped cut-out in the granite hills just north of the trail—where they hoped the steep walls would protect them from the wind and the worst of the weather. It became known as Martin’s Cove. It was at the area of Martin’s Cove and the Devil’s Gate fort these emigrants were joined by relief wagons. Soon, the wagons of the Hodgett and Hunt companies joined them.

The Winter Guard at Devil’s Gate

As George D. Grant, leader of the rescue team now at Devil’s Gate, looked over the circumstances, he realized they were in a difficult situation.  Most members of the handcart company were in no condition to continue pulling carts. The members of the wagon companies had walked over most of the trail because their wagons were filled with goods and supplies—some everything the family owned. In addition, many wagons carried freight for others already in the valley. The freight contracts had already been agreed to and paid for. It was a matter of honor that those carrying the goods of others see that they safely arrived to their owners. The wagon companies did not have enough room for all of their own members to ride inside the wagons, let alone members of the handcart company.

Unlike the handcarts and wagons used to provide food to emigrants who gathered at Florence, the members of the Hunt and Hodgett companies had paid for their own wagons. They were sturdy wagons, and the draft animals pulling them were still in relatively good condition. However, the church had no claim on the wagons.

While the emigrants rested and, with the aid of warm clothing and more food, began to regain some of their strength, the leaders debated what to do. It was a common practice for pioneers on the trail, who had to leave heavy items behind, to dig holes in which to bury their belongings—wrapped to protect them the best they could—and return later to reclaim them. It was decided that the goods and personal belongings in the wagons would be stored in the remaining buildings from the former fort at Devil’s Gate. They would be wrapped, or the buildings reinforced to provide as much protection as possible. A guard would be left behind to see they were not damaged or stolen. Twenty men were chosen: three from the rescue party with the other seventeen being teamsters—mostly single men—from the two wagon companies.

On November 9, the Martin Handcart Company abandoned almost all of their carts and left Martin’s Cove in central Wyoming, with many of their weakest and ill members riding in the covered wagons. Some riding in the wagons sent as part of the relief effort arrived the Salt Lake Valley on November 30, 1856. The Hunt and Hodgett wagon trains did not arrive until mid-December.

Meanwhile, the contingent of men left behind at the Devil’s Gate fort stayed on the Great Plains on the east side of the Continental Divide until spring.

Daniel Webster Jones later in life

There was not enough money on earth to have hired me to stay. I had left home for only a few days and was not prepared to remain so long away; but I remembered my assertion that any of us would stay if called upon. I could not back out.” Daniel Webster Jones

Daniel Webster Jones, age twenty-six, was called to lead the twenty men who would stay at the Devil’s Gate fort and guard the goods left in their care. There was no personal advantage in the responsibility. However, he accepted it to aid those whose lives depended on reaching the Salt Lake Valley with as little personal loss as possible.

Conditions for the Winter Guard at Devil’s Gate

Because the relief parties had been limited in the amount of food they could carry to feed the handcart emigrants, all they could leave for the winter guard was rations for twenty days. Those rations were soon consumed. According to Jones:

Game soon became so scarce that we could kill nothing. We ate poor meat. One would get hungry eating it. Finally that was all gone; nothing but hides were left. We made a trial of them. A lot was cooked without salt or seasoning and it made them sick, in fact the whole company was sick….” At one point, Jones came face-to-face with a buffalo on a narrow trail in the snow. According to his journal, he was able to drop the animal with a single shot. It was not a matter of bravery; “hunger is a great motivator.”

December 23, 1856-Ephriam Hanks and Feramorz Little stopped at the fort while carrying mail to the East. Not long after, carriers for the McGraw Mail Company stopped by the fort on their way to the Salt Lake Valley.

Feb 1857-Snake Indians camped a mile from the fort stopped by to trade, bringing much-needed meat. They had been warned the Indians considered it their hunting territory and would become hostile if the men from the fort competed with them. For one interaction with Chief Tabawantooa, whom they worried might be hostile, they used subterfuge to make it appear there were more of them at the fort than there really were. The morning after they left, another band led by Tosquatah camped outside the fort. This second group had been helpful in the past. Although they did not trade at the time, they promised to share their spoils from hunting. Not long after, the men found 300 pounds of buffalo meat left by the fort.

Mar 1857-Mail Express riders from the Salt Lake Valley stopped by on their journey east, brought some supplies

Apr 1857-Three oxen wandered into the fort. It was too early for any trail travel, and there was no indication who they might belong to. They figured the bell one ox wore kept the wolves from killing them. The men were able to butcher them for meat.

As spring arrived, there were more people and wagons on the trail, some of which provided supplies to the men at the fort. Unfortunately, the snow in the Rocky Mountains had not melted enough to send wagons to transport the goods to the Salt Lake Valley, so the men stayed.

If you think you can take the fort, just try it…the first one that offers any violence is a dead man.” Daniel Webster Jones

Shortly after the oxen were found, a group of men who had become disaffected with the church, after learning there was a group guarding goods at the Devil’s Gate Fort, the men, headed by a man named Williams, presented receipts and tried to claim a large portion to take east. At that point, Jones had about forty men staying at the fort. Having been warned of the coming of these men, he stationed them around the fort—including on the roofs—with instructions that if any of these men drew a gun or made any threatening gesture, they were to shoot. The man presented his receipt, which Jones—who already knew the procedure that would be followed by those claiming their goods—recognized to be a forgery. When threatened with violence, Jones retorted that if anyone in their party were to raise a weapon toward Jones, many, if not all, would be shot. Believing him, the would-be thieves left.

Finally, the wagons to transport the protected goods began to arrive. One day, there were 200 of them at the fort. They arrived without any instructions from Salt Lake, so Jones and his men had to carefully match up the receipts with the goods and make a record. He also organized the loading and gave instructions for delivery. He found he needed to make it a matter of fervent prayer so that the belongings arrived to their proper owner.

Their task completed, the winter guard left the fort at Devil’s Gate and arrived in the Salt Lake Valley about June 1857.


Clara is a wagon train story. This book picks up Clara’s romance after the wagon train has already traveled the trail through Sweetwater River valley. The book is currently available for purchase as an ebook or at no additional cost with a Kindle Unlimited subscription. To find the book description and purchase options, please CLICK HERE




Thompson, Julie Nichols, “The Winter Guard at Fort Seminoe,” Tales of Triumph. (Salt Lake City, Utah: International Society of Daughters of Utah Pioneers, 2022), pgs. 122-141.

Mormon Handcart Historical Site, Martin’s Cove Visitors Center, Wyoming

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