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Mormon Handcart

Historic Sites

Fort Seminoe

Curtis Ashton

On September 8, 1856, the first Mormon handcart company, led by Edmund Ellsworth, stopped for lunch at an abandoned fort within sight of Devil’s Gate, in present-day Wyoming. It was a good location for a fort and trading post, about halfway between Fort Laramie and Fort Bridger along the Oregon Trail. But the fort had been empty for a year, and the buildings already showed signs of neglect. As the travelers ate their meal and moved on, they had no idea of the important role the empty fort would play just two months later in helping others finish their handcart journey.

Little Simon’s Fort

Besides the main trading post, Fort Seminoe included a blacksmith shop, a horse corral, a cattle yard, storerooms, and living quarters. The fort burned down in 1862.

Seminoe comes from Simonot, or “Little Simon,” the French Catholic baptismal name of fur trader Charles Lajeunesse.1 He and a business partner built their fort near Devil’s Gate in 1852. For three years, they traded with passing wagon trains during the summer and returned to St. Louis, Missouri, for the winter. In the fall of 1855, with traffic along the trail subsiding and a fight between the Sioux and the U.S. Army looming, Lajeunesse left his trading post for good.2

Finding Martin, Hodgetts, and Hunt

Having received word that many Latter-day Saints were traveling on the plains dangerously late in the season, President Brigham Young organized a rescue effort. George D. Grant led the first relief wagons from Salt Lake City on October 7, 1856. He found James Willie’s handcart company on October 21. Leaving some to help Willie’s company, Grant’s wagons pressed eastward to help more than 1,000 other Saints still on the trail. About half of these were traveling with handcarts under Edward Martin. The rest were in wagons and were led by Ben Hodgetts and John Hunt.

On October 26, the rescue party arrived at Fort Seminoe, near Devil’s Gate.3 Captain Grant knew that James Willie had passed Devil’s Gate about October 15.4 He expected the other companies to be less than 10 days behind. Had they stopped for the winter? Did they still need help to go on? Where were they?

Captain Grant sent three riders to search the trail while he moved his wagons out of the fort and closer to wood in a nearby cove. After four anxious days of waiting, word came back that the companies had been found and were moving toward Devil’s Gate. The relief wagons pushed ahead. The following day they cleared snow and prepared a campsite at Greasewood Creek with food and warm fires for the weary travelers arriving that evening. Over the next few days, Captain Grant’s men escorted the handcart and wagon companies back to Fort Seminoe.

Getting the People In

The fort’s roofs provided shelter for some, and wood from collapsed buildings helped warm many others. But the small trading post was not big enough to support 1,000 people through a single winter storm, let alone through the entire winter. They would have to push forward as fast as possible.

Many in the handcart company were too weak to walk and could not keep pulling their belongings all the way to Utah. Captain Grant’s relief wagons were barely “a drop to a bucket” compared to what was needed.5 The wagons under Hodgetts and Hunt could help if they lightened the wagons of their current loads, but Captain Grant hesitated to give any orders. The wagons were not Church property. He would have to ask the owners if they were willing to sacrifice their own relative comfort to help the handcart Saints.

Another complication was that the wagons were carrying not only what belonged to the people present but also the belongings of those who had arrived in Utah earlier that year. Leaving this property behind at Fort Seminoe could mean that many other families would start their lives in their new home with practically nothing. Captain Grant would have to provide some assurance to those families that their possessions were safe and that someone would recover them the following spring. Frozen ground and drifting snow made burying goods impractical. The fort could house them, but without anyone standing guard, someone could easily steal them before spring. Would anyone be willing to stay behind and guard the goods through the winter?

The Winter Guard

When Daniel W. Jones heard the dilemma over leaving a guard, he assured his captain that any of them would stay if called upon.6 Captain Grant next presented the plan to those in the Hodgetts and Hunt wagon companies. They could see that without the use of their wagons, many hundreds could not go on. They were ready to make whatever sacrifice was needed, and “all present approved willing to do what was expected of them.”7 Over the next few days, rescuers and wagon owners unloaded all but the most necessary supplies into the fort while the remainder of the people took shelter in the nearby cove.

When all was ready, Jones was called to preside over the guard of 20 men at Fort Seminoe. Of these, only three were “valley boys” from Captain Grant’s rescue party. The other 17 came from the wagon companies. Most of the group were young, unmarried men.8 They had just 20 days’ rations and five months of winter ahead of them. Before leaving the fort, Captain Grant exhorted the group to be diligent in their prayers, take their assignment seriously, and avoid too much joking.9 Jones later wrote:

“There was not money enough 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.”10

When their rations ran out, the men ate cowhide, their leather moccasins, and even an old buffalo robe that had been used as a doormat. They prayed that the Lord would bless their stomachs so that they could gain some nourishment from the poor food. With faith and some help from local Indians, fur trappers, and mail carriers, all 20 men survived the winter.

As soon as the mountain passes were open again for wagon travel, Brigham Young sent men with wagons to bring home the baggage and the guard from Fort Seminoe. He commended Daniel W. Jones for his leadership, but Jones gave credit to the men who had stood with him at the fort through the winter: “I felt a great deal of pride in the grit of the company.”11

Fort Seminoe Today

Museum exhibits at the reconstructed Fort Seminoe. Researchers from the Wyoming State Archaeologist’s office and the University of Wyoming excavated the site of the fort in 2001. The archaeological excavation is next to the reconstruction.

After careful research, Fort Seminoe was rebuilt in 2002 near its original location. Inside are exhibits that tell the story of the French trapper’s trading post and the story of the men who stayed behind so that others could finish their journey.

Footnotes

[1] Tom Rea, Devil’s Gate: Owning the Land, Owning the Story (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2006), 67.

[2] The Grattan Massacre of 1854 brought about 600 U.S. troops into Nebraska Territory the following year. See R. Eli Paul, Blue Water Creek and the First Sioux War: 1854–1856 (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2004).

[3] See Robert Taylor Burton diary, vol. 1, Oct. 26, 1856, history.lds.org/overlandtravels; see also William Broomhead diary, Oct. 26, 1856, history.lds.org/overlandtravels.

[4] Levi Savage’s journal mentions the Willie company camped in sight of Independence Rock on October 14. The next day, the company traveled over 15 miles, which would mean passing Devil’s Gate on October 15. See Levi Savage journal, Oct. 14, 1856, history.lds.org/overlandtravels.

[5] George D. Grant letter to Brigham Young, Nov. 2, 1856, reprinted in Deseret News, Nov. 19, 1856, 293; history.lds.org/overlandtravels. In his letter to Brigham Young, Captain Grant wrote, “Our company is too small to help much, it is only a drop to a bucket, as it were, in comparison to what is needed. I think that not over one-third of br. Martin’s company is able to walk. This you may think is extravagant, but it is nevertheless true.”

[6] Daniel W. Jones, Forty Years among the Indians: A True yet Thrilling Narrative of the Author’s Experiences among the Natives (Salt Lake City: Juvenile Instructor Office, 1890), 71.

[7] Dan Jones Emigrating Company Journal, Wednesday, Nov. 5, 1856, Church History Library, Salt Lake City; history.lds.org/overlandtravels.

[8] The 20 men left at Devil’s Gate included Daniel W. Jones (age 26), Thomas Alexander (age 25), Benjamin Hampton (age 19) from George Grant’s rescue party; John Cooper (age 22), John Latey (age 21), Elisha Manning (age 21), George Watts (age 19) from Ben Hodgetts’s wagon company; and George Allen (age 24), George Austin (age 20), Elijah Chappell (age 25), John Ellis (age 38), John Galbraith (age 27), William Handy (age 39), John Hardcastle (age 18), Henry Jakeman (age 22), Rosser Jenkins (age 21), William Latey (age 19), John Shorten (age 21), Edwin Summers (age 23), John Whittaker (age 24) from John Hunt’s wagon company. See John Jaques, [Minutes of meeting at Devil's Gate, 9 November 1856], in John Jaques Collection 1846–1920, Church History Library, Salt Lake City; John Cooper, “Statement,” Oct. 10, 1916, Church History Library, Salt Lake City; history.lds.org/overlandtravels; and Jones, Forty Years among the Indians, 72.

[9] John Jaques, [Minutes of meeting at Devil's Gate, 9 November 1856].

[10] Jones, Forty Years among the Indians, 72.

[11] Jones, Forty Years among the Indians, 105.