Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Winter’s Day Detour

At the end of the segment from Salina, Kansas, I parked Mugs, my English Bulldog, at the hotel in Rawlins, Wyoming and headed downtown for a good steak at the Aspen House.

As I parked, I couldn’t help but notice that the truck next to me had plates from neighboring Idaho which, if I remember the codes, indicate the county from which the driver, or at least the vehicle, comes.

My native Fremont County is “2F” but I noticed the truck had the code for Franklin County, “1F”, which is where my 5th generation bloodlines first took root, creating the first permanent settlement before Idaho was even a territory.

As horsemen and cattlemen, they migrated forty-five years later up near the Tetons where I would be raised forty years later.

But as we waited for our steaks, the guy who owned the truck was able to tell me about a detour Mugs and I were planning to take the next day to a point midway to Casper called Devil’s Gate, shown in the image in this post.

For fans of the TV series , now in a fourth season thanks to Netflix, it is still several hours north to the mythical setting along the Big Horns for Longmire.

Even more dramatic than the photo, Devil’s Gate is a narrow cleft, barely thirty feet wide at the base, which runs along the Sweetwater River for more than a quarter mile between towering 400’-500’ cliffs of granite.

All but four of sixteen lines of my fourth generation ancestors and several sets of the fifth, had passed by this landmark between 1847 and 1851 on Mormon wagon trains.

They descended from families who had immigrated to America many generates earlier, some more than two hundred years before.

But four lines of my ancestors traveled this route between 1855 and 1862, after immigrating directly from Scotland and England aboard packet-ships.

These were three mast, square-rigged sailing ships running from Liverpool to ports such as Boston and Philadelphia with three levels below deck.  The bottom hold was for cargo and mail.  The top for those who could afford staterooms.

The middle desk, called steerage, was lined on each side with bunk beds with an alley way between.  Each passenger was given a supply of food and they shared a small galley for prep.

Those on this deck were poor with travel made possible by a perpetual immigration fund that was beginning to run short.

So when when my then 55-year-old third great grandmother Maria Christmas White stepped off the ship Horizon onto Constitution Wharf in Boston on June 30, 1856 she had a different experience ahead than those went before or after her.

After crossing by train through Albany, Rochester, Buffalo, Cleveland and down to Iowa City, Iowa, she would have to walk the nearly 1,300 mile journey up and into the Rockies while pulling a 4’x 6’ or 7’ handcart that she shared with four other people.

Instead of crossing the Great Plains into the Rockies on a wagon train as those before and after her would, she was assigned to pull her possessions across the nearly 1,300 miles (two hundred miles further) by foot ahead of a handcart.

She and the others were allowed to take only 17 lbs. of personal belongings each, forcing those fortunate to still have keepsakes to leave them in the fields outside Iowa City as my great (x3) grandmother’s handcart company departed.

The mortality rate overall among Mormon pioneer companies traveling the 1,100 mile route across the plains and into the Rockies was just slightly higher than the average nationwide.  In fact, infant mortality on the trail was lower than the national average.

But in 1856, the Martin Handcart Company that included my great (x3) grandmother left very late in the season and was trapped in snow storms and freezing weather across Wyoming.

Express riders passing them on horseback soon warned Brigham Young that the hand-carters were in serious trouble still east of Devil’s Gate.

A rescue party was organized followed by resupply wagons, and among the riders was Thomas Ricks, a 9th cousin two times removed from common ancestors in the 1500s.

It would be Ricks that my Bowman ancestors would follow up into the Yellowstone-Teton nook of Idaho after he settled along the Henry’s Fork in the 1883, 27 miles south of what would become our ranch.

On November 1st, the rescue riders reached my great (x3) grandmother’s handcart company on Greasewood Creek, 16 miles east of Devil’s Gate, where they took them briefly to regroup and then to a cove just southwest where there was more wood and shelter.

Rescue wagons reached the group, but not before they had suffered a mortality rate nearly five times greater than the average for wagon trains, having lost 145 members.

Coincidentally, Maria Christmas White finally made it to Salt Lake City, just as the first generation of my Idaho ancestors, great-great grandparents on the Bowman side, were getting married and contemplating the move up to Cub River Canyon.

The party who brought the wagons of supplies and then let the survivors ride them on to Salt Lake City had to wait out the winter near Devil’s Gate, surviving on saddle leather until resupplied with food by Native Americans.

A good read about what my ancestors experienced is a book by Wallace Stegner entitled, The Gathering of Zion: The Story of the Mormon Trail.

Stegner, who headed creative writing at Stanford, wasn’t Mormon but he spent some of his early years in Salt Lake after relocated there from Iowa with his parents.  For me, Mormon history and culture are at the center of his best non-fiction.

I was given the book in high school as a gift from my grandfather on the White side, Maria Christmas White’s great grandson, whose appearance he favored judging from photographs, as did my mother as she grew older.

He and his brothers had grown up sleeping in a log cabin that had been Maria Christmas White’s after her harrowing journey.

We would always drive past my grandpa White's grandparents former place on Walker’s Lane in Holladay, especially after Cottonwood Mall opened there during my teenage years, only the second in America at the time.

The excursions continued when I was attending college further south at BYU, and he would always retell great (3) grandmother’s story as he pointed out her old cabin, often adding new details he had uncovered.

She was followed four years later by her 23 year old son and 19 year old daughter in law, my great-great grandparents Thomas and Alice White, but by then those crossings had begun using wagons again.

A priceless family photo is of my grandfather, standing in front of the place on Walker’s Lane, as a ten year old, with my great-great grandparents.

A favorite breakfast spot with my daughter and grandsons when I visit is Ruth’s Diner, a few miles up Immigration Canyon from where they live, which was first established in an old Trolley Car about the time I was born.

We drive past the This Is The Place monument, a spot near where Brigham Young signaled a few days after two of two of my ancestors on the first wagon train had ridden as scouts down into Salt Lake Valley, that “this is the right place.”

It wasn’t marked at all until 1915, seventy years after my ancestors first past through the canyon on their arrival and nearly 63 years after my great (x3) grandmother rode past with her rescuers.

An obelisk was erected there in 1921. The huge monument there now wasn’t finished until 1957 when I was nine years old, 101 years after my great (x3) grandmother’s rescue.

Down in Temple Square, there is another statute honoring the handcart companies in case you visit.

But for me, no monument visit will ever top the brief detour to Devil’s Gate on a winter’s day.

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