As part of the Westward Migration in the mid-1850s, Brigham Young and other leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints provided a way for financially limited members of the Church to travel to the Salt Lake Valley to join the main body of the Church of Jesus Christ. Handcarts were more affordable than covered wagons and oxen. Handcart Companies departed from Iowa traveling by foot and pulling their food supplies and limited household goods. They walked over 1,300 miles.
During 1856, three handcart companies successfully arrived in the Salt Lake Valley, but two handcart companies left late in the summer and consequently experienced breakdowns due to green wood used in their handcarts, heavy snowfall, extreme cold, and death. Missionaries traveling to Utah passed the companies in late September and told Church leaders about the two companies still out on the plains. President Brigham Young immediately sent a rescue party with sixteen wagons full of supplies, but they too were hampered by the extreme weather.
The rescuers reached the Willie Handcart Company on October 21, just one day after the company ran out of food. Sixty-eight members of their company died before they arrived in the Salt Lake Valley. Many of the rescue party traveled on to find the Martin Company.
The Martin Handcart Company, with 576 emigrants—most of them women, children, and elderly—found refuge from the storm in what is now called Martin’s Cove. The rescue party did not have adequate supplies for the Martin Company. By November 9, the weather warmed sufficiently for the company and rescuers to move on toward Utah. With assistance from more rescuers bringing thirty wagons full of supplies, they arrived in the Salt Lake Valley on November 30. More than 145 members of the company died before they reached their destination.
In the 1990s, the Church of Jesus Christ purchased land surrounding Martin’s Cove property—then known as Sun Ranch—to establish and operate a historic site. The Church attempted to purchase the Martin’s Cove site, which belongs to the Bureau of Land Management. A 2002 congressional bill for the sale passed the House but stalled in the Senate over the worry that the public land would be sold to a religious group and limit public access to the campgrounds, Pony Express and emigrant trails, and landmarks. A lease was negotiated for 25 years. A settlement of a lawsuit in 2006 dictated that the Church provide a public entrance and remove religious references from the site. The Church-service missionaries are also not allowed to proselytize.
In addition to general visitors, members of the Church of Jesus Christ, especially youth groups, visit Martin’s Cove each summer to experience what the early pioneers went through when they crossed Wyoming. The youth treks include dressing up in pioneer clothing, pulling handcarts and camping, crossing the Sweetwater River, and visiting Martin’s Cove, Devil’s Gate, and the Mormon Handcart Visitors’ Center. The visitors’ center displays artwork, artifacts, and exhibits about the larger Latter-day Saint migration and history of the site.