At the new Pioneer Children’s Memorial at This Is The Place Heritage State Park, if you listen closely, you can hear our whispers – childlike echoes of laughter, fear and adventure floating across the plains, through the canyons and mountains from Iowa to Utah. Listen to the frightened excitement in our voices as we forge large rivers, ascend tall mountains, drive through herds of buffalo, and watch in disbelief as the buckskin-clad Native Americans trade with our parents.
Come take our hands. Read our stories. Feel what we felt, and honor those of our young friends who didn’t make it to Zion at the new Pioneer Children’s Memorial at This Is The Place Heritage State Park.
Members of the Martin Handcart Company were physically and mentally exhausted by the time they reached the Sweetwater River on November 4, 1856. Some broke down and cried. Today, the crossing looks easy, but to them it was one more step in a life or death struggle.
With the help of a few express riders from Salt Lake, they started into the river. Some walked through on their own. Some pulled their handcarts, and some rode in wagons. The heroic express riders spent the day helping them cross, pulling carts and carrying emigrants on their backs. They helped them set up camp in the cove, hunkered down, and prayed that more rescuers would come soon, because many of them were close to death.
The same storm that surprised the immigrants, hit Ephraim Hanks and other rescuers at South Pass, Wyoming. The snow was too deep to move the rescue wagons forward. Undaunted, Hanks took two horses and left to find the Martin Company.
The first night, Hanks, prayed for a buffalo, when he looked up he saw one within fifty yards. He shot it and saved the meat for the immigrants. He killed another in the morning. God blessed him, for it was rare to find them there at that time of year.
Late that afternoon, he found the Martin Company. He later said: "When I saw the terrible condition ... my heart almost melted within me." He distributed the life-saving meat, and within five minutes it was being cooked for dinner. That act and other miracles saved the lives of many that night and on the rest of the trek to Salt Lake.
On October 22, 1856, as the Martin Company was crossing the Platte River, approximately 130 miles west, members of the Willie Company were facing their own life or death struggle. With the help of a few express riders from Salt Lake, they determined to keep moving through the blizzard until they reached Rock Creek Hollow.
It was a 16-mile trek that included a 5-mile steep incline over what they called Rocky Ridge, part of a wind-blown mountain of barren rocks with no cover. They slogged their way through the same frigid, blinding snow that the Martin Company was dealing with behind them and began their climb.
Levi Savage afterwards: "We buried our dead, got up our teams and about nine o’clock a.m. commenced ascending the Rocky Ridge. This was a severe day. … We became weary, set down to rest, and some became chilled and commenced to freeze." They buried 15 people at Rock Creek Hollow.
Mary Fielding Smith was left on her own to take her young family to Utah. Undaunted, she found a wagon, bought a team of unbroken wild cows and steers, and began the journey. Trail Captain, Cornelius P. Lott, told her to turn back when he saw her team, wagon, and lack of supplies. Fiercely determined, Mary said she and her family were going to Zion, and they would arrive before him and would ask nothing.
During the trek, one of Mary's oxen whom they called "Old Buck,” fell down and could not move. Lott said, “It will die, unyoke it, and leave it. I told you that you would be a burden ...." Mary found a bottle of consecrated oil and asked her son Joseph Fielding and James Lawson to administer to Old Buck. The ox jumped up and they continued. She and her family arrived in Salt Lake before Lott and the company.
One can only imagine the sense of gratitude, relief, and triumph that the pioneers felt when they first glimpsed the Great Salt Lake Valley from the high mountains to the east. By the providence of God, they had arrived and were ready to go to work building their new homes and Zion.
Thomas Bullock said: "We came in full view of the Salt Lake in the distance, with its bold hills on its islands towing up in bold relief behind the silvery lake — a very extensive valley burst upon our view ... I could not help shouting "Hurra, hurra, hurra, here's my home at last."