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Digging up history at fort

Martin’s Cove was shelter for pioneers on Mormon Trail

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MARTIN'S COVE, Wyo. — When it comes to excavation, Danny Walker is no novice. This 28-year veteran archaeologist for the Wyoming Department of State Parks and Cultural Resources has conducted several hundred excavations throughout the state.

He's dug up anything from 1,000-year-old villages to 11,000-year-old mammoth bones. So it may seem surprising that Walker is calling his latest excavation, at a site less than 150 years old, "one of the most exciting and meaningful digs of my life."

Walker is excavating Fort Semino at Martin's Cove, about 60 miles southwest of Casper. In and around the fort, 1,200 Mormon pioneers, including those of the Martin handcart company and Hodgett and Hunt wagon companies, briefly sought shelter after being caught in severe blizzards in late October 1856. Some 20 men, most of them part of a rescue party that came from Salt Lake City, stayed in the fort until the following spring, guarding the possessions left by members of the wagon companies.

Though not a Mormon himself, Walker says he's been impressed by the scores of members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and others who've volunteered for the dig, about half of them descendants of the ill-fated pioneers and their rescuers.

"This dig is special because we've got so many family connections going on," he said. "I've had people sit out here in tears because this site is so meaningful to them. You can't help but pick up on the fact that these people are digging after their history — their family. Even as a non-church member, it gets to me."

Nearly 120 volunteers have participated in the dig, which ends Thursday, coming from California, Colorado, Florida, Idaho, Iowa, Montana, New Mexico, Utah, Washington and Wyoming.

The dig has generated such interest among LDS Church members because the area is considered hallowed ground, says Clare Bishop, director of the church's Mormon Handcart Visitors Center at Martin's Cove. From 1847 to 1868, 70,000 Mormon pioneers, most of them converts from Europe, passed through the area as they traveled along the Mormon Trail to Salt Lake City.

The area is made particularly significant by a tragedy that occurred here in 1856, when hundreds of Mormon pioneers were struck by severe October snowstorms. The storms stranded two handcart companies and two wagon companies. Thirty to 50 of these pioneers are buried in the area, victims of starvation, exposure, exhaustion and illness.

About 1,200 people of the Martin, Hodgett and Hunt companies sought shelter at Fort Semino, which was located next to the Mormon Trail near Devil's Gate (a mountain landmark). A French immigrant named Charles Semino had built the fort as a trading post in 1852 but abandoned it — because of local Indian unrest — just months before the pioneers arrived.

Faun Black was one of the excavation's volunteers whose ancestors had sought refuge at the fort. Black's great-grandmother, Elizabeth Stewart, had just given birth to, then buried, a baby daughter, and buried another child when she'd arrived at the fort with her husband and two remaining children. Rescuers assisted the Stewarts and their group along the final miles of the trek into Salt Lake City, but Elizabeth Stewart, exhausted and heartbroken, died just 150 miles from the valley. She had come from Scotland.

"To know that my ancestors had been right where we were digging, and to think of all they went through there — it was a very moving, touching experience," said Black, a descendant of Elizabeth Stewart's son, James, who was 5 years old at the time of the journey. Black drove two days to the dig site from her hometown of Grinnell, Iowa, following the Mormon Trail as she came. She and two of her siblings from Ogden dug up buttons and what appeared to be a metal part of a wagon.

The history of Fort Semino is also made rich by the account of the 20 men who remained at the fort through the winter, facing starvation, to guard the pioneers' possessions left behind to make the journey to Salt Lake City easier. During the following summer of 1857, the possessions were retrieved, and the fort was used by the church as a mail post and supply station. It was abandoned later that year in anticipation of the coming of the Utah War. The fort was burned down after its abandonment, though it is not certain whether it was destroyed by the retreating Mormons or the approaching federal troops.

The excavation of this site is particularly exciting, Walker says, because "it's been a totally undisturbed site, its exact whereabouts unknown for almost 100 years. Except for a handful of pioneer accounts, there was very little known about the fort."

Linda Carter, an independent Utah historian, spearheaded the search for the fort site. In 1997 Carter helped place at the Mormon Handcart Visitors Center a historical plaque that explained that the fort site was believed to be somewhere in the area. "But I felt we could be more accurate than that," she said.

Using an 1857 survey map of the fort and other maps, Carter later worked with church historians and experts from the Wyoming State Historical Preservation Office and Bureau of Land Management to positively identify the site.

The LDS Church decided to reconstruct the fort after the discovery but gave a go-ahead for a preliminary excavation after consultation with Carter, church historians, the BLM and the Farm Management Company, an arm of the church that manages the Mormon Handcart Visitors Center. The dig has been funded by the National Park Service Long Distance Trails Office, the Wyoming Department of State Parks and Cultural Resources and the LDS Church.

The artifacts and evidence Walker and his crew have found substantiate what little has been written about the fort: Hundreds of multicolored Indian trading beads, more than 150 varieties of buttons, and pennies and dimes dating to the 1840s bear out that the fort was a trading post frequented by both pioneers and American Indians. A copper powder flask embossed with an English hunting scene and broken pieces of fine china and crystal could be remnants of other items sold at the fort or belongings left by European immigrants.

A layer of charcoal blanketing the entire dig site and myriad pieces of melted window and bottle glass show that the fort was burned down.

But other findings have disproved prior ideas about the structure. The fort was previously believed to be made of a series of connected cabins, forming a solid "U"-shaped construction. But after a few weeks of digging, Walker determined he was excavating not a single structure but a series of eight to 10 separate cabins situated in the general shape of a "U."

"These cabins were large. Of the two cabins whose foundations we've completely identified, one was 20 feet x 30 feet and the other was 15 feet x 30 feet. We've identified one cabin as a blacksmith shop, based on the scrap metals, wagon parts and horseshoes we found in it, and others as storerooms because of the buttons, trade beads, and china and crystal there," Walker said.

The fort will be reconstructed after analysis of Walker's findings is complete, probably next year. Many of the artifacts discovered will be on display in the reconstructed fort, "which is sure to be popular, judging by the hundreds of fascinated visitors who've already found out about the site and gone over to see the dig," Bishop said.

Contributing: Barbara Jean Jones is a descendant of Daniel W. Jones, a rescuer who wintered at Fort Semino, and participated in the excavation.