– [Announcer] Your
support helps us bring you programs you love. Go to wyomingpbs.org, click on support and
become a sustaining member or an annual member. It’s easy and secure. Thank you. – [Narrator] To the airline
passenger, far above, looking down, it’s
the empty quarter. To tourists driving through, – [Resident] It’s a
brutal environment. – [Narrator] And
they ask each other, – [Resident] How in
the world could anybody ever survive here? – [Narrator] But the
people who know it, say, – [Resident] Every place is
somebody’s piece of heaven. – [Narrator] Even in
the middle of nowhere. ♪ You take your
troubles with you ♪ But maybe I can
feel brand new again ♪ Oh, across the line (somber guitar music) – [Narrator] Just
on the eastern side of the Continental Divide,
where the Sweetwater River snakes across the
high prairie toward the North Platte River,
few travelers stop. Today, they may be
driving on to Yellowstone. 150 years ago, they were
on the trail to Oregon. And centuries earlier, Native
Americans were hunting bison and collecting wild
plants with an eye on the changeable
weather ready to move on. – Wyoming was always known for
the harshness of its climate and the difficulty of
establishing a settlement here compared to an awful lot
of the rest of the country. To a lot of people, Wyoming
was a place you passed through. – [Narrator] But the people
who traveled through, and some who held on a while,
left a lot of history behind. Layer upon layer, like
the geology that underlies this rugged surface. And so from Independence Rock, west along the Sweetwater
River, through Devil’s Gate, we peel back a few
of those layers. – The Mormon pioneers,
the Oregon pioneers, the California pioneers, the
Pony Express, the freighters, the military presence, the mail
stations, the mountaineers. And even back to the
Native Americans, because it’s such
a dramatic story, and such a multi-layered story. – Really, there’s so
much history here. So many different versions
competing with each other, some of them often
quite different that it gets to be a matter
of who gets to tell the story. – [Narrator] It takes a special
eye to see what’s embedded in this landscape. And one place to
look for its stories is atop that pioneer
landmark, Independence Rock. – I love being up here, because
so many times and people seem simultaneous. So much history is visible
from this single spot. The interesting thing about
this particular piece of land out here is that it
holds so many stories that when you look at
the country around here it’s so easy to imagine
them, because the country is so physically unchanged. (peaceful guitar music) – [Narrator] The Oregon Trail,
it’s become an epic myth of the American West. Three major western trails,
the Oregon, the California, the Mormon, braided
together here along the Sweetwater River. And the immigrants trekked
bravely into more weather, more altitude, more
risks, and fewer options. – Virtually every
pioneer that headed west in the 19th century
came right through that gap right there. And that number is somewhere
in the neighborhood of 350 to 500,000 immigrants
came right through that gap. – That’s exactly what
was going on in 1850, they were passing through. We passed through it
in an hour and a half, and they passed through
it anywhere from a week to three weeks. So it’s a little
different passage. – When you leave the
river, the Missouri River, the Mississippi River and
go clear across the country, and when you get to
Independence Rock and start up to Sweetwater,
why everything changes. I mean it’s a whole
different story. One of the things
I always run into was how bad the mosquitoes
was on the Sweetwater. I mean you had them mosquitoes
all the way up to Sweetwater. When we retraced the
Oregon Trail in ’93, we had tornadoes, we
had two hailstorms. We had a hailstorm
in Lisco, Nebraska that torn up the
canvas on our wagons. So we experienced,
that year, what maybe they might’ve went through. – [Interviewer] Did you bury
anybody along the trail? – [Ben] No, we
didn’t bury anybody. – [Narrator] You
carved your message, and you took aim at
the landmarks ahead. Devil’s Gate, Split
Rock, Independence Rock. – And on that rock,
Independence Rock, you can still come about
as close to history as it’s possible to come. Because here, you will find
the messages of the travelers still alive in the stone. All right, here, look at this. It says, “H.P.
Bemiss, July 4, 1850.” The generally accepted
wisdom was that if you were an immigrant
with your party and you were at Independence
Rock by the 4th of July, that means you had plenty
of time to get over the Cascade Range into the
Willamette Valley of Oregon or over the Sierras into the
central valleys of California before those mountains
filled up with snow. So that’s a good thing,
this guy was right on time. – And they came
through a very harsh, really a terrible
part of the trail with very poor water, very
poor livestock forage. And now they’ve arrived here
in the Sweetwater Valley, they’ve got a
wonderful water source, they’ve got excellent
sources of livestock forage. This is where they sort of
recruited or replenished their reserve, replenish the
strength of their livestock and were able then to
continue successfully west toward Oregon or California
or wherever it was they were going. (pleasant guitar music) – [Narrator] But not every
trip through this gap was successful. In 1856, a group of impoverished
Mormons from England made the trek to Salt
Lake the hard way. – The problem was that
many of the converts didn’t have the money
to come to America and buy a wagon and buy a team
and come to Salt Lake City. Brigham Young had the idea
and dream of handcarts which cut the price
one-seventh or so. They wanted to come so badly
that two of the companies, one of which was
the Martin company, left late in the year. Everything went wrong. They went to Iowa City by
railroad from New York, it was too late in the
year, no handcarts. They had to make
their handcarts. They didn’t have
the lumber for them, so they had to make them
out of green lumber. You can imagine what
happened when they got up on the prairies,
the dry prairies with that green lumber handcart. So just everything went wrong,
Murphy’s Law, went wrong. – [Narrator] Even in today’s
more comfortable world, this has been a
difficult area to travel. It’s been hard to
find motel beds, descriptive markers or museums. But that began to change when The Church of Jesus Christ
of Latter-day Saints decided to take on a
bigger role in protecting and explaining the sites
important to Mormons, including the one right
next to Devil’s Gate, Martin’s Cove. – The first blizzard
hit them as they crossed the North Platte
for the last time. It was cold, and the
water was freezing, and the ice in the water. It took them all day to
cross with those carts. Now, you’re talking about
almost 600 people here. When they got to the other
side, they were exhausted, and frozen, and cold. They got just about a half
a mile up from the river, and that’s as far
as they could go. Their tents were frozen. Most of them just crawled
under the canvas for the night to get out of the storm. In the morning, 13 people
were dead from exhaustion. – For years, there was a
silence that surrounded the handcart experience. And people didn’t talk
about it, it was very hush. It was one of those sad things
that they wanted to forget. It was a thing, I think, that
they worried if they talked about they would be seen as
condemning the experience. And so it just was not
talked about at the time. – This story, for a long
time, had not received a lot of attention outside
of certain circles. Latter-day Saints,
Western historians. Part of that, I think,
involves the idea that sometimes we need heroes
and we need good stories. And there are some great
elements in this story. – I first visited Martin’s
Cove when I was six years old and I had always been
interested in handcart people, because my great-grandfather,
Nelson P. Ripson was a handcart pioneer. I was asked in 1992 to
negotiate an easement across some land into
Martin’s Cove by the church. And, perhaps buying the ranch, because you think of
the different symbols
of the LDS church you think of the Salt
Lake temple spires. And another symbol
is the handcart, because it’s the only group
that ever used a handcart in a transcontinental migration. – [Narrator] Though the Martin’s
Cove site can be reached through the LDS visitors’
center, it’s on public land, and there has been some
tension between the church and the U.S. Bureau
of Land Management about interpreting
the history on site. Historians express concern
about romanticizing the handcart story. And even the location is
open to debate among some. – President of the Mormon
Church and another man, George Albert Smith,
who later became the President of the
Mormon Church, and in 1931, Smith went, after
visiting Devil’s Gate and visiting Independence Rock, went back to Salt Lake City
and told the Deseret News he had found Martin’s
Cove, he had found the spot where the suffering handcart
pioneers had pulled up out of the weather and
died, a lot of them. And so every since then,
that sort of became the official spot
largely really, because George
Albert Smith said so. – You know, a lot of
people view that there is maybe a conflict
between the sacred and the historically accurate. I’ve discovered that
Latter-day Saints have little to worry about their history
and to be concerned about it. And these fit very
nicely together. We believe that this is the
restored church on the earth, and as a result, we believe
that if God is involved, there really is
not a controversy. (upbeat western music) Other kinds of
travelers were also deepening the ruts running west, the kind who wrote stories,
drew maps, and took pictures, exploring the new territories,
and sending reports back to the rest of the world. And once again, they often
came through this same patch of land by
Independence Rock in the Sweetwater Valley. – People have been coming
by here and writing about it for almost 200 years. Explorers like John C.
Fremont kept journals and wrote books about it that
became enormously popular. And there are also a lot of
writers who came by here, people like, Richard Burton,
English travel writer and explorer of East Africa. He was dashing through
here in 1860 by stagecoach on his way to Salt Lake City
to interview Brigham Young in what he called the
Mecca of the Mormons. Other people who came
through here were the artist Alfred Jacob Miller
who was traveling with the English
sportsman and gentleman Scottish sportsman, William
John Stewart in the 1830s. Scientists came by,
like Ferdinand V. Hayden with the Hayden Survey
after the Civil War. A remarkable landscape
photographer named William Henry Jackson
took pictures here. So all these things, all
these people stopped here, wrote about it, wrote down
what they were thinking about. And so we have this remarkable
record of what was going on. Right over here, next
to the Sweetwater River just on the far side of
it, is the little meadow where the Hayden
Survey camped in 1870. We can see the meanders
of the river itself here going on down towards the
east and past Finder Reservoir and the North Platte River. And here, in Jackson’s picture,
look how sandy the river is as it winds past these
bars, and how much grassier the banks are now. These rivers change
a lot over time just like everything
else around here. They were government scientists,
they weren’t surveyors in the way we think of
a land surveyor now. But they were a variety
of a kind of scientist, and they were really,
Congress sent them out here because they wanted them
to investigate the land and to map the land,
but also to find out what was exploitable. To find the minerals, and to
find the crop possibilities of the West. – [Narrator] And one
place in the valley which never failed to
catch the eye of artists or move the pen of
writers, was Devil’s Gate. – This is such a dramatic spot that a woman named Sarah
Sutton, who came through here in 1854, would use the
word sublime and talk about how these Rocky Mountains
really were rocky especially compared
to the hills of Ohio where she was from. Artists painted the spot. Alfred Jacob Miller
painted great pictures of Devil’s Gate
here in the 1830s. William Henry Jackson also
was very taken with this spot. It was a splendid and
romantic site at the time when it was a whole
vocabulary of the dramatic, the sublime, and the picturesque
to talk about landscape and how we looked at it. This place right here
was one of the centers of that feeling because
it showed God and nature. – [Narrator] But
while the writers and
artists found beauty, the surveyors found value. And soon, the nomadic Indians,
and immigrants, and traders would be replaced by people
ready to stake a claim in the middle of nowhere. (somber music) It’s commonly said,
and largely true, that the Sweetwater Valley is
a place people pass through without putting down
roots, then and now. – The reason that’s true
is nobody wanted it. If somebody wanted it, they
would’ve homesteaded it. And so it’s still
95 percent BLM. – [Narrator] But in the
1870s, somebody did want it, because what they saw
was quite different from what the immigrants
saw, trudging by. – After the Transcontinental
Railroad was completed in 1869, travel on the
old Oregon Trail route up the North Platte
and up to Sweetwater to the Continental Divide,
pretty much ceased altogether. So what had been a really
heavily traveled route with lots of stock
and people going by year after year,
eating up all the grass and driving away all the game. By the mid-1870s, the valley
was again lush with grass and full of game. And there not very many
white people there. – [Narrator] An
exception was Tom Sun. – My great-grandfather,
Tom Sun, he had run away when he was 11 years old. Somehow, been in the Civil
War and went with trappers and stuff and found his
way where they were hunters for the UP Railroad
at Fort Steele. After the railroad went
over, I mean one boom left and another one had come
and they’d kind of looked at the gold and then, you
know, what else could you do with land in those days. And so livestock was the
reason for probably stayed, and he went into
the cattle business. – Well, the ranching era began
here in the Sweetwater Valley when the original Tom
Sun settled here in 1872, and that basically was the,
sort of, official, if you will, beginning of the ranching era. – [Narrator] At that time,
the government was practically giving away land in the West, beginning with
the Homestead Act. – A variety of other ways too, there was the Desert
Land Act, under which you could get a whole section. That’s how Tom Sun first got
his section at Devil’s Gate. – [Narrator] But it
was still harsh country that didn’t give
up a living easily. – Well, if you look
back, take Tom Sun Sr.’s, what we call today diversified. There’s livestock, he was
in gold mining, gold claims, and also, as we would look at
it, a modern-day outfitter. People would come in
from Europe or Persia and around to the
railroad to Rawlins and they would pick
them up and take them on these hunting trips from
all over Central Wyoming. – [Narrator] Gradually,
the valley was filling in with settlers. – The ranches were a community. You could see the
Upper Sweetwater was
kind of a community, and then you take, say
between Sweetwater Station to Split Rock was
kind of a community. And then from Split Rock
on down to Pathfinder was another community. But in essence, the
whole Sweetwater was one large community. I think you stood
up for one another. You helped one another
with the brandings or whatever events you had
coming on for entertainment. They were close, so they helped. You’ve got to realize,
at any time, even today, you’re a long ways away
from any communities. The communities now
have gotten bigger, but in the old days
the communities had
to be pretty close just to accomplish
what you wanted to do. (pleasant guitar music) – [Narrator] Not everyone
in the valley was considered part of that community. Not Jim Averill and Ella
Watson, who would later be immortalized as Cattle Kate. They were newcomers in
the 1880s, when old-timers had been there not much
more than a decade. – In the open range
cattle business, there were no fences between
the different holdings. The ranches could control. Tom Sun owned one section,
one square mile of land at Devil’s Gate, and yet
his cattle ranged on over many tens of thousands of acres. Jim Averill was a storekeeper. He was with middle-class
aspirations, landing in the middle
of and along the borders of these large ranches. Averill had been public
about his opinions about the whole land-use system. By the spring of 1886,
Averill had been joined at his store by a woman named
Ella Watson from Kansas. The woman seems to have
been a strong-minded person and a strong looking person. The one picture you
have of her that really shows her stature shows a
fairly tall, broad-shouldered woman of some size and heft. So she wasn’t a
small prairie flower. – [Narrator] There were
many issues between the open range ranchers
and the small homesteaders. There were also
suspicious questions about how Ella Watson had
acquired some of her cattle. One day after spring
roundup, the big ranchers came and collected Averill
and Watson at gunpoint. – Right up here, they headed
to this gulch right up here is where Ella Watson and
Jim Averill were hanged in the summer of 1889. They were under a long
limb of a pitch pine tree, you can still find this tree. It’s standing on a big
rock, there they are, there’s Watson and Averill. Averill already has a
lariat around his neck. The woman is not cooperating. They’re still
arguing and yelling. She won’t keep her head still
for them to get the rope around her neck. – [Narrator] A friend of Ella
Watson’s witnessed all this and tried to intervene. (gunshot) But was chased off by
the ranchers’ rifles. Those who saw the lynching
through to the end never talked and no
charges were brought. – It was never discussed
within the family. A lot of people have
written about it in books or this or that. And I’m not sure anybody has
found the real story the truth. But you have to
realize the people that were allegedly involved
were business people. They just didn’t wake
up one morning and says, “Let’s go hang a
couple of people.” Nobody has ever said or come
up with the answer to me why did it happen. I mean, what brought
these people to do it. They were all
law-abiding people. What caused them to do that,
I don’t want to make light on the situation, because
it was, if they did do it, it was a terrible action. – But the moral
overreaching of power is what’s really important
about that story. THere’s lots of
conflicts in the West, and lots of conflicts
in the world, but most of them don’t
end in lynchings. (gentle banjo music) – [Narrator] Eventually,
the Sun family would make another business decision. They had been settled
in the Sweetwater Valley for an incredibly long time
by non-Indian standards, since 1872. – The Sun family was here
at Devil’s Gate until 1997 when they sold their
core properties here
to the LDS church. – When you get so many
members in a family, you get that difference
in business philosophies. – [Narrator] Those
differences were accentuated when one branch of the
family sold its share, the old Hub and Spoke
Ranch to the Mormon church. – It was a very, very
difficult decision for all of the Suns
to sell the ranch. This was their heritage. They’d been here a long time
and it was very difficult for them to do. – But it could’ve
went to development. It could’ve went to Walt Disney. It could’ve went to a
lot of other places, and so until you’re in their
boots, how can you say? – [Narrator] And so,
another of the stories that are layered in this
landscape begins to fade, the story of ranching,
and the Sun Family’s long presence here. Where so much happened,
and so little is evident, certain stories overshadow the more layered,
complex history. Today, it’s the Mormon
Church at Martin’s Cove, but they’re not the first to
put their stamp on the past. In the 1930s, it
was the Boy Scouts and the Oregon Trail aficionados
holding a gala gather at Independence Rock. – There was a didactic
streak in the organization at that event, I think. It was pretty clear
that the organizers wanted those Boy Scouts to
learn an inspirational version of American history. I do think, though, that
there is such a wonderful mix of history here that
it would be nice if there were some kind of
preservation going on here that really felt loyal
to that mix more than to any one story, whether
it’s the lynching story, or the Martin’s Cove story,
or any 10 or 50 other stories. Some way to tell
them simultaneously, and what they all had to do
with each other would be good. – We have 100,000
people a summer, and they’re coming here
to experience that history that’s in this valley. Western history is of
worldwide interest. Western culture is of
worldwide interest. There is a fly
fishing, a Wyoming fly
fishing shop in Paris. – What really
happened is important, and the reason it’s important
is so we can learn from it. If we have it wrong, then we’re
learning the wrong things. If we have it right, then we
can think clearly and honestly about the decisions people
made in difficult times and to see if maybe we
could’ve made better ones. – If I could have my way,
the whole Sweetwater Valley, in fact, the whole
Oregon-California-Mormon Trail would be a national park,
so that we could love and understand the
entire history. (gentle guitar music)