Martin’s Cove and the Future of Public Archaeology

Howdy! With this final post, I will relinquish my tenure as the guest editor of the Binghamton MAPA blog. It’s been a pleasure covering issues in public archaeology in the American West. I suspect you’ll enjoy the work of my successor, the very capable Trish Markert, a PhD student in historical archaeology.

So now my task is to bundle up the several ideas I’ve explored this month, and to propose a few things that will be challenges for public archaeology in the future. As you may have noticed, I’ve got a lot to say on the issue of public archaeology and the public lands of the West. But I’ve got comprehensive exams to take in a few weeks, a dissertation prospectus to be writing, and grading to be done! So I’m forced to keep this as brief as possible, and leave several major issues unexplored.


Private natural gas wells on public land north of Baggs, WY. (I suppose the antelope are public, too, but you need a state permit to hunt them!). Photo by Kellam Throgmorton.

Private natural gas wells on public land north of Baggs, Wyoming. (I suppose the antelope are public, too, but you need a state permit to hunt them!). Photo by Kellam Throgmorton

However, for now, I want to turn to the issue of the public and private spheres, and how public archaeology is going to increasingly be called on to mediate the two, particularly in regards to sacred sites, cultural landscapes, and traditional cultural properties. Since large-scale, publicly-funded salvage archaeology began during the Depression, we’ve gotten pretty good at surveying for archaeological sites and excavating them. As recent events in Utah and North Dakota have shown, these more nebulously defined kinds of cultural sites will require deep thinking, creativity, and political engagement in the future.

To me, one of the challenges at the root of these controversies is how we deal with the public and the private spheres in the United States. This includes both our ideologies about ownership (addressed in last week’s post) and our legal framework surrounding management and control (addressed both in regards to the Bears Ears and the DAPL), both of which must be negotiated by public archaeologists. As I’ve hinted at several times, underlying these ideologies and legal frameworks are unequal power relations–in the U.S. West these relations become starkly evident when considering indigenous communities.

But to illustrate this issue, I am actually going to turn to a little-known event in 19th century Western history, and a little known legal battle that occurred in the early 2000s. This gets pretty involved in both anthropology and legislative history, so I’ve included a TL;DR section that you can skip to below.

 The Mormon Handcart Tragedy of 1856

Mormons moved westward into Utah Territory in 1847 under the leadership of Brigham Young, successor to religious leader (prophet) Joseph Smith who had been killed by a mob in Nauvoo, Illinois in 1844. As early as the 1840s Mormon missionaries were spreading the faith and in the 1850s they had great success finding converts in Europe, most of whom emigrated to Utah Territory.

Photo of Independence Rock by William Henry Jackson, 1870.

Photo of Independence Rock by William Henry Jackson, 1870.

The route westward followed the Oregon trail through Nebraska and Wyoming, passing landmarks like Ft. Laramie, Independence Rock, and South Pass, which are probably familiar to you if (like me) you were a child of the 1980s and were taught basic computer skills using the popular “Oregon Trail” game. (I also learned what cholera and dysentery were, and that it’s a lot easier to succeed in life if you start as a banker, not a schoolteacher, but that’s neither here nor there). Independence Rock is a large granitic dome in Natrona County, Wyoming, rising above the banks of the Sweetwater River. The rock is carved with the names of hundreds of colonists who headed westward between 1836 and the 1860s; popular wisdom stated that you should reach Independence Rock by the 4th of July to avoid being caught by winter snows (which, as my relatives will vouch for, come as early as late September on the Continental Divide in southern Wyoming).

Depiction of Mormon handcart company, from True West magazine.

Depiction of Mormon handcart company, from True West magazine.

In late July of 1856, a group of 1000 Mormon emigrants from the United Kingdom and Holland left Iowa, bound for a new life in Deseret (Utah). They did not travel in the iconic covered wagon of Conestoga fame that we associate with the Oregon Trail. Lacking the money for wagons, they opted for wooden handcarts, basically a cheaper, human-powered rickshaw that you pulled your belongings in. The handcarts were made of unseasoned, green wood, and many split in the dry air of western Nebraska and eastern Wyoming, slowing the emigrant train. The expedition consisted of two parties, the Martin Handcart Company and the Willie Handcart Company.

A cove near Independence Rock in late fall. A blizzard overtook the Mormon Handcart expedition near here in 1856. Photo by Christine Throgmorton.

A cove near Independence Rock in late fall. A blizzard overtook the Mormon Handcart expedition near here in 1856. Photo by Christine Throgmorton.

In early October, the handcart companies were near Independence Rock in south central Wyoming, stretched out between the North Platte River and the Sweetwater River, when early snowstorms came. Caught in several blizzards that blew away their tents and buried them in snow, lacking food and adequate clothing, and lacking knowledge of survival in the Wyoming environment, they trudged forward in clothes still frozen from fording the North Platte River on foot, rather than paying to take the ferry. Men, women, and children died by the dozens from exposure and exhaustion, and dozens others lost digits and limbs to frostbite. A rescue party reached the two stranded handcart companies and attempted to lead them through South Pass and on to Salt Lake City. By the time the last of the party straggled into Utah in early December of 1856, more than 200 of the original 1000 emigrants had perished in south central Wyoming. It was one of the worst disasters to ever befall an emigrant train on the Oregon Trail.

 Martin’s Cove as a Pilgrimage Site

The 1856 handcart disaster has come to figure prominently in Mormon origin and migration narratives. It symbolizes the heroism of early Mormon emigrants and the sacrifices they made in the early years of the LDS church. Although the disaster unfolded along more than 100 miles of the Oregon Trail over the course of several weeks, commemorative attention has focused on a place near Devil’s Gate, Wyoming, that has become known as Martin’s Cove (after the handcart company that temporarily sought shelter there. Also, in Wyoming a “cove” means a small cul-de-sac of grassy land surrounded on three sides by steep, rocky hills).

Mormon pilgrims at the Mormon Handcart Ranch. Photo from Wyoming SHPO website.

Mormon pilgrims at the Mormon Handcart Ranch. Photo from Wyoming SHPO website.

Because of the growing interest in the early handcart narratives, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (LDS, i.e. Mormon) has developed the Devil’s Gate and Martin’s Cove area into an extensive pilgrimage site. An estimated 100,000 people annually visit this remote corner of Wyoming (current population: 584,153) to participate in handcart-focused pilgrimage rituals. These involve changing into traditional vestments (19th century pioneer clothing), participation in religious processionals (loading handcarts with supplies and pulling the handcarts along a pilgrimage trail), trials of fortitude (commemorating the hardships of the original handcart company by fording the Sweetwater river), and experiences of communitas (square dancing, group prayer, educational presentations and professions of faith).

You can follow the progress of the Salina, Utah Stake on their pilgrimage journey in this youtube video. (A “Stake” is a Mormon unit of social organization). The narrator emphasizes how the divide between past and present is bridged through recreating the handcart journey (even if by trekking for only a short distance). The crossing of the Sweetwater seems to hold particular power for many participants (and certainly has symbolic resonances with baptism and rebirth, as well as symbolizing the physical trials of the original handcart expedition). In addition, gender roles and Mormon gender complementarity are reproduced through the separation of men and women for particular aspects of the pilgrimage trek. Participation in the ritual links individual Mormons to the collective experiences of Mormon colonists. Spiritual connections with God are reaffirmed; in the language of Mormonism, this is “strengthening one’s testimony.”

Through a processes of synecdoche, the physical place of Martin’s Cove has come to serve as a touchstone for the entire 1856 handcart expedition, although tour busses do take pilgrims on day trips to various other sites along the handcart route in Wyoming. The narrator of the Salinas Stake clip linked to above notes that within Martin’s Cove itself, he could “feel the sacredness of the place….where so many saints [Mormons] had passed away.” In addition, the landscape itself gave evidence of the things God provided for early Mormons, such as shelter, protection from the wind, wood for fires, and the ability to communally divide their rations (an important aspect of Mormon social ideology).

An anthropological perspective shows that the Martin’s Cove trek conforms to many of the cross-cultural aspects of pilgrimage and ritual outlined by Victor Turner in The Ritual Process and by Edith and Victor Turner in Image and Pilgrimage in Christian Culture. I think there is little doubt that Martin’s Cove qualifies as a sacred site for members of the Mormon faith. But how did this pilgrimage site come to be?

 The Martin’s Cove Land Transfer Act of 2002 (H.R. 4103), and an ACLU lawsuit

Martin’s Cove itself is not owned by the LDS church–it is located on BLM land in Natrona County, Wyoming. The location where most of the pilgrimage events take place is the privately owned Mormon Handcart Ranch, adjacent to Martin’s Cove. The ranch was purchased from the Sun family in 1996, at which time a visitor center and other facilities were added (for a longer version of the Martin’s Cove land status issue, read this excellent article by Kevin Holdsworth in the Denver University Law Review).

Although the Handcart Ranch is private property, the site of Martin’s Cove is public land. After purchasing the Sun Ranch, the LDS church obtained a 5-year lease from the BLM for the use of a 140 acre parcel that includes Martin’s Cove. Later, the LDS church proposed to purchase the land outright from the federal government.

Utah State Representative James Hanson introduced the Martin’s Cove Land Transfer Act (H.R. 4103) to Congress in 2002. The Act would have conveyed 940 acres of federal land to the LDS church “for the purpose of historic preservation, public education, and the enjoyment of the public.” Proponents of the bill drew on the rhetoric of federal ineffectiveness, arguing that a cash-strapped federal government was incapable of properly caring for the sacred site, and the LDS church would provide superior stewardship. Opponents argued that such a land transfer would open the door to claims by Native Americans for ownership of sacred sites (consider, for example, the Sioux refusal to accept a 1.3 billion dollar trust fund that is theirs from a 1980 legal settlement; they don’t want the MONEY, they want the BLACK HILLS BACK). Proponents countered that neither the Martin’s Cove site nor Native American sites rose to the level of national significance (despite Martin’s Cove being listed on the National Register since the 1970s), and that therefore people were blowing this whole thing out of proportion.

The Land Transfer Act passed the House, but (thankfully and sensibly) died in the Senate.

That wasn’t the end of it, though. Buried in Section 314 of H.R. 2754, which mostly dealt with fiscal appropriations of the Army Corps of Engineers and the Department of Energy for 2004, was a provision which provided a 25-year lease on the Martin’s Cove property to the LDS church, with first right of refusal on a renewal. So while the LDS church did not get to OWN Martin’s Cove outright, it acquired relatively exclusive use-rights to the location through the lease agreement. This lease agreement continues to stand.

Map of Martin's Cove trek route. I see no indication of land status here! From

Map of Martin’s Cove trek route. I see no indication of land status here! From

The area around Martin’s Cove isn’t just important to the Mormon Church. The Devil’s Gate/Independence Rock area is  an intersection of four historic trails with national significance–the Oregon, California, and Mormon trails, and the Pony Express. But the area was (and is) now largely interpreted and managed by a religious organization. This did not sit well with the American Civil Liberties Union, who filed suit in 2005, arguing misuse of federal lands for religious purpose. The suit reached a settlement whereby LDS and public access to the Martin’s Cove site would be kept separate and clearly demarcated.


Martin’s Cove, the site of a major disaster on the Mormon trail in Wyoming has become a major Mormon pilgrimage site. The site is located on federal land. A Utah State representative attempted to have the land sold to the LDS church in 2002–ultimately, the LDS church secured a 25-year, renewable lease on the federal property. A lawsuit contended that a private religious institution had been given free reign to interpret a national historic landmark; the settlement represents a compromise between the BLM, LDS church, and ACLU. Martin’s Cove continues to be a major sacred site, visited by nearly 100,000 Mormons each year. In essence, a politically powerful religious organization utilized the legal framework of the state to negotiate a deal to effectively privatize the interpretation (and meaning) of a national historic site on federal land.

 Martin’s Cove, the DAPL, and the Bears Ears

Okay, once again I’ve gone off on a length historical tangent that seems only peripherally related to public archaeology in 2016. But I think there are some telling similarities and contrasts between the Martin’s Cove case and the controversy over the DAPL that are worth considering.

For instance, in both cases we are dealing with sacred sites: the confluence of the Cannonball and Missouri river (and associated areas) for the Sioux, and Martin’s Cove for the Mormons. But because Mormons (a powerful group in the U.S. West) and the Sioux (a disadvantaged group, to say the least) have unequal access to power, these events have played out very differently. I have recently noticed a tendency in news articles to contest just WHAT exactly was bulldozed in the path of the DAPL on September 3rd. Reports proclaim “archaeologists investigate bulldozed DAPL sacred site; no artifacts found.” It isn’t necessarily the ARTIFACTS that make the DAPL site sacred; it’s what kind of significance the place holds to the Sioux people today! Currently, we’re using the measuring stick of archaeology to determine whether it’s a culturally significant place, and then forcing the Sioux to justify themselves when it fails to measure up by one set of standards.

Take a good look at the BLM Environmental Assessment from the 2004 Martin’s Cove Lease agreement. On page 3-2, which describes 48NA210, the Martin’s Cove archaeological site: “No artifacts, features, or human remains were found that would likely be associated with the historic events of the Martin Handcart Company of 1856.” As Kevin Holdsworth points out in his article, although oral narratives have suggested that perhaps 130-150 people died in Martin’s Cove, there are significant reasons to doubt the veracity of the narratives. Dozens of people certainly died, possibly as nearby as Devil’s Gate (about two miles away) and along the Sweetwater River, but probably not within the confines of Martin’s Cove. Yet this hasn’t stopped 100,000 Mormons from visiting the place each year, nor did it figure in the federal decision to provide a long-term lease so that Mormons could make the trek to the Martin’s Cove site. Whether or not Mormons actually died in Martin’s Cove is completely unimportant in its significance as a sacred site.

There is a double standard here. The Sioux are being heavily scrutinized for claiming that a sacred site has been bulldozed, while Martin’s Cove was basically given away with minimal scrutiny.

In regards to the Bears Ears controversy, I can think of few cases where outsiders have so clearly meddled in the affairs of federal land management in someone else’s backyard. Most polls suggested that Wyoming residents were not in support of either selling or leasing the land to the Mormon church (long-term antagonisms across state lines are probably part of the reason, too, as are anti-Mormon biases). But nevertheless, because of its political clout, the LDS church managed to secure the Martin’s Cove property with little outcry except from a small corner of the least populous state in the Union. Contrast that with the significant animosity heaped on the Bears Ears inter-tribal coalition for seeking to protect sacred properties on federal land in Southeast Utah.

Again, there is a bit of a double standard. When a politically powerful organization seeks to designate federal property as a sacred site, closed door meetings occur and a deal is worked out. When a grass-roots coalition of Native tribes seeks to protect sacred sites, they meet a significant amount of opposition.

Conclusions, and What this All Means for the Future of Public Archaeology

Why have I chosen to juxtapose these three case studies (the DAPL, Bears Ears, and Martin’s Cove) over the past month? I think that they succinctly illustrate how public archaeology is caught between the articulation of public and private spheres in the United States. And I believe that they also illustrate how power is fundamentally situated at the nexus of public archaeology.

Conducting archaeology is an inherently political act, although we often choose to ignore this fact in public archaeology. We frequently find ourselves caught between interest groups with varying access to power–the LDS Church, the federal government, private energy companies, conservation groups, indigenous coalitions, ranchers, and hikers.  This is a tricky position to be in, and I am not sure that our educations are adequately preparing us for the challenge.

For many of us who work in cultural resources management, we are trained first-and-foremost as archaeologists: skilled practitioners of the craft of survey, excavation, and interpretation. Yet cultural resources management as it occurs under federal law is increasingly concerned with nebulous things like cultural landscapes and traditional cultural properties. As we seek to identify, preserve, and manage these sorts of places, public archaeologists will engage with indigenous communities more and more.

Nebulous entities like cultural landscapes will be where public archaeology finds itself caught between interest groups with varying access to power.

Nebulous entities like cultural landscapes will be where public archaeology finds itself caught between interest groups with varying access to power.

Our educational and professional focus is out of step with the way that cultural resources are beginning to be handled under current interpretations of federal laws. There is often little that is technically archaeological about the kinds of places that are proving to be most important to indigenous groups; to address these issues requires a more broadly anthropological perspective. And it requires thinking about the practice of public archaeology as it relates to the law.

Let’s look at it this way. The legislative framework surrounding cultural resources is unlikely to change dramatically through the passage of new laws. But we have a surprising degree of latitude in how we work with existing legislation. Even small decisions made in the field about how to describe a site, how to write an eligibility statement, or how to mitigate a cultural landscape will have surprising consequences. Sometimes, these consequences reverberate all the way into the courts, as we’ve seen recently with the DAPL.

As indigenous groups and conservationist work together more and more, the distinction between natural and cultural will become less obvious. And as traditional cultural properties become the sticking point for large development projects, the distinction between public and private will similarly erode. Public archaeologists will need to acknowledge the unequal power relations inherent in cultural resources issues, and recognize the political nature of their work. As I see it, that’s the future of public archaeology.


  • Alice Wright says:

    Kellam, thank you so much for these detailed an thoughtful posts. I am adapting my syllabi on the fly to incorporate them, because they are important AND student-friendly (a rare combination!). Keep up the really great work!

    • kellamthrogmorton says:

      Thank you Dr. Wright. I will be taking a short hiatus, while I complete my comprehensive exams and prepare my dissertation prospectus, but you can expect more from me!

  • Mareitta Eaton says:

    Well written. Archaeologists must be engaged in the negotiations with tribes, however it is the line officers that are doing the negotiation with the support of the archaeologists. Archaeologists must understand these important perspectives you present and be very object to appropriately advise their managers.

    I enjoyed this article very much.


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