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The Holy Road to “Seminoe Fort”.

Alfred Jacob Miller (1810–1874) “Breaking up Camp at Sunrise”, Date: between 1858 and 1860
Artist impression of French explorer

In 1843, Charles (Bad Hand) (Simono) LaJeunesse a French-American fur trapper, trader and skilled  interpreter from Louisiana joined the Joseph Chiles’s wagon train in Missouri to take him along the Oregon Trail to Fort Bridger, Wyoming.

LaJeunesse was  generally known by his Catholic baptismal name Simono or Little Simon. Seminoe, Cuminnoe and Cimineau’s are derivatives of his baptism name. The term “Seminole” is a derivative of “Cimarron” which means “wild men” in Spanish. LaJeunesse  obtained the nickname “Bad Hand” after ramming his arm down a bear’s throat as a companion killed the bear.

The Shoshones called the Oregon Trail the “River of Destruction.” The Lakotas called it “Wasicu Canku: White Man Road” initially, but after 1851, when they signed the Fort Laramie Treaty at Horse Creek, allowing travelers to freely cross the region, they referred to it as the “Holy Road”, perhaps because the emigrants and military acted as though they had a God-given right to cross the land. For the tribes, the trail held a certain power that came from their concept that the land was a living thing, possessing a soul, thus the Oregon Trail is also known as the “Holy Road.”

In 1852, one year after the signing of the Fort Laramie Treaty, LaJeunesse  partnered with Auguste Archambau [1]  to construct The Seminoe Trading Post (42°26’27.35″N,107°13’16.04″W) along a set of Holy Road ruts half way between Fort Laramie to the east and Fort Bridger to the West  (historically called Sixth Crossing) near Devil’s Gate, Wyoming.

Seminoe Trading Post
Some published material says the post was run by Basil LaJeunesse. However, Basil was killed by Modocs in Fremont's camp at Klamath Lake Oregon in 1846.
Devil’s Gate. By Samuel C. Mills, August 1858.
Grattan Massacre marker, 2003. Wikipedia.

LaJeunesse and Archambau operated the post until 1855 when they abandoned  it to the Sioux following the  Grattan Massacre  by Sioux warriors in 1854.

Historians named a Wyoming Mountain range as the Seminoe Mountains [2] and an  Oregon Trail cutoff east of South Pass cutoff  as the Seminoe Cutoff in honor of LaJeunesse.

The 35-mile Seminoe Cutoff,  allowed travelers to avoid the last four crossings of the Sweetwater River as well as the difficult climb over Rocky Ridge. The Seminoe Cutoff leaves the main branch of the Oregon Trail about seven miles west of Ice Slough and three miles southeast of Sweetwater Station, Wyo., and heads west for 35 miles before rejoining the main branch of the trail.

The Seminoe Cutoff, marked here in red, took emigrants up the south side of the Sweetwater as they approached South Pass. (Click to enlarge in a new page).
Original Sarah Thomas headstone, Lander Pioneer Museum. Randy Brown photo

Emigrant’s died on the Holy road, and along the Seminoe Cutoff.  Existing graves on both routes are rare. The only one that can be identified on the Seminoe cutoff is the grave of Sarah A. Thomas at Immigrant Springs. She died in 1854.

Archaeological Field Study

In 2001, the Wyoming State Archaeologist’s Office and the Department of Anthropology, University of Wyoming, conducted an archaeological study (including a geophysical remote sensing survey and excavations on the  “Seminoe’s Trading Post”.  Specifically, they examined the remains of the main structure of the trading post, and eight associated, ancillary structures that formed the compound.

2001 Seminoe Fort Excavation Map
Jay and Barbara LaJeunesse. Fort Seminoe dig 2001. Jay is the great-great grandson of Charles.

The site is part of the Devil’s Gate historic region, with several interpretative paths and signs established by the BLM. Identification and interpretation of the exact location of the trading post was critical to the development and interpretation of the local historic site.

Historical Revision

Today, the site is less know for its historical contribution to the settling of the West and unfortunately more often referenced as the Mormon Handcart Historical Site and Martin’s Cove.

Entrance to Mormon Handcart “Historical Site”.

In August 1856, nearly 1,000 Mormons left Florence, Nebraska Territory with Edward Martin and James Willie on a ill-fated handcart trek to the Utah Territory. Two ox-wagon trains, led by captains W.B. Hodgett and John A. Hunt, followed the Martin Company.

They were too late in the season to make the trip.  Reliable trappers, traders, and trail guides considered April the earliest time to leave to avoid the winter storms they would face on their way west.

Levi Savage, a sub-captain in the Willie Company wrote in his journal that he warned the party before they left Florence of the hard Ships that we Should have to endure. “I Said that we were liable to have to wade in Snow up to our knees, and should at night rap ourselves in a thin blanket. and lye on the frozen ground without abed…the lateness of the Season was my only objection, of leaving this point for the mountains at this time.”

Savage’s advice was ignored. He explained, “Brother Willie extorted the “Saints” to go forward regardless of Suffering even to death”.  Savage was later reprimanded for “the “wrong impression” made by expressing myself So freely”. [3]

In early October of 1856 the Mormon companies reached Fort Laramie, Wyo. where they expected to be restocked with provisions. None existed. Instead of wintering there, they irresponsibly cut back their food rations, hoping that their supplies would last until help could be sent from Utah. To lighten their loads, the Martin Company made the disastrous decision to cut the luggage allowance to 10 pounds per person, discarding clothing and blankets that soon would be desperately needed. [4]

About the same time an earlier Mormon party returning to Utah from Europe arrived in Salt Lake City. They reported that handcart parties on the way may be stranded. Local Mormons organized relief parties.

Map of southwestern Wyoming showing location of South Pass at the headwaters of the Sweetwater River

Little was recorded of the Handcart trip until 1870 when a few accounts appeared in Utah newspapers.

By the late 1800’s and early 20th Century the Mormons  began recording various version of the 1856 handcart trip.

They recorded that the relief party found the starving Willie group  camped in the snow on the Sweetwater River near South Pass. Apparently individuals with that Company wrote in diaries that people began dying in the that Company not long after that group left Fort Laramie.

The actual location of the Martin-Willie  and Hunt and Hodgett Wagon Trains is actually unknown.  None of the survivors recorded where the groups actually camped.

Nonetheless, early 20th century Mormon’s  wrote that they sheltered in a Cove several miles east of South Pass and two miles upstream from the geological site of Devil’s Gate near the abandoned Seminoe Trading Post.  In 1933 Mormons branded that place Martins Cove and placed a monument there to honor those who they thought died there.

Gary Long, with the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) in Cheyenne, said he has found “no evidence those pioneers were buried at Martins Cove. He suggests the campsite and burial place is the at the confluence of Rock Creek and the Sweetwater River,” near Willow Creek.

In the mid-1990’s the Mormons put another monument at that site.

Another story attributed to three Mormon scouts from the rescue party has the company stopped 100 miles east of Seminoe Fort at Red Rock on the North Platte. They claimed 56 people died there.

On August 1, 1998, Mormons placed another monument near the LaJeunesse site in honor of the Willie Handcart company.  These monuments were erected as part of the Mormons Sealing ordinance. This ritual is thought to seal familial relationships, making possible the existence of family relationships throughout eternity.

The Mormons have attempted to purchase the area around Martins Cove from the BLM. However, those attempts have been thwarted by concerns over the sale of historically significant public lands to religious groups.

Postscript.

Charles LaJeunesse was killed, along with a man named “Big Joe” by Arapahos in 1865 while freighting along the Bridger Trail to the Montana Gold Fields along what Clarks Fork of the Yellowstone.

During a recent tour of the site by the great-great-great granddaughter of Charles LaJeunesse, she asked about the history of the fort. The Mormon guide erroneously said it was built by French brothers. Nothing else was stated.

Other historical pioneer features from Nevada-today:

Cholera Along The California Trail

Across Nevada in 1850

The Ring: A Tale of Western Travel

Did Custer Commit Suicide?

Endnote:

  1. Bagley, Will, With Golden Visions Bright Before Them, Trails tothe Mining West, 1849-1852. The story of the Oregon and California Trails, Volume II.
  2. http://www.wyohistory.org/encyclopedia/history-seminoe-and-kortes-dams
  3. Hein, Annette, “Journey to Martin’s Cove: The Mormon Handcart Tragedy of 1856, Nov. 8, 2014 https://www.wyohistory.org/encyclopedia/journey-martins-cove-mormon-handcart-tragedy-1856.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Estimated California Oregon Mormon Trail Emigrants[.
    Unruh, John D (1993). The Plains Across the Overland Emigrants and Trans-Mississippi West 1840–1860. University of Illinois Press. pp. 119-120. ISBN 978-0-252-06360-2.
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About Author

Michael McGreer Mesquite, Nevada
Dr. Michael Manford McGreer is managing editor of Nevada-today.com and writes on issues that impact public policy.

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